Dekalog (1989)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 10 episodes (53 – 58min)

Dekalog: OneDekalog: TwoDekalog: ThreeDekalog: FourDekalog: Five
Dekalog: SixDekalog: SevenDekalog; EightDekalog: NineDekalog: Ten

Inside the high-rise Warsaw apartment building of the Dekalog, there lives an entire community of strangers and sinners. They may not all know each other’s names or understand troubles beyond their own, but every day they pass by each other in the foyer, lift, and street, nodding politely and exchanging a few words before moving on. The perspective that Krzysztof Kieslowski grants us into their lives in his anthology film series is omniscient. Behind each door in this towering complex is a new morality tale with some basis in the Ten Commandments, though the didacticism is rarely so blunt as those single-line imperatives.

Theological Renaissance art is his inspiration, and with that in mind he goes about creating a cinematic equivalent to a series of paintings depicting the commandments, though with a distinctly more modern, ambiguous flavour. Just as significant as the maintenance of these commandments is the difficulty of upholding them with complicated contemporary pressures. The history, culture, law, relationships, and technology of late-Communist Poland manifest in unexpected ways, and at the centre of them all is that giant, concrete piece of architecture, making a statement of both insulated loneliness and hidden interconnectedness.

A giant, austere housing project as common location across the episodes, an apt representation of interconnected neighbours living private, sinful lives.

With this apartment building acting as a common setting for the entire series, Kieslowski goes about using an array of different cinematographers to imbue each episode with a distinct style, emphasising the individuality of each perspective they bring. The effect is powerful, if a little inconsistent – some dialogue-heavy episodes do not feature the same cinematic bravado as the more aesthetically defined instalments, but there still always remains a steady awareness of how they all fit together. Though Dekalog: One and Three are both set in the freezing winter, the latter has a distinctly more festive tone in the red lighting and mise-en-scène, and Dekalog: Five acts as a visual highlight of the series in its jaundiced, sickly colouring, turning Warsaw into a rotten wasteland.

Entirely distinct visions of Warsaw, Poland through different episodes, each one offering a separate artistic perspective to suit its commandment.

In spite of these stylistic differences, there is a formal consistency in the specific motifs and themes which emerge across their studies of moral duty, faith, and parenthood. The family unit is an especially important foundation for Kieslowski’s moral tales, as mothers and fathers constantly fumble in their attempts to raise their children. Milk acts as a symbol of nourishing life here, suggesting the ways in which motherhood and innocence might play into these situations whether as an attempt to breastfeed a baby or a carton that has gone sour. Where parents aren’t making mistakes, they are often entirely absent, leaving behind spiritual holes begging to be filled in by God the Father and the Mother Mary. Dekalog: One does well to set this up with a hopeful depiction of Our Lady of Częstochowa in its conclusion, and it is similarly tied up in the final episode where two brothers are led down the road of Cain and Abel without the guidance of their now-deceased father.

Mothers and fathers often act as a foundation of Kieslowski’s moral tales, whether they are flawed humans, venerated religious icons, or absent figures.

Perhaps the most potent recurring motif though as that of the mysterious, silent spectator played by Artur Barciś in eight of the ten episodes. He never speaks, but he is often present at key moments where major decisions must be made. Though he often goes unnoticed, every so often he catches the eye of a character who finds themselves inexplicably disturbed or haunted by his presence, whether he is appearing as a tram driver, a university student, or a homeless man. He is not a force of good or evil, but much like us, he hangs over this series as an omniscient figure, seeing into the souls of these characters but never intervening. For all its grounding in the authentic history and culture of 1980s Poland, the Dekalog remains a mystical piece of theological cinema, holding us back from accepting any individual narrative as the singular truth by instead delivering a more transcendent perspective akin to that of an all-seeing deity.

Artur Barciś as the silent witness in eight of the ten episodes. Is he an angel, demon, or simply an audience surrogate, pushing in on these stories with his omniscient, unwavering gaze?

Dekalog: One – “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”

There are a series of bizarre, almost supernatural occurrences that presage the devastating blow which Dekalog: One delivers in its final act, but atheistic professor Krzysztof is not one to consider the meaning of clues or symbols beyond those which scientific studies tell him. His son, Paweł, possesses a similar curiosity about the world, though he is often only left confused when his father and his devout aunt, Irena, offer two separate paths to find the answers he seeks.

Kieslowski is heavily symbolic in his imagery, most evidently in his portrayal of Krzysztof’s computer as an ethereal, holy force. It illuminates Krzysztof and Paweł’s apartment with a dim, green glow, and although it represents the rigid rules of science, there is still a mystical sentience to its actions, seemingly turning on of its own accord and mysteriously telling them “I am ready.”

Krzysztof’s downfall comes not from using its calculations, but rather placing so much faith in them that he rejects all other signs which contradict them. When a bottle of blue ink topples over without reason and spreads across his paper like an ominous, expanding lake, he brushes it off. Neither do the sirens outside alert him to anything wrong, or the talk of a local child going missing. Gradually, anxiety sets in, and he finally reaches a reckoning with his faithlessness when his worst fears are confirmed by his own two eyes.

Running from the green glow of the computer and the icy blue lake where his nightmares have manifested, an empty church offers itself for his outpouring of anger and grief. The venerated icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa that stands up on the altar acts as somewhat of a substitute for the absence of a mother figure elsewhere in this episode, and as he topples tables and candles, she remains standing straight, bearing the brunt of his grief with only a few drops of wax trickling down her face like tears. Dekalog: One is particularly didactic in its narrative, and yet Kieslowski’s beautifully spiritual metaphors imbues it with a remarkable visual power that underscores the crisis of faith at its centre.

Dekalog: Two – “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

In a hospital room where water drips down cracked and peeling walls, a man’s life hangs in the balance. The sound design might reminisce Tarkovsky in the ever-present trickling, but the abstract cutaways are truly Kieslowski, using micro representations of humanity to bring spiritual stakes to Andrzej’s survival. Later in this episode we will watch a bee crawl up out of a glass of preserved strawberries, offering him a hopeful symbol of rebirth as he returns from the “beyond”, but until then, it is a journey of frightening uncertainty.

For Andrzej’s wife, Dorota, his survival will determine the fate of her unborn baby. Should he live, then she will choose to abort it as it belongs to another man; if he dies, then she will become the mother she always wanted to be. It is a torturous situation she finds herself in, and in small outbursts she acts out, snapping the leaves of a houseplant and pushing a glass off a table just so she can assert some kind of agency. In her mind, the major decision regarding her pregnancy is beyond her control given its dependency on Andrzej’s survival, and so as if to place it in the hands of the doctor, she demands a prognosis.

It is here that the second commandment manifests in an understated manner, in which the doctor falsely swears an oath that Andrzej is almost completely likely to die. In contrast to his first episode, Kieslowski allows a little more of an understanding into the mind of the primary ‘sinner’, and as such Dekalog: Two takes a slightly more nuanced position in understanding how the modern age continues to complicate these ancient laws.

Dekalog: Three – “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.”

At first, it does not seem like Dekalog: Three carries the same life or death stakes as the previous two episodes. Its narrative is far more subdued, involving us in two ex-lovers’ search for a missing husband on Christmas Eve, though at the same time Kieslowski steps up his visuals in this instalment, using cinematographer Piotr Sobociński to illuminate these icy Polish streets with the red glow of festive lights. Much of the time they appear as pinpoints adorning scraggly Christmas trees, piercing through beautifully austere aerial shots, though every so often Kieslowski will also bounce them off reflective surfaces or illuminate faces in close-ups, making for a beautiful reminder of the religious holiday that the episode takes place over.

It is this Christmas setting that is absolutely integral to Kieslowski’s figurative reading of the commandment his episode is based on. Here, the Sabbath represents any holy day one sets aside to reflect on their own faith and spend time with loved ones, and initially taxi driver Janusz appears to recognise the significance of this in taking time off work. It is when he attends midnight Mass and runs into Ewa, a woman from his past, that he becomes distracted, and the two embark on an Odyssey-like journey to find her husband who has mysteriously disappeared.

On their journey, they encounter a series of minor characters still working on this sacred night, unable to take time off due to the necessity of their jobs, and this pattern subtly underscores Janusz and Ewa’s own fickle distractions. A late-game revelation turns their entire quest on its head as a heavy fog of death and depression gathers over it, but much like other Dekalog episodes, there is also a counterpoint of hope and redemption to tie it off. Though directly contravening the third commandment and abandoning his spiritual duties, surely there is some salvation for Janusz in helping Ewa fulfil her own?

Dekalog: Four – “Honour thy father and thy mother.”

Even considering the moral complexities that have arisen elsewhere in the Dekalog, the fourth episode breaches thornier territory than ever in its study of a Freudian relationship between a father and daughter. Just as there is an absence felt by a deceased mother in the family dynamic of Dekalog: One, Kieslowski again leaves an empty space here with a letter from Michal’s wife, who passed away a few days after the birth of her daughter, Anka. It is only meant to be read after Michal has passed too, but impatient to hear her mother’s words, she opens it prematurely, and suddenly both parent and child find their relationship tested in the most uncomfortable manner.

As the two discuss the possibility that they may not be related, Kieslowski sends them in an elevator right to the bottom of their apartment building, where two candles burn in the darkness like a small chapel. From this point on, Kieslowski’s lighting grows darker, starkly illuminating their apartment with lamps that cast bright beams and shadows across their faces in the midst of arguments and heartfelt pleas. Elsewhere in the unit, a smashed glass door that Michal kicked earlier out of anger sits un-mended, their interior world collapsing around them.

As sinful as his characters are, Kieslowski never condemns them with righteous retribution, but rather takes the time to understand how their flaws are integral parts of their messy humanity. Perhaps our understanding of Anka early on as a drama student with a deep interest in drawing out hidden truths from lies should clue us into her own propensity for falsehoods, but even when this is revealed we don’t find ourselves mad at her. Instead, all we see is a father and daughter trying to figure themselves out, eventually choosing to preserve their own innocent relationship over any secrets that could potentially destroy it.

Dekalog: Five – “Thou shalt not murder.”

When Kieslowski created his Dekalog series with the intention of making ten one-hour episodes, he was pushed by TV Poland to expand two into full-length feature films. Dekalog: Five thus became A Short Film About Killing, as well as the strongest instalment in the series, disturbing our senses in both style and narrative while taking on the Fifth Commandment as its focus.

Read my full review for the theatrical cut of this episode here.

Dekalog: Six – “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Much like Dekalog: Five, the sixth episode of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Ten Commandments-inspired series was expanded into a feature film, giving us A Short Film About Love. The Hitchcockian setup is very familiar – a man with a telescope spying from their apartment into a neighbour’s unit, developing an unhealthy obsession with their life – and yet in place of a suspenseful mystery leading our young voyeur along, Kieslowski instead absorbs us in a compelling morality play.

Beyond the fact that both Dekalog: Five and Six were extended into full films, they also make fascinating companion pieces for the formal structuring of their narratives, both being marked by a midpoint turn that instigates a total role reversal for a main character in the final minutes.

Read my full review for the theatrical cut of this episode here.

Dekalog: Seven – “Thou shalt not steal.”

As Kieslowski’s camera descends the side of the Warsaw apartment building in the opening shot of Dekalog: Seven, the sound of a child’s screams can be heard coming from one of its units. Ania, the young girl to whom they belong, clearly has issues of her own, but considerations of what might be best for her are not the concerns of the adults in this story. Her mother, Majka, gave birth to her six years ago while at school, but to protect her from the scandal, her own mother, Ewa, put forward a lie that the two were sisters. Now 22-years-old, Majka resolves they are all old enough for the truth to come out, and goes about kidnapping her daughter to meet her real father, Wotjek.

Kieslowki’s understanding of stealing as a sin within this screenplay is fascinating in its complexity. Perhaps what Ewa did was wrong, exerting her possessiveness over something that was not rightfully hers, and yet at the same time it is evident that Majka is not yet matured to properly care for Ania either. There is a fairy tale quality to the kidnapping that seems to pull the two into a delusional, naïve mindset, as mother and daughter escape into woods where a carousel seems to spring forth from overgrown weeds, and later meet up with Wotjek, who now lives in a small house making teddy bears.

It is in his residence where Majka, desperately trying to recreate the family that should have been, begs for her daughter to call her “Mother”, and yet it is simply too much for Ania to grasp. When Ania’s night terrors emerge again, Majka goes about trying to prove that she does have the capability to quell them as well as Ewa, and yet just like her own mother, it is merely an act of selfish reassurance. Whether one can steal something that belongs to them might be a big question here, and yet Kieslowski also uses Dekalog: Seven to consider the rights of those affected beyond the binary “thief and victim” narrative.

Dekalog: Eight – “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”

Poland’s history feels more immediate here in Dekalog: Eight than in any other instalment of Kieslowski’s series, as the sin in question is one that took place several decades ago during Germany’s occupation of Warsaw. Zofia is a professor of ethics and may in theory be considered the most prepared of any character we have met so far to face questions of integrity, and yet when Elżbieta, a visiting translator, drops in on one of her lectures, a past between them comes to light which begins to wear away at her professional demeanour. In 1943, Elżbieta was a 6-year-old Jewish girl seeking out sanctuary with Zofia’s Catholic family who were also part of the resistance, though after hearing rumours that Elżbieta’s parents were in fact working for the Gestapo, they turned her away.

From God’s eighth commandment, Kieslowski chooses to take the emphasis off “false witness” and place it on “neighbour”, examining the duty of each Christian to not just be honest with friends and strangers, but to accept them as good, honest people as well. Visually, he weaves in shades of green into his mise-en-scène as well, lending an air of natural grace to Zofia’s exercise in the park, and underscoring the two women’s conversation with a merciful renewal in their costuming and the professor’s car. As complicated as their past is together, their efforts to communicate effectively bridge that divide keeping them apart.

In Dekalog: Eight’s understanding of communities as a network of neighbours obligated to help and understand each other, Kieslowski begins to condense broader ideas floating around this series into a cohesive conclusion. The moral dilemma of the doctor and the pregnant woman from episode 2 comes up as a topic in Zofia’s ethics class, and later she acknowledges that they live in the same building as her, where all these stories are set. “Warsaw is a small place,” she states, highlighting the closeness of each life to the others that surround it. When she visits another apartment block, the begrudging man who answers the doors claims that none of his neighbours get along with each other, and while the characters living in Zofia’s complex usually only meet each other tangentially, we still see within this woman an active interest in learning about those around her.

Dekalog: Nine – “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife.”

The main character in Dekalog: Nine is not the transgressor of its primary commandment, and yet the jealousy it implies still weighs heavy in his heart. With the extra emphasis on intimate relations, Kieslowski appropriately makes the most of the apartment block’s architecture and interiors to set scenes of domesticity, shooting his characters through cracks in doorways and reflected in mirrors to both divide and unite them. It also contains some of the strongest images from the series as a whole, in one shot towards the start catching their silhouettes through the building’s glass door against a rainy, blue exterior, coldly isolating them on the border of private and public worlds.

Even in the tight, dark elevator on their way up to their unit, Kieslowski continues to visually separate them with passing lights alternating between their faces, only ever allowing us to see one at a time. A disconnected dynamic is set right away, laying the groundwork for a relationship determined to disintegrate following Roman’s diagnosis of impotence and Hanka’s duplicitous affair. That he has given her permission to cheat on him is negligible – the deception hurts all the same, threatening their marital vow that every intimate part of their lives will be shared together.

By no means is Roman innocent in this situation either. We spend a good deal of time following his sneaking and spying which he also takes some shameful, voyeuristic pleasure from, being unable to perform sexually in the same way as his wife’s lover. With a complex, distant relationship at its core, Dekalog: Nine’s narrative is ripe for superbly staged scenes of tension and conflict, studying the coveting of two men from either side of an extra-marital affair.

Dekalog: Ten – “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods.”

Kieslowski ends his series of contemporary moral fables not with tragedy, but rather with what might almost be considered a dramatic comedy, using Dekalog: Ten to examine the hold of greed over the minds of a pair of brothers. The two couldn’t be more different – where strait-laced businessman Jerzy is strictly no-nonsense, Artur is introduced leading his punk band City Death at a riotous concert, shouting lyrics that are amusingly irreverent and referential to the rest of the series.

“Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill and steal! Commit adultery and covet a whole week long!”

As dissimilar as the brothers may be, having parted ways with each other and their estranged father years ago, they are affected all the same by the discovery of his valuable stamp collection, making them instant millionaires. They also quickly realise that there are men out there with their eyes set on their inheritance, and so the two go about building an intense security system around the apartment. In order to complete a collection of three rare stamps, Jerzy even goes so far as to sell his kidney for the missing piece, quite literally cutting off a piece of his humanity and replacing it with the object of his obsession.

Much like Cain and Abel before them, Jerzy and Artur begin to turn against each other in paranoia, withdrawing from the rekindled connection sparked by their father’s death. Kieslowski does not wish to end the Dekalog with the same disastrous fate that befell those Biblical brothers though. He is an optimist at heart, believing in the potential of humans to reconcile and become better people even if those around them do not. Upon realising that they have simply fallen victim to the crimes of other covetous men, all they can do is laugh at the joyous absurdity of it all – the fruitless sins of humanity, the insignificance of stamps, and the unexpected delight of finding each other again in the midst of it all.

Dekalog is not currently available to stream in Australia.

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