A cinematic rendering of the Ten Commandments
I had the opportunity to see Dekalog, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s acclaimed series of ten hour-long films based on the Ten Commandments, when it was released in theaters in a newly restored version last fall. Made for Polish television in 1989, Dekalog is generally regarded as his best work (though his Three Colors trilogy is also well-known to film connoisseurs), and was included on the Vatican’s 1995 list of forty-five great films under the heading of “Values”.
While Kieslowski was not a believer, the idea of making a series based on the Decalogue was suggested by his friend and collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who was himself Catholic (and ultimately co-wrote Dekalog). Kieslowski himself once remarked that life in Poland would be very different if people observed the Ten Commandments.
Accordingly, the films do not so much deal with the commandments explicitly—according to Roger Ebert, the individual films were not meant to be tied to individual commandments—as they depict the immensely messy, agonizing and sinful situations that occur when the commandments are not followed, always with a sense that there is another way. The commandments are relevant and applicable but not illustrated in straightforward morality-tale fashion. These are concrete and irreducible stories about human beings in ethical and moral conflicts that are particularly recognizable to modernity.
The films all feature beautiful cinematography, haunting music and excellent dramatic performances. They do not tell us too much, conveying a sense of the mystery of the human heart and conscience that one may penetrate on multiple viewings but never fully exhaust. The trailer for the restored version gives a good sense of the aesthetic:
The ten episodes are all set in one apartment block in Soviet Poland, and there are a few recurring characters to give a sense of community and continuity, but each episode stands on its own. The stories are heavily melancholic, though Kieslowski gives us some relief by sending us out with a comedy in the last episode, about two brothers who are caught up in paranoia after their father dies and bequeaths to them his immensely valuable stamp collection.
Several of the stories concern adult-child relationships. One of my favorites was the very first, about a university professor, an atheist and rationalist who believes everything real can be quantified, and his young son, a scientifically precocious boy who has questions about life and death that his father cannot satisfactorily answer. (An image of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa plays an important role in this story, and to a lesser extent a photograph of then-Pope John Paul II.)
In an essay for Criterion, Paul Coates illuminates another pervasive theme of the series:
Although many of the Dekalog films have three main characters, their primary focus is on the interaction of two of them. The reality that emerges is one of lone figures who come to relate excessively to one another, inevitably suffering disillusionment, anger, even despair. In such a relationship, where only one other is ‘significant,’ the temptation to demand of that person, idolatrously, what only God can supply may be all but irresistible, particularly if unconscious. If this is most evident in the love relations at the heart of Dekalog: Four, Six, and Nine (at whose end Hanka says to her husband, Romek, ‘God, you’re there’), even strangers in certain of the films may be put in godlike positions, required to answer questions of life or death, as when Jacek in Dekalog: Five asks if a photograph can show whether someone is alive, or, in Dekalog: Two, Dorota demands that the doctor pronounce with certainty on the fate of her husband. It is as if the characters seek God unconsciously by outraging his commands, seeking to compel him to respond.
The most significant recurring character in Dekalog is a mysterious young man who appears at some point in almost every episode, silently observing, usually (with at least one exception) with a sense of sadness and disappointment. Does he represent God? Perhaps; Kieslowski wrote in an essay, “I don’t know who he is; just a guy who comes and watches us, our lives. He’s not very pleased with us.” In an interview, he speculated: “He has no influence on our lives. Maybe he gave us this life, and he expects us to cope somehow, but we can’t. We make mistakes, do filthy things and he looks with sorrow at his imperfect creations.” But when asked if the young man was God, Kieslowski reiterated, “I don’t know. It’s up to you…. You have to find out who he is, because he is there only for you. To someone else, he’s someone else.”
Later in the same interview, he emphasized that the filmmakers’ goal was “to turn every commandment into a challenge for a human being” and to ask:
Is it possible to adhere to these commandments and to truly abide by them? …Isn’t modern life so complicated that abiding by the Commandments is practically impossible? ...Is a human being strong enough? If a man knows what he should do, why does he do something else?
He stressed that he and Piesciewizc hoped to avoid falling into “ethical relativism” while posing these questions about the mystery of iniquity.
Based solely on that interview, it might be tempting to assume that Kieslowki, an unbeliever with a strong sense of sin but without faith in God’s helping grace (“he has no influence on our lives”), in fact did not think human beings capable of adhering to the commandments. I think of Jacques Maritain’s contention that the Ten Commandments, giving to natural law the added weight of divine command, are therefore dangerous when detached from their Judeo-Christian context.
Kieslowski may have been pessimistic about the prospects for human fidelity to the Decalogue, but however he tended to interpret the identity and role of the mysterious young man, he had the good sense to be “agnostic” about it when making the film, allowing the viewer to decide. Though heavy with sadness, his stories do not strike me as fatalistic, and some of them offer real hope. They do not revel in darkness nor are they cynical; Kieslowski is as compassionate as he is just. These films are really human, and whatever they may lack they do not exclude.
The newly restored version of Dekalog is available from Criterion on DVD and Blu-Ray. See the Criterion page for details on the box set, but note that it seems to be cheaper on Amazon.
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