Undisputably a work of genius, the ten-hour Decalogue is a set of films made by a man who showed his astuteness in observation as well as his compassion, who understood the sad, silly, puzzling, infuriating, enchanting, discouraging and encouraging state of things that is the human condition.
After seeing Krzysztof Kieslowski's Dekalog / Decalogue, you will have spent some of the finest ten hours ever in the company of a genuine film masterpiece. I do not use that last word lightly, either. Get it and judge for yourself.
Kieslowski made some of the most probing, if occasionally, puzzling, films about the human soul, its strengths and weaknesses, trials and tribulations, redemption and damnation. Best known to US audiences for his other films that made the rounds of the arthouse theaters, The Double Life of Veronique (1991; with Irene Jacob in her finest performance yet) and Three Colors Trilogy: Blue / White / Red (1993; which brought to greater prominence some of the most interesting actresses today, including Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Jacob), he also directed these ten one-hour films for Polish television that aired in 1988.
All the stories involve tenants of one building in a Warsaw housing complex. They brilliantly showcase Kieslowski's profound understanding of life at the human level. Easily accessible episodes all, he sprinkles sparingly few hints of inscrutable symbolism hither and yon, which do not diminish in the least one's comprehension and enjoyment of the masterfully written, directed and acted mini-movies.
I will briefly discuss here a more or less random selection of episodes to give you an idea of the films. Straight drama fare comprises tales I through IX, while with Episode X, Kieslowski completes the set with a humorous story that makes no less of an impact as the ones before it.
I "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt not have other gods before me."
Pavel (played with adorable naturalness by Wojciech Klata), a bright young boy so smart that he helps his father beat a grown-up chess champion, asks questions about death and religion of his scientifically-inclined father and faith-inclined aunt. This episode appears to raise questions about the infallibility of science when Pavel and his father decide that the boy can skate safely on the frozen pond after making mathematical calculations on the computer. This piece will wring your heart, so be prepared.
II "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."
Dorota (Krystyna Janda, looking every bit the sophisticated symphony orchestra musician she plays) seeks, nay, demands an answer of her husband's physician (Aleksander Bardini) regarding the prognosis of her very sick spouse. The ethical dilemma concerns her current pregnancy, which resulted from an illicit liaison. Basing her decision to either get an abortion or not upon her husband's prognosis, she pressures the physician to almost play God regarding the unborn baby's life. (For those vanishingly few who care, the uniquely jowl-faced and bushy eyebrowed Bardini also appears in Double Life.)
IV "Honor thy father and thy mother."
Young university student Anka (Adrianna Biedrzynska) chances upon a sealed letter among her father's papers on which is written, "Not to be opened before my death." It contains a letter from her mother who died shortly after Anka's birth. Anka agonizes for a few days over whether or not to open it while her father goes away on a trip. What it reveals radically changes the relationship dynamics between father and daughter. Kieslowski keeps throwing you for a loop here, so don't think you see the final ending coming too soon.
VIII "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."
University professor Zofia (Maria Koscialkowska) is forced to confront her past during the war years when a visitor from New York, Elzbieta (Teresa Marczewska) attends Zofia's classes on ethics. The link between Elzbieta and Zofia dates back to the early 1940s, when Elzbieta, then a six-year-old Jewish girl, had sought shelter from the Nazis during the German occupation of Poland. Why did Zofia really act as she did at the time?
Surgeon Roman (Piotr Machalica) now suffers from impotence. You might say that he deserves it. Roman took many lovers while married to the much-too-understanding Hanka (Ewa Blaszczyk). After his confession to Hanka, he encourages her to take on a lover herself. Roman finds himself unprepared for the consequences of what follows. At times the suspense here borders on the unbearable. Very moving tale that shows the dangers of the mistaken assumptions we all make and the foolish decisions we take because of them. Strong hints of the then-forthcoming Double Life of Veronique story make their first appearance in this episode, by the way.
X "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods."
By this time, you might think Kieslowski a director alien to comedy. Wrong! The final episode presents a darkly comic tale of two unlike brothers whose lives change and whose priorities and loyalties shift when their father dies. To their amazement, the latter had amassed a little fortune in his collection of precious stamps. This realization by brothers Jerzy (Jerzy Stuhr) and Artur (Zbigniew Zamachowski) inspires new ideas for solving their money problems, including some very dangerous ones, too. [Incidentally, I recall seeing Stuhr in Kieslowski's 1979 Amator / Camera Buff, and both Zamachowski and Stuhr in the also hilarious White of the Three Colors Trilogy (1988).]
I leave the remaining four episodes for to you to discover on your own. These examine the themes of voyeurism, capital punishment, "ownership" of a child, and desperate lovers in an equally thoughtful and questioning manner.
Every mini-movie unfolds in unhurried fashion, as Kieslowski lets you figure out on your own who's who and what's what through the subtle clues revealed via the actors' small actions and dialogue. This makes for a more active viewing experience that keeps you riveted to the screen. Many a shot boasts some trademark Kieslowskiesque touches, such as figures distorted when seen through a glass bowl or window, and a bent old woman tossing trash into a dumpster.
Nothing here--not the spoken words, not the gestures and movements, not the pace--rings false in the entire Dekalog. Kieslowski, together with his longtime collaborator, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, wrote the faultless screenplays. Just as he does later in his Trilogy, Kieslowski constructs an intersecting web among the building inhabitants from different episodes, as characters from one story walk through another in brief cameos, or are mentioned in passing.
Curiously, one unexplained element which I won't mention appears in all but the last episode. I have a few ideas as to what this fleeting figure might symbolize, but I guess each viewer will have to figure it out by him or herself. I had hoped, unwisely, that the final installment would shed light upon it, but Kieslowski works differently from any other filmmaker I know, and tying up all loose ends exists not in his film "musts". This simply forms part of his unique cinematic style.
Zbigniew Preisner composed the restrained music that occasionally transforms into hauntingly beautiful sounds (especially in Episode IX). Kieslowski uses Preisner's work judiciously, only to enhance the mood in his tales. The inside joke, too, about the "recently discovered old Dutch composer," Van den Budenmayer, pops up in episode IX. (For those not privy to the joke, no such composer existed in real life. Preisner wrote the music for several Kieslowski films, including that credited to one "Van den Budenmayer." There. I said it. A "secret" known to all Kieslowski fans has been revealed. But perhaps the "secret" has ceased to remain so for some time now?)
Naturally, everyone speaks Polish here, and the white English subtitles are thinly bordered in black, making them supremely easy to read. No attempt was made to dress up or fancify the unmistakable TV quality of the picture (albeit as seen on a set with a very clear reception).
The DVD boxed set comes as three separate discs, each with its own plastic box and respective blurbs:
Disc One - Episodes I through III
Disc Two - Episodes IV through VI
Disc Three - Episodes VII through X
(You have to flip Disc Three over to view Episodes IX and X, by the way).
This no-frills DVD set offers only the different chapter headings for each episode. I had really hoped for at least some information on Kieslowski, his biography, some bit about the making of the series, but the absence of such details detracts in no way from enjoyment and appreciation of the mini-movies themselves.
I wouldn't advise attempting to see all ten episodes in one sitting, unless you plan to widen your rear end and dry out your eyeballs. Although each episode can be viewed independently of the others and in any sequence, you'll experience the most fulfillment if you see them in numerical order. Take your time with each one, for every story will cause you to ponder the many questions each raises. Better yet, watch it with a friend or group of friends, and see what discussions arise after each episode.
Two of the episodes here, V - "Thou shalt not kill." and VI - "Thou shalt not commit adultery." later saw release in extended versions entitled, respectively, A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. I have yet to see either film.