Crash Course: Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Decalogue

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

            Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Decalogue is something of an oddity within the cannon of cinema, in part because it technically isn’t even a movie.  It is in fact a TV series that aired on Polish Public television in the late 80s in ten more or less stand-alone episodes, each about an hour long.  The episodes are mostly set within the same group of apartment buildings but the focus is on a different set of primary characters in each episode.  The unifying theme here is The Ten Commandments.  Each of the films are meant to be a rumination of sorts on one of the Ten Commandments.  They aren’t simple morality tales so much as they’re examinations of what exactly these commandments mean and how they apply to modern life.  These were made at something of a pivotal moment in Polish history: Pope John-Paul II (a Pole) was in the Vatican, the Solidarity Party had just won in the nation’s first partially free and democratic election since the war, and the end of Soviet control was just around the corner.  The ten films don’t really comment on this directly but you can kind of sense this newfound freedom of expression and religion powering the films and inspiring Kieślowski.

I: “Thou shalt not have other gods before me.”

            The first installment of The Decalogue focuses on the most intrinsically religious of the ten commandments, the one demanding that people follow the Judeo-Christian god and not create false idols.  Our protagonist is an agnostic computer scientist who believes in a highly ordered and logical world and thinks very highly of his own intelligence.  If this series were about the Seven Deadly Sins rather than the Ten Commandments, his sin would be pride.  He and his son both work with a computer system that controls a number of things in their home and the son seems to be just as adept at technology and logic problems as his father.  But is this family perhaps putting too much faith in this computer and taking it as a false god?  Or, given that the father programed the computer himself, maybe it could be seen as a false idol representing his own hubristic faith in his own intellect.  Either way, it isn’t hard to guess that this is heading to a tragic end.  Looking past the intellectual/theological implications, this is just a really well rendered human story.  Kieślowski does a great job of establishing what this little family is like, which makes things all the more painful once things start to go wrong, and watching the father react to the (admittedly predictable) final tragedy.  There’s a certain Twilight Zone quality to this one in the way it establishes the protagonist’s hubris and leads towards a twist ending and there’s even a little bit of a light science fiction element in the way the computer is described to have something of a personality programmed into it (did the computer perhaps lead its owners astray on purpose somehow?).

II: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”

            In his introduction to The Decalogue Roger Ebert warned about getting too caught up in each film being entirely about a single commandment.  The films are in fact only named with numbers and they do not explicitly claim a single commandment up front and many of them cover multiple commandments at once.  For example, this second film in the series is widely believed to be tied to the commandment dealing with the use of the lord’s name in vain, but this doesn’t really come out until late in the film and for much of its run time it actually seem more like an interesting take on adultery.  The basic story seems like something of a trial run for what Kieślowski would do with Three Colors: Blue in that it is largely about a woman who may need to move on from a dead, or in this case dying, husband.  However, as important as the woman is to this story, it is ultimately just as much if not more about the doctor: he’s the one the film begins and ends on and is also the one who ultimately breaks the commandment at issue.  Unlike the first film, which clearly punishes its protagonist for his idolatry, it’s not entirely clear whether or not this protagonist was right to swear an oath in vain.  In fact, it kind of suggests that he was.

III: “Remember the Sabbath day, keep it holy”

            The first three commandments happen to be the most intrinsically religious of the ten, and one of the things Kieślowski is trying to do with them is to see if they also have secular meaning.  He did that in the first one by making a sort of personal hubris a stand-in for a false god and he did it in the second one by making it a sort of rumination on what it means to make a promise to someone.  For this third film, which revolves around the keeping holy of the Sabbath, he focuses not on the Sabbath but on the Christmas holiday and the obligation people have to spend such days with family and about loyalty to family in general.   Like the second film this one also touches on adultery in that its two primary characters previously had an affair that has affected their current familial situations and they’re reunited for one night of hijinks.  This film is a bit more playful than the first two Decalogue films.  It’s not quite a genre piece, but the characters in it are going around the city over the course of a night and actively doing things rather than wallowing in their existential miseries and the nighttime setting almost gives it something of a film noir atmosphere.  I don’t think that this is the deepest film in The Decalogue by any means, but it shakes things up at just the right moment.

IV: “Honor thy father and thy mother”

            The fourth installment of The Decalogue is the third one in a row to touch on adultery in some way and we haven’t even gotten to the installment that’s actually supposed to be about the adultery commandment.  This time around the alleged adultery actually happened years in the past and was committed by a character that is no longer present, but the action still has resonance a good twenty years down the line.  The story revolves around a young woman who finds a letter among her father’s things and opens it against his will and seems to discover that the man who raised her is in fact not her biological father, which sets off a profound disturbance in both father and daughter.  Even more than some of the previous Decalogue episodes, this one creates and brings to life some really rich characters, but I can’t say I really loved where Kieślowski went with this scenario.  The young woman’s betrayal of her father’s trust combined with the discovery she seems to make would seem to be something that would strain on the relationship between parent and child, but I can’t say that having it suddenly develop into a full on Elektra Complex seemed a bit out there.  Kieślowski does sell this pretty well, but it still rang a little false in a way that these Decalogue episodes usually don’t.

V: “Thou shalt not kill”

            Unsurprisingly, the most famous installment of The Decalogue is probably this fifth one about the murder commandment, which was one of two episodes of The Decalogue to be expanded into a 90 minute film (which is called “A Short Film About Killing”).  The film is different from the previous installments in a handful of ways, firstly because it uses intercutting between two stories in the beginning and secondly because it’s visual look is a lot different from what came before.  Kieślowski used different cinematographers for most of the episodes of The Decalogue, but this one looks more distinct than most of the others because it uses a sort of washed out sepia tone look that feels a lot more raw than the other episodes.  The film starts by recounting a rather senseless and random murder committed by an angry young drifter.  Kieślowski doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation for the crime; it just seems to be the handiwork of a bastard who wants to watch the world burn.  That would seem to be the big moral twist is the second half of the film, which juxtaposes that killing with the perpetrator’s eventual execution by the state.  One killing is nasty, the other cold and calculating, and Kieślowski seems to be challenging to viewer to answer why one is any less of a violation of the commandment.  The airing of this episode caused something of a stir in Poland and was pretty controversial.  The nation abolished capital punishment not long afterwards and the film may or may not have played some role in that.

VI: “Thou shalt not commit adultery”

            This is arguably the second most popular episode of The Decalogue (having also been expanded into a feature length film, this one called A Short Film About Love), but it’s also probably the strangest one so far at least as far as the theme goes.  The numbering is supposed to suggest that this is the episode about the adultery commandment, but a number of the previous episodes dealt with adultery much more directly and this one would seem to have more to do with the commandment about coveting they neighbor’s wife than full on adultery.  The film is about a rather creepy young man who has been using a spyglass to peep on the sexual encounters of an older woman who lives across the way.  When the woman finds out about the young man’s stalkerish behavior she is more amused than offended and invites him over.  She learns that his interest is not purely prurient and that he genuinely believes that he is in love with her.  When she playfully dismisses his attitude he does not respond well.  As the title of the extended version suggests, this is a movie about love rather than a movie about sex or sin.  It’s a pretty big change of pace after the rather heavy fifth installment and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

VII: “Thou shalt not steal”

            The “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not steal” commandments have always sort of been link in that they are perhaps the most straightforward and secular of the commandments.  Similarly there’s a sort of link between these two episodes of The Decalogue in that both depict a situation in which two people break the said commandment but only one is viewed as a criminal in the eye of the law.  The film is not about a simple theft of goods but about a kidnapping of a little girl who has been raised by her grandmother under the pretense that the grandmother is in fact the mother.  The kidnapper is the little girl’s true biological mother, a woman who had this child when she was sixteen and who now regrets having allowed the grandmother to take the child as her own.  So, we essentially have two thefts: the real mother kidnapping the child and the grandmother having taken advantage of her daughter’s situation in order to gain a second child, essentially stealing her.  The human story probably stuck out at me more here than the philosophical elements.  It’s one of the more entertaining entries simply because it’s kind of a chase film with the grandmother searching for the child and the young woman trying to elude her.  It also has a really good ending in which the grandmother re-gains one daughter and loses another one forever.

VIII: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”

            If there’s any episode of The Decalogue that I would say is a pretty big misstep it’s probably this one.  It’s not a “bad” episode exactly, but it does feel weaker than some of the other ones.  The theme this time is the bearing of false witness and the story revolves around two women, one elderly and the other middle aged, who have met once again after having an encounter during the Second World War.  In that first encounter the younger woman was just a child who had attempted to find sanctuary in the older woman’s house and was turned away, ostensibly because the older woman’s Catholicism would have prevented her from bearing false witness to the Nazis.  As such, this is one of the few episodes of The Decalogue which overtly quotes one of the Ten Commandments.  It also has a scene where a student in the older woman’s class recants the story of the woman from Decalogue II, making this one of the only episodes to overtly reference one of the other episodes beyond walk on cameos by some of the characters.  The film’s ties to the commandment seem to be a little tenuous and the film also has a really abrupt ending which leaves some of the themes not fully explored.

IX: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife”

            The ninth Decalogue film is a relatively simple story about an impotent man who learns that his wife has taken up a lover.  As a story about coveting one’s neighbor’s wife this doesn’t really make sense because the main character only really covets his own wife.  It makes a lot more sense if you simply assume that this is the actual installment for the adultery commandment and that by extension the sixth installment was actually the installment about the “covet thy neighbor’s wife” commandment.  From that perspective the moral is actually fairly simple.  As the movie begins the impotent man all but says he wouldn’t blame his wife if she found a lover to satisfy her needs but when she does (secretly) it tears him up about as much as any betrayal would and ends up being just as damaging to their relationship as any other betrayal.  If I were to rank the films in The Decalogue this would probably be in the bottom half, but it certainly isn’t bad.  There have maybe been some signs of fatigue in the back half of the series though whether that’s on the part of the filmmaker or the viewer is not entirely clear.

X: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods”

The subject for the tenth and final installment of The Decalogue is the “thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s goods” commandment, and Kieślowski takes a slightly different route in examining this one. The tenth installment is generally much lighter in tone than most of what comes before it. It’s not an out-and-out farce, but it’s certainly not as heavy as some of the other ones. In fact, it could be viewed as something of a dry run for Three Colors: White, which also features the actor Zbigniew Zamachowski and similarly has a bit of a satirical take on greed and capitalism. The film concerns two brothers who inherit a valuable stamp collection from their father and begin to wonder whether it would be right to sell it given that it was their father’s life’s work. Long story short, certain shenanigans ensue and it’s probably best not to say much more than that. The idea of letting one of these installments be a little less serious than some of the others makes plenty of sense, but it does seem a little odd to me that it be the very last one. This would have made for nice comic relief around slot six or seven and the last spot could have maybe been saved for something that would see the series out on a bit of a more somber not, but maybe I’m off on that. This is a fun hour of television and where it is it almost feels like the wrap party at the end of a long project.

In Conclusion:

So, that’s one more major film watching goal off my checklist.  “The Decalogue” is not the easiest film to really rank and assess given its unusual format.  In fact I’m still not entirely comfortable calling it a “film.”  It was clearly tailored around the television medium and outside of the two episodes that were eventually expanded I don’t think any of them were ever really meant to be seen in theaters.  On the other hand, Krzysztof Kieślowski is definitely a film director rather than a showrunner and the projects ambition and execution are definitely broader than the bounds of late 80s television.  Whatever it is, The Decalogue is an amazing project.  It’s like a great short story collection being put out by someone who’s otherwise known for writing novels.  It maybe loses a little steam in the last couple of entries and the production values are harmed slightly by its TV roots, but neither of these things seem like great concerns in the grand scheme of things.  Between the ten episodes one almost feels like they’ve watched a great cross-section of the modern human experience.

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