predates Netflix binging, appointment television, and “TV too good for TV.”
Arguably, the nearest precedent for Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ten-part mini-series
broadly inspired by the Ten Commandments would be Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s
epic Berlin Alexanderplatz—auteur filmmaking
applied to the television serial format—but the thematic and narrative
similarities are few and far between. Using the residents of a grim
Panelak-style Communist housing complex, Kieslwoski and co-screenwriter
Krzysztof Piesiewicz pose many thorny moral questions, but offer few answers in
the digitally restored Dekalog (trailer here), which screens theatrically
in two-hour, two-episode installments, starting this Friday in New York.
not try to apply one-to-one symmetry between the Commandments and the Dekalogs.
Neither were written for the sake of such comparisons. You could argue the
Commandments are all present in each Dekalog, but some are always more
pronounced. Nobody understood better than Piesiewicz the damage Communism
inflicted on the Polish soul, but neither free-thinking Krzysztof was really
interested in making political statements by the late 1980s. Instead, Dekalog is an examination of the
national conscience. Yet, it is hard to overlook the rationing and Spartan living
standards produced by Socialism.
the computer technology depicted in Dekalog:
One now looks prehistoric, it is arguably as timely today as it was in
1988. Widely thought to directly address the First Commandments (no false gods),
a professor who venerates science employs mathematical formulas and computer
models to determine when the lake will be sufficiently frozen for his son to
use his new ice-skates. Like many Dekalogs, it is a tragedy. While it is
unusually explicit in its religious symbolism, Dekalog: One establishes the dark look and ambiguous tone that hold
relatively consistent throughout the series/film. It also introduces Artur
Barciś playing an unnamed watcher-bystander, who briefly appears in seven more
Dekalogs (he was also supposed to have a walk-on in Dekalog: Seven, but production snafus conspired against it).
Dekalogs are created equal, but Dekalog:
Two is more equal than others. For one thing, it will be referenced in
detail several times during Dekalog:
Eight. It is also distinguished by the presence of Krystyna Janda (arguably
the most important screen actor of the late 1970s and early 1980s, known for
Wajda masterworks, like Man of Marble,
Man of Iron, and Without Anesthesia)
as Dorota Geller, an orchestra musician with a dilemma. She is still devoted to
her comatose husband, but she is pregnant with another man’s baby. As fate
dictates, the chief attending physician is also a resident of the complex. She
will repeatedly press the doctor for a hard and fast prognosis, so she can
determine whether she can keep the baby or have an abortion for her husband’s
sake. Critics try to force Dekalog: Two into
the Second Commandment, regarding taking the Lord’s name in vain, you can find
plenty to apply to the Commandments prohibiting adultery and murder.
Dekalog: Three might be the most
self-contained, chronicling a family man’s chaotic Christmas Eve, as a former
married lover drags him across the city, ostensibly in search of her suicidal
husband. Arguably, it represents Kieslowski’s only traditional car chase, yet
it is still completely in keeping with the rest of the Dekalog. Believe it or not, this is thought to relate to
Sabbath-keeping, but again, the adultery Commandment seems more apt—not that it
contrast, Dekalog: Four is probably
as edgy as the series gets, focusing on a father-daughter relationship that
inevitably takes on provocative overtones when she discovers he is not her
biological parent. Similarly, Dekalog:
Five is easily the most violent installment, revolving around the senseless
impulse-murder of a cab driver. Kielsowski and Pieslowski would return to its
heavy themes of crime, punishment, and remorse, expanding the story into the
full feature, A Short Film About Killing.
Dekalog: Six was similarly
expanded into A Short Film About Love.
It could well be the most divisive Dekalog, but reaction to the tale of a woman
who turns the tables on her Peeping Tom more severely than she intended should
not simply cleave along gender lines. Be that as it may, as the alluring,
somewhat older Magda and the socially stunted Tomek, Grazyna Szapolowska and
Olaf Lubaszenko give two of Dekalog’s most
Dekalog: Seven might be the
weakest link, not merely due to Barciś’s absence, but also as a result of some
problematic motivations. The clearly unstable Majka has kidnapped her young
sister, Ania, who is really the daughter she was forced to relinquish to her
disdainful mother to avoid the stigma of scandal. She now intends to reclaim her
maternal role in Canada, but of course it will not be so simple.
Dekalog: Eight ranks alongside Dekalog: Two as series high points.
Dorota Geller’s story is duly related in the ethics class of Zofia, a spry
philosophy professor and a widely respected veteran of the Polish Resistance.
Elżbieta, a visiting American academic is also sitting in today. Unbeknownst to
Zofia, her guest is a Holocaust survivor, whom she once encountered under very complicated
the narrative of Dekalog: Nine feels
familiar, but it is actually a tangential supporting character that inspired
yet another film (in this case, the flat-out masterpiece, The Double Life of Veronique). Granted, this tale of a man freshly
diagnosed with impotency who becomes obsessively jealous of his attractive wife
has its analogs, but the execution is remarkably powerful.
Dekalog: Ten maintains the project’s
high standards. Appropriately, it also calls back to Dekalog: Eight. Kieslowski regular Jerzy Stuhr (The Scar, Camera Buff, Blind Chance) and
Zbigniew Zamachowski play the staid middle aged and younger punk rocker sons of
a recently deceased absentee father. In addition to his debts, they also
inherit a shockingly valuable stamp collection. Inevitably, this leads to
paranoia, which might not be so unfounded.
Familiar faces will reappear, but unlike
subsequent braided narratives, Kieslwoski and Piesiewicz are not obsessively
concerned with the interrelatedness of their major and minor characters. Still,
there is an awful lot to observe and absorb in Dekalog. In all honesty, it represents quite a challenge for
programmers. It is too heavy to binge-watch. Indeed, each Dekalog really demands time to decompress. Yet, all ten should
ideally be seen in close succession. The IFC strategy of screening two-Dekalog blocks over five weeks is
probably as good as any and better than most. Regardless, it is a towering achievement
and a deeply challenging moral and aesthetic statement. Very highly
recommended, Kieslowski’s Dekalog commences
this Friday (9/2) in New York, at the IFC Center.
Labels: Jerzy Stuhr, Krystyna Janda, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Polish Films