Classic Retrospective: The 10 Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “The Decalogue”
Krzysztof Kieslowski had his most ambitious cinematic idea in 1988. And in December 1989 it became reality. An epic ten-hour production, resulting in ten films about the Ten Commandments. He called it “The Decalogue”.
On paper it looked unlikely that The Decalogue would reach even the most modest audience. Faced with distribution problems from day one, there remained legitimate concerns amongst the production team of the epic effort documenting the Ten Commandments about how they were going to sell ten hours of film to the general public. You’d need the patience of a Saint to sit in a cinema for over six-hundred straight minutes. But a compromise was offered, and The Decalogue was released for Polish television as ten independent productions – resulting in modest financial success and huge critical acclaim.
Kieslowski penned the series with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, originally intending for a different director to oversee each film for changes in tone and style. A single re-read of the completed scripts saw Kieslowski change his tune – ultimately refusing to surrender his material and opting to direct each film himself.
The Ten Commandments suggest absolute truths and clear-cut “don’ts”. But Kieslowski refuses this notion, bringing an agnostic approach to a deeply religious facet and allowing a wonderful, intriguing complexity to emerge from within the supposed concret rules for living. Each instalment appears to have a specific overarching commandment attached to it, yet other commandments occasionally overlap, interfere, and expose themselves as less black-and-white as they are originally on paper. The rules we are given to live by are not so simple – as neither humanity nor life is simple either.
Each of the films take place in and around a towering grey housing complex in Warsaw, with characters from other episodes bypassing one another in hallways or appearing momentarily in backgrounds. What this achieves is a sense of simultaneous connection and separation, hinting that all aspects of life remained entangled loosely together.
Poland has historically remained a site sandwiched between the crushing pincers of conflicting European powers – a point that Reni Celeste’s essay entitled “Poland’s Cinema of Collision” explores deeply. Kieslowski’s country has often been home to astonishing war and chaos, yet the director engages with his topics in a subtle, quiet manner that depicts a very different kind of conflict.
One of the defining motifs of Kieslowski’s film series is the reoccurrence of a young man played by Polish actor Artur Barciś. He appears in each instalment as a vague distant being, who observes the characters with a look of scorn. He occupies various forms, ranging from a homeless man in Decalogue I, to a construction worker in Decalogue V, to a bike rider in Decalogue IX.
He speaks no words, but as each film passes, he becomes completely fascinating. After taking in the first few chapters, as a viewer you begin to actively look for Barciś in each film. The other characters often return his gaze and seem to halt in their tracks. There’s something strangely hypnotic about him.
The Decalogue asks deep-meaning questions about life and human fate, and seeks to explore this interrogation through subtle conversation. Kieslowski offers no answers, and subsequently no apologies. It truly is a unique cinematic experience.
Kieslowski tragically died in 1996 after suffering a heart attacked at the tender age of just 54, but in The Decalogue he left behind a remarkable legacy that remains one of cinema’s greatest achievements. The following article will briefly analyse each section of The Decalogue, commenting on the different plots, themes, characters, and of course, commandments.
I Am The Lord Thy God; Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me
In the modern age of advanced technology, this first segment of Kieslowski’s Decalogue series perhaps radiates further poignancy than it did upon its creation. When the film completed production in the late eighties, personal computers were still considered as an admirable luxury. Nowadays it appears difficult to function in the working world without one. We lean worryingly heavily on these machines, and Decalogue I demonstrates the dangers of doing so.
The opening shot of the series is fittingly of Artur Barcis, who here adopts the role of a homeless man residing by an iced-over lake, nearby the bleak apartment blocks that Kieslowski goes on to so deeply explore. Barcis slowly looks around, before staring directly straight into the camera with the piercing stare that comes to define the catalogue of films.
After you have seen each film in The Decalogue (or even just a few of them) – go back and revisit this opening shot. After seeing the way in which Barcis stares with sad and judging eyes at the characters in each of the other segments, it is vastly unnerving witnessing him stare directly at you with the same expression. It’s enough to make you carefully consider the choices you’ll make in your life that day. And any film that can do that, is an example of wonderful cinema.
Barcis resurfaces in this episode when Krzysztof – a middle-aged intellectual University professor – goes to calculate the thickness of the ice based on his computer findings. Barcis simply stares at Krzysztof, who returns the tramp’s gaze but continues to deduce that the ice is indeed safe to skate on.
Several of the children in the Warsaw apartment block wish to skate on this ice in the evenings, and among them is Krzysztof’s son Pawel – who, like his father, is a computer genius. They use their family computer regularly, and even do so to determine the safety of weather conditions and the environment around them.
The overarching commandment for this first film is of course, “Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me”, as Krzysztof and Pawel take the word of technology over nature. Kieslowski was in fact an agnostic, and does not argue that God will punish us because we fail to adhere to one his rules. Rather, Kieslowski examines the fragility of complete faith, tragedy of coincidence and chance, and the general unpredictability of human life. There are no correct answers – not even from the advanced technological world. There is more to the circumstances of life than that.
Thou Shalt Not Take The Name Of The Lord In Vain
The Decalogue does not take long to complicate the issue of commandments overlapping with one another and achieving a sense of ambiguity. Indeed, Decalogue II incorporates the commandments of “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery” and “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, along with its overarching commandment of “Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of the Lord In Vain”.
This second segment of The Decalogue follows a grumbling, elderly senior doctor, who is followed and eventually cornered by a panic-stricken and nervous-looking blonde woman. She reveals herself as Dorota, and begs the doctor to reveal the severity of her husband’s condition – as her spouse is based within the doctor’s hospital. He refuses. “Come back at hospital visiting hours” he tells her.
It is revealed that the doctor had lost his entire family during the war, and often recites these tales of woe to the lady who cleans his house. In the meantime, Dorota continues to ask for the doctor’s prognosis, eventually revealing that she is pregnant with another man’s child. Admitting that this is her last opportunity to have a child, she claims that she will keep the baby if her husband dies, but abort if her husband lives.
Dorota is a character constantly surrounded by the notion of death, and in some ways represents it herself. She only ever conveys the emotions of sadness and anger, and is always loitering and hovering around the doctor – much like death consistently hovers around us all, especially those of us who are elderly like the doctor himself.
In asking for death in each scenario, Dorota is attempting to play God. She attempts to place her fate in the hands of another human being, believing the doctor to be better suited due to his profession and emotional distance. She attempts to allow the doctor to dictate her fate and make decisions for her based on his diagnosis. But his diagnosis is exactly that. Nothing more than a human thought.
Like in Decalogue I – and throughout the series – Kieslowski emphasises that nothing can ever be ascertained as definite or certain. Life is unpredictable, complex and fragile. Nature will take its own course despite our human interference.
Remember The Sabbath Day, To Keep It Holy
A story of longing and lies, Decalogue III takes into consideration the issue of sinning on the Sabbath day (in this case, Christmas Eve), but also examines the commandment entitled “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery”.
During Christmas Eve, a man named Janusz enters his apartment block dressed as Santa (crossing paths with Krzysztof from Decalogue I on his way in). An old flame of his named Ewa calls him up, asking to see him. Janusz is initially hesitant given his reluctance to re-engage in an affair, but when Ewa discusses how she cannot find her husband, he agrees to help her look – lying to his wife in the process and claiming that his car was stolen.
The film is concerned with the morality of Janusz spending adulterous time away from his wife and children on a night where family is most important. Yet it is also concerned with how Ewa has lost her own family, and desperately wants to find her husband more than anything else in the world.
Barcis stars here as a tram driver, who stares down at Janusz and Eva from his vehicle. Janusz drives directly towards Barics, but the mysterious character refuses to shift either his steely gaze or his tram, with Janusz being forced to swerve away at the last moment. This is symbolic of Janusz’s sins and guilty conscience staring him down, and his attempt to blast them away through an act of recklessness is shown as being utterly futile.
The two leads continue their search, and unsurprisingly, there are very few people around in the depths of the Warsaw night on Christmas Eve around for assistance. Many are sleeping, and those working the graveyard shifts are having to force themselves to stay awake. None of them appear to be truly interested in helping Eva and Janusz. It is as if they know that the search is pointless. And a stunning revelation from Ewa at the end of the film reveals why she and Janusz had really spent the night together after all.
Honour Thy Father And Thy Mother
Decalogue IV depicts the relationship between a middle-aged man and his student daughter: showing what can happen when parental boundaries are broken.
It is not immediately obvious that Anka is Michal’s daughter. Whilst she is an attractive student, to consider Michal as her older partner, brother or cousin would not be unreasonable at first glance. He is noticeably older than her, but not significantly so. They also live together and play pranks one another like siblings or partners might.
During one of Michal’s frequent business trips, Anka tears open a letter addressed to her from her father, despite the specified instructions to only read it after his death. Inside is a further letter from her late mother; which apparently reveals some shocking information about Anka’s birth-parents, and upon Michal’s return, a complexity emerges between father and daughter.
A fight ensues, and as Anka lies sobbing on her bed, there is a shot of Michal looking down at her as children’s wind chimes rotate slowly behind his head. It resembles a baby’s point-of-view looking up at their parents from a cot – thus reflecting the nature of Michal’s fatherly relationship with Anka. She is in many ways still his little girl. Even during serious conversation about the nature of their relationship, she turns their talk into a child-like game – “Whoever’s candle goes out first, has to answer a question”.
There is a lot to be said for Anka being an actress. In some ways, she has been acting all her life; pretending to be someone else. This emerges in a more intricate manner once the story begins to unfold, and Kieslowski here dares to ask questions about the nature of relationships to demonstrate the complexity of the human condition. Michal and Anka have subconsciously suppressed difficult feelings toward one another, yet if Anka had honoured her father and mother’s promise and refrained from opening the letter – these subconscious emotions may never have surfaced or confronted.
Decalogue IV is another tale of circumstance and sin, again heading into a discussion of the extent to which we have control of our own lives; showing how making one simple decision or action has the ability to change a relationship forever.
Thou Shalt Not Kill
Arguably the most famous film in the series, Decalogue V was taken and expanded into a feature-length production entitled “A Short Film About Killing” in 1988 – which was simultaneously scrutinised and critically acclaimed; sparking heated debate surrounding the issue of capital punishment in Poland.
Decalogue V is also one of the more narratively complex episodes of the series, featuring three key characters existing in separate narrative layers that eventually come to intertwine with one another. Amongst these three characters are a freshly-qualified lawyer named Piotr, a smug and seedy middle-aged Taxi driver named Waldemar, and a blonde-haired wanderer named Jacek.
Kieslowski dips Decalogue V in a sickly green filter, making the whole episode look ill and depraved. Every film in the Decalogue series encourages the audience to make their own assessments, but episode five differs in this respect – unapologetically reflecting Kieslowski’s fierce opposition to the death penalty. The scene in which Jacek repugnantly mashes a cream puff into his mouth with the crumbs catching around the corners of his mouth is an ugly sight, as is the shot of Waldermar leering after a young girl stretching as she works near his taxi rank.
Artur Barics is usually the only actively judgmental element within the Decalogue, with Kieslowski preferring to distance himself from his subject and allow it to breathe on its own. Whilst the condemning eyes of Barcis are present here (with him starring as a man with a measuring pole and ladder), the film is consciously unsightly from beginning to end – echoing the sickness that is capital punishment.
The episode lurches between the three key characters, showing Piotr’s joy at passing his bar exam, Waldemar picking and choosing his passengers for fares, and Jacek wandering the streets of Warsaw inflicting disorder and cruelty on undeserving citizens. The three come together when a brutal murder takes place – bringing in the commandment of Thou Shalt Not Kill. The killing itself is arguably the most shocking scene throughout the series of films; a seemingly everlasting attack with the victim begging for mercy.
Dorota from Decalogue II briefly appears in this episode, which is surely a conscious choice given how she as a woman wished for circumstances of death in both instances in terms of either her husband or her baby. It is an episode consumed by the theme of death, much like the character of Dorota herself.
Pages: 1 2