The 10 films are not philosophical abstractions but personal stories that involve us immediately; I hardly stirred during some of them. After seeing the series, Stanley Kubrick observed that Kieslowski and Piesiewicz “have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them.” Quite so. There is not a moment when the characters talk about specific commandments or moral issues. Instead, they are absorbed in trying to deal with real-life ethical challenges.
That’s right I just nested a Kubrick quote in a Roger Ebert quote. Slowly I will become a parody of myself and depart the internet in a glorious blaze of ouroboros-like self-commentary, and on that day you will all weep and not know why.
Sorry, everything got a little blurry there for a second, what was I talking about?
Oh right, Polish made-for-TV art movies. So I was debating whether or not to include this in my “Movies You Should Watch” series. Trouble is I’m still not sure what my end game is for that series. Other than it being a handy title to roll out when I watch something that’s already considered a classic. I was thinking about using it to nominate some stuff that might not be considered classic, but that I think film fans should watch anyways. I thought that might be interesting, coming up with a sort of personal list of essentials. Not that my word carries much weight in that sort of department, but enough with your cynicism already. You should probably all assume my word is law anyways, let’s be honest. None of this actually answers my question however, but I’m getting there. What’re you saying? That this article’s title gives me away? Fine, without further ado:
The title of this article isn’t meant to be a command. It’s not “you” the reader so much as it is a proverbial “you.” Movies a movie fan is meant to watch. I’ll tell you a secret: I hate talking about those kinds of movies. If everyone already knows they’re great, classic, significant movies, what the hell can I add to the conversation? Other than to stammer and say yeah that was good. “Classic for a reason.” Hate it. Bothers me to no end. So like a good little self-aware artist monkey I decided to tackle my weakness head on. That tends to be a good approach, at least for me. Fosters growth and increased skill and all that nonsense. So I’ve decided to really tackle it. I’m always trying to watch these sorts of movies, because I’m a movie fan and it seems necessary, but I figured I’d embrace the challenge and make it one of my ongoing dinky little series.
I seriously have to rework that intro if I’m going to take this series in another direction. Today we’re going to talk about one of those movies film experts say wannabe film experts should watch: The Decalogue. Now I’m watching these for the first time, and at this moment have just seen the first of the ten hour-long TV movies that comprise Krzysztof Kieslowski’s seminal series. I reserve the right to include as many or as few of these segments in this series as possible. A lot of that will just depend on what I feel I have to say about each one, and how repetitive it might start to seem. Might be my thoughts on one can represent the collective. Wow these first six hundred words or so are really meandering and indecisive, hopefully that will stop before too much longer.
Now I obviously have to include the source of that Kubrick quote, because otherwise I’ll get a crushing headache for the rest of the day that only Also Sprach Zarathustra can tame:
I am always reluctant to single out some particular feature of the work of a major filmmaker because it tends inevitably to simplify and reduce the work. But in this book of screenplays by Krzysztof Kieslowski and his co-author, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, it should not be out of place to observe that they have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what’s really going on rather than being told. They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don’t realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.
The idea of The Decalogue was the creation of scriptwriter and Krzysztof Kieslowski collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who was also a lawyer and is now a major politician. Piesiewicz had seen an old series of images designed to represent the Ten Commandments using scenes culled from modern times. The images were from the 15th-century and Piesiewicz saw the concept as ripe for updating. Krzysztof Kieslowski came to the conclusion that ten films using modern scenes to illustrate the Ten Commandments could also reflect the everyday challenges of Polish life. Kieslowski initially planned to hire a different director for each of the films he and Piesiewicz had written, but then decided to direct them himself. He decided to at least still vary the crew, using nine different cinematographers for the series. The ten TV movies aired in 1989. They weren’t available across Europe until the late nineties, but by then the art film community was at least partially aware of them, as Kubrick’s 1991 intro to the published scripts shows.
Since then the series has gone on to only accumulate critical success. Earning Sight and Sound votes for both The Decalogue and Krzysztof Kieslowski, and receiving continual praise from some of the most iconic critics around, The Decalogue has since gone on to earn a reputation as the single greatest artistic accomplishment to air on television. Presumably only barely ousting its main competition, Big Bang Theory by the delicate skin of it’s clever Polish teeth.
Part of what makes The Decalogue so brilliant is its universality. Krzysztof Kieslowski talks at length in his introduction to the set of DVDs I purchased about deliberately avoiding anything too obviously specific to Poland, including “queues, meat ration cards, petrol shortages, a bureaucracy which reared its ugly head in the most trivial of matters, the noisy public on the buses, the price increases as a constant topic of conversation, the ill dying in hospital corridors and so on.” This was all part of one of the chief challenges Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz faced when writing The Decalogue. They had to come up with narratives that were at once universal and down-to-earth, yet not so mundane as to be uninteresting. They considered intros showing a stadium full of people, at which point the camera would seemingly pick someone at random. The idea was that this would convey that these were glimpses of everyday lives lead by normal people, with the camera following them by some accidental twist of fate. In the end they decided to set all the shorts in the same housing complex. This way they could open each episode with a shot of the mass of windows containing hidden lives before alighting on their protagonist du jour.
The other big decision was to keep the Commandments as a very vague guiding source of inspiration. They didn’t want to preach, or deign themselves worthy of teaching. They didn’t want to boil down the complexities of human emotion and morality to ancient and antiquated catch phrases. Instead they wanted to investigate philosophical and moral conundrums loosely suggested by the Commandments. This makes the series incredibly complex. It’s easy to imagine the concept leading to an overbearingly crude and simple series, but Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz wisely eschewed that.
The first film is quite simply “Decalogue One.” It, at least faintly, draws on the First Commandment. “I am the lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.” It’s easy to see why critics like Roger Ebert suggest avoiding assuming a one to one relationship between the Commandments and the entries in The Decalogue. While “Decalogue One” certainly covers some of the themes suggested by the First Commandment, and even goes so far as to conclude dramatically in a church, it really is far more complex than that. There are truly a myriad of themes at play.
“Decalogue One” follows a father and son. The mother has left, which is mentioned only in passing. Krzysztof Kieslowski and rarely deal in obvious or clumsy expository dialogue, instead they allow us to glean pieces of pertinent information as it arises naturally in organic and realistic conversation. The son’s aunt is also a key character in the first film. The son, named Paweł, is almost casually established as a prodigy in the film. He’s interested in math and science, and in one scene he instructs his father in a chess game against a brilliant player, to great success. Paweł’s father, Krzysztof, is a university professor interested in linguistics and programming. The two experiment together with a computer program, creating a system in their home that can remotely control the front door’s locks, the bathroom taps, and more. As the first film unfurls we find out more about Krzysztof’s and his sister, Irene’s, upbringing. The two were raised Catholic, but Krzysztof’s interest in science and quantifiable facts lead him away from faith. In one scene, Paweł and Krzysztof sit at a kitchen table and talk about death. The sight of a dead dog has disturbed Paweł and he wants to know what lasts after death. Krzysztof calmly explains that nothing remains. Paweł asks about souls, and Krzysztof denies their existence. In a later conversation that mirrors this one, Paweł sits with Irene and talks about his father’s upbringing and the concept of God. After explaining their history Paweł inquires about the nature of God. Irene hugs the young boy and asks him what he feels. She explains that God exists in the moment of love they just experienced. Later still in the first film (funny how using the technically more apt term “episode” feels somehow wrong) Paweł expresses interest in religious lessons.
What’s particularly interesting about this first entry is the immediately apparent complexity Krzysztof Kieslowski so wanted to bring to the potentially simplistic moral command of the First Commandment. There’s no simple binary duality in this film. Paweł’s newfound interest in religion is not rewarded by any benevolent, omnipotent being. Indeed if God is to be found in this first entry, and the obviously symbolic final shot might suggest that, then it is a petty and cruel God, not the ineffable love described by Irene. No one in this movie is rewarded, but one could argue Krzysztof is punished for his Commandment defying idolization and deification of technology. Paweł wants to skate on the winter ice and, before he feels comfortable allowing it, Krzysztof has to use his programmed computer to ascertain the amount of weight the ice can sustain. Krzysztof decides the ice is safe, but interestingly takes to the ice with a stick to check his computer’s conclusion. Paweł skips a class, unbeknownst to Krzysztof, and the ice breaks, killing him. This all happens offscreen; instead Krzysztof Kieslowski shows us the brutal and long process of realization from Krzysztof’s point of view. So if anyone is punished it’s Krzysztof, at the expense of a young child’s life.
It seems Krzysztof feels punished. At the end of the film he stands stock-still in front of a church altar. There’s a large portrait of the Virgin Mary flanked on all sides by candles. Krzysztof breaks the silence by yelling and overturning the table in front of the portrait. The disturbance knocks over some candles above the painting, spilling wax onto the painting, which falls on the cheek of the Virgin Mary like tears. Maybe Krzysztof Kieslowski’s vision of God is an absent one, observing sadly the mistakes of his children.