What it is • Dekalog consists of ten hour-long chapters each loosely based on a different Commandment and set in the same apartment building, but with different lead characters and, almost always, an unexpected but naturally-emerging twist. A woman discovers a repressed neighbor is spying on her, and decides to turn the tables. A young man brutally murders a stranger and then finds himself the desperate, helpless recipient of state violence. A confused young woman kidnaps her own daughter, fluctuating between the position of mother and sister, while a father and daughter attempt to determine the contours of their own relationship, haunted by the secrets of a third, deceased family member. Also Anglicized as The Decalogue (for whatever reason I've come to prefer the Polish spelling), Kieslowski's masterpiece is yet another title on this list to blur the line between theatrical feature film and television miniseries. It appeared at the Venice Film Festival as a single movie and on Polish TV as a series of weekly episodes (in both cases, in 1989 - I'm not sure where the frequent "1988" attribution comes from, but perhaps readers can illuminate this). With their freedom from distracting subplots and big climaxes, these episodes may feel more at home in television than cinema. And in subtle ways, Dekalog does play with TV conventions. As Roger Ebert has pointed out, the potentially melodramatic subject matter - frequently pertaining to dysfunctional and/or duplicitious familial relationships - recalls the metier of soap operas. To borrow contemporary American frames of reference, the use of an anchoring location/conceit to dip into different character's stories, and explore different issues, foreshadows everything from Law and Order to Lost. But Dekalog lacks both the vanishing-horizon pursuit of serialized TV narratives and the soothing, familiar sense of repetition of most episodic shows. At its core is something that - even in this TV golden age - still feels thoroughly cinematic: the ability to let a moment linger and breathe, the freedom, despite superb and sophisticated screenplays, to rely less on narrative devices than the potency of a fleeting gesture or expression. Dekalog produces mood through decisions of photography, pacing, and performance that, despite their specificity, add up to something impossible to pin down, almost miraculous in its direct appeal to the senses.
Why I like it •
As I slowly re-work my way through a spontaneously-composed, five-year-old list, many of my instinctive preferences crystallize into patterns. Among them: I really seem to have a thing for "white elephant art." That is to say, I love ambitious structural conceits, frameworks that would be fascinating no matter what happened within them. I'm a sucker for high concepts. (This may be a tad different from Manny Farber's original, highly visual definition of the term, but I think it's colloquially accurate, so bear with me.) That's not necessarily something one wants to declare from the rooftops - ever since Farber opposed "white elephant art" to "termite art" in the sixties, the former has been considered vulgar and vapid, too concerned with the grandeur of the whole to get the only thing right that really matters: a nearly obsessive attention to nailing a particular detail, that minor corner of the canvas that is the true unit of measurement. Yet despite the potential pomposity of Kieslowski's and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz's conceit, Dekalog is near-universally acclaimed. This speaks to two qualities: many viewers and critics probably do harbor a fascination, however uneasy, with big ideas and grand construction; and as I noted above, whatever the elephantine qualities of the whole, the pieces of Dekalog feel deeply termitic. Think the insect slowly crawling out of the glass in the hospital, the acrobat twisting his head between his knees, or the slowly evolving reaction of peeping Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) as he realizes where his seduction is going. The appeal of Kieslowski - and, I think, of all the "big ideas" filmmakers I've included - is that he is able to create works that stretch in both directions, like Tolstoy in War and Peace. He offers the distanced omniscience of an elevated, sweeping view of the human condition, and a raw, immediate lurch into the blind alleys, dead ends, quiet paths, and nighttime highways of individual consciousness. Each little film is impressive on its own terms (my opinions of each tend to vary, but even my least favorites have grown on me); however, their placement within a vast tapestry is, I'll admit, what clinches Dekalog's appeal to me. And this is true not just of the ten chapters taken together, but within each chapter, since every single episode fundamentally centers on a relationship between two characters with very different perspectives on the world around them. Nonetheless, they are forced to share this journey and that is the point, not just of each story but the larger anthology that contains them.
How you can see it • For a more detailed review devoted to the individual chapters, visit my entry on the film for "The Big Ones" series several years ago, in which I directly respond to each episode immediately after watching. Dekalog is available on DVD from Netflix, as is the confusingly-titled feature film A Short Film About Killing (which, regrettably, I haven't seen yet), an extension of one of Dekalog's chapters that should probably be considered a separate experience altogether. Unavailable there or on streaming services (at least for U.S. viewers), as far as I can tell, is A Short Film About Love, another extended chapter. A clip from Dekalog appears at 2:24 in "New Age", a chapter of my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series.
What do you think? • Do you see Dekalog primarily as a film or TV series? Does that distinction even matter to you? Is it best appreciated as a collection of standalone shorts, or is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? Which episodes do you find the most moving, thought-provoking, or surprising, and which do you find the least? What connections have you noticed between various stories? Which character or stories would you be most eager to follow up with? Which atmosphere, seasonal and/or photographic (Kieslowski worked with a different cinematographer on almost every episode) is your favorite? Do you have particularly strong "answers" to the moral dilemmas posed in any of the chapters? Are there characters you identify with, and characters you reject? How does the film evolve from Kieslowski's earlier work, and where does it stand in relation to his post-Iron Curtain and (at least partly) French-based The Double Life of Veronique or especially the conceptually ambitious Three Colors trilogy? Do you see connections between Dekalog and the work of earlier Polish icons like Andrzej Wajda - is Kieslowki emerging from a national tradition, or do you place his influences/antecedents elsewhere? Has his impact on the next generation of European filmmakers been positive, negative, ambiguous? Have you seen any films in recent years that, in their own unique way, reminded you of Dekalog's mixture of conceptual ambition and attention to minutia?
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Previous week: Civilisation (#60)
Five months later (September 2016): Annie Hall (#58)