“I believe the life of every person is worthy of scrutiny, containing its own secrets and dramas.” – Krzysztof Kieślowski
It would be a rather reductive resolution to look at Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog as a series just about the Ten Commandments. Or even to think of it as a strictly Christian film, or, for that matter, even as a purely religious film. There is something more universal, something more transcendent yet also tangible at work in this profoundly powerful 1989 release. Now to be sure, the films that comprise this ten-part, made for Polish television project were, and are, widely marketed as a retelling of these Biblical mandates in then present-day Warsaw, and, to a certain extent, the hallowed dictates can provide useful analytical guideposts. But they are more jumping off points than stringently fixed assignments. In the end, what commandment pertains to what episode is basically irrelevant and, at times, potentially distracting; an applied commandment in no way determines an episode’s worth, and to go into one of these films with a preconceived concern for what “thou shalt not” to look for, or to, as the film progresses, be preoccupied with identifying commandment cues, is to miss the more significant drama and the more nuanced aesthetic quality of the series (or “cycle,” as the director also dubbed the venture). Kieślowski never intended the collection to be a “treatise on moral principles” anyway. It was, he said, a “psychological film,” one “about life.” So while Dekalog is a work connecting contemporary society with ageless decrees — how these pronouncements arise and are approached in modern civilization — it is also a record of complex times, complex individuals and the earthly, pragmatic way in which localized interaction between people is established and expanded.
Conceived of as if a camera were to pick someone from a crowded street and follow them about their daily business, Kieślowski instead located Dekalog’s nucleus around a modern housing development (though the notion of random attention and ensuing drama remains largely intact). This building isn’t always prominent in and of itself, but it does reappear with great regularity to situate the characters in the same environment during roughly the same period of time. Kieślowski and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz take this basic location and from there proceed to track several characters along the way, some overlapping in other stories, some not to be seen again. Peeling away layers from the protagonists, as the director puts it, the films shadow key figures — when they are alone or with others — gradually leading to highly personal, highly revelatory, passages of behavior.
Because not everything that everyone does bears instant and obvious significance, however, there is a challenge on the part of the viewer, and even the characters themselves, to find meaning in what transpires (or, conversely, meaning in what fails to transpire), to see beyond the apparent haphazardness of action and arbitrary connection and to decide if there is, in fact, any relevance. Kieślowski will linger on particular characters for uncertain reasons, reasons that are perhaps made clear, perhaps not. At the same time, background characters, ultimately peripheral to the central narrative, are presented in such a way that we are left to assume they, too, have their own related stories and significance, though Kieślowski and Piesiewicz may not ever return to their presence again. Between two characters (and most of the films that comprise Dekalog revolve around two primary individuals), there is often a linkage prior to where the narrative begins, as when the doctor in Two (Aleksander Bardini) and the young woman who pesters him (Krystyna Janda) know each other because she previously ran over his dog, establishing a preexisting animosity. Beyond these instances, though, whether or not the dominant characters share a collective past, nearly everyone has a similar backstory, and more often than not, that backstory is fraught with death, loss, and/or estrangement, trials that define their existence and form their present state of being.
So, as Kieślowski presents these various characters and their individual stories play out, viewers are left to speculate about why they behave the way they do. Why, for instance, does the young woman (Maja Barelkowska) in “Seven” abduct her daughter? Is it to stick it to her mother, who has been raising the child as if it were hers, or is it because of her own maternal instincts, because she now wants to be the mother she never was? Why does the daughter (Adrianna Biedrzyńska) in “Four” tempt (and test) fate by lying about her mother’s letter? There’s a dual cruelty in “Five,” for example, where a cab driver (Jan Tesarz) and a homicidal young man (Mirosław Baka) each act out for the sake of what can only be interpreted as purely selfish malice, but here and elsewhere, Kieślowski never really explains away behavior. In the same episode, the rookie lawyer (Krzysztof Globisz) attempts to elucidate legal processes, his didactic theorizing (a rare instance in Dekalog where the intrinsic concerns of the given film are voiced outright) raises questions about what makes one do wrong and why one chooses to do right. But like many of the episodes, this segment finally settles on a speculative unknowable.
Kieślowski delves deep into a character — the details of their home life, their past, their relationships, their social position — yet as illuminating as these disparate facets are, they never fully formulate a cohesive whole. Identity, like meaning in Dekalog, is delivered piecemeal. Do immediate deeds define a person, or are these characters more than what they do in any given episode? What become their essential traits? Extenuating circumstances are important, fortuitous occurrences that forever alter one’s life. And more than one individual will take time to look back and wonder what could have been if things were a little different at some seemingly arbitrary point in their past. Indeed, many of the Dekalog episodes, either at the start or by their conclusion, are about starting over, hoping to redirect the course of their existence. Dekalog is built on hindsight, where only at the very end of an episode, if not the conclusion of the entire series, is one able to reflect on what transpired. Such introspection in retrospect likewise transforms many of the more meditative characters; though they initially act irresponsibly, or at least impulsively, they ultimately arrive at a point of careful deliberation. Kieślowski encourages the audience to forget notions of good and evil, to pass over judgement and accept the role of inquisitive voyeur. Characters are framed in intense proximity — in “Eight,” tight, nearly centered frontal compositions; in “Nine,” uncomfortably intimate close-ups that make the viewer uneasily privy to private moments. Like the peeper (Olaf Lubaszenko) in “Six,” viewers, too, are at first simply observing. But then emotions are engaged and viewers begin to interact, to feel, to interpret and to understand. Kieślowski, arguably better than any other filmmaker, investigates existential themes and ethical dilemmas in a way that invites reflection from both fictional subject and actual spectator.
In its examination of where socioeconomic conditions and legality cross and blur, “Five,” one of the most memorable of the 10, and one of two segments (the other being “Six”) to later receive a feature length treatment, simultaneously explores mutable degrees of guilt and innocence. By the conclusion of this episode, as in nearly all of the others, as specific motivations come to light, opinions about what one does, and why, often change dramatically — which is no easy task in less than an hour’s time. Where the story seemed to be heading at the start is seldom where it settles; how one character first appears is seldom how he or she will remain. What Ewa (Maria Pakulnis) is after in “Three” seems to shift several times as her evening progresses, while the husband and wife in “Nine” go through a series of dramatic movements before arriving at their final destination. In the face of these compact variances, in tandem with purposeful antagonism, inescapable guilt, and debatable accusations, there is amongst Dekalog’s protagonists an admirable and steadfast endurance, no matter how their specific stories unfold. As with other aspects of Dekalog, these features are rarely explicit, arising from tacit patience, tolerance and an understanding that life went on (in the case of an episode with preexisting tragedy) and will continue to do so (in the case of those where the drama occurs within the episode). Such perseverance is hardly ever easy, though, and it can be exhausting — “Ewa again,” says the exasperated wife (Joanna Szczepowska) of taxi driver Janusz (Daniel Olbrychski) at the end of “Three.”
If such sentiments are otherwise left unspoken, it falls in line with a key thematic refrain in Dekalog: the repeated inability to articulate or express feelings and emotions, acting out instead with erratic or foolish alternatives to thoughtful discussion. The young man in “Six” calls the object of his fascination (Grażyna Szapołowska) repeatedly, hangs up and immediately calls back to apologize. He later says he loves her, and in his way, he does. But his eventual pain, and her humiliation, derive from his awkwardly ineffective articulation. As tenderly open as the married couple in “Nine” are about the husband’s impotence, their communication falters, and for the rest of the film, what they truly want and need is unstated, leading to near catastrophe and a desperate final phone call to prevent misunderstanding based on incomplete information. Further, in episode “Eight,” rather than approaching the ethics teacher (Maria Kościałkowska) straight on, the Holocaust survivor (Teresa Marczewska) gets to her point by recalling a story in the middle of the professor’s class, rather than a straightforward one-on-one confrontation.
All but two of the films in Dekalog have different cinematographers (Piotr Sobocinski shot “Three” and “Nine”). They came from diverse backgrounds, were of varying ages and brought with them ranging degrees of experience. Kieślowski didn’t dictate lens or lighting, thus enabling each to visually interpret the respective story their own way and to distinguish each episode as unique but still firmly entrenched in the same cinematic concept. In “Five,” Slawomir Idziak presents the most explicitly stylized of the episodes, soaking the screen in occasionally masked compositions of green and yellow hues. By comparison, the following segments are more traditionally lit, composed, and, perhaps resultantly, edited (though editing duties fell to Ewa Smal for all 10 parts). The pictorial quality of seasonal change — the biting winter cold of the first few episodes, a damp and murky thaw, sunlight and temperate conditions — not so much suggests the passage of time as enables further visual variation. And yet the cinematographic interpretations nevertheless coalesce around Kieślowski’s remarkably distinct vision, evident in his earliest features through his brilliant “Three Colors” trilogy. He works with a tactile texture, with repeated details, motifs and props. In particular among these recurrent features is glass, an indication of shattered fragility, mirrored self-examination, and mediated perception, seen externally through windows, coarsely through obscuring ornamentation, or, as with Tomek’s telescope in “Six,” through a prying eye distanced from the subject. As a “visual storyteller,” in Annette Insdorf’s words, Kieślowski’s imagery leaves subtle impressions that stamp the narrative: the spilt blue ink in “One,” which creates a striking, somehow symbolic illustration of liquid misfortune; the bee that struggles to leave a glass of fruit juice in “Two,” a representation of attempted freedom not unlike the omnipresent housing complex, shot, according to Kieślowski, as if to hinder escape beyond the frame; the dead fish floating to signal the death of their owner in “Ten.”
Kieślowski didn’t anticipate the widespread success and popularity of Dekalog. Shot and edited over a 21-month period with different films occasionally in production on the same day, even Piesiewicz acknowledges that it leaves more questions than answers. The fact that it was at least in part born from Kieślowski’s pessimistic view of Poland at the time — “I was watching people who didn’t really know why they were living,” he said — doesn’t exactly promote global appeal. Kieślowski said Dekalog was an examination of Polish identity, where everything is important “except politics.” These are hard times and hardened people; they struggle with familial strife, loneliness, love and sex, and post-war aftereffects that continue to yield disenchantment and doubt. The exception to this doom and gloom comes in “Ten,” which opens with death but from there strays into comparatively more comic territory, a knowing deviation where the main characters, brothers played by Zbigniew Zamachowski and Jerzy Stuhr, become so preoccupied by the prospect of frivolous monetary gain they forget about their worldlier problems, a relief needed by many in Dekalog.
To come full circle, though, discussion of religion and Dekalog is unavoidable. Regardless of how much it truly impacts the series in general, or any particular episode, there can be no denying its presence. From religious iconography (the church-in-progress at the end of “One”) to religious holidays (Christmas in “Three,” Easter in “Four”), to say nothing of the obvious commandment framework, a Christian influence in strong throughout. The young boy in “One” questions God and death, while the elderly doctor in “Two” acknowledges his faith in a “private God.” There is also the continued reappearance of Artur Barciś as a silently observant bystander (an angel?), taking on changing guises, appearing in assorted situations and prompting a brief pause for contemplation. But if there is religion in Dekalog, there is also science and technology. Some occurrences are left unexplained — the computer switching on in “One” — and, as a result, there is a tendency to find a convenient, unprovable solution in the divine, a sort of comfort in the mysterious. But there can also be a verifiable cause. Maybe the clearest example of this is also in “One,” where in a scripted scene cut from the final film, Kieślowski and Piesiewicz reveal that the reason the boy fell through the suddenly unstable ice was because hot water had been streamed from a nearby power station. By that same token, chance meetings and personal tribulations aren’t necessarily preordained engagements or spiritual trials; they are inescapable realities, based on communal anxieties and unplanned, often erratic, incidents without rhyme or reason. Sometimes they’re tragic, sometimes they’re sad. Sometimes (though rarely with Kieślowski) they’re even jubilant. Still, whatever they are, however they occur, and whoever they effect, that’s life. And that’s what Dekalog conveys so well.
Presented in collaboration with the Polish Cultural Institute New York and Polish Film Institute in Warsaw, Poland, Kieslowski’s ‘Dekalog’ will be shown in its entirety Oct. 22 and Oct. 23 as part of ‘Krzysztof Kieslowski: A Complete Retrospective,’ running through Nov. 6 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Vague Visages.