Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog aired on Polish television in 1989, a limited series of the kind that streaming services regularly embark now. Each of its ten episodes takes a theme from one of The Bible’s Ten Commandments. The themes are applied loosely, but each finds its characters in an ethical quandary that they have to entangle. The series embodies many abstract ideas, one of them the notion of arthouse cinema as its own kind of intimidating Mount Sanai to climb before wisdom is bestowed.
Before running the series last year, the only episode I’d seen (IV) I watched as part of a college film class, complete with a gushing professor pointing out symbolism in recurring images, explaining the meaning in frames like a Dan Brown character decoding clues in a Caravaggio.
And so I thought the Dekalog a purely academic exercise. But plenty of movies that seemed like work in my younger days I’ve approached again with better appreciation and context. And when I finally watched it, I discovered that, well, it’s not not that, at least not in every episode.
For one thing, there’s a historical context to the series as a whole. I have only shaky idea of where Polish society was in the late 1980s and the circumstances of Polish residents living in the austere concrete building where most of the episodes connect. I did have a grounding in the religious aspect but if that’s not an education you grew up with, it’d be another barrier to climb. It’s also filmed and acted in a way that isn’t vague, except in a few intentional ambiguities, but doesn’t draw typically draw attention to its heightened stakes. There are recurring motifs and symbols and feelings expressed in strong looks rather than dialog.
So they can be academic in a pejorative sense – the least enjoyable entries feel like they’re inviting the kind of hateful match-the-symbol-with-the-subtext worksheet approach to serious literature taught in high school English. But they’re just as often academic in the positive sense of creating a text to be studied, tested, and argued. The best translate morality into action and the act of trying to reapply the story to the moral question is a refreshing mental and spiritual exercise.
The best episodes balance the challenge I perceived from my first brush with them with the unexpected. It’s a worthwhile whole, elevating the weaker episodes and only enhancing the best.
I’ve attempted here to rank the episodes NOT from worst to best – though that’s a fun argument (here’s that ranking, for the curious). Instead, they’re ordered according to how much the episode fulfilled my preconceptions of the Dekalog: from the most dense images and moments to grapple with to the most playful or accessible. My favorites are sprinkled throughout. Dekalog’s best chapters have a balance of intellectualism and drama, challenging the brain and the heart.
II – Thou Shalt Not Take the Lord’s Name in Vain
This is seemingly the most opaque of the ten, or possibly just the stingiest with material over its fifty minutes (as Mike D’Angelo points out, the story is summarized in just a few minutes in episode VIII). Dorota is caught between two loves, a husband in a coma and an unseen lover whose child she’s carrying. She wants the doctor to tell her definitively whether her husband will live or die, which will determine whether she will have an abortion. The doctor is reluctant to give information, but his reluctance is open to interpretation. Maybe it’s medical pragmatism, maybe it’s hard-won wisdom from a lifetime of surprises which he relates to his housekeeper in amusing, sorrowful anecdotes. It’s possible he has an agenda around abortion, it’s also possible he just doesn’t know.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of production elements and cutaways that have the weight of capital-S Symbols. The doctor’s wardrobe suggests a priest, which certainly adds to his role as an intermediary between the earthly and the afterlife. There’s also dripping water, a crashing cup of coffee, and a captive bee in a very long close-up that demands interpretation rather than facilitating connection.
VIII – Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness
This is the most literally academic episode, centering on an ethics professor and beginning during her class discussion. We’re even assigned homework, as the backstory – involving the professor’s choices during World War II when she refused to help a young Jewish child, claiming she couldn’t lie about the child being baptized – gets related in the class as one of the hypotheticals for her students to discuss. The implicit assignment to try and understand another point of view is made explicit.
This is a pretty solid entry partially because it’s instructive on how the series as a whole is probably best enjoyed in groups. The discussions are greater than the game of interpreting symbols and technique. Here we’re presented with a crooked picture getting righted and a seemingly random conversation with a contortionist. Deciding that maybe these things suggest a futility in constant correction and a freedom in flexibility (and then wondering if I’m being too literal or Kieślowski is being too obvious) is less satisfying to me than a debate about the plot after the movie.
VII – Thou Shalt Not Steal
“Can you steal something that’s yours?” asks Majka. This episode considers possession, what it means to have it, what it means to deserve it. That Majka is talking about a child – the daughter she birthed but was raised as her sister – raises the stakes on the question. The blissfully unaware young girl at the center of this conflict, Ania, is the result of a fling Majka had when she was 16 with her teacher Wojtek. To further complicate matters Majka’s mother Ewa was the headmistress of this school. Majka insists on raising Ania and Wojtek escaped prosecution by leaving his job to become a deep woods teddy bear maker. It’s a tangle of layers of dominance by the characters, with Ewa at the top and the teddy bears, the only things here that can really be passively possessed, at the bottom.
The film parcels out information so you’re still getting backstory halfway through, stunting the focus on the present. Sin first, context later is a solid dramatic decision, but on the whole everything is constructed theme-first, even at the expense of story. Ania is a darling prop that falls asleep for long stretches of the day so she can be maneuvered or discussed without interference. A child in peril creates drama naturally, and only the final stretch realizes this aspect.
V – Thou Shalt Not Kill
With something based on The Ten Commandments, I expected a fair amount of preaching, but this is the only one with a message on its mind. Killing on the streets, naturally, falls beyond the pale, but Kieślowski argues against state-sponsored killing is as well. By refusing to cut away from the action in either the murder or the execution of the murderer, the film condemns without equivocating. One was the act of a single psychopath, the other by a collective psychopathy.
By itself, it’s a great parable. As a part of The Dekalog, it breaks the format in interesting ways. Up to Part V we’ve seen the regular joes wrestle with the Commandments, learning the consequences of fracturing or ignoring them. Kieślowski puts killing in a separate category telling the story of a criminal rather than a soldier or a cop. A resident of the high rise is the victim, when they could have easily been perpetrator, prosecutor or defender. This isn’t to the detriment of the film, but it’s an interesting departure from the format that suggests Kieślowski would rank this Commandment higher on his personal list.
I – Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me
The Ten Commandments as handed down by God don’t mess around out of the gate, and neither does Kieślowski’s ten-part television tribute. This may have the best balance of story and symbol. The story concerns trusting a computer program’s calculation about the thickness of ice before allowing a child to skate on it. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to suggest that this does not go as planned. It’s the rare sort of tension found in the best horror films, where you both want to know the resolution, but dread having it presented to you.
We’re also introduced to a recurring character. Artur Barciś plays a silent man who witnesses events in nearly every episode. Here he’s present from the start of the film, he’s there when the ice is being tested (nearby there’s a host that could be described as heavenly, lines of parishioners outside the local church). He’s conspicuously absent from his fire when the lake proves fallible. Did he skip out? Did he leave before or after the going got rough? Or is he just harder to spot in the crowd? Maybe he’s in the lake? This is the most pointed use of Barciś as some sort of cosmic force and his role seem fundamental to how one sees the episode. Is this a commandment wholly for our safety – only one thing is reliable, consult the man by the fire – or is there an implied “or else”?
VI – Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery
Whenever anybody peers from their apartment into a neighboring one, we’re thinking Rear Window, and the lovely thing about that movie is the thought isn’t an unpleasant distraction. No murder here, just extra attention lavished on a Miss Torso aka Magda. Tomek watches her through a telescope every day, going so far as to set an alarm for when she comes home. She frequently has men over but Tomek can’t stand to watch when they start to get physical. Sometimes he intervenes by reporting a gas leak.
Without the shape of the rest of the project, this would be pretty standard coming-of-age stuff. As part of the Dekalog, the familiar sight of a young man under the guidance of a more experienced woman puts focus on the act of breaching transparent barriers represented in a motif of windows and lenses. Sin is less a cause begging for an effect and more a name for the glass that keeps us protected but can also keep us isolated.
IX – Thou Shalt Not Covet They Neighbor’s Wife
Roman tells his wife Hanka (Ewa Błaszczyk) about his impotence diagnosis and tells her he understands if she takes a lover. Luckily he’s not the only softie in the relationship because his young and gorgeous wife assures him they can share love outside the physical act. Then she grinds on his leg while he stares at the ceiling.
This episode is fraught with the usual banquet of implied questions for your consideration. Can there be love without sex (and vice-versa)? Roman seems enticed by a beautiful young patient and we wonder about their relationship if he didn’t have his diagnosis – is he more virtuous for having that door closed to him? The episode doesn’t sit back on these questions this time but has characters act on their own conclusions. The questions are dramatized as much or more than moralized – and as heavy-handed symbolism goes, an unnecessary scene where Roman man shoves a gas nozzle into a car is closer to a ZAZ moment than Fellini.
IV – Thou Shalt Honor Thy Father and Mother
A lost message from a dead wife and mother reveals that college-aged Anka may not really be the daughter of Michał. The uber-Freudian premise – that if your father or daughter were suddenly an acceptable romantic option, you’d have to grapple with that – makes an episode that doesn’t easily fit the Dekalog mold. For my money, one might change the diapers of the person you fall in love with, but only if these events happen in reverse order. It’s compelling drama for these characters, but they’re not quite specific enough to ward off the creeping feeling that the film is making some odd assumptions about parenthood (and this is after all a series based on universal provisos).
But it’s well-acted and well-staged drama with its many visual flares adding to character and incident, few given totemic weight. It has the most melodramatic performance in a typically reserved series from Adrianna Biedrzynska as the daughter. She plays up the tears and the cringing all of which really stands out after so many reserved performances. It makes her seem more kidlike, and where she lands between maturity and child is the fascinating, icky, problem at the center of this.
III – Thou Shalt Observe the Sabbath and Keep It Holy
D3 has an abundance of dry humor and even a car chase. “I didn’t recognize you,” deadpans the bereaved father from Part I to a white-bearded, red-suited man on Christmas Eve. We also get a sleepy hospital attendant and a skateboarding security guard. And a car chase! Coming after the heaviness of the first two entries, it’s enough to make this one feel like Hellzapoppin’, almost enough to distract from the depressing thought that even our Santa Claus is a morose adulterer.
Santa, aka Janusz the cab driver, joins his former lover with a story about his taxi, the family’s livelihood, getting stolen. His wife obviously doesn’t buy this for a moment but she lets him go. The cabbie and lover spend the evening looking for her missing husband and exchanging flirty repartee like “How often I’ve pictured your faces crushed by truck wheels.” It’s a night of pursuing rushes except the one you’d think. Gradually the real nature of the situation and intentions at play reveal themselves, but the bitter doesn’t overwhelm the sweet. Throughout there’s a motif of shots outside looking in, celebratory sounds muffled behind glass. If elevating the importance of certain days fosters connection, it also makes missing connections felt more acutely. Yeah, there’s a dozen Hallmark movies that make the same point, but it doesn’t make it less true.
X – Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s… Stamp Collection
As the final chapter, I expected something like a grand statement on the Commandments or the human condition. Instead, we open on a loud, naughty punk frontman urging his audience to break all the Commandments. As the audience whips themselves into a frenzy imagining all the blaspheming and coveting they can do, the performer’s incongruously besuited brother tries to push his way through the crowd. Their father, an Olympian and shut-in, has died, leaving them a house with the windows nailed shut. They discover his ridiculously valuable stamp collection.
There’s a lot going on in this setup, befitting a gentle departure from the other episodes. Entries I through IX while rich in their implications were generally spare in their details and straight-faced in their presentation. X’s comedy is heightened to a level not seen in the other episodes, playing up the contrast between the brothers as they sift through their father’s legacy. It’s still real and a bit painful at times. Mortality and money add weight to the scenario. But the finale spends the least amount of time in darkness than any of the others. As sins go, philately sounds a lot worse than it is.
It’s all tragic, funny and bittersweet. Maybe this is the grand statement after all.