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WORLD REPORT PROFILE : Krzysztof Piesiewicz : Oscar nominee in Poland writes legal briefs as well as scripts such as 'Red.' Oh, we almost forgot: He's been a senator too.

March 21, 1995|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WARSAW — Krzysztof Piesiewicz was at the top of his profession. Young, righteous and driven, Piesiewicz had built a high-profile career defending Solidarity activists in political trials during the darkest days of communism. He was among the country's most accomplished anti-Establishment lawyers, and he relished the role.

But like many characters in the acclaimed screenplays he would later author, Piesiewicz had a chance encounter. It happened more than 12 years ago and irrevocably altered the course of his life.

Krzysztof Kieslowski, a celebrated director of documentaries, had obtained a permit to shoot scenes of political trials in Poland.

Fearful that he was being manipulated by the Communist regime, Kieslowski sought advice from someone familiar with the murky courtrooms where underground heroes were routinely interrogated by authorities.

A Polish journalist who knew both men arranged for a meeting. Kieslowski asked for 15 minutes. He got several hours, and as Piesiewicz tells the story, their conversation has never ended.

"We decided we had a lot to tell each other," Piesiewicz said. "And then, with a sort of grin on his face, he asked me if I wanted to become an artist."

Today the two men are a sensation in European cinema. And in Hollywood, the latest of their 17 films, "Red," has been nominated for three Academy Awards, including best screenplay, for which both men are nominated. Three is the most nominations for a foreign film in the history of the awards.

The screenplay of "Red" was an intense collaborative effort, worked and reworked on laptop computers as they commuted between Poland and France, where the inseparable duo spent much of the early 1990s filming a trilogy of movies inspired by the French flag. The final product is something greater than the sum of its parts.

"These are two very outstanding and very special personalities," said Bozena Janicka, a veteran film critic for the Polish monthly Kino. "The Oscars are a very elegant crowning of a life adventure for them."

On that pivotal day in 1982, when Kieslowski detected in Piesiewicz a man with extraordinary powers of observation, an unconventional second career was launched for the lawyer, who once penned a college screenplay but whose published works had been confined to underground political newspapers .

Piesiewicz's first script followed in Kieslowski's tradition of political documentary.

The movie, "Without an End," was about martial law in the early 1980s, a timely topic that examined one of the most trying periods in contemporary Poland.

But the film was a flop. Polish audiences were not ready to confront such real-life demons. Loyal Communists rejected it as a handbook for the opposition. And supporters of Solidarity were offended by its frank discussion of the movement's deep divisions.

The two men accepted the unanimous verdict: They never made another political film.

"We decided art is not here to define things for people or tell them how to do things," Piesiewicz said. "We came to the understanding that society is made of individuals, and that it is within them that there is either hell or paradise. So we have focused on very basic relationships between people. We started thinking again about love, hate, joy, sadness, death, life."

A new, successful chapter in Kieslowski's filmmaking followed, thanks in large part to the creative contribution of a man best known in Poland for his legal smarts and courtroom polemics.

"He turned out to be a man with two souls," said Edward Wende, Piesiewicz's law partner and a member of the Polish Senate. "On one side, he is a brilliant lawyer who is pragmatic and professional. On the other, it was later revealed, he is a sensitive artist with a great talent for writing."

Piesiewicz, a self-assured and serious man who shares Kieslowski's reputation as an aloof and reluctant public figure, took to screenwriting with a vengeance. But he never abandoned his legal profession or his political causes.

After the fall of communism in 1989, he too served a term as a senator, representing Solidarity, the Polish trade union and political party. For three years, he commuted between Paris, where he was filming, and Warsaw, where he continued to work as an attorney and sit in the Senate.

Piesiewicz, 49, said he still enjoys courtroom work and hopes to keep up with his profession for other reasons: His clients provide inspiration for his screenwriting.

"Sometimes I am sitting in my law office speaking to someone, when suddenly I realize I am not listening," he said. "I am thinking of the person and observing him. When I am very much involved in writing a screenplay, I begin looking at the world like a series of frames."

What has resulted is a succession of critically acclaimed films about ordinary people and "the deceptively casual connections of life that human beings tentatively make, narrowly miss, or avoid at all cost," wrote one film critic in characterizing his work.

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