“I don’t have any answers,” Krzysztof Kieslowski once said, “but [I] do know how to pose questions.”
Not an uncommon stance for an artist, certainly, but perhaps surprising for one who made a massive, ten-part miniseries based on the Ten Commandments. Later, trying to explain why he and screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz would tackle such a project, Kieslowski told Cineaste magazine, “We were living in difficult times, and everything in Poland was a colossal mess. No one really knew what was right and wrong anymore or why we even carried on living. We thought maybe it was worthwhile going back to the simplest, most basic, most elementary principles of how to lead one’s life.”
Dekalog, filmed by Kieslowski in 1988 for Polish television, made a splash at Cannes in 1989, but the series was largely unavailable stateside for many years — even after the director became an international art-house darling with 1991’s The Double Life of Veronique. (I remember hanging on to my U.K.-bought four-VHS set for dear life back in those days.) Fueled both by Kieslowski’s rising profile and the mysterious immensity of his undertaking, the project’s reputation grew. It didn’t hurt that when the script for Dekalog was published — years before it came out on video here — Stanley Freaking Kubrick wrote the foreword, heaping praise on Kieslowski and Piesiewicz’s “very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them.” (Italics his.)
Now restored and being re-released in theaters, Dekalog certainly lives up to its reputation as a mind-altering masterpiece. You marvel at the precision of its filmmaking even as it spreads an atmosphere of moral unease. Each episode takes place, at least partly, in a massive Warsaw apartment complex. And while individual flats vary from luxurious to monk-like, the overall mood is bleak, verging on despair. Kieslowski would become something of an aesthete and a mannerist in later years — his movies filled with bursts of color, delirious movements, and other stylistic ornamentation — but in Dekalog, maybe due to its TV origins, his camera is mostly still and close, though the films don’t lack poetry. The tales start quietly but gather complexity, ambiguity, and emotional force as they proceed. They pose ethical conundrums and present simple, dramatic scenarios; by the end of each installment, we’re faced not with answers, or even hints of answers, but with the irreducible, unresolvable messiness of life.
In the high point of the series, Dekalog: Five (later expanded by Kieslowski to the feature-length — and still devastating — A Short Film About Killing), a young man kills a cabdriver without motive or provocation. He is then caught, convicted, and executed in terrifyingly efficient fashion. The episode intercuts between three key characters: the murderer, his victim, and the young lawyer who will defend the accused man. As we watch the mostly silent actions of the cabbie and the killer, we hear the coolly idealistic lawyer discoursing on the idea that the law “should not imitate nature but improve upon it.” By the end, the lawyer is crying inside a car, pounding his fists in anguish and rage.
The rigor of this episode’s construction belies the metaphysical panic at its core. Visual motifs draw subtle connections between the protagonists, who are all introduced via reflections. Meanwhile, the dark, greenish filter through which cinematographer Slawomir Idziak shoots them feels like an extension of the cabdriver’s tinted windshield. In other words, we see this world “through a glass, darkly.” And beyond that glass, that imperfect mirror, lies something unexpected.
For all its horrific killings, its sociopathic protagonist, its borderline nihilistic narrative, Dekalog: Five is suffused with a kind of love — even for its coldhearted killer, whose memory of the childhood accident that killed his sister holds a possible key to the person he would become, and whose execution by the state ultimately registers as a brutal waste. Little details — like the worn-out shoes that slip off the writhing feet of the cabbie as he’s strangled, or the convicted murderer asking for an unfiltered cigarette before his own death — are heartbreaking.
For years, many of us assumed that Kieslowski and Piesiewicz had built each installment around a specific commandment. So, for example, the above episode seemed rooted in (duh) “Thou shalt not kill,” while the opening story, about a boy who drowns in a frozen lake after his father’s computer tells him the ice is safe for skating, came from “Thou shalt not have other gods before me,” and so on. Turns out that was not the case. Instead, critics at Cannes had insisted that the filmmakers clarify this, and so Kieslowski and Piesiewicz felt pressured, against their will, to assign a commandment to each episode.
That initially enhanced the mystery of the films, but it led to some confusion, too. Consider Dekalog: Three, in which a married man’s family Christmas is disrupted by his former mistress, who is desperately searching for her missing husband. The episode unfolds as a series of deceptions about deceptions: As they search for the absent man, the two lovers reflect on their adulterous past while lying to everybody around them — a spouse, the cops, even to each other. In the end, it’s revealed that the missing husband has actually been gone for years, having started a new family in Krakow. So what was that one supposedly about? Adultery? Bearing false witness? Nope, apparently it was “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
But if we look at Dekalog as interlocking films that don’t align to specific commandments, something more fascinating emerges: a vision of people scrambling to live a good life, with very little idea how. Humans are the subject, not morality — Christian, socialist, or otherwise. And here divinity is, perhaps, inconsequential. Kieslowski includes in eight of the episodes the same mysterious, silent, long-faced man, who appears briefly, always doing something different. (In one, he’s
sitting in a classroom. In another, he seems to be homeless. In another, he passes by in an elegant white suit.) He has no bearing on any of the plots, and you could easily miss him — I’m pretty sure I did the first time.
What purpose does he serve?
Kieslowski liked to fill his movies with omens and little mysteries, hints of a world beyond the merely material. But watch this possibly divine figure’s expression — his is not the face of someone who knows all, or even sees all. At times, he looks downright bewildered, even helpless. In the great apartment complex of life, God is just another confused tenant.
Dekalog at times feels symphonic in its interplay of unity and variation. Appropriately, the best example of this can be found in the soundtrack, composed by Kieslowski’s longtime collaborator Zbigniew Preisner. The score is simple, somber, and lyrical, highlighting a different instrument in each episode. In the first, in keeping with the visual themes of glass and ice, it’s a haunting flute, something like a spectral presence hovering above a smooth, fragile surface. Dekalog: Two foregrounds a piano. In Dekalog: Three, the Christmastime setting means that we hear a lot of carols and choirs (often sung badly). Dekalog: Six, an ironic tale of romantic obsession and voyeurism, later expanded to A Short Film About Love, features a lilting guitar. The final episode, the funniest, emphasizes something we haven’t heard anywhere else during the series: drums.
Re-watching Dekalog after all these years, I marveled anew at its precise construction, the beauty of its images and music, the twists and turns of its human drama. But I was also struck by something that resonates even more today: the depth of its compassion. Dekalog is being re-released into a world where ideas of right and wrong are, paradoxically, both fluid and ironclad: We dole out judgment on a daily basis, easily identifying an ever-changing cast of monsters and wrongdoers among us — hated politicians, dumb celebrities, random civilians who had the misfortune of making their worst mistakes while someone else was looking.
Kieslowski stood, at the end of the 1980s, in a decaying authoritarian state and presented to us a vision in which God, the law, and socialism all came up empty. And just think about it: He had the gall to make a film about the Ten Commandments that refused to judge anyone, even allowing the worst murderer moments of grace. In fact, maybe we’ve been thinking about it all wrong. Maybe Dekalog is not about the Ten Commandments, but a response to them — and to the very idea of law and judgment and top-down morality. To the ironclad dicta of absolutism in all its forms, the director responds with a love that passes understanding.
Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski
Opens September 2, IFC Center