Pierwsza miłość (1974) is a made for television docudrama written and directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski. The film follows Jadwiga (age 17) and her boyfriend Roman (age 20) in the wake of an unexpected pregnancy. Kieślowski follows the couple from the moment they find out that it is too late for an abortion until the end of their first week back at home with their baby daughter Ewa.
Primarily Pierwsza miłość focuses on how government bureaucracies and the general social attitudes of Poland discriminate against young, low income parents. Jadwiga’s emotional strength and determination in the face of constant shaming is as remarkable as the circumstances themselves are disturbing. One of the most upsetting scenes in Pierwsza miłość is when Jadwiga goes to consult her teachers regarding completing her degree. They ask Jadwiga why she did not wait to start a family and insist that she has thrown her life away.
In scenes where Jadwiga and Roman come into conflict with various institutions, like the one described above, Kieślowski does something very clever and subtle. Kieślowski will shoot either Jadwiga or Roman or both in a tight close-up so that their entire face fills the frame. Meanwhile, with their opposition, Kieślowski shoots wider, often grouping a handful of individuals into the frame. This creates a purposefully imbalanced visual economy that signifies the “us vs. them” mentality inherent to the narrative.
However, the truly remarkable thing about Kieślowski’s direction of Pierwsza miłość is how much tension and suspense he’s able to create. A teenaged pregnancy is not that uncommon yet one feels simultaneously that Jadwiga and Roman are the first couple to experience these conditions while also representing everyone’s experience of these conditions. Partly this is because Kieślowski so effectively immerses the viewer in Jadwiga’s world but it’s also because almost all of the drama is derived from the unwillingness of various establishments to aid people like Jadwiga.
Typically when Kieślowski introduces a new space the camera seems to go looking around to find either Jadwiga or Roman within that space. So while the numerous close-ups in scenes of conflict ground the spectator empathetically with Jadwiga and Roman, in these establishing shots Kieślowski tucks the subjects of his film away within the larger tapestry of urban life in Poland. Jadwiga is at times wholly unique and at others the everywoman.
Kieślowski’s impulse to lose the characters or subjects of his films within a larger societal landscape is a constant in all of his works, but perhaps more so in his films made in his native Poland. Pierwsza miłość and his documentary films served as a kind of proving ground for Kieślowski’s ever evolving methodologies. The Dekalog (1988) is unimaginable without Pierwsza miłość having come first and providing the rudimentary blueprint for the style and look of that series.