In spring 2000 Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's masterpiece The Decalogue, after being tangled up in rights and distribution disputes for nearly a decade, was finally released to video in North America. I have been enamored of Kieslowski's cinematic vision since the early '90s. I read hints about a series of films that surpassed everything else Kieslowski had done--a tour de force that, on top of its extraordinary qualities as film, took on the Ten Commandments. The films, premiered on Polish television in 1989, showed up at film festivals, but never played regular and ongoing runs in the U.S. Kieslowski died in 1996, unleashing a fresh round of publicity about his work, with critic after critic averring that The Decalogue was the crown jewel of the master's oeuvre. All I could do was wait, tormented by frustrating notes here and there on the Web about how video rights to The Decalogue remained stuck in an indefinite legal limbo. Then, finally, last spring ...
The idea for Kieslowski's masterwork was not his own. It came from a friend, lawyer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who met Kieslowski in 1982. Piesiewicz, who has described himself as "Christian rather than a Catholic" (whatever that means), said someone ought to make a series of films based on the Decalogue. Kieslowski was intrigued and eventually the two collaborated on screenplays for ten one-hour films. "Our idea," said the director, "was very simple. The Decalogue is one of the ethical foundations of today's society. Everyone is more or less familiar with the Ten Commandments, and agrees with them, but no one really observes them."
Each film features as main characters residents in the same apartment complex in Warsaw. This allows protagonists in one film to show up, occasionally and briefly, in other films. By such inconspicuous artifices, Kieslowski reminds his viewer that every life is a dramatic story, that behind the faces of such familiar strangers as postal clerks and anonymous neighbors lie "mysteries, secret zones in each individual," churning with yearnings, insecurities, and ethical quandaries.
Sin Lacking Glamour
Kieslowski, who himself professed to be an agnostic, was not interested in presenting religious object lessons or simple exemplary tales. Only a few characters are professing Christians, such as the loving Catholic aunt in Decalogue One; most have a remote if any sense of the living God; and others not only lie, commit adultery, steal, and kill, but struggle with incestuous feelings and voyeuristic urges. But Kieslowski's protagonists are, for the most part, not spectacular sinners. Kieslowski never glamorizes them or their actions. The illicit sex, non-graphic by contemporary standards, is desperate and anything but titillating. The violence is also not aestheticized. Decalogue Five, on "You shall not kill," depicts a pointlessly cruel teenager strangling and then bludgeoning a taxi driver to death, sloppily and brutally, and ends with an equally difficult scene of the youth's executionary hanging.
Nor are most characters presented with moral dilemmas in stark outlines. Kieslowski recognizes the difficulty, amid the complexities of modern, mass, technological, and bureaucratized life, of knowing when we are or are not breaking certain Commandments. Decalogue One (against idolatry) gives us a loving father who is a genius at computer programming. When his young son wants to go ice skating, the father plugs temperatures and body weights into his computer and calculates that it is safe for the boy to skate. He is a low-tech as well as a high-tech empiricist--and a genuinely caring and careful parent--so he also takes a stick onto the frozen lake himself, double-checking. Yet the next day his boy goes through the ice and drowns. The god of nature-subjugating science proves false. But it is impossible not to empathize with the father and, perhaps to a large degree, identify with him. At what point did his trust in technology go too far? At what point does my own?
Moral Choices with Consequences
What The Decalogue gives us, then, are plausible people plausibly adrift in a post-Christian and postmodern world, with their moral and spiritual lives tinted in varying shades of gray. But Kieslowski's moral skeleton has a backbone. These characters' choices have consequences (a son dies!), and those who make any advance on becoming better and more mature persons are those who grapple with one kind or another of repentance. Decalogue Eight (against false witness) features a university professor who lectures on ethics. One day, as she presents case studies, an American visitor offers her own case, one which, she says, has the advantage of having happened. She describes an eight-year-old Jewish girl turned away from shelter in a Polish Catholic home during World War II. The American is the Jewish girl, now grown up; the woman who turned her away is the professor. It turns out the professor had considerable "reason" for refusing the child--she and her husband were in the underground resistance, and taking the girl might endanger their efforts to save many others. Still, the (now) old woman says, it can never be right to fail a child, no matter how principled the motivation. On this basis, the Catholic professor and the Jewish woman are reconciled.
Fifty years, and maybe more, hence, The Decalogue will repay careful attention. Thank God we can watch--and rewatch--it today.
Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Prism 7 (July/August 2000): 6-7.
Rodney Clapp works for Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI, and lives in Wheaton, IL.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report