347 – The Decalogue (1989)


My journey through Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies has led me to some interesting films that I might not otherwise have seen; Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy is a master work of Indian cinema, but I wouldn’t have gotten to it without help. Likewise with Broken Blossoms. Invariably these movies have been interesting for what they represent, even if I didn’t necessarily connect with them as much as Roger did. My tour guide through film shakes things up a bit now, however, recommending The Decalogue, a 1989 Polish television mini-series from director Krzysztof Kieślowki. Each of the ten episodes – co-written by Kieślowski and now-member-of-Polish-parliament Krzysztof Piesiewicz – features a different cast of characters in and around a large apartment building enacting one of the Ten Commandments – Roman Catholic-style. This type of cinematic television was not uncommon in Europe in the 70’s and 80’s, and its influence is now crossing the Atlantic with the new wave of prestige anthology series like True Detective and Fargo.

“Decalogue I” kicks things off by tackling the old standby: “I am the Lord thy God… thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Well someone should have told Krzysztof (Henryk Baranowski) because he certainly idolizes his personal computer. He and his very intelligent son, Paweł (Wojciech Klata) use the machine to create models for everything, from math problems to the weather. Krzysztof (wonder where the writers came up with that name) isn’t too proud about his intelligence, however, as he is plenty supportive of his religious sister Irena (Maja Komorowska) who hopes to nourish a seed of spirituality in Paweł. Despite being relatively open-minded, Krzysztof must be punished for his transgression.

That punishment sets a deceptively negative tone for the series as a whole. The misery that befalls Krzysztof is the type of thing Lars von Trier would do to purposefully upset his audience. It is a strange way to start, as the rest of the episodes show more understanding toward characters who break the rules.

The second episode concerns itself with the declaration that “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Dorota Geller (Krystyna Janda) continually questions her neighbor, a doctor (Aleksander Bardini), about the prognosis of her husband (Olgierd Łukaszewicz), a patient at the doctor’s hospital. Infidelity has resulted in a pregnancy, and Dorota is at a loss for how to deal with it, claiming she will have an abortion should her husband recover. With such an outcome yet to be determined, the doctor must decide how to use the power inherent to his position in the way that is most right, even if that means taking advantage of the authority that accompanies his title.

“Decalogue I” addresses its subject pretty directly, but the connections become less literal as the series continues, which is mostly the case here. “Decalogue II” also establishes the basic pattern for the series as depictions of intimate two-person relationships that slowly reveal depth as the episodes run. This entry especially feels like it could be a play, but not in a bad way.

In “Decalogue III” a seemingly loving husband, Janusz (Daniel Olbrychski) spends Christmas Eve with his former lover Ewa (Maria Pakulnos), desperately searching the surprising city for Ewa’s missing husband. Leaving his wife (Joanna Szczepowska) under the impression that his taxi has been stolen, Janusz and Ewa search shelters, interrogate train station attendants, and get in car chases, all while rehashing the affair that ended three years earlier.

This is the first episode to really play with the commandments, as it seems like a perfect fit for adultery, but is actually an adaptation of “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The idea is that Janusz should be spending a precious night like Christmas Eve with his family, but has instead been roped into a living embodiment of the mistakes of his past. It certainly isn’t entirely clear, and kind of speaks to the fact that the connections to the specific commandments aren’t necessarily the most important aspect of each episode.

The fourth part of the series investigates the extent to which the idea of “honor[ing] thy father and thy mother” holds true. University student Anka (Adrianna Biedrzyńska) and her father, Michal (Janusz Gajos), are a close pair, almost like friends. When Michal leaves on a business trip, Anka discovers a letter for her, written by her late mother who passed away when Anka was born. She is conflicted about whether to read the missive, as Michal kept it hidden for so long But upon Michal’s return she reveals the contents of the letter, a piece of information that will alter the nature of their relationship.

When he decided to direct every episode of the series, Kieślowski chose to make them visually distinct by hiring different cinematographers for each part. “Decalogue IV”‘s Krzysztof Pakulski is the first to really try to new things, composing interesting shots including a long take in an elevator moving about the apartment building. Pakulski helps to make part four feel fresh compared to the three that come before, as do the performances by Biedrzyńska and Gajos, who manage to bring to life the idea of honoring not just your parents, but the very idea of parenthood.

Now we get to a saucy one: “thou shalt not kill.” “Decalogue V” starts in a fashion similar to most hyperlink movies of today. We meet three men – a curmudgeonly taxi driver (Jan Tesarz), a punk twenty-something (Mirosław Baka), a young lawyer (Krzysztof Globisz) – whose lives are about to collide during and after a violent attack. One man is murdered and another is sentenced to death. But is there much difference between either life-ending act?

This episode was clearly a deeply personal one for co-writers Kieślowski and Piesiewicz, the latter of whom was a lawyer at the time. It is also overtly political; the depiction of the violent crime is brutal and visceral, but the execution is just as abrupt and off-putting. Slawomir Idziak’s camera helps with this estranged tone, using isolating filters and angles to convey the moods of the characters, especially Baka’s Jacek. The message is a little heavy-handed, but the filmmaking covers it well.

The Krzysztofs get creative again in “Decalogue VI,” latching more onto the love aspect of “thou shalt not commit adultery” than anything else. Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) is a mailman and milk deliveryman who has taken to peeping on Magda (Grażyna Szapołowska), a slightly older woman who lives across from him. In observing her, Tomek has fallen in love, and when his deed is revealed he must struggle to convince Magda that his feelings are real.

There is some tricky gender stuff here – you can peep as long as you really love the peep-ee (though you might get punched in the face). If you can get past that you are left with an interesting episode, though it is the one that shows the most difficulty in connecting to its commandment, especially when episodes two and three (and more) address adultery so directly. This is surely a conscious decision by Kieślowski and Piesiewicz, but the reasoning is unclear. What is clear is the action of the episode, which is impressive as there are extended sequences lacking in dialogue; credit to Szapołowska who is adept at silent performance.

There is plenty of talking in the next part, centered around “thou shalt not steal.” Maja Barelkowska stars as Majka, a university student who kidnaps her much younger sister Ania (Katarzyna Piwowarczyk) and attempts to flee to Canada. Majka reveals that Ania is actually her daughter, and that Majka’s parents mother (Anna Polony) forced Majka to give the baby up to her to be raised by the grandparents.

The connection is quite clear here, though Majka does ponder whether you can “steal what is yours.” As much as Majka has stolen Ania from away grandmother Ewa (presumably not the same character from “Decalogue III”), she feels Ania was stolen from her in the first place. But the central theft is not the only one “Decalogue VII” is concerned with. Througout the episode, especially in the reunion between Majka and her child’s father (Boguslaw Linda), there is a sense that entire futures have been stolen by the very existence of Ania. She may have been a blessing for Ewa, but everyone else seems worse off. Such a life might be easier for Majka, if she could only be the mother she feels her daughter needs.

An unwitting mother-daughter relationship seems to form between the protagonists in “Decalogue VIII.” Zofia (Maria Koscialkowska) is a respected ethics professor, who classes consist of working through moral dilemmas with her students. One day a visitor from America (Teresa Marczewska) relays a story about a young Jewish girl who was turned away by sympathetic Catholic Poles in the early days of World War II because of an inability to break the eighth commandment and falsely declare the girl to be of Catholic origin. It becomes clear that Zofia was one of these Poles, and that Marczewska’s Elżbieta was the girl Zofia left to die. Zofia reveals that there is more to her side of the story, but that does not eradicate the guilt that she has felt ever since. Zofia tries to make it up to Elżbieta, while the younger woman struggles with all of the complicated feelings she has held onto for forty years.

While a solid entry in the series, part eight is most notable for two reasons. First, it directly addresses the commandment that is adapts, something that no other episode so self-awarely discusses. Secondly, this episode features the most obvious connections to other parts. Characters from earlier episodes have shown up in the background here and there, but one of Zofia’s students introduces the doctor’s internal conflict from “Decalogue II” in class. Aside from a recurring character played by Artur Barciś (we’ll get to him), it is the most overt bridge we have had, and this episode produces another strong connection to “Declaogue X.”

But we have one more stop before we get there. In the ninth installment Piotr Machalica plays Roman, a man who discovers he is permanently impotent. Upon revealing this to his wife, Roman grants Hanka (Ewa Błaszczyk) permission to find a lover. Hanka refuses, but Roman soon discovers she has taken one anyway.

“Decalogue IX” is an interesting depiction of the other side of “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” – the perspective of the man whose wife is coveted. Roman grapples with how much indignation he can have, seeing as how he cannot provide for the physical needs of his wife, but Hanka’s lies are just as problematic. The episode toys with a “Decalogue I”-esque tragedy, but Kieślowski and Piesiewicz seem to be lightening up a little, just in time for part ten, which is practically a comedy.

“Decalogue X” takes on the other half of the covet pair: “thou shalt not covet thy neightbor’s goods.” Upon the passing of a their father (a friend of Zofia’s from “Decalogue VIII”), odd-couple distant brothers Jerzy (Jerzy Stuhr) and Artur (Zbigniew Zamachowski) reunite for the funeral. In their father’s apartment they discover a treasure trove of stamps, worth a veritable fortune. Unsure how to proceed, the brothers decide to keep the collection intact, becoming increasingly paranoid. In an effort to find their father’s white whale, the brothers get involved in a series of events that drives a wedge between them. In the end they have to rediscover what their father would surely consider the most important treasure.

Apart from being funny in both situation and performance, the final episode also serves as a great conclusion because it covers so many of the commandments that have come before. The brothers (and practically everyone they meet) look to this stamp collection almost as a deity; an expert compromises his reputation and goodly name for personal gain; Artur quits his band – for which he had previously devoted meaningful time – to look after the collection; con artistry of all sorts lead to the back-and-forth stealing of various pieces; a neighbor (out of ambiguous honesty) asserts that he was owed money by the father; and of course the coveting. But the brothers break the pattern and end their story embodying a different commandment by honoring their father and the things that he cared about. It is a sweet moment, and an excellent way to end The Decalogue.

It was a long journey (as was the writing of this review), but The Decalogue gives an great view of Poland in the late 80’s, while examining the nature of mankind in various ways. Througout the series (save for two episodes) Artur Barciś appears as a silent observer. This man watches while characters make life-changing decisions, but even his judgments are not final. Kieślowski and Piesiewicz don’t particularly advocate for religion in The Decalogue; they are more like Barciś. Their gaze shows us all of these people’s faults, but also what makes humanity worthwhile. Even Barciś cannot help but smile as Tomek gleefully runs through the street in “Decalogue VI.” And why not? We’re all only human.

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