Commanding Cinema

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

A war has raged in film criticism for the last half-century. On one side are the would-be underdog champions of what we might call kinetic cinema, made up of the properties that only movies contain: movement (visual and narrative), editing (sometimes at play with music), and, often, a crudely energetic pace brought to bear on pulpy, disreputable source material. Such are the ingredients of the kinetic, or "pure," movie.

On the other side are proponents of what we might call a literary cinema. This cinema seeks to extend the virtues of "high" art as it has been handed down through the ages in painting, theater, and fiction. The artist of the literary cinema aspires to the heights of El Greco, Cervantes, and Mozart, despite the tainted and hopelessly commercial medium to which he is wedded. There is nothing in a masterwork of the literary cinema that would be out of place in a great play, or a great novel.

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

Of course, the kineticists won the war. After all, they have the entirety of popular culture on their side. What is a teenage film student used to Limp Bizkit videos and PlayStation games going to dig more quickly: a three-hour Tarkovsky movie or Touch of Evil? (To wit: Which of these is going to remind Student X of that one filmmaker whose name he remembers from childhood--who was that guy again, Quentin somebody?)

In the Sixties the two best film critics we ever had, Manny Farber and Pauline Kael (in that order, mind you), wrested movies from the established masters. They taught the world that there was as much art in what seemed superficially trashy as in the European tradition commonly taught as Cinematic Art. The director Martin Scorsese has snickered over his sedition at NYU film school. "We were getting excited over guys with names like Sam Peckinpah and Budd Boetticher," he recalls, "when we were supposed to be lighting a candle to Ingmar Bergman."

But today the literary cinema sometimes seems like a blessing--a forgotten, redheaded stepchild. In a world of Deuce Bigalow on 2,000 screens, the pleasures of the literary movie can seem tonic--a strip of sanity in a sea of techno-deafened idiocy. A literally literary movie such as David Lean's adaptation of E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, or Neil Jordan's current, graceful version of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, can feel like a relief, and not just for those bourgeois, tranquillity-seeking reasons. The ability to penetrate character deeply; the use of language as more than a board to prop up the advancing plot; the tendency of fiction to examine rather than to broadcast and balloon--these are rare, welcome pleasures.

All of which is a hugely roundabout way of coming to grips with a monolithic work returning to Walker Art Center for a rare engagement just moments after the end time. Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue is one of those vaunted, much-spoken-of, but little-seen gigantic works, like Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's Our Hitler or Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz--epics that are so daunting, and so long, that one almost wishes never to confront their elephantine bulk. As for myself, before encountering this ten-hour opus, I knew only two things about it: that Stanley Kubrick had described it as the only masterpiece he could name in his lifetime (except for his own work, he humbly neglected to say); and that I could not stand a frame of the four popular Kieslowski works I had seen, The Double Life of Véronique and his "Three Colors" trilogy (Blue, White, Red).

Kieslowski, a Polish film student who grew into an auteur superstar, really did burn candles at the altar of Ingmar Bergman--lots of them. His famous trilogy is full of Bergmanesque devices: pregnant-unto-bursting symbolism, for one, and the use of luminous, pearly-skinned Eurobabes for another. But where Bergman had at his disposal the expressiveness of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, Kieslowski had vapid spokesmodels like Irene Jacob and Juliette Binoche. Kieslowski always struck me as a bit of a come-on artist, a highbrow on the make, much like the gruesomely overpraised Milan Kundera: an Old World man of the world who'd seen it all, done it all, and whose every metaphysical pensée just seemed--and excuse me for besmirching the dead--like a canny maneuver to get laid.

So I went into the 600 minutes of The Decalogue anticipating the worst, and now honesty compels me to deliver the verdict: The Decalogue is, indeed, a work deserving of that overused term masterpiece. It is without question the greatest work of literary cinema since late-period Bergman works such as Cries and Whispers and Scenes From a Marriage. And if, in this pomo American climate, that seems like praising with faint damns, I don't mean it to--Kieslowski's work is more deeply rooted in the recognizable mess of everyday life than Bergman's ever could be. If he doesn't exceed his master, he surely equals him.

The genius of The Decalogue is that Kieslowski and his co-scenarist, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, treat the High Concept of this television piece--the Ten Commandments treated in ten episodes, all set in a Polish apartment complex--in the most glancing, seemingly unconnected way. Picture an American filmmaker taking on this project for HBO: Imagine the ham-handed ways each Shalt Not would come at you in that context. Kieslowski, though, treats the material with the oblique preference for the side road of a novelist. In this case, a great novelist.

 

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.)

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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