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Provocative Pessimism: Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog

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Generally remembered for some of his later French co-productions like the The Double Life of Veronique (1991) and the Three Colors trilogy (1993-1994), Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski effectively made his name in the international arthouse market with a television series rather than a film: Dekalog (1988). Focused on different characters living in a Warsaw apartment complex towards the end of Poland’s turn as a communist state, the series is inspired by the Ten Commandments and explores the nature of human emotion, experience, and responsibility. Co-written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz and with a minimal score from Zbigniew Preisner, Kieślowski used different well-regarded cinematographers for each episode and, as a result, Dekalog’s distinctive and striking visual style — with a largely blue, black, and white color scheme and recurring themes like dripping water, glasses of milk, and falling snow — is probably its greatest achievement.

Abandoning political themes in favor of moralistic ones, it would be too limiting to say that Dekalog is actually religious in nature, but with a few exceptions, the episodes are somber, even grim, in tone. There is the sense that characters are being judged for their actions, or perhaps watched to see how they will behave and what decisions they’ll make; actor Artur Barciś actually appears in bit parts in almost every one of the episodes, giving a sense of divine, or maybe even supernatural, prescience to the proceedings. With very few exceptions (such as the fifth episode), the characters are not portrayed as specifically good or evil, but merely as human; sometimes they are filled with hopeful potential and warm hearts, but mostly they are flawed and selfish. 

The episodes are not given specific descriptive titles, but basic numeric ones. Thus it begins with Dekalog: One, whose moral is loosely about not worshipping false gods; in this case, science. A young boy named Paweł (Wojciech Klata) lives alone with his father, a professor (Henryk Baranowski), who constantly encourages him to learn, to think for himself, and to measure the world around him. But his sister, Paweł’s aunt (Maja Komorowska), is quietly religious, inspiring the boy to begin questioning the meaning of death and whether or not there is a god. One night, the lake near their apartment complex freezes over and, after a series of careful measurements, Paweł’s father ensures that it is safe to ice skate on and gives his son permission to go out on it, with tragic results.

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Admittedly, this first episode is my least favorite, as it sets the tone for a sort of smug moralizing that asserts a man’s son died, possibly because of his faith in science and rationality. But it does introduce a lot of the main themes of Dekalog: a fascination with morality, an exploration of whether or not we are meant to be happy, and the suggestion that even though love can cause a terrific amount of pain, it’s always worth experiencing. And, like all of the later episodes, this first entry is full of incredible performances and compellingly written characters, both of which helped to make Dekalog such an enduring classic.

The second and third episodes change focus to examine adult romantic relationships, though the themes of loss and grief and are still present. In Dekalog: Two, Dorota (the radiant, yet icy Krystyna Janda who worked with everyone from Wajda and Ryszard Bugajski to Zuławski, and even Hungarian director István Szabó) confronts a doctor (Kieslowski-regular Aleksander Bardini) in her apartment complex, because she wants to know her husband’s (the equally lovely Olgierd Łukaszewicz of Borowczyk’s The Story of Sin, among other things) prognosis; he’s terminally ill, but Dorota is pregnant with another man’s child. If her husband is going to live, she’ll have an abortion, but if he’s going to die, she wants to keep the baby. Dekalog: Three follows this theme of complicated decisions, personal misery, and infidelity; both episodes actually assert the idea that it is possible to genuinely love more than one person at a time. Ewa (Maria Pakulnis) seeks out her former lover (Daniel Olbrychski of The Tin Drum) on Christmas Eve, because her husband has gone missing and she doesn’t want to search for him alone. He reluctantly tells his wife (Joanna Szczepowska) that their car has been stolen and accompanies Ewa on a strange journey through the city’s morgues, emergency rooms, and train stations that nearly erupts in violence.

Dekalog: Four is a contender for my favorite episode of the series and it’s a particularly perverse — though also sweet — twist on “honor thy father and thy mother.” A good-natured student at the theatre school, Anka (Adrianna Biedrzyńska), lives with her father, Michał (Janusz Gajos), but their close relationship is disrupted when she finds a letter from her mother, who died when Anka was just a baby. When her father returns home from a business trip, she reveals the contents of the letter to him: he isn’t her real father after all. This encourages both Anka and Michał to admit their romantic feelings for each other, though Michał refuses to act on them and Anka soon admits to a deception… This episode has the most nebulous of all the morals throughout the series, though Kieślowski seems to be suggesting something about the power of emotional intuition and the importance of love regardless of its form, or its expression. The chemistry between Gajos and Biedrzyńska is some of the finest in all of Dekalog and their powerfully subtle performances are unforgettable.

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Dekalog: Five is a complete change of pace, as it turns away from parental or romantic relationships to examine a murder, as well as Kieślowski’s own objection to the death penalty. Both Dekalog: Five and Dekalog: Six were actually expanded (and slightly altered) to become feature length films, apparently per agreement with the producer: A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. Five concerns three men (Mirosław Baka, Jan Tesarz, and Krzysztof Globisz) from different walks of life involved in the aftermath of a violent murder — the film’s two deaths are particularly brutal in their abruptness and seeming meaninglessness — while Six, another of my favorites, follows a young man (Olaf Lubaszenko) who is obsessed with an older woman (Grażyna Szapołowska). Little more than a glorified stalker, he watches her constantly and even intervenes in her life from a distance as often as he is able. When he tries to make contact with Magda and reveal his (admittedly perverse) feelings, it has a very unexpected outcome, in which the tables are turned.

The theme once again returned to parent-child relationships for Dekalog: Seven, where a young mother, Majka (Maja Barelkowska), kidnaps her daughter (Katarzyna Piwowarczyk) to begin a new life. The child has been raised by Majka’s parents and believes Majka is her sister, but she tells the girl the truth and takes her to confront her father, a professor (popular actor Bogusław Linda, in a somewhat similar role in Zuławski’s Szamanka). But the girl is insistent that she wants to return to her grandmother, not understanding what is at stake. This episode puts an emphasis on two larger themes of the series. First, is game playing: Majka convinces her daughter that they are playing hide and seek. Throughout the series, characters play games as an oddly superstitious, irrational way of deciding their own fates, which often turns out poorly. Secondly, a character learns a painful lesson; they go after what they want without being aware of the potential consequences.

Dekalog: Eight is another outlier in the series, though also represents another minor thread: revenge. Shot by Andrzej Zuławski’s brilliant collaborator Andrzej Jaroszewicz, this episode follows a Holocaust survivor, Elżbieta (Tereza Marczewska), who befriends, but eventually confronts the woman (Maria Koscialkowska) whose Catholic family could have saved the young Elżbieta from the fate of being deported from a ghetto to a concentration camp years ago, but refused to do so. This is yet another episode to explore the consequences of the decisions we make (the woman chose not to help the girl in order to save her husband, who was in the Resistance, though I think this plot conveniently sidesteps the issue of Polish anti-Semitism), as well as the lingering effects of regret.

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Kieślowski returned to the theme of difficult romantic relationships and infidelity for Dekalog: Nine, which follows Roman (Piotr Machalica), whose impotence changes his relationship with his wife (Ewa Błaszczyk), though they are deeply in love. She secretly has an affair, which begins as a physical relationship but soon turns emotional; though she tries to leave the other man (Jan Jankowski), he won’t give up so easily. Roman finds out about it and spies on them, but is soon consumed by jealousy, leading to an impulsive act of violence. Infidelity is certainly one of the ongoing themes of Dekalog in general, though Kieślowski often presents it sensitively, as a complicated issue. As in Two and Three, the affair is essentially down to a woman trying to have her needs met, whether they are physical or emotional.

Possibly the crowning achievement of the series is Dekalog: Ten, which lightens the tone and surprisingly presents a story about greed told in the form of a black comedy. Two brothers (Jerzy Stuhr and Zbigniew Zamachowski) inherit their father’s stamp collection when he passes away, which they become obsessed with even though they don’t understand its clear value. They go so far as to trade a kidney for some valuable stamps in a half-cocked effort to expand the collection, and become hilariously paranoid. This is perhaps the only episode in the entire series to end on an unambiguously positive note, as the two brothers are reconciled, over laughter, and they realize that their love for each other is worth more than the stamps. It’s a shame that there weren’t more episodes like this one, but it’s a wonderful note on which to end Dekalog.

Director, writer, and Andrzej Wajda collaborator Agnieszka Holland — who was close friends with Kieślowski and worked on a few scripts with him — spoke about Dekalog in an interview for Chicago Public Radio years after her friend’s death. She explained that it was this series in particular that was Kieślowski’s first major success; it was screened internationally (theatrically and on television) and brought attention to some of his earlier films, such as The Scar (1976) or Blind Chance (1987). Compared to his countrymen who found some measure of success abroad — like Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski — Kieślowski’s films, Dekalog in particular, perhaps has such a broader appeal because it is more fundamentally conventional, even conservative, and spends a lot of time exploring the Catholic influence so embedded in Poland’s history.

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In her interview, Holland explained that some of the devotion to Catholicism came from centuries of attacks on Polish culture: from the Partitions of Poland in the late 18th century — which abolished the notion of an independent nation for more than a hundred years — to the Nazi occupation in the ‘40s and the violent influx of Soviet influence beginning in the ‘50s. Holland described Catholicism as “a place where the national identity and the religious identity mixed together… the Church in Poland was much more the place where the kind of national political identity prevailed than the place of deep intellectual, metaphysical discussion or training.” Catholicism effectively even helped drive out Communism in the ’80s. And with Dekalog, Kieślowski certainly explores Polish Catholicism, though more from a vantage point of personal identity and individual experience.

But while Dekalog does overwhelmingly contain religious themes — it is a loose interpretation of the biblical commandments, after all — Holland argued against seeing them as explicitly Catholic films. She said, “I don’t think they are Catholic movies, frankly. I think that Krzysztof is somebody who had an incredibly deep need to believe in something transcendental. He did believe, but at the same time he wasn’t really the member of any church, and his relationships toward the religious were less theological than ethical and metaphysical. Decalogue wasn’t actually very well received in Poland. Only after Krzysztof died did he become a kind of icon, and his movies became kind of cult movies, Decalogue included.”

Holland called Kieślowski “provocatively pessimist,” which might explain the tone of somber moralizing that defines the series as a whole, and the director himself said, “To me the future is a black hole.” Despite its undoubtedly depressing quality, Dekalog leaves behind a strange glimmer of hope even though many of the episodes are concerned with death, loss, abandonment, and even moral judgment or divine punishment; there is the sense that life goes on despite it all. This is tied in to the fact that, unlike much of American television, many of the episodes end on an ambiguous note and it is unclear if any of the characters have really found a happy conclusion to their respective tales. But it is also this sense of uncertainty, of ambiguity, perhaps more than anything else, that makes Dekalog such a compelling portrait of the human experience.

On September 2, courtesy of a gorgeous restoration presented by Janus Films, Dekalog will open theatrically in New York at the IFC Center and on September 17 in Los Angeles at Cinefamily. For home video, the Criterion Collection will release the series in late September with an array of special features, while UK company Arrow Films will unveil a box set in mid-October with a number of Kieślowski’s other television films. If you’re anywhere near NYC or LA, I highly recommend catching the series on the big screen and, despite its 572-minute running time, there is undeniably something special about watching all ten episodes in a row.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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