Commanding Cinema

Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue is a must-see epic of moral dilemmas


The best of the ten episodes is the first (Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me). In this one, Kieslowski paints what may be the most palpably, believably tender parent-child relationship I've seen in movies: a single-dad scientist (Henryk Baranovski) and his smart-as-a-whip kid (Wojciech Klata) do pushups together and solve physics problems using Kermit and Miss Piggy as constants. When the kid looks up from his breakfast to ask, "Dad, why do we die?" you know Kieslowski is grabbing the bull by the balls--and he wins. What in lesser hands might have been an Ice Storm-like parable about an agnostic punished by God for his disbelief becomes a shockingly naturalistic essay in what is fate and what is "arbitrary." The father, sending his son onto an ice rink after having calculated its depth, is in for a predictable jolt--but the details, and the psychological fallout of that jolt, are nothing we could have predicted. Plus, Kieslowski shows something that's nowhere in evidence in his "Three Colors": a master's gift for compelling storytelling.

Many of The Decalogue's most sublime moments have to do with children. In the seventh episode (Thou Shalt Not Steal), a thirtyish woman (Anna Polony), sullen and withdrawn behind wire-rimmed spectacles, steals her biological child (Katarzyna Piwowarczyk) from her adoptive mother, and it becomes instantly obvious that she is inadequate to the task of raising the child. The five-alarm anxiety Kieslowski sets off here is magnificent: Days later I recall the gesture of the adoptive father clicking a lighter as the adoptive mother talks on the phone to the kidnapper--cuing her to smoke a cigarette she hadn't realized she needed. Polony's performance seems a dup of Liv Ullmann's smoldering nerd in Bergman's Autumn Sonata, but the beauty of this episode, as with all the others, is that Kieslowski focuses on the specifics of human behavior in moments of Major Ethical Questions. (I find it droll that the Walker has dispatched various ethicists to discuss The Decalogue after several installments--in fact, they ought to dig up shrinks.)

In the beginning was the word: Grazyna Szapolowska and Olaf Lubaszenko in Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue
In the beginning was the word: Grazyna Szapolowska and Olaf Lubaszenko in Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue

My favorite episode, if not the most perfect, is number eight (Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor), perhaps because it's the only one to feature a great performance--Teresa Marciewska as a Holocaust survivor-turned-Holocaust scholar. After living in New York, she returns to Poland to confront a professor of ethics (Maria Koscialkowska) who once turned her away when she sought to be hidden from the Nazis as a child. The strange dance of recrimination, regret, and new intimacy between these two--and the final, sibilant, paper-cut-like note of the episode, like a single violin string pulled in anguish--make Bergman's late-period folies à deux look arid and academic in contrast.

In The Decalogue, Kieslowski is a master artist--but not, maybe, a master filmmaker. Almost everything that is majestic in these ten hours could be captured on the page. He has an admirably journeymanlike, unfussy TV style, but neither his direction nor the performances are special in themselves. Rather, it's the storytelling, the manipulation of symbols made cursory and lifelike, the surprising reversals of character--elements that would all be equally at home in fiction or on the stage. Yet in a moment when Young Turks from David Fincher to Paul Thomas Anderson can manipulate the digital body parts of cinema to deliver the stalest and stupidest bromides, this simple, writerly, unapologetically sophisticated style can come to taste like fresh water.

Only a handful of movie artists have tried to encompass the whole human comedy as Kieslowski does here. The Decalogue is clearly a cradle-to-grave work, although it doesn't have the symphonic, Whitmanesque quality of something like Altman's Nashville. It just seems like a volume of superbly rendered short stories--the work of one who understands human beings and story craft with equal depth. The Decalogue would perhaps be better seen in its intended format, on TV, with plenty of time for meditation in between segments. Nevertheless, don't be daunted: Nothing you'll see in a theater this season will come within a country mile of Kieslowski's finely wrought work of empathy and insight.

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