THE DECALOGUE (Dekalog) – made for TV APoland (10 episodes about 55 mi each – 562 mi) 1988-89 d: Krzysztof Kieslowski The Decalogue
An especially good desert island selection, one to have with you if you’re ever stuck alone for long periods of time bored on a desert island with more than enough time to contemplate one’s existence. Completed in 1988, but not released in the USA until some 8 years later, DEKALOG is considered one of the key works in contemporary cinema, featuring ten segments, each representing one of the Ten Commandments, which are never shown or referenced anywhere in the film, forcing each viewer to explore further on their own. Two of these shorter segments have been expanded into full-length features, A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE (1988) and A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING (1988), the latter winning a Jury Prize at Cannes and is considered one of the most powerful films ever made about the death penalty. Kieslowski directed each episode, co-written by Kieslowski's longtime collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, but used 9 different cinematographers to express a change in the way the material is observed and presented, featuring extraordinary music written by Zgibniew Priesner, which is always soft, graceful, hauntingly beautiful, evoking a sublime minimalist elegance, providing for Kieslowski what Peer Raben provided for Fassbinder, the musical poetry that underscores such superb dramatic imagery.
This is a ten part, 562 minute updated modern day morality play that explores the timeless moral issues of human existence through ten contemporary tales, each loosely based on one of the Ten Commandments, yet is so deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life that the connection never feels clear. Originally produced for Polish television, yet initially shown out of sequence over the course of a year, where episode #10 aired first in June 1989, followed by #1 December 1989, with all the rest following in May and June 1990, this brilliant series of ten separate but subtly intertwining films transcends the boundaries of film and TV. Distinguished by its searing realism, this is as excruciatingly personal as filmmaking gets, featuring humans on the threshold of life altering decisions, filled with pensive moments along with plenty of quiet and empty spaces, featuring unbelievable acting and exceptionally spare musical scoring, making this feel uniquely original, simply an exceptional and deeply personal viewing experience. Made on a $100,000 budget, shot at the same Warsaw high-rise housing complex, each episode features new lead actors, but occasionally several may overlap into multiple episodes, including a silent character (Artur Barcis) seen in the opening shot who continually re-appears in nearly every segment, often humorously, as he’s seen several times carrying a kayak on his back, always remaining wordless, but he’s also present at significant moments, like the invisible presence of Christ or perhaps an expression of one’s conscience. He never figures into the outcome or noticeably affects anyone’s decision, but simply observes humans and bears silent witness as they live their lives, perhaps the closest we get to an explicit presence of God.
There are recurring images and themes that appear throughout, such as the same exterior housing complex, continually shot from different angles, both high level and low, where we become familiar with the sidewalk entrances as well as the neighborhood nearby, where neighbors often meet and chat or simply pass by one another in a chilly silence. We also become familiar with interior rooms, often lit by a lone lamp at night, where the space feels cramped and confined, but also warm and cozy, with elevated windows overlooking the sidewalks below, at other times feeling threatening and inhospitable due to the insufferable behavior of the occupants. Taxi’s or cars appear throughout, highlighting the view of the passengers inside who may be engaging in conversation as the streets and buildings of Warsaw pass by. Again, the range of expression differs from casually familiar to deeply hostile, but always we seem to discover people having discussions in enclosed spaces, such as rooms, doorways, hallways, lecture halls, offices, taxi’s, trains, hospitals, airports, closets, courtrooms, jail cells, or kitchens, where the feeling one gets after awhile is how small a creature humans are when they live their lives, always confining themselves to small interior spaces, shown to humorous effect by the final episode where iron bars, an alarm system and a vicious attack dog cannot protect this precious space from unwanted invasion.
DEKALOG has a connection to Christmas, much of it shot in wintry conditions with traces of snow on the ground, but often in the dark of night, especially the early segments, #1 and especially #3, where it may initially feel like the blind leading the blind, especially considering the devastating consequences of the initial episode, where elation so quickly turns to sadness, a common theme that permeates throughout the films. Each segment has the feel of a short story highlighting the human drama, shown with exquisite detail, where there are sharp twists and turns in the road, usually leading to the unexpected, where decisions have consequences, where oftentimes the people seem to be living their lives at differing speeds, where by the time they catch up to understanding their situation, it has quickly changed, and they always feel one step behind, which is especially evident in #9. Probably the most astonishing cinema happens between episodes # 4 – 6, perhaps the most challenging and deeply profound as well, where the latter two were made into feature films, but #4 has an exquisite elegance that speaks of pure poetry. Often led by the performances, the dramatic power of each segment is quickly realized, where the viewer is pulled into a particular human dilemma where difficult choices have to be made, where there is no right or wrong, but simply impossible choices that have uniquely personal ramifications, much like the surreal aftermath of Kurosawa’s RAN (1985), humans at the precipice, alone against a vast unknown.
In our fast-paced, modern age, God may be harder to find, and harder to believe in, but through these brilliantly unique observations, this film at least demonstrates through a superb cinematic structure where God has been, and where, if one looks hard enough, God may still be found.
#1. I am the Lord, thy God. Thou shalt have no other God but me. The first 3 all seem to take place at night, or in the dark, with a cold and chilling effect. Listed as the saddest of them all by Ebert, though #5 and #7 are hauntingly sad as well, this features a close father and son relationship (Henryk Baranowski and Wojciech Klata), where the father is a renowned physics instructor, where the favorite game the two play together is solving problems through the use of computers, giving them a rush of excitement when they get the right answer. However, there’s no guarantee they’ll find the right answer, as knowledge is elusive, where there’s no accounting for unforeseen circumstances, like stormy weather, quick wind gusts, or changes in fate, determining factors that play into the possibility that humans may err in accurately identifying the problem in the first place. This is precisely what happens with devastating results, as computers cannot take the place of God, where despite their reputation for accuracy and consistency, they’re never guaranteed to make the right decision. Tell that to the astronauts who are circling the moon.
#2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. This is deeply unsettling and dramatically powerful, featuring a terrific performance from a strong-willed middle aged woman (Krystyna Janda) who has to make a fateful decision about her pregnancy, wondering whether to terminate the pregnancy (by another man) and stay with her potentially terminally ill spouse, who is infertile, or have the baby and run away with her new man in a new life. Set in a dark and somber setting, the background of the doctor (Aleksander Bardini) is presented simultaneously as the woman, revealing secret personal information that may play into the decision, where the director leaves relevant information shrouded in a mysterious ambiguity of multiple possibilities.
#3. Honor the Sabbath Day. Taking place on Christmas Eve, the roads are snowy, used to a chilling wintry effect, where a taxi driver (Daniel Olbrychski) is lured away from his family by the sight of a mysterious woman (Maria Pakulnis) during church services. A former lover, she now asks for his help in locating her missing husband. Largely built around the theme of temptation, the two play a cat and mouse game all night long, where the urgency of their mission gets sidetracked by apparent unfinished business between the two of them. The episode intermingles several different Commandments, as the two seem to get lost in their own adult Alice in Wonderland netherworld where perhaps different rules may apply.
#4. Honor thy Father and thy Mother. It’s not until #4 that the quiet intensity of internal silence begins overwhelming the viewer, featuring a spectacular performance by the daughter (Adriana Biedrzynska), a 20-year old theater student who is remarkably uninhibited, but also dangerously curious as she grows intensely attracted to a letter left in her widowed father’s drawer (Janusz Gajos) that says “To be opened in the event of my death.” The interior world has expansive capabilities, fragile, unpredictable, and quietly explosive, like watching a dramatic rendition of The Glass Menagerie, eerily quiet with a haunting power, among the best uses of music in the entire series, and profoundly moving. Amusingly there is a graphic Winston cigarette poster at her bedside, with another Marlboro reference in the film (too noticeably placed not to see), also an amusing appearance by our silent Christ-like character who comes out of the nearby river carrying his kayak on his back.
#5. Thou shalt not kill. The most bone-chilling episode of all, shot by Slawomir Idziak using a different tone than all the rest, sepia colored, like old photographs, but graphically realistic, with another blistering performance by the murderer, Jacek (Miroslaw Baka). While we watch him sulk and slink around the edges of the city with utter banality, like some kind of gutter animal, this is arguably the best treatise on capital punishment ever filmed. Intermixing a parallel story of a young law student (Krzysztof Globisz) making his carefully considered argument against capital punishment, Jacek commits a heinously brutal attack on a defenseless cabdriver, taking several minutes of real time using a near documentary style technique to capture the full impact of the gruesome act. Showing only brief trial accounts, exhausting all appeals, Jacek is sentenced to death, where the final act before carrying out his sentencing is offering him a cigarette, especially ironic as that may have been a contributing factor in the death of the the filmmaker, an unintended comment on another murderous habit. The second killing, the one committed by the state, is equally horrific. Interestingly a bicycle rider drives past as the murder is being committed without ever suspecting anything—expanded later into A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING.
#6. Thou shalt not commit adultery. While several episodes point to this Commandment, this may be the most elegantly presented, a variation on Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (1954), changing the murder clues in Hitchcock to subtle hints of love, which are equally haunting and mysterious, often with similar disturbing consequences. The quiet, near wordless pensiveness of this sequence is highly appealing, as are the performances of the two leads, where young postal worker Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) becomes infatuated with Magda (Grasznya Szapolowska), a free spirited and sexually promiscuous artist living in the building directly across from his, where he sits alone in the dark and uses a telescope to spy on her. Their knowledge and understanding of one another goes through a total transformation, just not at the same time, where feelings get lost and misplaced, but the honesty and quest for needed sincerity was never more appealing than here—expanded later into A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE (which, by the way, has a different ending).
#7. Thou shalt not steal. Perhaps the most heartbreaking, this feels like a variation on the fairly tale of Little Red Riding Hood, as it features a young child dressed in a bright red coat who is eventually eaten by the wolf. This little girl Ania (Katarzyna Piwowarczyk) was unsuspectingly raised by her domineering grandmother (Anna Polony), who informed her she was the mother, and that her real mother Majka (Maja Barelkowska) was her older sister—all to prevent the embarrassing scandal of Majka’s unwed, teenage pregnancy with one of her teachers who actually works for the grandmother. Instead of going to grandmother’s house in the woods, in this version, the child is stuck in the woods with a wolf disguised as a grandmother. Given an almost music box musical theme, the featured element here is Majka feeling chained, like a prisoner, where escape is the only option, but at what cost? The obvious question is whether you can steal something that already belongs to you, though the most anguishing theft is Majka’s motherhood.
#8. Thou shalt not bear false witness. “People don’t like witnesses to their humiliation, even bricks and mortar.” A college ethics professor (Maria Kosciakowska) receives a visitor from the past (Teresa Marczewska), one she offered to shelter during the war when she was just a 6-year old Jewish child seeking protection, on the condition that she would convert to Catholicism, which she did, but the professor and her husband rescinded their offer, forcing the girl to go elsewhere to almost certain death. 40 years later, still haunted by the memory, the prodigal daughter has returned to discover her lost childhood, still curious about the circumstances surrounding that decision. Perhaps of all the episodes, this one outlines the moral dilemmas of making difficult choices, even recounting in class exactly the same circumstances of the pregnant women in episode #2, an example of ethical hell. As it turns out, all these intersecting lives live nearby, each with their own haunting stories and challenging memories.
#9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife. A husband (Piotr Machalica) is told at the outset from his own surgeon that he has an unspecified medical condition causing impotency that will not allow him to ever have sex again, which his wife (Ewa Blasczyk) accepts with tenderness, but the husband is racked with guilt and self loathing, knowing he can’t give his attractive wife what she needs, encouraging her to find a lover, and then seeing lovers behind every phone call and piece of paper he finds, becoming overly suspicious and paranoid, resorting to methods of peeping as in episode #6, only without the developing love, instead lurking in the shadows with the crashing darkness of suspicion and doubt. When he discovers she is really having an affair, he grows suicidal and unstable. During a planned meeting where she ends it with her lover, he’s discovered afterwards hiding in a closet, where they vow to start trusting one another, but they’re never trusting or being honest with each other at the same time, always out of synch, allowing doubt and the darkness to cloud their judgment, nearly destroying one another, all of which could likely have been prevented had they simply trusted one another from the beginning.
#10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods. The only comedy from the group, about a bumbling pair of brothers, the older and more conservative Jerzy (Jerzy Stuhr) and young rock star Artur (Zbigniew Zamachowski) who sings in the punk band City Death, whose only skill is screwing things up and making matters worse, yet they are clueless about their singular path to ruin, aided and abetted by each other’s wacky ideas. In episode #8, we saw an elderly neighbor excited about a recent purchase of rare stamps, a series of Zeppelins from 1931. As we discover here, the recently deceased happens to be these two screwball brother’s father and his notorious stamp collection is renowned throughout Poland as the finest collection throughout the nation, worth several million dollars if kept intact, which sends shivers down the spines of these guys who were obviously his father’s two biggest disappointments in life. Never having anything of value, the two install iron bars on the windows and buy a vicious attack dog for protection, believing they are invincible. Shady stamp dealers lure them with a stamp so rare it can’t even be sold, as it’s known to be stolen, so its whereabouts remain a secret, so rare it eluded their father throughout his lifetime, worth a kidney if interested. “Am I supposed to give a kidney for a stamp?” This kind of black humor matches the punk rock nihilism that opens and closes the film, ironically displaying contrary impulses to everything that’s come before, an interesting way to rather amusingly bring the series to a close.