PERSONEL concerns a young man, Romek, from a defunct theatre training school who begins an apprenticeship in the costume department of the main Warsaw Theatre. In fact Kieslowski, at a loose end since dropping out of school, entered the College for Theatrical Technicians because of a connection with a distant uncle.
Here PERSONEL resembles the workplace documentaries with the fly-on-the-wall atmosphere heightened by shooting with a telephoto lens. He is befriended by Sowa who shows him the ins-and-outs of the profession. A hyper tenor comes in for a costume fitting and gives Romek a cigarette which explodes in his face giving great amusement to the tenor and marking him as a complete a-hole. While Romek sits there feeling like a fool with a blackened face, Sowa calls the tenor on his stupid actions while another more obsequious worker deliberately takes a cigarette and has it blow up in his face blackening it too.
There is a workers meeting in which various pieces of business are discussed particularly the distance between artists and staff and the dreary conservatism of the repertoire which more and more lacks meaning for the average person. Romek makes a suggestion that the theatre staff organize its own cabaret to do the things the main theatre can't or won't. The staff tickets to a performance are given out, but, of course, there aren't enough to go around and some of the ticket envelopes are empty. Getting to see the latest production is a lottery. Romek gets a ticket, Sowa is shut out.
The tenor gets his revenge on Sowa when he has to model his costume before the theatre's directors and he complains of Sowa's incompetence in making the costume too small and constricting. To emphasize the point he turns and flexing his back tears the seams of the costume which damages his performance. Sowa answers back by turning and flexing his back and tearing the seams of his clothes. One day Romek is called into the directors office and is told that the theatre will finance his idea for a worker's cabaret of which he can be director. There is only one thing he needs to do first: as he was a witness to the conflict between the tenor and the now dismissed Sowa, they would like for him to put down his recollections of the incident on paper. Romek rushes to the defense of his friend declaring that he wasn't the offending party but he is told he can write it up that way if he wishes but in any case to please write what he saw. He is left alone in the directors office with a pen and blank sheets of paper. The film ends. Kieslowski never shows the exact moment of decision, like a film about bull fighting which never shows the coup de grace.
So this film mixes the Kieslowski tropes of the past - an actual workplace setting, meetings, amateur actors playing themselves, with some newly manifested ideas such as the Faustian bargain, the moral and ethical dilemma, what Kieslowski called The Cinema of Moral Anxiety. Neophite that he is, Romek knows enough by now that whatever he writes it will be used against his friend and sometime protector. He will be, in essence, a collaborator if not an informer.
Romek sees a pretty girl on a tram though he is, at first, too shy to talk to, and, at one point runs after the tram to see her, which looks back to Tram and forward to Blind Chance.
Kieslowski shows his great visceral love of the theatre, especially when Romek, in the audience, experiences the magical moment of the curtain going up, the lighting recalling a Degas painting. He has always said that he wanted to get into the film school at Lodz merely to acquire certain skills to go into the theatre but as he failed two entrance exams and made it in only after taking the exam a third time I feel that might just have been a very good story he told from time to time, like becoming a butcher if his uncle was on the board of a butchering school instead of a theatrical school. After all, people who love drama tend to be dramatic and tell dramatic tales.
Another Kieslowski element introduced into this film was the wise old man who had already made all of the compromises in life and who could read and manoeuver through the system. The theatre director was well aware that beyond the current system, state and party structures and rules, that dealing with a tenor was and always has been a pain in the ass. Their reputation in the opera has always been that of scratch a tenor and you'll find a prima donna. He knows that the tenor is probably in the wrong or at least making a mountain out of a mole hill but the production must open on a certain day and while the theatre can get along with one less tailor, the tenor is, unfortunately, a necessity, so that is what needs to be done. Not opening on time wouldn't be in anybodies interest right up to the Ministry of Culture which after all finances the theatre and pays all their salaries. This is, unlike in later films, not stated openly like it would be in later films, but it is something to consider.