Urban Legends

With its sense of the modern city as a bleak totality dedicated to the erasure of the past, The Decalogue powerfully evokes the last, dispirited days of Polish communism. Populated by a gallery of unfaithful spouses and unhappy children, the movie is programmatically apolitical. Still, there's an egalitarian aspect to the various characters—cabbies, doctors, clerks, professors—all living in the same drab apartment complex. (We might call it a common condition.) Typically, Kieslowski maintained that he deliberately chose Warsaw's "most beautiful housing estate" as his location, adding, "You can imagine what the others are like."

Made for TV, The Decalogue is an intimate work—characterized by relatively few establishing shots and an abundance of close-ups. The superb cast, which constitutes a virtual who's who of Polish movie acting, is primed to dramatize psychological anguish. (The quintessential mood piece is the Christmas Eve bummer illustrating the commandment to honor the Sabbath.) Although the first episode is a cruel gloss on the story of Abraham and Isaac, Kieslowski's seems a spirituality without God. Rather than grace, the mundane world is charged with mysterious coincidences, miraculous recoveries, free-floating identities, and terrible passions. The two central stories—dealing respectively with murder and adultery—were also released as stand-alone features (A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love) and together they represent the apex of Kieslowski's filmmaking.

As the episodes echo each other in unexpected ways, so each provides a complex ethical conundrum. (The most extreme balances a horrendous, senseless killing with an excruciating, planned execution.) Given the overall emphasis on role-reversal and paradox, it makes sense that Kieslowski's closing episode—a dark comedy in which two brothers attempt to cope with the legacy that is their late father's stamp collection—would mock the vanity of a life project as well as the very idea of completing a series.

A shoring up of ruins: Fragments * Jerusalem
photo courtesy of The Film Society of Lincoln Center
A shoring up of ruins: Fragments * Jerusalem


Fragments * Jerusalem
A film by Ron Havilio
A New Yorker Films release
At the Walter Reade
Through March 31

The Decalogue
Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski
Written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz
A Facets Multimedia video release

Per mutations: In condensing my remarks during the avant-garde roundtable (March 14), I dropped the conversation's major reference to the Museum of Modern Art's ongoing 8mm and Super-8 shows. My point was not just that the unexpected popularity of this program presaged current micro-cinemas but—along with such other instances as Stan Brakhage's frame-by-frame painting or the very different projection pieces orchestrated by Ken Jacobs and Luis Recoder—that it served as an example of "film outliving its death."

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