It is undoubtedly one of the most mature and sophisticated filmic treatments of religion in recent history. In the 10-part 1989 TV series Dekalog (English: The Decalogue) – the grandest accomplishment of the influential Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski (1941-1996) – ancient Biblical law and modern European life converge, surely – although, at times, not very smoothly. Each episode is an exploration of and commentary on one of the Ten Commandments.
But here the age-old injunctions are not preached within ecclesiastical arenas. Instead, they are lived out within and critically interrogated through the seemingly secular quotidian atmosphere of an apartment complex in Warsaw. There are very few explicit references to concrete, organised Christianity – icons or scripture or sacraments.
Religion the institution has been dissolved; it impregnates and permeates every inch of space and moment in time. The effect achieved is shattering, sublime. The visual splendor of Dekalog is accompanied by musical excellence. Like Kieślowski’s other critically acclaimed and highly stunning works The Double Life of Veronique (1991) and The Three Colors trilogy (1993-94) – it features a soundtrack by Zbigniew Preisner (born 1955), the notable Polish composer of contemporary classical music.
Watch the trailer for a new 2016 restoration:
Each commandment in the Dekalog is examined in an independent one-hour film (ranging from the tragic to the melancholic to the comic) that deals with a set of characters living in the nondescript housing project. Sometimes the protagonist of one story appears as an extra in another story. The distinct episodes are connected by visual devices – milk is everywhere, in bottles, in glasses, in cans – as though a symbol of the soul or the human capacity for spiritual things. Also, a mysterious, nameless man – played by the actor Artur Barciś (born 1956) – appears in most of the episodes, usually at critical moments. He becomes a homeless man, a tram driver, an orderly in the hospital, a construction worker. He is frequently near the protagonists but never directly participates in their personal narratives. Perhaps his presence connotes something supernatural. He could be an angel, a messenger from the Divine.
The characters of Dekalog – old and young, male and female – grapple with a host of moral and ethical issues – the quest for knowledge and ultimate allegiance, life and death, truth and lies, fidelity and infidelity in relationships, sexuality, theft and crime. They desperately and arduously try to arrive at meaning. Their ordinariness immediately affects the viewer. Though confused and unheroic, they are all likable.
The broad universal themes of Dekalog are explored in the more local and particular socio-political framework of the Communist Polish People’s Republic (read about the history of Poland here). While politics is not a major issue in the short films, its impact can be perceived in the austerity of the apartment life portrayed. Paul Coates, a professor emeritus of film studies at Western University, Ontario, explains in his recent essay on the film for Criterion:
According to Kieślowski, the series originated in a suggestion from Krzysztof Piesiewicz, the coscenarist on his previous film, No End (1985), and a lawyer whose faith respected the Catholic Church in a way Kieślowski’s own was never able to do. Nevertheless, Kieślowski had once remarked that observing the Ten Commandments would change the tenor of Polish life. The disorientation he and Piesiewicz saw around them suggested a need for some universally acknowledged guidelines, or at least a penetrating set of looks toward where people thought they had last seen such a thing. That disorientation was not just a local Polish hopelessness in the aftermath of Solidarity’s [Polish trade union founded in 1980] snuffing out by the martial law imposed on December 13, 1981, however, as Kieślowski reported also encountering it while traveling elsewhere in the world at the time, and even in the mid-1990s would describe all his films, “from the first to the most recent ones,” as being “about individuals who can’t quite find their bearings.”
The series’ erasure of such contemporary Polish realia as politics, breadlines, and ration cards resulted in criticism on its domestic broadcast as being removed from life, though that partial removal was recognized elsewhere as a form of universalization, giving Kieślowski’s work new accessibility and breadth of applicability. But although quite a few Poles, or at least Polish critics, may have viewed it as not really documenting anything, Dekalog in fact extends his earlier documentary project in multiple ways, as description feeds into speculation.
Watch a clip from Dekalog I below. Here the son of a university professor questions him on death. In this episode, based on the first commandment – I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me – the “god”, the idol in question is cold and mechanical scientific reasoning that has no room for the transcendent mystery that is “God”.
On the film’s exposition of the commandments, Professor Joseph Kickasola of Baylor University, Texas wrote in his 2004 book The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski: The Liminal Image:
Regardless of one’s theological commitments, the commandments demarcate ten universal arenas of moral choice. These are the loci of our most important decisions as humans, and Kieślowski shows how rich and complicated these arenas are. No theological dogma is trumpeted here, but it is not a stretch to say that Kieślowski shows respect for the Judeo-Christian tradition, even if only by acknowledging that the commandments continue to haunt us. Respect is not equal to adherence, however. Several times Kieślowski seems to be indicating how difficult the commandments are to keep, or even understand, amid the complexities of modern life. All the episodes might be seen as stories in Plato’s cave. Occasionally, the characters get to turn and see the ideal, even if only in the periphery. Most of the time, however, they encounter shadows of the truth, lots of lies, and the mundane sounds of their surroundings.
Kickasola then made a table that will be helpful for the viewer:
|Commandment (Roman Catholic Enumeration)||Ideal||Kieślowskian Theme|
|I am the Lord thy God… thou shalt not have other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image… Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.||The sanctity of God and worship||Idolization of science|
|Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.||The sanctity of speech||Names as fundamental to identify and moral choice; the importance of one’s word in human life.|
|Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.||The sanctity of time||Time designations (holidays, day/night etc.) as repositories of meaning|
|Honor thy father and thy mother.||The sanctity of authority||Familial and social relationship as regulators of identity|
|Thou shalt not kill.||The sanctity of life||Murder and Punishment|
|Thou shalt not commit adultery.||The sanctity of love||The nature and relation of love and passion|
|Thou shalt not steal.||The sanctity of dominion||Possession as human need and temptation|
|Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.||The sanctity of truth||The difficulties of truth amid desperate evil|
|Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.||The sanctity of contentment||Sex, jealousy, and faithfulness|
|Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.||The sanctity of contentment||Greed and relationships|
Watch a talk on Dekalog by the late American film critic Roger Ebert for more information:
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s interview with English subtitles:
Journal of Religion & Film published by the University of Nebraska Omaha
The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film (2010) by John Lyden (editor)
Image and Video Credits:
Featured still might be property of Sender Freies Berlin (SFB)/Telewizja Polska (TVP)/Warner Bros. Roger Ebert’s 2001 video belongs to the Ebert Company. A Short Film About Decalogue: An Interview with Krzysztof Kieślowski (1996) was written and directed by Eileen Anipare, Jason Wood (UK). Everything used for illustrative/educational purposes only. No copyright infringement intended.