More than a decade before he mesmerized audiences with masterful works like The Decalogue (1988), The Double Life of Veronique (1991), and the Three Colors Trilogy (1993-1994), Polish-born filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski had mainly worked in documentary shorts. While some of these shorts had been fictional works, it was as a documentary filmmaker that Kieslowski had initially made his name, throughout his first full decade, as a director in the seventies.
Camera Buff (also known as Amateur) was not Kieslowski’s first feature-length narrative film (he had previously shot both The Scar and The Calm in 1976) but it was his first truly accomplished fictional work. Like his later more well-known pictures, including Blue (1993) and Red (1994), Camera Buff shows Kieslowski as a supremely gifted artist and storyteller and it remains a sometimes dazzling if mostly subdued, opening chapter to one of the most important careers of the modern era.
Relatively successful middle-class factory worker Filip Mosz and his wife have recently welcomed a newborn baby into their lives. Filip buys an 8mm film camera hoping to capture his new child in the early stages of his life. What he thought would be an innocent hobby turned serious when his boss asks Filip to use the camera to film his company’s board meetings. Soon Filip has a film crew at his disposal and his once-happy life fractures as he becomes more and more obsessed with capturing what is real, even if it means putting his marriage and career in jeopardy.
Camera Buff is a significant film in not only Kieslowski’s career but also Polish film, as it is not only a truly transcendent personal work but also a pointed political one, as it carefully criticizes the cloud of censorship that had hung over Kieslowski’s generation. Kieslowski shows the process for a young filmmaker to be a difficult one, as an authoritative hand often shutters an artist’s personal vision.
Camera Buff is, at its core, an extremely serious film, but it contains the particular wit and warmth that seems specific to certain Kieslowski works, like the often-undervalued White (1993). Few directors have ever come close to matching Kieslowski’s ability to get inside the spirit of a soul in transition and Filip, like Kieslowski’s greatest characters, is very much a man in crisis but by the film’s final frames, in which he bravely turns the camera on himself, he has had a valuable and necessary spiritual breakthrough.
While it lacks the refinement of Kieslowski’s later films, Camera Buff is a beautifully composed work that shows the influential filmmaker stepping away from the grittiness of his early documentary style and into a more polished cinematic technique.
Camera Buff is ultimately about a man’s growth as a filmmaker and one can easily draw a parallel to Kieslowski’s own strides. Camera Buff might be a transitional piece in Kieslowski’s career, but it is undeniably important.
Camera Buff wouldn’t completely solidify Kieslowski as one of the great filmmakers of his generation, but it served as a fair enough warning that, even at this early stage, he had qualities that few of his peers could match. While nowhere near as perfect as his triumphant run of final films, Camera Buff is a wonderfully rendered and moving work that acts as not only a meditation on the human condition but also film itself.
-Jeremy Richey, a rejected Directory of World Cinema piece published initially in 04-23-2014 at Moon in the Gutter-
Here is a collection of clippings marking Camera Buff’s theatrical release: