on 24 May 2016
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1989 TV series of ten short films based on the Ten Commandments entitled Dekalog (The Decalogue) is mandatory viewing and these two Artificial Eye sets need to be in every film collection worthy of the name. The films speak volumes about the human condition and ask the very deepest questions, resonating with all the force and metaphysical gravitas of a Dostoyevsky or a St. Augustine – “What is the true meaning of life? Why get up in the morning? What, in essence, is right and what is wrong? What is a lie and what is truth? What is honesty and what is dishonesty? And what should one’s attitude to life be?” (Kieślowski). At the same time the films evince a humility in their creators, Kieślowski and his screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz who reject any kind of intellectual harangue or desire to show off. They know human nature is finally unknowable and put themselves on the same level as the protagonists they present in their films which are meant to mirror the audience – “We know no more than you. But maybe it is worth investigating the unknown, if only because the very feeling of not knowing is a painful one.” The beauty of Dekalog is that the films offer deep and powerful meditations on what the Ten Commandments mean to us today (how impossible it is for us not to transgress them) and constitute a wide-ranging ethical inquiry, but at the same time they relate strongly to the simple dramas of everyday life. Kieślowski said, “The films should be influenced by the individual Commandments to the same degree that the Commandments influence our daily lives.” This means the films work on two broad levels – the intellectual level of ethical inquiry (each film does attempt with a fair amount of rigor to deal directly with the Commandment in question even if other Commandments emerge to muddy the picture – life is always so of course), and the emotional level of human drama. In Kieślowski’s words, “I tried to show individuals in difficult situations. Everything pertaining to social hardship or life’s difficulties in general was always somewhere in the background…Dekalog is an attempt to narrate ten stories about ten or twenty individuals, who – caught in a struggle precisely because of these and not other circumstances which are fictitious but which could occur in every life – suddenly realize that they’re going around and around in circles, that they are not achieving what they want.”
It came as a shock to me last year to learn Kieślowski was an agnostic. I had lived with his films for 30 years assuming the constant presence of spiritualism in his work marked him as a Believer who had Faith. How are we to take a film series based on the Biblical Ten Commandments made by a non-believer? Firstly, there is the obvious fact that Believer or not, Kieślowski’s films are set in Poland and the culture and society of the country is deeply marked by Christianity, especially Catholicism. The Ten Commandments are part of the social fabric and have to be acknowledged by anyone in the business of ethical inquiry. The person making the inquiry therefore does not have to be a Believer. Secondly, Dekalog may have been directed by an agnostic, but its writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz is a practicing Roman Catholic. Not only that, he is a lawyer by profession and as I write he even sits on the Polish government as a Senator. It is too easy perhaps to think of great directors as auteurs working in their own world, but Kieślowski was a great team player and all his films from No End (1984) through to the planned Heaven (eventually made in 2002 by Tom Tykwer after Kieślowski’s death) come out of a close collaboration with Piesiewicz. Moreover, Piesiewicz was the one who first suggested Kieślowski make a film on the Ten Commandments and he was also the one who suggested the Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94). One day Piesiewicz was looking at a 15th Century painting depicting the Ten Commandments and wondered how that painting would look now, transposed forwards 600 years to a Poland being run by Martial Law. Kieślowski took up his idea when he sensed the crisis that was gripping his country in the mid-1980s. He said, “I sensed mutual indifference behind polite smiles and had the overwhelming impression that, more and more frequently, I was watching people who didn’t really know why they were living.” Not only the subject, but the treatment also bears the mark of Piesiewicz’s razor-sharp supremely logical lawyer’s brain. Kieślowski’s films changed when he first started collaborating with Piesiewicz in No End and the new emphasis on metaphysical issues and the inner life of human beings is as much the writer’s as it is the director’s. Also joining up with Kieślowski on No End was the composer Zbigniew Preisner whose eerie oneiric music matches perfectly the general intention to exteriorize interior conflicts and emotions.
It is important to know while watching these films what exactly Kieślowski’s attitude toward ‘God’ is and how the Ten Commandments are to be understood in this light. In Kieślowski on Kieślowski (which I recommend buying along with the screenplays of Dekalog also published by Faber) the director declares, “I think that an absolute point of reference does exist. Although I must say that when I think of God, it’s more often the God of the Old Testament rather than the New. The God of the Old Testament is a demanding God; a God who doesn’t forgive, who ruthlessly demands obedience to the principles laid down. The God of the New Testament is a merciful, kind-hearted old man with a white beard, who just forgives everything. The God of the Old Testament leaves us a lot of freedom and responsibility, observes how we use it and then rewards or punishes, and there’s no appeal or forgiveness.” This two-tiered perception of God is present throughout the ten films as is Kieślowski’s two-tiered perception of sin. He says, “The concept of sin is tied up with this abstract authority which we often call God. But I think there’s also a sense of sin against yourself which is important to me and really means the same thing. Usually [sin] results from weakness – from the fact that we’re too weak to resist temptation; the temptation to have more money, comfort, to possess a certain woman or man, or the temptation to hold more power.” Throughout all Kieślowski’s films humans negotiate their lives through a mixture of fate (a higher authority looking down and manipulating/guiding them towards their destiny) and chance with the decisions they all take on a daily basis defining their existence and setting them off on a road they have only half-determined for themselves. Dekalog is full of characters who feel in control, but are actually just as much controlled by others and the crisis they go through in each film is balanced on Kieślowski’s two-tiered scale – the God of the Old Testament/the God of the New Testament, divine fate/human choice, sin against God/sin against yourself. Just as the omnipresent apartment block in which most of the protagonists live (some of them appearing in more than one episode) represents humanity writ large, each film simultaneously states a common situation that resonates both on the widest scale and on the smallest most intimate scale. The import of the Commandments is both cosmic and intensely personal. You could say Dekalog is all about the inability of man to measure up to God’s rules, or you could say Dekalog is about fragile human beings failing to measure up to themselves and to their loved ones, for on its simplest most human level Dekalog are ten films about love.
In what follows I examine each film and spoilers are inevitable. Those who haven’t seen these magnificent films should now stop reading and buy the two Artificial Eye sets.
DEKALOG 6 (Thou shalt not commit adultery)
At first sight the relevance of this film to adultery appears obscure as neither of the protagonists involved are married, but the Commandment refers to all sexual relationships committed outside wedlock and clearly both transgress in the course of the film and both are damned in the eyes of the Lord. Magda (Grazyna Sżapołowska) is a beautiful promiscuous 30 something artist living on the ground floor of our apartment block. Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) is a timid virginal 19 year old orphan working in a post office and living in the apartment of his Godmother a couple of floors up across the way. His telescope is trained on Magda’s window through which he peeps at her entertaining her men. He falls in love and gradually interferes in her life until he forces a confrontation. She responds by cruelly manipulating him. First, she gives Tomek a sex show with her boyfriend which leads to the boyfriend beating him up, and then she lures him to her apartment and coldly seduces him into ejaculating into his pants. Humiliated, Tomek attempts suicide and goes to hospital. Meanwhile the tables are turned. It is Magda’s turn to feel for Tomek. She is at first guilty, then concerned, then empathetic and then finally in love herself, at which point Tomek has returned to work and says he doesn’t spy on her anymore, the idea being if she spies on him “he’ll hurt her the same way as Magda hurt him.” (Kieślowski).
The film is a quite masterly exploration of the feeling of love as felt by the polar opposites of naïve innocence on the one hand and cynical knowing experience on the other. While the wrongness of this love is never placed in doubt absolute sympathy is assured for the characters simply because Kieślowski shows events through the eyes of the person who loves. Tomek is one of the most sympathetic characters in the whole Dekalog series and we are profoundly affected by his painful treatment at the hands of Magda despite his obvious wrongdoing. He steals a telescope, he forges money orders to meet her, he spies on her and observes her most intimate moments, he makes silent phone calls and he calls the gas man to interrupt a sexual tryst. He violates two Commandments (‘Thou shalt not steal’ and ‘Thou shalt not covet’) in addition to committing adultery. And yet his sensitivity (brilliantly conveyed by Lubaszenko) is truly heart-breaking especially in the two sequences where he is observed by our ‘young man’ (Artur Barciś), first pulling his milk cart around in dizzying circles of ecstasy at having finally been promised a date (milk – that life-giving beverage which Tomek delivers and which Magda spills), and then sadly trudging home after having been humiliated. Clearly God doesn’t approve, but He allows us to empathize with the extreme emotions felt by this young naïf. As viewed by Tomek, Magda is certainly beautiful and we are tellingly invited to share Rear Window-style in his voyeurism, but she is also ice-cold and manipulative. As evinced by the cruel way she brings Tomek to orgasm we know this is a woman who has forgotten how to love. For her ‘love’ is simply sex and that is the lesson she teaches Tomek. However, once Tomek goes to hospital the point of view shifts to her and we sense her human feelings awakening. She desperately tries to attract Tomek back and visits his apartment where she realizes that she has killed the thing in him that was killed in her years previously and out of this empathy grows love. According to Kieślowski, “When she was his age, or maybe younger, she was like him. She was pure and believed that love existed. Then she probably got burnt. She touched something hot which hurt her very badly and decided never to love again because she realized that the price was too high.” The final images of this film are rendered incredibly moving as Magda looks through the post office window, a cold cynical woman transformed into a woman in love, only for Tomek to reject her. In the longer film version (A Short Film About Love) the ending is more positive. There perhaps Tomek will respond, but in the Dekalog version adultery must be punished and so the ending remains downbeat and “far closer to the view I have of how things really are in life.” (Kieślowski).
DEKALOG 7 (Thou shalt not steal)
This is one of the most concise films of the series from the point of view of sticking rigorously to the brief of the Commandment, and the most deeply moving. Here Kieślowski adds another metaphor for human existence on top of the apartment housing estate in the shape of the education system. The human drama centers on a sad family, the high school head-mistress mother Ewa (Anna Polony), the mild wood craftsman father Stefan (Władysław Kowalski), their 22 year old daughter Majka (Maja Barełkowska) who graduated from her mother’s school, and her 6 year old ‘sister’ Ania (Katarzyna Piwowarczyk). The central subject is emotional theft and in an ingenious scenario all the characters are both thieves and victims of theft with ‘stealing’ the root cause of all the unhappiness we see.
It turns out Ania is actually Majka’s daughter, Majka having had an affair with her literature teacher Wojtek (Bogusław Linda) when she was 16. Wojtek was hired by Ewa and to cover up the scandal he agreed to walk away and Ewa (who desperately wanted another child anyway) raised Ania as her own with Majka relegated to being Ania’s ‘sister.’ Majka has had her child stolen from her and in the course of the film she in turn steals Ania back by abducting her from a pantomime performance with the intention of eventually taking her to Canada. Ewa is also cast both as a thief and the victim of theft with her weak mild husband made accomplice to the ‘crime’ through his inaction. Majka takes Ania to Wojtek who is now living in the woods and it transpires that in addition to ‘stealing’ Majka’s innocence (and the family’s happiness) when he was a teacher, he is smoldering with resentment at the fact Majka hadn’t stood firm and declared him the father of Ania. By cooperating with her mother she in effect has stolen his child away from him and now he is reluctant to take any responsibility. The only one who doesn’t steal is Ania. She is simply a victim who undergoes severe emotional abuse and finishes the film scarred for life by the conniving theft of the adults surrounding her. She has had both her parents ‘stolen’ from her and she is old enough to remember forever Majka telling her that she is her mother and then abandoning her forever on the train platform in the film’s closing image.
The complicated scenario is rendered with great subtlety so that we acutely feel the sadness of all the characters, even the icy headmistress whose neglect of Majka constitutes the film’s biggest crime. Everyone is simultaneously victim and criminal and the film speaks volumes about the complexity of human nature and how hard it is to live ‘cleanly’ without lying, cheating and ‘stealing’ emotional support. Ewa’s action of stealing Ania is rooted in her desperation at not being able to conceive a second child while Majka’s ‘theft’ of Ania is hardly a crime when she is simply reclaiming what is hers. The father has the duty to support his wife more and stand up for his neglected daughter, but he chooses the easy route of doing nothing while his family goes to pieces around him. Meanwhile poor Ania endures all this uncertainty. Her unease is expressed simply through her uncontrollable crying in her sleep and a focus on childhood innocence which is systematically stripped from her – she is dragged away from a pantomime, denied the pleasure of a playground by Majka telling her who her mother is, denied the comfort of holding onto her teddy bear-making father’s finger in her sleep and is dragged away from him without knowing who he really is. She then drops her teddy by a river in a shocking moment where we think mother and child may have drowned themselves. Add to this the ingenious use of a clockwork music box score by Preisner and the accumulated effect is overwhelmingly powerful. A beautiful, warmly-observed, tough and razor-sharp dissection of the ambiguities of family emotions, the film poses potent questions about the degree to which we (consciously or not) steal and are stolen from in the complex web of human relationships which enmeshes us all. A masterpiece.
DEKALOG 8 (Thou shalt bear no false witness)
This film has the distinction of being the only one in the series based on fact – on the experience of Kieślowski and Piesiewicz’s mutual friend, the journalist Hanna Krall. It is a conversation piece between two women focusing on one example of ‘ethical hell.’ Zofia (Maria Kościałkowska) is an elderly philosophy professor who teaches an ethics course at Warsaw University. Sitting in on one of her lectures is Elżbieta (Teresa Marczewska), a middle-aged Polish-American academic visiting from New York. Having rejected the first proposal for discussion (the ethical hell providing the basis for Dekalog 2 and making explicit the fact that the other episodes of the series all deal with further examples of the same), Zofia accepts Elżbieta’s story which we quickly learn is true and involved both women in the past. She tells her story as our ‘young man’ (Artur Barciś) looks on from the student body. Like Ania in Dekalog 7, Elżbieta was 6 years old when a life-changing event happened. In 1943 she was taken by her guardian to a scary house in Nazi-controlled Warsaw. She was Jewish and a Catholic couple had agreed to shelter her on condition she be baptized. The witnesses to the ceremony were to be Zofia and her husband, but at the last moment Zofia refused to break the Commandment which forbids bearing false witness. Elżbieta was sent away to almost certain death as a consequence. Luckily another couple agreed to shelter her and she survived the war, but Zofia has lived over 40 years with the guilt thinking she had killed the girl. Elżbieta on the other hand has long harbored a grudge against this woman and now confronts her almost-executioner seeking an explanation.
The ethical hell proposed here lies in the question, “What is more important, the upholding of the Commandment, or the life of a little girl?” For Elżbieta clearly it isn’t even a question and she exacts a kind of revenge when they revisit the very house where she was turned away. She fools Zofia into searching for her in the building responsible for creating the guilt which has long persecuted her and succeeds in scaring her. Zofia also turns out to believe the life of a little girl is more important, her motive for not bearing false witness turning out not to be pious after all. She and her husband were involved in the anti-Nazi resistance and it was rumored at the time that Elżbieta’s prospective ‘parents’ had been compromised by the Gestapo. To save a greater number of lives Zofia had to turn the girl away. But the rumor proved false and the guilt seized hold of her. The film’s ‘ethical hell’ then is actually the loneliness and guilt suffered by Zofia (which equates with the loneliness also suffered by the doctor in Dekalog 2) for over 40 years, and the film moves us most of all as a tender portrait of a sad woman who lives alone, her husband dead, her son not wanting to know her, her life bent askew just like the picture on her apartment wall which won’t hang straight. The performances here are amazing, both characters talking through their differences and eventually reaching a rapprochement which renews their faith in humanity. The enigma of what really happened during the terrible time of the Warsaw ghetto is kept intact (by necessity it is implied) through the film’s final image of the old tailor (the man who was to have been Elżbieta’s ‘father’ and who now refuses to talk about the war) looking out of his window at the two women reconciling on the street. It is a poignant achingly-achieved film which triumphantly transcends its seemingly over-talky limitations.
DEKALOG 9 (Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife)
Although connected to the other nine films by theme and place (the film’s main libidinous protagonist even appears in Dekalog 6 as one of Magda’s male admirers), this one looks forward much more to Kieślowski’s last films. One character who is a would-be singer with a heart condition is the prototype for Weronika/Véronique in The Double Life of Véronique (1991) and we are introduced to a fictitious 18th century Dutch composer named Van der Budenmajer (aka Preisner) who features prominently both there and throughout the Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94). Male impotence is also a major theme of White while the cuckolded man and surveillance both re-appear in Red. Seen as part of Dekalog though, this is a gem of a film which focuses on the consequences intendant on a loving couple nurturing a free marriage, but who make the mistake of not talking through everything to each other.
Promiscuous surgeon Roman (Piotr Machalica) and beautiful equally promiscuous KLM receptionist Hanka (Ewa Błaszczyk) are punished for their transgression of ‘coveting’ other people’s partners by God bringing their sex life to a close, Roman being diagnosed impotent. If the two have a transparent relationship in which both talk freely about their partners then this is a problem which can be worked around. Adoption of a child is offered as a solution which would bind them together. Roman suggests it and there is a key scene where he observes a child (little Ania from Dekalog 7) playing outside his apartment window as he pours milk, the idea being the possibility of a child injecting life into his marriage. He tells Hanka he wants to talk everything through absolutely, even telling her it’s OK to find another partner if she hasn’t already done so. But she chooses to lie, hiding her already established relationship with young physicist Mariusz (Jan Jankowski) which leads inevitably to Roman finding out by stalking her – he taps their phone, discovers their trysting place, sits outside on the stairs listening to them go at it, and then hides in a wardrobe where he is inevitably discovered. He is run through the wringer of jealously, humiliation and impotent fury, all directed at himself for he accepts he has no right to be angry at his wife doing exactly what he once did. The libido is depicted as being life-defining/life-destroying for these two protagonists and the film is book-ended with scenes of attempted suicide observed by our ‘young man’ (Artur Barciś) circling Roman on his bicycle seeming to warn him of the perils of transgressing the Commandment “Thou shalt not kill”, extending as it does to suicide as well as murder. The film is essentially a study of what happens to a man when his vital essence is removed. Rationally, love is about a lot more than panting for five minutes once a week in bed. Love lies within your heart, not between your legs, as Hanka tells him. But the libido transcends rationality and induces the ridiculous both for Roman reduced to a pathetic cuckold and for Hanka who doesn’t practice what she preaches. The film is tragi-comic in tone and features marvelous performances from the two leads which ring absolutely true. Kieślowski contemplated turning this into a feature-length film à la Dekalog 5 and 6, but didn’t because of lack of time and sheer exhaustion.
DEKALOG 10 (Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods)
Kieślowski changes direction completely in this final film which rejects the serious tone that has dominated his ethical inquiry up until this point. Launching with a punk rock number in which the Kieślowski-scripted lyrics encourage everyone to break all the Commandments especially “on a Sunday,” the film is a sardonic black comedy about two brothers, the punk rocker Artur (Zbigniew Zamachowski who we will see again in Three Colors White) and family man with problems Jerzy (Jerzy Stuhr who we already saw playing Kieslowski’s Camera Buff  and who will also feature in White). They are left with a problematic inheritance from their late father (who we saw played by Bronislaw Pawlik in Dekalog 8) of a huge and very valuable stamp collection. A complicated plot sees a number of other people trying to get their hands on the stamps, the brothers attempting to increase the security of the apartment and then even trying to increase the value of their stash by exchanging one of Jerzy’s kidneys for a priceless stamp which would complete a set. Of course, the apartment gets robbed and the brothers suspect each other of the theft. The film’s undeniable moral flavor is sealed when they observe the very people who had earlier tried to get their hands on the stamps meeting on the street. The film ends with fraternal reconciliation as both reveal they have bought identical stamps (from our post office clerk Tomek in Dekalog 6!). The film makes pertinent points about the nature of collecting and the obsession with coveting goods. The brothers observe how their father deprived their mother and them of happiness due to his obsession with stamp collecting, and yet as they begin to take an interest in the collection they both realize how they have forgotten all the other problems that exist in their lives. Collecting gives life a direction which can be a good thing, but the film’s obvious point is there are limits. Coveting of goods shouldn’t entail the neglect of one’s family or the selling off of body parts! The film’s comic tone relies heavily on the chemistry between Zamachowski and Stuhr with some witty scenes involving a redundant guard dog, a shady shopkeeper (Henryk Bista) looking for a kidney for his sick daughter and the reactions to the theft. Like Dekalog 9, this also looks forward, especially to Three Colors White in the black comedy which is just as successful there. The film is a wry, fitting end to a series of films which constitutes ones of the landmarks of film history – Dekalog really is that good.
A SHORT FILM ABOUT DEKALOG (w/dir: Eileen Anipare and Jason Wood, 1996, 47 minutes)
This is a very interesting interview given to two film students by Kieślowski in January 1995 shortly before his death. Technically, the film is below par (it has obviously been made quickly and on the cheap), but the important thing of course are the words of the great man. For the most part he repeats what he already says in the book Kieślowski on Kieślowski (Faber) especially Dekalog being a record of the times, of a Poland under martial law in which people lead isolated lives. He stresses the decision of himself and Piesiewicz to extract all politics, the ethical ideas of the films to be understood universally as opposed to being strictly related just to Poland. Three things strike me as being invaluable here. The most important is Kieślowski’s insistence on the fundamental difference between morality and ethics. The films are about the Biblical Ten Commandments and we might expect them to be centrally moral, but he denies this: “I don’t like the word morality…if I were to use that word it would make me a moralist, someone who knows what it is. But I’m not someone who knows. Not exactly, so I’d rather ask questions than provide answers. I know what questions to ask more or less. So I concern myself with ethics rather than morality. It’s broader.” The second point is that Kieślowski denies any of the protagonists in Dekalog are looking for freedom and he goes through each episode demonstrating that their ethical dilemmas do not relate to a lack of freedom. They relate to anyone wherever they live in the world whether they be ‘free’ or ‘not free.’ Thirdly, Kieślowski says, “I believe the three things are connected: chance, fate and free will.” The first two things are self-evidently ever-present within Kieślowski’s films with a constant stress on spirituality and a protagonist’s inner life, but for him life is also determined by free will, the decisions we all take which consciously determine our direction. When pressed to explain the ‘young man’ he says he appears “when something must be decided, or someone has to make a decision,” to which the interviewer suggests, “God?” Kieślowski’s answer is revealing: “I don’t know. It’s up to you. I don’t use those terms.” For him then life is a mixture of three ingredients and where they intersect is finally impossibly to determine and a matter of individual subjective opinion as opposed to objective fact.