Krzysztof Kieslowski had for many years been making films in Poland, largely with the backing of the Polish government. It appears that, unlike most other Communist regimes in the 1970s, the Polish authorities were prepared to tolerate political dissent within their visual arts, provided that it remained subtle, and several of Kieslowski's early works can be seen as political metaphors.
Genesis of the Dekalog
With his reputation within the country growing, Kieslowski was commissioned to produce a television drama for the state-run TV channel. From the start, he appears to have planned ten episodes, each an hour long, based loosely on the Ten Commandments (known in religious literature as the Decalogue - Dekalog is the Polish spelling). His initial idea was that he and his collaborator, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, would write the scripts, but each episode would be handed to a different up-and-coming Polish director as a showcase for their talents. In the end, Kieslowski abandoned this idea, preferring instead to direct himself and use a different cinematographer for each story.
Although Kieslowski took the Ten Commandments as his inspiration, they are never referred to on-screen. The episodes are simply numbered; even on close study, it becomes clear that the Commandments that Kieslowski has used are not exactly the same as those that appear in the scriptures. Some episodes seem to have several possible interpretations of which Commandment they refer to, whereas others seem to refer to Commandments that are not part of the Bible at all.
Each episode forms a self-contained storyline. Kieslowski seems to have been at pains to avoid the traditional 'moralising' that might have been expected of this structure. It would be more accurate to describe the Dekalog as a series of meditations on the consequences of obeying or disregarding the Commandments.
From this initial concept, it may come as something of a surprise that the entire series is set within a Polish housing block. The series was first broadcast in 1988, and, though no dates are given on-screen, it appears to be set in 1988 too. Each of the major characters lives on this estate (though often the stories take them outside it). Some of the most intriguing touches to reward repeated viewings are the brief cameo appearances of characters in episodes after (or before - Kieslowski clearly intends this series to be viewed more than once) their own.
Every episode is filmed in Polish (though available on video with English subtitles) and all bar one have a slow, thoughtful style. Much thought has clearly gone into the expressionist imagery; far too much to cover in this one entry.
Having faith in his mathematician father's calculations that the ice on the lake will have frozen solid, a young boy goes skating, falls through the ice and drowns, leaving the father to deal with his grief.
A pregnant woman - who had previously believed herself to be sterile - approaches her doctor. Her husband is seriously ill, but her baby is not his. If he will live, she will have an abortion without him knowing, and lose what may be her only chance to have a child. The doctor decides to lie to her and tell her her husband is going to die.
A man spends Christmas Eve with a former lover rather than with his family. She claims that her husband has gone missing and they search the city for him. She resorts to increasingly desperate ploys to prevent him from going home. Finally, she reveals that she was divorced recently, and had resolved to kill herself if she had to spend the night alone.
A young woman is living with her father after her mother's death. One day she finds a sealed letter to her from her mother, which her father had been hiding. She tells her father she has read it and that it said he was not her father. This revelation leads to a change in the relationship between them. Eventually, she admits she never opened the letter and they burn it - but the charred fragments seem to indicate that her guess about its contents was correct.
A young vagrant kills a taxi-driver. Though his guilt is clear, his idealistic new lawyer argues against the death penalty. He loses the case, and the vagrant is executed. This is possibly the best and certainly the most emphatic episode, and remains one of the great anti-capital punishment statements.
An adolescent postal-worker becomes infatuated with a woman living in the apartment opposite. He even takes a job as a milkman to be near her. When she rejects him, he attempts suicide.
A former teenage mother, Majka, now in her 20s, kidnaps her own daughter, Ania. Majka's mother, who had been raising Ania as her own child, searches for them and ultimately Ania runs to her as Majka leaves on a train.
Elzbieta, a former Jewish refugee, tracks down the woman who refused her sanctuary during the Holocaust. This woman, Zofia, is now a lecturer in ethics. She learns that Zofia's religious belief that bearing false witness (lying) was wrong meant that she felt unable to take Elzbieta in, even though Zofia's refusal put Elzbieta's life in grave danger.
Learning he is impotent, a man encourages his wife to have an affair. His jealousy then drives him to attempt suicide. Though his wife has had an affair, it is ended by this point, and she returns to him.
In a sudden switch in style, this episode is played as a black comedy. Two brothers inherit their father's stamp collection when he dies. They sell one of the stamps before discovering that it is almost unique and worth a fortune. Their efforts to recover it from the unscrupulous dealer who conned them lead them further into trouble, and ultimately they lose everything and even begin to suspect each-other of wrong doing.
The Ten Commandments
Kieslowski did not intend each episode to have a specific Commandment attached. Most episodes deal with more than one Commandment. They were intended to illustrate a moral dilemma, not to explain or promote the Commandment - indeed, only one episode (5) could be said to unequivocally support a Commandment. For reference, the Catholic version of the Decalogue is as follows.
The Biblical Commandments
- You shall have no other gods before me
- Do not take the Lord's name in vain
- Respect the Sabbath
- Honour your father and mother
- Do not kill
- Do not commit adultery
- Do not steal
- Do not bear false witness
- Do not covet your neighbour's wife
- Do not covet your neighbour's property
The Young Man
In every1 episode, a mysterious figure appears. Sometimes he merely walks past; at other times he appears inside locked rooms and yet goes unnoticed by the other characters. He never speaks, but he always seems to be watching, usually at the most pivotal moments of the episode. The scripts simply refer to him as 'The Young Man'. It seems certain that this figure is representative of something; it is less clear exactly what. Some say that he represents the director, or the audience, or even God. Given the basis of the series, the latter seems most possible; yet the watcher never intervenes in any way. Kieslowski's God, whether represented by the Young Man or not, is clearly not an interventionist.
Episodes 5 and 6 were re-edited into slightly longer forms and given a cinematic release as A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. Although both benefit from the extra length afforded by the feature format, both are essentially unchanged. Nevertheless, these films marked Kieslowski's transition from an obscure Polish director to an internationally respected figure. The whole Dekalog is occasionally screened in movie theatres.
All the actors featured in the Dekalog are Polish, and (except for those who also appeared in later Kieslowski films) are virtually unknown in the West. Each episode also has a different cast to the others. For the record, some of the principals are:
- Artur Barcis - Young Man
- Henryk Baranowski - Krzystof
- Wojciech Klata - Pawel
- Krystyna Janda - Dorota
- Aleksander Bardini - The Doctor
- Daniel Olbrychski - Janusz
- Maria Pakulnis - Ewa
- Adrianna Biedrzynska - Anka
- Janusz Gajos - Michal
- Miroslaw Baka - Jacek
- Krzysztof Globisz - Piotr
- Grazyna Szapolowska - Magda
- Olaf Lubaszenko - Tomek
- Anna Polony - Ewa
- Maja Barelkowska - Magda
- Maria Koscialkowska - Zofia
- Teresa Marczewska - Elzbieta
- Ewa Blaszczyk - Hanka
- Piotr Machalica - Roman
- Jerzy Stuhr - Jerzy
- Zbigniew Zamachowski - Artur
Kieslowski followed the Dekalog with a film called The Double Life of Véronique, then the >Three Colours Trilogy. Having completed these last three films, and seen them released in 1992 to massive critical acclaim, Kieslowski announced his retirement to smoke and read literature (which he always regarded as a superior art form to film-making). Within 18 months, he was dead. Work continues on his unmade Heaven, Hell and Purgatory trilogy.