Classic Retrospective: The 10 Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “The Decalogue”
Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery
Decalogue VI is a tale of voyeurism, desire, obsession and manipulation – and is utterly unpredictable in the way it plays out.
Tomek is a shy, timid adolescent who works at the local Post Office. He is completely infatuated with the older and attractive Magda; a woman who lives in one of the bleak, grey towers opposite Tomek’s own. Using a telescope, he spies on her at night, occasionally phoning her up but always unable to speak a word. Magda furiously tells whoever is calling her to stop.
Frozen with fearfulness, Tomek avoids telling Magda how he feels but cannot refrain from his voyeuristic habit. He phones up fake gas leaks to drive away the men that visit Magda, and even gets a second job as a milkman in order to have an excuse to loiter outside her door.
After Tomek’s meddling eventually gets Magda into trouble, he is forced to admit to her his shameful habit. Magda’s initial reaction is one of disgust yet curiously restrained, and she then goes on to manipulate Tomek by using his “peeping” and sexual inexperience against him.
At one point, Magda agrees to meet with Tomek to discuss his love for her. Barcis appears here as a young man, who smirks briefly at Tomek’s elation, before winding his smile back in to resume his usual disparaging stare.
Both the characters of Tomek and Magda proceed to engage in sketchy ethical behaviour, deceiving one another and developing a bizarre relationship until tragedy inevitably strikes. The pendulum of viewer empathy swings back and forth, until a typically ambiguous Decalogue ending leaves the viewer to muse over the past fifty-minutes – with the film refusing to decide right and wrong for them.
Thou Shalt Not Steal
Part seven of Kieslowski’s acclaimed series concerns the act of theft; but in a typically unconventional Decalogue-like way. Stealing here does not refer to the theft of money or objects of financial value, but to the theft of love and family.
The film portrays an irregular family tree, beginning by showing Majka: a college student unable to comfort the six-year-old girl named Ania when she has nightmares. An older woman named Ewa enters and is able to console Ania with ease, dismissing Majka’s nurturing skills as weak.
It is revealed that Majka gave birth to Ania when she was just in high school, and was forced to pretend that Ania was her sibling to avoid scandal, with her own mother Ewa adopting the role of Ania’s mother instead. Over time, Ewa has become overbearing, and effectively stolen Majka’s child from her.
One day, Majka swoops in to one of Ania’s school plays and takes her daughter away, telling Ewa over the phone that she is going to leave forever with her own daughter – essentially taking back what is hers. Ania is often asleep, meaning Majka is able to transport her like an inanimate object, and the film emerges as an emotional tug of war between two women who desperately wish to be good mothers, yet have both have been neither. Ewa has neglected Majka, and Majka has been unable to care correctly for Ania.
What is intriguing in Decalogue VII is the representation of father figures as absent and unconcerned. Ewa’s husband Stefan seems to distance himself from the whole situation, whereas Ania’s real father emerges as a man who has lived away in the forest, manufacturing teddy bears for a living.
Through this, Kieslowski’s exposes the delicate balance of relationships. The overbearing and unbalanced nature of desperate and compulsive mothering has driven away the masculine figures in Ania’s life. Two mothers from two separate generations has proven too much, and the tenderness of family life is exposed as a result. Love ought to be natural, but these two women compete for it; ultimately tearing the family apart.
Barcis is not specifically seen in this episode, but during one of film’s final sequences, a man hobbles off a train and onto the platform in the background, briefly glancing over at the characters in conversation. It’s interesting to consider that this may have been him.
Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness
Much of the conflict and depravity in The Decalogue reflects a nation that was fiercely ravaged during the Second World War, yet the case of the Holocaust and battle itself is never explicitly confronted until part eight of Kieslowski’s epic effort. The doctor in Decalogue II tells brief stories of his suffering during the war, but it is in Decalogue VIII that the Polish purge is fully addressed and considered.
Zofia is a professor at Warsaw University, and is reunited one morning with a forty-year-old woman from New York named Elzbieta – a fellow intellectual who translated several of Zofia’s works. They seem pleased to see one another, and Elzbieta goes on to attend Zofia’s next lecture in a class on ethical issues.
During the class, one student tells the story of the doctor and Dorota that was depicted in Decalogue II – establishing a further link between parts two and eight – before Elzbieta raises her hand and tells a story about a young Jewish girl in the war, who was promised shelter by a Christian family, but was then sent away instead. Zofia becomes fidgety during this tale, and when a lateral tracking shot reveals Barcis intermittently staring at both the professor and Elzbieta – it is clear that a morally indecent event from the past is rearing its ugly head.
Zofia and Elzbieta are revealed to have ties that stretch as far back as far as the war, and Decalogue VIII conducts an exploration of two separate generations’ reactions to their experiences during these desolate years. Revisiting the past can answer questions, but it can also change things forever. Deep discussions and words regarding connected personal histories can cause irreparable damage, but can also act as magical restoration. Kieslowski reveals this splendidly.
Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour’s House
The penultimate episode in the Decalogue series deals with issues between a couple and a neighbour – again extending into the commandment of “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery”. Whilst Decalogue VIII explores the ways in which discussion of the past can both damage and repair a relationship; Decalogue IX portrays how silence in the present can have momentous consequences.
Decalogue IX portrays Roman; a middle-aged surgeon married to a slightly younger woman named Hanka, who works as an air hostess for KLM. One day Roman receives the bad news that he is impotent, and will no longer be able to make love to his wife. He claims to understand if Hanka wishes to find herself a sexual partner, but she quietly rebuffs this notion, suggesting that there is more to intimacy than being “in bed for five minutes once a week”.
Roman continues to feel emasculated for his situation, and begins to suspect that his wife is in fact having an affair after all. Hanka has secrets of her own, and she is forced into taking drastic action when she considers that Roman might have found out about her behaviour.
Suffering in silence; each of them deceives one another – at one point Roman even hides in a closet to eavesdrop on his own partner. In some the series’ most wonderful pacing, the tension builds and builds, plateaus, and suddenly explodes. The shrill ring of the telephone seems to become louder and more piercing as the film goes on – the possibility of gut-wrenching news being on the other end of the line becoming more likely with each deceptive turn.
A recurring motif throughout the episode is the glove compartment refusing to stay closed; dropping open despite several attempts to bang it shut. This is symbolic of the issue the characters face. No matter how often you attempt to lock something away; it will always eventually emerge. Roman’s medical issue requires addressing. It is an issue that continues to surface and damage his and Hanka’s relationship, yet the couple simply attempt to shut it away and continue as normal.
Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour’s Goods
The last chapter in Kieslowski’s Decalogue is dissimilar to the previous segments in several respects –including the notable absence of the Artur Barcis character. But the key difference of Decalogue X is in its tone – with the film adopting the form of a black comedy as opposed to the sullen drama that defined Decalogue chapters one to nine.
The final film documents the distant relationship of two brothers, who are brought back together upon discovery that their father has died. During funeral proceedings, the siblings discover that their father has left behind a stamp collection worth astonishing amounts of money.
This is a discovery that brings the brothers closer together for the time being, but also threatens to tear them completely apart. It is a story of how the unhealthy sin of greed has the ability to strangely unite people, as well as estrange them from the rest of the world around them.
Despite the bleak and ominous atmosphere that enshrouds the preceding nine chapters, Kieslowski concludes his masterpiece with the most unpredictable of emotions: laughter. The two brothers discover a fact about the stamps that makes their recent behaviour nothing less than absolutely absurd.
And life is exactly that – absurd. Through The Decalogue, Kieslowski explores the absurdity of life, analyses this absurdity, and summarises his findings with the greatest human emotion of laughter.
Author Bio: Gareth Lloyd is a freelance writer with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Manchester in English Language & Screen Studies, and a pending Master of Arts degree from Aberystwyth University in Film Studies. Along with postgraduate study, he writes articles on film, sport, music, social life and literature.
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