DVD Review Of The Decalogue
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/6/07
Art that can claim greatness deals with complex issues in complex ways. If the answers or questions posed were simple they could be framed in a single sentence, or a ten second film, then the art would not be its own best explanation. This thought stuck with me as I watched Krzystof Kieślowski’s complex and fascinating, if flawed, The Decalogue, illuminating aspects of the Ten Commandments from the third, transitional phase of his career, which included this 1988-89 Polish television series, filmed in 1987 and 1988, as well as the two subsequent feature films derived from episodes five and six, A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. Kieślowski’s filmic career can be divided into four parts. The first was his career as a documentarian, the second was his early fictive films, and the fourth and final part was his final films- The Double Life Of Veronique and the Three Colors Trilogy (Blue, White, Red). The Decalogue (Dekalog), released on three DVDs by Facets Video, after a decade and a half in the wilderness, is where Kieślowski’s potential for greatness first had more than a few flickering moments. No, unlike many critics who declare the whole series a masterpiece, I’ll say it’s certainly it’s not. It has a few excellent to great episodes, a few good solid ones, and some mediocre ones, but without this proving ground, his later masterpieces would not have been possible.
Although based upon the Ten Commandments, the ten hour long episodes do not have an exact correlation to the Commandments that correspond to their number, but this is actually a strength, lest the films get to focused and didactic on a single one. When originally shown on Polish tv, no correlation was made to any specific Commandments; this was only added later, by the Venice Film Festival’s press office, when the series ran there. While there are a few minor cameos of one character from a tale to another, and sometimes actions from earlier episodes are referenced later on, there is only one recurring character in the series, although he never utters a word. He is the Watcher (Artur Barcis) over all the other characters, for most of the episodes take place in a large Warsaw housing complex. He appears in eight of the ten episodes, only missing from episodes seven and ten. Considerable ink has been spilled over what he ‘represents.’ Naturally, non-creative minds assign symbolism to such things, when what he symbolizes is manifest- he’s the viewer, Joe Average (or its Polish equivalent). He simply is there to watch what the other characters do. He never intervenes, even when he could. In episode nine, as example, he watches the lead character get seriously injured riding his bicycle, but simply rides past the injured man without offering any help.
The whole series was conceived and written in a little over a year and a half, by Kieślowski and Krysztof Piesiewicz, a lawyer Kieślowski met in the early 1980s, during the Solidarity trials, and who would later co-write the Three Colors Trilogy. Their first collaboration was the screenplay for No End (1985), which told three stories of life under martial law. It was found unsympathetic by the Polish government, wishy-washy by the opposition leaders, and condemned as immoral by the Roman Catholic Church. It was under the strain of that film’s reception that Piesiewicz legendarily suggested that they should cause even more trouble by making a film about the Ten Commandments. Thus, The Decalogue was conceived. Given the time constraints in production, the series is an admirable success, especially from one artist. However, when the writing fails it shows up greatly. The series is at its best dramatizing small ethical choices people make. When it tries to deal with ‘big issues’ it tends to flounder. The four weakest episodes are episodes five through eight. Episode five is a simple-minded anti-capital punishment screed. The fact is that by showing us the brutality its lead character, a killer, employs, wholly negates the preach sentiments against capital punishment that the rest of the film shrieks. The killer’s death by hanging is just, fair, and far more humane than that he inflicted on his victim, even as the film tries to show the victim did some minor questionable things, as well. Episode six follows a lusty young woman who becomes the object of desire of a scared, sexually immature teenager who voyeurs her through his telescope and her open windows. While the film almost transcends its weak setup with great performances and a fabulous end, like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the implausible act of people copulating in the open is simply too much of a strain on reality. Episode seven is probably the least well written, and fairly shallow, wherein a spoiled girl kidnaps her own daughter from her parents, who are raising their granddaughter as if their daughter. Why she does it is manifest, once circumstances are revealed, but when her parents track her and their granddaughter down, the bad young mother simply runs away, once again capitulating to her mother. Ho-hum. Episode eight is an anomic treatise on ethics during World War Two, where a Jewish survivor confronts a woman who refused to help her, but goes nowhere, for these sorts of issues have been dealt with so much beforehand. Of course, she learns that the reasons for the woman’s inaction were out of a desire for her own survival, and not Nazi complicity.
Yet, the other six episodes all shine above that. It will be interesting to see the feature length versions of episodes five and six, and whether an expansion of their themes helps the narrative. Did Kieślowski choose these two weaker entries because he was looking for an ‘in’ to Western commercial markets, or to better what he had to see were disappointments? And, despite its well known legend of the ten scripts originally to be directed by ten different young Polish directors, to give them their big break, with Kieślowski changing his mind and directing all ten, but with ten different cinematographers, the results are remarkably undifferentiated. This, however, heightens the emotions of many of the characters in their drab Communist era urban hell, but reduces the usage of different cinematographers to mere gimmickry. Only the sepia toned, tunnel visioned episode five feels radically different from the others. The Decalogue is not a paragon of visual or kinetic cinema, but of the intellectual side of the art. And it shows up the vast difference between the Lowest Common Denominator kinetic films- or simply movies (the very word emphasizes its focus), which leave little impression, and are based upon simplistic plots, shallow characterizations, visual movement, and visual and aural editing, and film or cinema. Some critics have even conflated this Hollywood sort of movie with the pure cinema ideal of story being told primarily visually- think certain scenes in the films of a Michelangelo Antonioni. The juxtaposition of Antonioni with Hollywood films should give one an idea of the huge gulf between claims and reality. Kieslowksi, despite some differences, is clearly in a league with the artsy crowd. And, despite the popular appeal of the Steven Spielbergs and George Lucases, the absence of their works from most serious critics’ lists of great films shows that, while losing the box office, cinema clearly has won the art form.
Kieślowski’s series also has much in common with the eye level realism pioneered by German director Werner Herzog, admixed with some Bergmanian intellectual strains, sans the superb, if hyperintellectual, monologues. In most of the episodes, characterization is revealed not by what is said, but the little things that characters do, or the things they endure- such as the over-reliance on a computer, a picture that simply refuses to hang straight on a wall, elevators that do not run well, or a rabbit that falls to its death, which no one claims ownership over. The eye level realism is especially heightened when one sees that all the apartments in the buildings need matches to get their stoves working, and seem to be perpetually damp and chilly, even in summer. Yet, no supernaturalism pervades the series, as it does in some of Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre. Kieślowski is no mystic, at least in this series. Neither does some of the overkill symbolism of his later films reside here, despite the claims of his detractors. While this is good for a naturalistic feel, it also renders many of the episodes wholly dependent upon the writing. Yet, unsurprisingly, the film’s most uneven quality- its writing, gets the highest praise from most critics, who sometimes harp on things they imbue into the film, like a stray dog yelp, or a light turning red, as being highly symbolic. Kieślowski was known to have an antipathy for critics, and from what I’ve read, his gripes were legitimate, for most critics severely mistake their own biases for Kieślowski’s, as they refuse to deal with what is onscreen, and instead have their own axes to grind before the first frame unspools.
While most of the tales are centered on one huge apartment complex- likely built in the 1960s, when such ugly monstrosities sprang up all over the world in urban areas, the tales play out over the course of about two years, if key referents that characters mention are true. The episodes, or films, are not morality plays, nor even parables, but modern short stories on films. They have no end morals, and many end ambiguously, with the zero endings that Anton Chekhov made famous in his short fiction. Only on a few occasions does Kieślowski err, and dip into preachiness. But, the films should be watched in order, because minor references and characters’ appearances in later films will not resonate as much. This is another key fact that many critics wrongly claim; that the films can be seen in any order. The acting is uniformly excellent, and it’s a hoot to see so much cigaret smoking portrayed in the series; yet the fact that none of the actors are supermodels nor Hollywood studs makes the characters all the easier to connect with, even though they speak Polish, and the DVD provides no English dubbed soundtrack.
This leads me into one of the biggest flaws of the Facets Video DVD release: there are whole sentences and references that go untranslated. This is a great no-no in a subtle work like this, where minor lines can carry great import, especially those things beyond mere greetings or designations like mother or son. Yes, Polish utilizes many more words to say the same thing as English does, but there were clearly missing lines. Then there is the very mediocre video quality. Not a dime seems to have been spent on the technical aspects of video restoration. There are scratches and botches and imperfections of all sorts. As for extras? Disk one has the first three episodes and a fifteen minute Roger Ebert Introduction, which is basically a rehash of his review of the film. Disk two has episodes four through seven and no extras, while disk three has episodes eight through ten, and three features: one short feature called ‘On the Set of The Decalogue,’ in which the director is interviewed briefly, a second called ‘Kieślowski Known And Unknown,’ which takes place in 1998, two years after his death, and is a fifteen minute tribute to the filmmaker from co-workers, colleagues, and friends. The best feature is the last- a forty-one minute excerpt from a Polish tv show in 1989, called ‘Kieślowski Meets the Press,’ which amply demonstrates how much more verbose Polish is than English, for speakers often start speaking ten seconds before their vocal translations, and end ten seconds later, on the manifestly same thought. Although filled with reporters and critics, Kieślowski rebukes the Poles as not having film criticism anything near where the French do, even as the people pummel him with questions that are light years beyond the pabulum someone like Oprah Winfrey asks her celebrity guests about their films. The set also comes with a booklet that has an introduction to The Decalogue by Kieślowski, an interview with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and complete cast lists and credits.
The praise accorded to The Decalogue seems to have grown disproportionately due to a) its unavailability for many years, and b) the premature death of Kieślowski. Yet, none of the episodes has the magisterial quality of Blue nor Red, in which all facets of filmmaking are used to their greatest degree, so the mythical excellence and superlatives accorded the series can be attributable only to one of the two factors, or both. Granted, low budget television art cannot compare with the resources he was afforded a few years later; but then why the gimmickry of different cameramen, especially if they have no discernible effect on what is shown? Also, the sheer scope of the project, completed in under a year, seems to have been a strain, for the later episodes sharply decline in quality from the first four, with the exception of episode nine. The brightest spot in the series is the musical scoring of Zbiginew Preisner. While not as gorgeous and overwhelming as in the Three Colors Trilogy, especially Blue, it complements each episode perfectly- never guiding, always in counterpoint or support of the moment or theme.
Let me now take on each of the episodes:
Decalogue 1: I
am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.
The first episode is 53 minutes long and follows Krzysztof (Henryk Baranowski) and his small son Pawel (Wojciech Klata). He is a scientist and professor who has faith in rationality and science, and has programmed much in his apartment to respond to computer commands. Pawel is equally enthralled by the computer. One winter afternoon, the boy spies a local dog which has frozen to death overnight, and asks his father what death is. The father responds with a materialistic answer, but Pawel is still entranced by death. Later, he asks his father to calculate if the ice on the local pond will be thick enough to skate on. Plugging in the last three days of freezing temperatures determines it will be thick enough, but that does not account for the next day’s thaw, and Pawel falls through the ice and drowns. Krzysztof insanely runs into the local church and throws things around. Candle wax splashes on a Virgin Mary portrait and resembles tears.
This is a solid episode that is well acted, and the father and son bond is reminiscent of that in Vittorio De Sica’s masterful The Bicycle Thief. Yet, the writing fails, for one can see the end telegraphed almost from the first scenes of children on the ice, so the ending loses some of its power. This is not foreshadowing but foresemaphoring, for to not know how this episode will end would require a lobotomy. Yet, the naturalistic banter between father and son- especially when Pawel helps his dad win a chess match against a pro, and between Pawel and his aunt (Maja Komorowska) are wonderful. The episode was filmed by Wieslaw Zdort, and accustoms us to the leached color palette that the rest of the series will contain, and the Watcher is scene as a tramp by a bonfire near the pond. The start of the episode actually comes after Pawel’s death, thus the episode is mostly a flashback, although this is not made clear until the final shots of Pawel on tv, running with classmates for a local tv news show.
Decalogue 2: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
This episode goes 57 minutes and involves the faithless wife, Dorota (Krystyna Janda), of a dying man, Andrzej (Olgierd Lukaszewicz). What he is dying of is never specified. On a visit to her hospital she asks her doctor (Aleksander Bardini- who was also in The Double Life Of Veronique), who lives in the same housing block, but refuses to speak to her after business hours, if he will live. The two have a bad history, for two years earlier Dorota ran over the doctor’s dog. Yet, she confides to him that she is pregnant by another man, and will keep the baby if her husband dies, but have an abortion is he lives. The doctor cannot give her a solid answer, so she plans an abortion, and breaks things off with her lover. She also confesses to loving both men. The doctor has his own demons, for his family tragically died in a fire, or possibly a bombing in World War Two- it is never made clear. After a few more tests, he tells Dorota that Andrzej is doomed, and to cancel her abortion. She does, and when Andrzej recovers, he believes the child is his. Has Dorota lied? Has the doctor? Andrzej asks the doctor joyously, ‘Do you know what it means to have a child?’ The doctor hesitatingly nods that he does. Did he violate his duty to Dorota for his own personal agenda, or as vengeance for her killing the dog, to which she coldly tells him that she wishes that she had run him over instead? For a film on abortion, this is one of the most complex and touching works of art I have ever experienced. It could have easily become a screed.
There is also a great shot of the filthy rusty water that gathers in the hospital room Andrzej is in, and a fly trying to extricate itself from the glass of liquid. This is great symbolism, and counters the arguments that Kieślowski’s detractors often bring up about his heavyhandedness. This episode was filmed by Edward Klosinski and is rather static. The Watcher appears briefly in Andrzej’s hospital room. This is a film that takes advantage of its brevity, which heightens the drama, and reduces filler scenes. All we get are the essentials of the drama, and an ending that is perfectly Chekhovian.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
This episode was filmed by Piotr Sobocinski and runs 56 minutes. It starts off seemingly light-hearted and a bit slow, but becomes an exquisite psychological study of obsession. On Christmas Eve, a mentally and emotionally disturbed woman named Ewa (Maria Pakulnis) follows her ex-lover, Janusz (Daniel Olbrychski) to mass and then his apartment. She suckers him into abandoning his wife (Joanna Szczepowska) and family for the night, to go looking for her current faithless lover, who has left her. Janusz fibs that his cab was stolen, and has a night of adventure, where Ewa tries to seduce him, then finally admits that her lover left her long ago, and she just wanted to be with him, having concocted her own bizarre deadline in her head. By staying with her, for the night, he forestalls what would have been her suicide, and does so by removing razors from her bathroom- a small detail that typifies Kieślowski at his best. When they part, Janusz returns home, and his wife has figured it all out. She simply says Ewa’s name, he admits it, and they are reunited, knowing that she is done with them.
The ending is brilliant, and so much in this episode goes unsaid, it is imparted by glances and bodily gestures. The Watcher is seen on a trolley car, but there is a brief shot, early on, of the father from episode one, Krzysztof (Henryk Baranowski), who sees someone dressed as Santa Claus, and sighs. These small moments argue against watching the series out of order, for that moment is meaningless unless episode one has been watched. There are also shots of the degradation that the Warsaw police drunk tank residents must endure, and Janusz’s stand to stop it. This is complex art at its finest, and the one hour limit eliminates any didacticism that may have crept in with a longer film. It also is a great short story on film.
Honor thy father and thy mother.
Another terrific episode whose theme, incest, could have been mangled by a lesser artist. Anka (Adrianna Biedrynska) is twenty year old, attractive brunet who is promiscuous, and lives with her father, Michal (Janusz Gajos- who would later play a key role in White). Her mother is dead. When Michal leaves on a business trip, Anka finds an envelope marked to be opened only after his death. After debating it, she decides to open it, for another envelope within is addressed to her, with her mother’s handwriting. At the airport, on his return, Anka seemingly quotes from the letter, and says that Michal is not her father. He slaps her, but really he left the envelope to be found. Anka admits she knew of it all along. Their relationship changes when she sees a photo of her mother with two men, one of whom may be her father. Anka decides to get engaged to a boy she is seeing, who has not even asked for her hand yet. Michal admits he never read the letter, bus suspected its contents. Freed from their pretense, Anka admits she suffers from an incestuous Electra Complex, and suspects her father desires her sexually, as well. He admits to such. She strips and tries to seduce him, but he does not give in. They talk, and when she awakens the next morning, she feels Michal has left, and runs out to stop him. But he was only going for milk. Anka admits that she forged her mother’s handwriting, and never opened the real letter. Having been through an emotional wringer, the two decide to burn Anka’s mother’s letter, and return to life as it was before.
This is a great end because it is one that many would take- the easy way out. In a sense, both father and daughter are cowards, but they are humanly so. This episode runs 56 minutes and was filmed by Kyzysztof Pakulski. Small touches abound, like Michal’s early on listening to Anka on the phone with her beau, and us not seeing Anka read the letter she quotes at the airport. First, this subverts Hollywood convention- and suggests that she’s read the letter so often she’s memorized it, and it doubly works when we learn that the reason for that standard melodrama’s scene’s absence is because there literally was no such scene that happened. Her knowing its contents is because she wrote the letter. The Watcher is seen canoeing, and eyeing Anka on the shore of the pond where Pawel, from episode one, drowned the prior winter. We also get a great scene of father and daughter arguing on the elevator, after the letter’s information’s emergence, as the doctor from episode two gets on. They are silent when with him, and start arguing after he’s left. A viewer can only sense the full impact, knowing what the doctor has lost, and done, earlier in the series.
Decalogue 5: Thou shalt not kill.
This is the first really weak episode in the series- extended as A Short Film About Killing, and it’s such mainly because of Kieślowski’s heavy-handed approach. After the great way that abortion was dealt with in episode two, this episode especially reeks. It is the most shallow of the episodes, and starts with a voiceover by an anti-death penalty lawyer, Piotr (Krzysztof Globisz), then follows a nineteen year old loser named Jacek (Miroslaw Baka), who simply decides to kill someone. His victim is a middle-aged taxi driver (Jan Tesarz) that Kieślowski attempts to get us to feel distance from because he lusts for teenaged girls, refuses rides to drunks, and cruelly blows his horn at an old lady, causing her little dog to run off. Then, in almost real time, we see the strangulation of the cabby, followed by being beaten, and having his head smashed open by a large rock. Then we see the rather brief, formal, and summary execution of the killer by hanging. The lawyer feels its horrid, but he’s perhaps the only one.
Attempts to mitigate the youth’s crime, by showing his cowardice and tales of his sister’s tragic death years earlier simply ring false. In fact, one might cynically assume this is a pro-death penalty film if Kieślowski was not so adamant that it’s against death- murder and capital punishment. This is because the youth is so reprehensible and his crime so brutal that even anti-death penalty people must feel squeamish when confronted with the sort of reality the film portrays. This episode runs 57 minutes and was lensed by Slawomir Idziak, in smudgy sepia hues, with partial obfuscation of the view, to signal the impairment of the killer. Although a weak entry, it is still significantly better and more real than Hollywood’s mindless, stereotyped, and clichéd take on the subject, Dead Man Walking. There are small touches, like Jacek’s pushing a man into a puddle of piss in a public restroom, for fun, that are terrific. Similarly he scares an old baglady’s pigeons’ away, and shoots ice cream at little girls looking in a café window. The Watcher looks right at Jacek as he drives by in the cab. Piotr tells the tale in seeming flashback. The date of the murder is revealed as March 16th, 1987, and the date Jacek is executed is November 27th, 1987, so this delineates a bit of the time frame for the series.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
This 58 minute episode, filmed by Witold Adamek, became the only other feature film from the series, slightly altered as A Short Film About Love. It follows a nineteen year old blond postal worker and orphan named Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) who obsesses over Magda (Grażyna Szapołowska), a sexy and promiscuous brunet painter who lives in the tower block opposite him. He spies on her with a telescope, and lives with a woman (Stefania Iwinska) who is his only friend’s mother. He sends her false money orders to get her into the post office, takes a milk route to see her, and finally admits his ‘love’ for her. She then agrees to go out with him, then sexually humiliates him, declaring there is only lust, not love. He runs home and slashes his wrists. Magda feels guilty, and when she learns of his fate, she becomes obsessed not with him (as many critics wrongly think) but with his welfare and her guilt. She almost longs to be peeped by him again. When she finally sees him, back at the post office, he simply looks up at her, and declares that he is over her, and smiles. He has matured, but Magda is still lonely. He has hope, but she is likely hopeless, which is a nice inversion of what a lesser filmmaker would have done.
Some myopic critics, however, feel that there is a future that awaits the duo, but this is simply not present in the script. Now, knowing he is ‘cured’, there is no reason to think that Magda has ‘fallen’ for Tomek. This is an example of critics who have been too steeped in deliterate Hollywood screenplays, which would, no doubt, give them exactly what they want and expect. The Watcher is seen as Tomek rejoices by running with his milk cart, after Magda says she will go out with him. The acting is stellar, especially by Szapolowska, as a woman who has been burdened by life. The how and why are unknown, and that’s a good thing. There is also a scene where one of Magda’s boyfriends calls out and decks Tomek with one punch. The boy has never been in a fight and the wean way he puts up his dukes is sure to touch many a viewer. The scene where Tomek’s friend’s mother peeps on him with Magda is a treat, too. Yet, despite all the pluses, this episode suffers from the same implausibility factor that Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window does. No one would be doing what Magda does in front of an open window, at night, and with lights on. This is something out of a Penthouse Letters fantasy. And, even if she were a wanton exhibitionist, would all her beaus be such? The episode starts off too contrived, and while its great acting and ending make it a worthwhile entry, and better than episode five, it does not succeed as fully as episodes two or three do, for the suspension of disbelief needed for this episode can only mitigate so much.
Thou shalt not steal.
This is another weak episode, simply because none of the characters are well developed, and it takes an old storyline- the mother who usurps her daughter’s place with her grandchild, and does nothing new with it. At 55 minutes, and filmed by Dariusz Kuc, the episode just feels too long, like it had a half hour’s worth of material stretched too thin. A six year old blond girl, named Ania (Katarzyna Piwowarczyk), is kidnapped by her sister Majka (Maja Barelkowska), who is really her mother. Ania believes her grandparents, Ewa (Anna Polony) and Stefan (Wladyslaw Kowalski), are her parents, but Majka decides to tell the truth. She takes Ania to her real father, who was her teacher at a boarding school her mother still runs. The man, Wojtek (Boguslaw Linda- the star of Kieślowski’s earlier Blind Chance), got Majka pregnnt at sixteen, and the ruse over Ania’s parentage was the solution to the family shame. Wojtek has not seen his daughter, and not seen Majka in six years. He hides them, but once it becomes clear Majka is a spoiled brat with no motherly skills, he tries to get her to return to her parents. She runs away with Ania, instead. Wojtek and Ewa go looking for the two of them, and Ewa and Stefan find them at a rail station. Majka gives up, leaves her daughter, and takes off on a train- a very weak ending to a weak episode.
From the fact that Ewa favors her granddaughter over her own daughter, to Majka’s childishness, to her running away at the end, too much of this episode is weak soap opera, and not particularly well acted. This is the first episode sans the Watcher, and perhaps this accounts for the lack of poesy. Although The Decalogue is not a series with a supernatural bent, the Watcher is a semi-mystical figure (or quasi-mystical?) and his absence may account for the roteness of the tale. That, or perhaps Kieślowski and Piesiewicz simply ran out of steam. Also, this is another very average looking episode. The use of a different cinematographer added absolutely nothing to the tale.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Another weak episode, and predictably so, since it deals with that most overused of subjects: the Holocaust. The episode runs 55 minutes and was filmed by Andrzej Jaroszewicz. The tale is about an ethics professor named Zofia (Maria Koscialkowska), who, years earlier in the war, turned away a six year old Jewish child from her Roman Catholic home, after curfew was declared in the Warsaw Ghetto. The girl, now an American researcher named Elzbieta (Teresa Marczewska), and visiting from New York, has met the professor before, and translated some works of hers. She sits in on Zofia’s classroom and recounts the ethical dilemma Zofia faced. Zofia’s reaction is priceless as she sloughs off the frontal attack. Afterwards, she befriends Elzbieta and, of course, explains all was not what it seemed. Her husband was a Resistance fighter, who had been betrayed to the Gestapo, and had they taken her in it would have meant sure death, for they were under surveillance, and mistakenly felt the men who brought the girl were Gestapo spies out to test them. Zofia is now an agnostic. The two women reconcile, and Elzbieta wants to thank the man who actually did rescue her. But he is a tailor (Tadeusz Lomnicki) who refuses to look backward, despite his bravery. The episode ends with him watching Elzbieta and Zofia from his shop’s window.
Reputedly, the episode was inspired by a real tale told to Kieślowski by a journalist named Hanna Krall. True or not, it does not justify the weak handling of the material, especially in ill writ moments, such as when Zofia still beats herself up over her decision by declaring, ‘Nothing is as important as the life of a child!’ Well, perhaps defeating the Nazis was more important? But, true ethical dilemmas are not as easily resolved. This episode would have been better had it remained theoretical, and not given in to melodrama, clichés, and easy outs. The Watcher reappears as a student in the lecture hall, and there is a good crossover, where a girl in class recounts the ethical dilemma in episode two, which all parties know as true, for Zofia lives in the same apartment complex. She also has a stamp collecting neighbor whose progeny will be the center of episode ten. This episode, like episode five, takes material that has been done to death, and does nothing new with it.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.
This is a return to form after four weaker episodes. It is 58 minutes long and lensed by Piotr Sobocinski. This is one of the few episodes where the cinematographer matters, for it makes good use of shadows and light. A doctor named Roman (Piotr Machalica) learns he is impotent. He is married to a sexy young blond airlines agent named Hanka (Ewa Blaszczyk). He tells her to take a lover, and she reluctantly beds down with a dimwitted blond college boy named Mariusz (Jan Jankowski), but breaks it of. Roman, meanwhile, has taken to listening in on her phone conversations and spying on her. This is much more realistically and effectively done than in episode six. After reconciling with him, Hanka goes off for a holiday to ski, and the couple wants to adopt. Roman tries to kill himself by biking off an embankment, but survives, after he sees Mariusz pursue Hanka. She rejects the boy again, and returns home. Roman calls her to tell her he wants to try again with her, agreeing with her early assessment of their marriage, ‘The things we have are more important than the things we don’t have.’ The ending is excellent.
This episode is void of melodrama, and deals not only with adultery, but sexual satisfaction and the male ego (both Roman’s and Mariusz’s)- topics far more real, but less dramatic, than the typical flaming topics of abortion, murder, the Holocaust, etc. The more manifest the dilemma in an episode, generally, the weaker the episode in this series. Why Hanka starts the affair, after pledging her love is never made clear, but this adds an authenticity to the situation for, when she breaks up with her lover, we see that she does not really know either. The acting is superb. The Watcher makes his final appearance of the series, seeing Roman’s death plunge, and doing nothing to help the man. There is a moment when the film seems to suggest that Roman’s impotence is a façade to cover up his own affair with a sexy young brunet singer, who has a heart condition, at the hospital, but this is just a feint. That theme would be developed later in The Double Life Of Veronique. The singer girl also mentions the fictive Dutch composer Van den Budenmayer, who would figure strongly in the Three Colors Trilogy.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.
This is a good episode that runs 57 minutes, and is often labeled a comedy, but while it has some humorous scenes, to call it a ‘comedy’ is a stretch. The neighbor of Zofia, the ethics professor, from episode eight, has died, and willed his valuable stamp collection to his sons: Jerzy (Jerzy Stuhr), a working man, and Artur (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a punk rock singer. The two would also play different brothers in White. Greed, naturally, infects them, and they do all sorts of unethical things to complete the collection, including Jerzy giving up a kidney to a stamp dealer (Henryk Bista), who claims his daughter is ill. This is to get the most valuable stamp around. They get it, but while hospitalized, the dealer- who has Underworld connections, robs them blind by switching the guard dog they had at their family’s apartment. Before they learn this, though, they fink each other out as the robber to the cops. With that knowledge, however, they reconcile, and laugh over the three new stamps each of them bought. They will start a new collection to replace the one their father had. Yes, the message- Greed is bad- is simple, but the lightness alleviates the didactic elements, and the two men have great chemistry as brothers- even more so than in White.
Filmed by Jacek Blawut, this is the last episode, and only the second one to be sans the Watcher. Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko), from episode six, makes a brief appearance at the post office.
The best episodes are 2, 3, and 9, with 1, 4, 6 and 10 having many good moments. Episodes 5, 7, and 8 are easily the weakest, and all because of their narrative flaws, manifested by subpar writing. Overall, The Decalogue could have used a few less sudsy situations and a bit more ‘realism,’ where things are talked of, but with emotional distance, as in reality. Some of the situations would have had more power had they occurred in the past. I think of Louis Malle’s great My Dinner With André, and the way that André Gregory draws in the viewer by the sheer power of description. The images he merely speaks of are left in one’s mind every bit as vividly as those images from special effects blockbusters. One can reflectively speak of trite situations and get away with it more easily, but to actually dramatize them is to unintendedly highlight the triteness. These flaws make the overall series merely excellent, rather than a ‘masterpiece, as has been claimed. Yet, it is one of the best tv series ever made, just a notch or two below Scenes From A Marriage, The Prisoner, and The World At War, but on par with Nowhere Man. The characters within, however, are so representative of their society that one feels that they truly are random choices, and that any of the other people in the apartment complex could have been chosen to feature, since we all are the stars of our own lives. Yet, we know they’re not random, because of certain little things- like the fact that all the children in the series - Pawel from episode one, Ania from episode seven, and Elzbieta at the time of her anecdote in episode eight, are six years old- why? The Watcher is also not a random interloper, since he always seem to be peripherally involved in the others’ lives. In that sense he resembles the dwarf Butler from The Prisoner, a figure who is always about things, but never involved in them.
As stated, the series is not a simplistic set of parables nor morality plays, but short stories, snapshots of Poland two decades ago. Yet, so many critics, then and now, got and get so much about the series wrong. Regarding episode two, Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert writes, ‘The film is about their separate moral challenges, and not about the two of them locked together by one problem.’ This is absolutely wrong. The doctor has no moral challenge; he violates his ethical responsibility. The reason he does so is interesting, but his is not the problem the film is about. That Ebert conflates the two says something about his own beliefs, but nothing of the film. He then writes, of episode nine, ‘She did the wrong thing (adultery) and the right one (ending it); his spying was a violation of her trust- and then there is an outcome where pure chance almost leads to a death, which was avoidable if either had been more honest.’ Well, no. There is no chance- pure or not, in the lover’s pursuit of the wife nor in the husband’s decision to suicide, and Ebert wholly misses the importance of the husband’s impotence and the male ego. In the Christian Science Monitor, critic David Sterritt claimed the cinematography was ‘expressive,’ even though it is the antithesis of that, as it is very static. Perhaps he confused these films with the Three Colors Trilogy? Of course, just as literary critics can be subject to off the rack blurbery, so can film critics, many of whom were as dense as Ebert and Sterritt.
But, it’s not just American critics who miss out on the film’s import. A Polish-Canadian film scholar named Christopher Garbowski, wrote in his book, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue Series, that the characters share a conscious or half-conscious desire to ‘transcend the details of their existence.’ Again, wrong! Simply desiring a move away from one’s lot is not in and of itself ‘transcendence.’ When I read such things I sometimes wonder if a) the critics have even seen or read whatever thing it is they’re reviewing, and b) do they even know the definitions of half the words they use? Yet, to be fair, critics are not the only ones who can botch assessments of works of art. The great American filmmaker Stanley Kubrick offered this treacle about The Decalogue: ‘These films have the very real ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them.…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.’ One of the very reasons this series fails the ‘masterpiece’ litmus test is because there are too many times you can see exactly what is coming. The most obvious times are in episodes one, five, and eight, where the ends are known within the first few minutes, even though determinism is not central to the series as a whole, which refutes the argument that this blatant obviousness was intentional.
The Decalogue is its own best explanation, but what it conveys is not always the best it could be. Such is the lot of all art. But, without its failures and successes, the greatness that Kieślowski achieved in his final portion of his career would not have been so sublime. Failure and success can thus be both complex and simple. Discerning the two from the two is called criticism.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the New York Review website.]
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