Lost in the Movies: The Decalogue

The Decalogue

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

Like many films in this series (Citizen Kane, La Dolce Vita, and Fantasia all come to mind) The Decalogue is simultaneously one film and many. Today I watched the whole film straight through, stopping here and there to sum up my thoughts, each chapter a single page of a legal pad (although I'll admit I ended up doodling in the margins as well!). What follows is a sort of viewer's diary, chronicling my journey through this magnificent opus for the second time, my first viewing in a half-decade. Some spoilers follow.

Decalogue 1
"I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me."

The first episode of The Decalogue starts us off close to the ground. Not literally; the apartment inhabited by the little boy and his father is several stories up, high enough for a pigeon to land on the sill while soaring in the sky. Visually, however, we are close to the ground – or put another way, we are seeing the world from a man’s-eye (maybe even a child’s-eye) point of view. Kieslowski and his director of photography (he used a different DP for each chapter of The Decalogue) use long lenses throughout to grind our perceptions into a stew of close-ups, blurred objects in the foreground, and narrow focus on a room, a person, an object – be it the blinking computer screen or the gleaming blade of an ice skate.

Seeing everything this way brings us closer to the view of a child, whose immediate world seems the entire world. Tellingly, our few wider views come as the boy wanders the courtyard, encountering a mysterious man by a fire who will reappear in different forms throughout the series, each time encountering a character at a crucial turning point (though he’s usually unable to prevent them from making a mistake). Here the boy also encounters a dead dog, spurring questions of mortality. His father has brusque, no-nonsense answers, but while not a man of supernatural faith, the older man's skepticism does not extend to himself. His hubris is a deep faith in his own ability to create systems which will regulate his surroundings and manipulate nature. Most likely it is the father's own myopia the cinematography means to convey.

When I first saw The Decalogue five years ago, I did not care for this sequence. I watched many more short films at this time, with a critical eye, and this featurette seemed to contain some of the format’s common flaws, despite its extended length. Specifically, I was irritated by a quality of forced heavyhandedness, but this time I didn’t have those issues (although the father’s inaction at the end still seems a little drawn-out). Besides, its frustrating qualities match the content – a vision of man lost in his own corner, staring at the wall, or in this case a computer screen – and thinking he’s seeing the whole world.

Decalogue 2
"Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."

Even as we begin this chapter, we know we are in a new and different place. The same housing development to be sure, yet looming before us in a long, unbroken take, a wide lens fixing it crisply and imposingly in the distance. Most of the episode will return to the close-ups of the previous chapter but with a difference: now these faces are set in plain, lucid light, not hidden in shadows like the self-deluding father last time.

If the overall sensibility there was one of absorption, this time the focus is on harsh truth, as a woman awaits her ill husband’s prognosis and a doctor determines what to tell her, knowing his statement will determine the birth or abortion of her child, fathered by another man. This tonal and aesthetic orientations towards “truth” are, of course, ironic, since during the course of this chapter there are several major lies being told. But the key difference is this: if the father was lying to himself about his role in the universe, these characters do not engage in self-deception, even if they deceive others.

The pacing is slow, glacial at times, without the preoccupied, curious character of the first chapter. Though this can border on tedium, it is the perfect approach for a plot centered around a sick ward, where the course of life or death must unfold in excruciating real time. With its relaxed and quiet introduction, alongside the discontented waiting of the woman, the sequence establishes a sense of both anticipation and patience from its very first moments. The first quality belongs to the wife, who must soon make a fateful decision, and the second belongs to the doctor, who tragically lost his family in the war and knows that as we rush about, making hasty decisions, we only rush towards our own death. Better to be calm, lucid and methodical, especially when making a decision you know is not honest, but believe to be right.

Decalogue 3
"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."

The third chapter has a tighter, more streamlined setting than the first two – it takes place over one night (Christmas Eve), every scene links right into the next, and everything is propelled by a straightforward plot hook: a man’s ex-mistress shows up on his doorstep to tell him her husband is missing, he tells his wife his car has been stolen, and then the two former lovers set off together to find out what has really happened. Despite this seemingly focused scenario, Decalogue 3 has the most byzantine narrative yet.

Characters conceal facts from one another, the storytelling slips viewers information bit by bit rather than indulging in exposition, and the central conceit (the missing husband) is a red herring. The complexity of the story is emphasized by the mise en scene – lacking the blurry subjectivity of part one or the plain presentation of part two, this sequence indulges in a rich panoply of colors and tones, captured with a breathtaking, almost crystalline clarity. Though lights or objects may be out of focus in the background, their edges remain sharp so that we are at once dazzled by their abstract qualities and distracted by the emphasis on their presence. (These eye-popping points of light also echo the ornaments of a Christmas tree.)

Such a look is perfectly suited to the subject, because these characters are surrounded by endless, threatening choices. They operate in a universe of dangerous freedom, where they can drive as fast as they want, wander to whichever location they desire, and perhaps rekindle their long-dormant romance. Yet these are all choices with consequences – physical (he cuts his head in a minor crash), legal (they barely avoid a speeding ticket due to the holidays), and especially emotional. These two have been through the ringer before, as have their spouses, and if we discover the details bit by bit rather than right away, it’s because as the night wears on, their thick defensive skins, slowly built up over the years to cover their wounds, begin to rub away. This emotional honesty allows a final choice to be made, as it could not be three years before – this way, on Christmas morning, the man we met dressed up as Santa Claus returns to his wife with the best present he could offer: himself.

Decalogue 4
"Honor thy father and thy mother."

Someone – I can’t remember who, but I think it was Roger Ebert – once noted that aside from Biblical and cinematic sources, one perhaps unsung influence on The Decalogue was the TV soap opera. Certainly many of the stories revolve around hidden dreams, romantic secrets, family squabbles and attention-grabbing themes like murder, kidnapping, adultery, incest, abortion, or voyeurism. The dilemmas are often melodramatic at first glance, yet Kieslowski brings them to life with such gravity and sensitivity (and the screenplay approaches these situations with such complexity) that the film transcends its potential for pulp.

Few scenarios are more ripe for a “General Hospital”-type treatment than that found in Decalogue 4: a girl discovers a letter from her dead mother, and when her father returns from a trip she reveals its contents – apparently he is not her real dad. Furthermore, as this revelation spurs further soul-searching, uncomfortable feelings are brought to life – his jealousy (beyond the parental), her feelings of unfaithfulness when she sleeps with other men.

How do the director, screenwriter, and cinematographer prevent this premise from descending into exploitation? First, through pacing – Kieslowski allows every decision, every revelation and consideration to wash over the characters, and thus us as well. He combines the subjectivity of part one with the slow boil of part two and because this time we are attached at the hip to one character (the one who has the most information, as it turns out), there is no tedium or impatience. Also, the writing itself maintains ambiguity, inspiring us to question the characters’ statements, and the ending is both open-ended and a red herring (after all, both the background and the burnt remains of the letter leave us with little doubt about its contents). Ultimately the letter is what Hitchcock would call a MacGuffin – an opportunity for the filmmaker to explore the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and reactions in a heightened atmosphere.

 Decalogue 5
"Thou shalt not kill."

The fourth Decalogue did not have a very pronounced style (aside from the subtle shift into a more shadowy aesthetic as the “truth” was revealed). Nothing could provide a sharper contrast than chapter five, which has striking, immediately noticeable cinematography, quite distinct from the rest of The Decalogue. In fact, this sequence (enlarged with extra footage to create a stand-alone featured called A Short Film About Killing) could be seen as a textbook example of how photography affects, creates, and evokes certain moods and sensibilities. In this case, extremely wide lenses, fine-grained film stock with bleached-out processing, and various filters and masking devices put us inside the head of a killer, in a fashion the screenplay barely even attempts.

Narratively, this middle chapter also takes an approach quite different from the others. It has a “feature” mentality (unfolding over an extended period with two distinct halves and two, rather than one, protagonists) while most of the others stick closer to a “short film” style (clean narrative lines with few subplots, delicate focus on character moments over plotline, simple paring down of setting and timeframe). We follow the jaded young killer as he prepares his murder, is arrested in rare lighthearted moments by beautiful little girls (reminding him of his dead sister, and certainly his own lost innocence), and finally while he brutally extinguishes the life of a cab driver. Yet we do not just stick to his storyline but in a daring move which could have backfired (disrupting our already tenuous subjective identification), we also trace the rise of an idealistic young lawyer who passes the bar and will later defend the killer and then witness his hanging.

The two halves of the film create a neat parallel which, in its visceral effect and intellectual provocation, has a raw, very un-neat effect. The murder is drawn-out in a fashion which could be treated humorously in, say, a Coen Brothers movie. But Kieslowski allows the messy violence to horrify rather than amuse. The execution appears at first to be reverse the sloppiness of the murder – everything is so precise, so meticulously prepared – but it winds up just as unruly. Because of that preparation, the condemned man’s anguished screams and the guards’ angry shouts come as both a shock and a grim reminder that the two killings have more in common than first appearance allows. Aside from these two shocking and memorable set pieces, the rest of the chapter unfolds in public spaces, another element distinguishing this episode from the others (which are, for the most part, resolutely private). This rumbling, chaotic street vibe (paired with one of the most intricate soundscapes in the whole Decalogue) feeds into the overall aesthetic, creating an ambiance at once eerily dreamy and rawly realistic – a true nightmare world which we can recognize as our own.

Decalogue 6
"Thou shalt not commit adultery."

So far every single Decalogue episode has dealt primarily with a relationship between two people, with a third person in a supporting and/or observing role. Chapter six is no exception, but it places this relationship in an interesting and unusual context. We’ve witnessed father-son, doctor & patient’s wife, ex-lovers, father-daughter (maybe?), and lawyer with client. Now, for the first time (excluding the man & mistress prevented from reconsummating their affair by off-key carolers) we have an actual couple a the forefront – well, sort of. This is a “couple” which stretches the bounds of that term to its breaking point.

A reclusive, inexperienced 19-year-old boy peeps on his neighbor via a stolen telescope. Upon finding out, the neighbor responds with a mixture of outrage, amusement, and arousal. When one of her lovers beats up the voyeur, she takes pity and brings him out on a date. We are only halfway through the scenario and have already moved from voyeuristic set-up into uncharted territory. Now who is the predator, who the victim? Just as some of the other relationships have been examined from an off-kilter perspective, so this “couple” will defy all expectations including their own; by the end, they will have even switched roles with one another.

An obvious influence on the premise is Rear Window, yet whereas Hitchcock examines voyeurism mostly from an audience perspective, Kieslowski makes his voyeur a “meddler” from the get-go (prank calls, fake money-orders, sending the gasmen a-knockin’ mid-intercourse). In this sense, the boy is less like a viewer, passively peeking from a secure perspective, and more like a filmmaker, setting characters in motion, interfering with them, delighting in their responses from a distance, only to become involved himself. Likewise, when the older woman tries to manipulate and humiliate the young man, partly as a power play, partly to open his eyes to a cold reality, she finds that she is hurting herself as well as him. Though the commandment correspondence can be hard to pin down (ostensibly adultery, though thievery, lying, and coveting also play a role) the ultimate moral is quite clear: There’s no such thing a safe distance.

 Decalogue 7
"Thou shalt not steal."

“Can you steal something that’s already yours?” asks the young mother in chapter seven. The way she phrases the question is telling – “something” (referring to another person, her six-year-old daughter) and “yours” (as if the girl is her personal possession). So right away we can see the self-centeredness at work when this young woman kidnaps the little girl from the grandparents (whom the child has been raised to believe are actually her parents, seeing her real mother as an older sister).

Despite this, our heroine remains rather sympathetic – at times anyway. Even before she explains the situation, we can see that Grandma cares less for her than for the next generation. Though the little girl screams at night, leading us to wonder if she wouldn’t be better off in a more familiar home environment, we still feel sorry for the young mother who wants so much to comfort her daughter, without knowing how. Even as we realize their escape is doomed to failure, and that even success would only bring unhappiness, part of us still roots for mother and daughter to make a clean getaway.

Besides, there’s always excitement in a fugitive scenario, isn’t there? As noted before with soap operas, Kieslowski specializes in infusing entertainment-film plot devices with “art-film” thoughtfulness and subtlety. Here the exciting storyline is conveyed with a pale, limpid aesthetic, all muted browns, whites, and yellows among generous greenery; our heroes-on-the-lam flee into the forest, visiting an absentee father who crafts teddy bears in a log cabin, like some character out of a children’s book. The intriguing dash of whimsy and quietly lush atmosphere made this chapter one of my favorites when I first saw The Decalogue. The sequence also makes for an interesting companion piece to the “Killing” episode, standing out from the pack by leaving behind the apartment block (seen only during the credits in chapter seven). Each allows its storyline to unfold elsewhere, with chapter five taking us into a public, highly urban realm while this story returns us to a verdant yet melancholy nature-world, an Eden still ripe for the Fall.

Decalogue 8
"Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."

Despite its muted palette and somber material, quite often The Decalogue dances along the edge of a kind of refined sentimentality. Sometimes this is touching, sometimes it does not quite work. I’m not sure about the end of chapter eight. An American woman, who was a little girl in Poland during the war, has returned to Warsaw to confront an old woman who could have rescued her but didn’t. The woman is now an ethics professor, and the American openly presents her personal anecdote in the classroom. Yet rather than take the relationship in an antagonistic direction, the screenplay teases out a rapport and rapprochement between the two (following an evocative and awkward return to the “scene of the crime”).

And so we arrive at the ending. The American, having befriended the older woman, now wants to thank one of her benefactors, an aging tailor in a threadbare little shop. Yet when reminded of the past, the tailor brusquely informs his visitor that he doesn’t want to talk about what happened during the war, he doesn’t want to talk about what happened after the war, and he doesn’t want to talk about what’s happening now. But if she has some material, he’d be happy to fashion her a dress. It’s such a powerful scene – so forcefully conveying a vast, almost incomprehensible national history of pain and suffering – and I found myself wishing Kieslowski would leave it at that. He does not: the chapter concludes with the tailor, expression softening as he approaches the window, spying on the reconciled women outside – a silver lining I didn’t quite believe (his expression, not the reconciliation).

That said, it is in keeping with the overall tone and mood of this, one of the more optimistic and peaceful Decalogue entries, even as it treads on the fathomless waters of a dark history. Time is even found for a charming non sequitur scene involving a contortionist. This is also, easily, the most spiritual chapter so far – indeed, it’s the first time God has played a major role in the proceedings since the father angrily overturned that altar in chapter one (leading Mary to weep waxy tears). So while I may have my reservations about the conclusion, I recognize that it comes from a place of wisdom and experience. It’s earned. Cynicism and pessimism are easier for those who have not lived through forty years of war and repression. For those who have – well, it’s as the old woman says to her newfound friend, “If there’s no God…if all is meaningless…well…you know…” She does.

Decalogue 9
"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife."

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” – but what about “thy own”? The man in chapter nine wants a woman he can never have and unfortunately he's already married to her. As the film opens, this man is informed by his own doctor that he’s forthwith incapable of sexual activity. (This same doctor casually suggests divorce as the logical solution.) Devastated, the man tells his wife she can leave if she chooses, but she swears her fidelity. And there the trouble begins.

Often in The Decalogue we encounter characters who keep secrets from one another – and usually we are more with one than the other, in terms of both information and sympathy. True, this time around we mostly discover the details of the wife’s affair alongside her husband. But we also share moments with her alone, be they phone conversations or fleeting glimpses of solitary recognition or reflection. Indeed, the story opens by cutting back and forth between husband and wife, immediately suggesting an almost psychic symbiosis at work, and thus establishing our dual sympathies in a pattern that will continue throughout.

Though The Decalogue is more heavily characterized by expressive cinematography than editing, this chapter is an exception, utilizing crosscutting to establish both a rhythm and a theme – instead of just alternating between different characters or storylines as we have elsewhere, we sense hidden connections between the parallels. Eventually these connections emerge in concrete terms, as the husband taps his home phone, spies outside the lover’s apartment, and even hides in the closet to witness a tryst (instead he’s treated to a breakup). The husband appears to be crossing over into the “other” half of the story, where he doesn’t belong. The characters only seem to truly come together in the very end. Ironically, they are not physically together at all – they are speaking over the phone. Yet here is the love hinted at earlier by the wife, transcending sexual desire and linking two people together spiritually, whether or not they are together in body.

Decalogue 10
"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods."

There are two schools of thought on how to end something big – with a bang appropriate to the scope and ambition of what came before or, in a subtle sleight of hand, with something small, humble, freshly out of step with the preceding. The more massive – and diverse – the overall object, the more appropriate the latter finale, because the bulk of the work speaks for itself and doesn’t need a dramatic finish. Containing multitudes, it could seem almost belittling to put an official “cap” on it all. Speak softly and carry a big stick, and so forth (think “Her Majesty” at the end of Abbey Road).

Which is a long way of saying that Decalogue 10, with its stamp-collecting, its bemusing and bantering brothers, its (of all things!) comedy, feels just right to conclude such a somber, epic, penetrating exercise. Kieslowski winks at us right from the get-go with a rock song blasting over the soundtrack (until now preoccupied entirely with classical orchestration, save for one highly ironic kiddie song). And not just any rock song: the lyrics explicitly and hilariously violate every commandment, mowing them down like enemies of the people against a brick wall. But it’s all in good fun – as is everything which follows.

Two brothers discover that their dead father’s stamp collection is worth millions of zlotys (what this means in dollars and cents I can’t say, but the number 250,000,000 remains impressive no matter the amount of inflation). The camera casually follows the two brothers (no intricately designed masters or shot-reverse shots here, replaced by loose two-shots keeping both heroes in frame) as they catch the collecting bug themselves. Soon they are attacking kids on the street, buying Dobermans to defend their stash, blackmailing other collectors, even sacrificing a kidney – all for a lot of silly stamps. But then it isn’t really the stamps themselves that matter, or even the money (since the brothers keep putting off a sale).

There is a bit of satisfaction in connecting with their neglectful father from beyond the grave. Even more, however, they are swept away by the feeling of getting lost in passion, absorbed in an adventure. As they remark to one another, standing in the courtyard of the housing complex (previously forbidding, now vaguely magical), they are able to forget their adult problems by focusing on the collection. Even after disaster strikes and personal betrayal rears its ugly head, the two find that a half-dozen, thumbsize, razor-thin objects, spread out over a bare table, are enough to keep them satisfied. Above all, it’s the companionship that reels them in. In a massive film all about people finding and losing one another, these two have discovered what makes them happy. This is how The Decalogue ends – not with a bang, but a chuckle.

Tomorrow: La Dolce Vita
Yesterday: City Lights

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