“An attempt to return to elementary values destroyed by communism.” That’s how famed Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski describes his effort in Decalogue, a series of ten-hour films produced for and broadcast on Polish television in 1998-1999. Kieslowski, who died in 1996, was best known for The Double Life of Veronique (1991) and his Three Colors Trilogy (1993-1994), films that exhibit artistic prowess but whose stories are often obscure to the point of inaccessibility. With Decalogue, the scripts are leaner, the stories more approachable, and the issues–regarding meaning, fidelity, and providence–more inviting. On the big issues, including religious truth, Kieslowski himself was unsettled, and he embarked on a self-described quest: “what is the true meaning of life? Why get up in the morning? Politics doesn’t answer that.” Decalogue–now available on VHS and DVD, in Polish with English subtitles–is a crowning artistic achievement, an example of what film can teach us about who we are as human beings destined for, but habitually lapsing from, transcendence.
Kieslowski sets the quest for meaning in the context of powerful forces of erosion in modern society, especially the obsession with comprehensive scientific explanation and the reduction of human purpose and love to mere biology. The opening film, a reflection on the prohibition against false gods, puts a boy’s questions about death and the meaning of life between his father’s scientific materialism and his aunt’s faith in God. To his son’s question, “What is death?,” the father responds, “the heart stops beating.” Dissatisfied, the son persists and urges his father that he has left out the soul. In Kieslowski’s films, the debates are more than idle discussions; they figure prominently in the action of the drama. In this case, the father’s naïve trust in mathematical reasoning leads directly to tragedy.
The elimination of meaning and purpose from human life occurs not just when science overreaches its explanatory grasp, but also in our reduction of love to sex and sex to the mechanical satisfaction of appetite. “Decalogue VI,” on adultery, is a profound meditation on the vice of lust and on the difference between voyeuristic pleasure and human communion. A young man uses binoculars to spy on a sexually active woman in an apartment across from his own. When the woman finally learns of his observations, she toys with his affection, mocking his claim that his interest in her has moved beyond lust to something more. She seduces him, leaves him sexually spent with the admonition, “love, there is no such thing.” When the crestfallen young man disappears amid rumors that he has done himself bodily harm, she experiences remorse, and finds herself in his former position–looking for signs of the presence of someone with whom she now desires to communicate in a human and compassionate, rather than perfunctory and cruel, manner.
Kieslowski depicts lust as inordinate desire, not just for pleasure, but for the possession of what is not rightly one’s own. It is interconnected with a set of vices: jealousy, wrath, and pride. A married woman who has been sleeping with another man explains that she believes it is possible to love two persons. As she begins to describe what each man provides her, she pauses, reflects, and then shifts from self-justification to self-accusation: It is not right “to wish for everything; that’s pride.”
In another episode, “Decalogue IX” on coveting, a husband learns he has become impotent and, in his shame, urges his wife to take a lover. Reluctant at first, she begins an affair. Unwilling to accept what he initiated, the jealous husband becomes a humiliated and angry voyeur of his wife’s only adulterous meeting. But the wife is incapable of remaining unfaithful. Without knowing that her husband knows, she cuts off the affair. A series of miscommunications, of partial and misleading glimpses, ensues; the husband becomes despondent and sets himself on a grim, despairing course of action. The film moves toward a horrifying finale, but one that, even in the midst of great misery, contains a note of hope, gratitude that all is not lost. It is as if the characters have begun to learn the lesson the wife preaches to her husband early on: “The things we have are more important than the things we don’t have.”
The themes of gratitude and fidelity pervade the films and are often explicitly connected to the welcoming of children. The couple featured in “Decalogue IX,” realizing that they will no longer have the option of conceiving children, wonder whether their lives, their marriage, would have been different, better, if they had had children. Another man, overjoyed at the surprise of the conception of a child, asks his doctor, “Do you know what it means…to have a child?” The old man’s eyes cloud and he nods knowingly. We know what the expectant father does not: namely, that his doctor has suffered a family tragedy.
The stories can be appreciated independently of one another, but their cumulative emotional impact is palpable. In part, this is because the stories have the same setting, an economically depressed apartment complex in Warsaw. Kieslowski joked, “It’s the most beautiful housing estate in Warsaw, which is why I chose it. It looks pretty awful, so you can imagine what the others are like.” Contemporary films are rarely about ordinary folks or about the poor, whose lives reflect in immediate and dramatic fashion the vulnerability of the human condition. The very ordinariness of the lives in this particular setting lends a universal dimension to the stories in Decalogue. The multiple stories provide glimpses of the richness and depth that lie just beneath the surface of every human life. Kieslowski once said: “I believe the life of every person is worthy of scrutiny, containing its own secrets and dramas.”
Since at least the time of The Double Life of Veronique, Kieslowski has been preoccupied with doubleness, expressed artistically in the frequent use of reflections, in mirrors or windows, and images of individuals, blurred and refracted through glass. He also shows individuals looking through windows, through slits in closets, and through rain-soaked windows. Doubling symbolizes the divisions and conflicts within a character, the choice between two paths. It also represents the difficulty each of us encounters in trying to gain an adequate vision or knowledge of persons–the opaqueness of human motives and intentions. It also signifies the partial reflection of one life in another, the chance intersections, and parallel routes of different human stories. Here Kieslowski is at his most self-conscious, reflecting both on the art of filmmaking and on the experience of the viewer of films. He invites the audience to reflect upon its own experience of the lives presented in the Decalogue. Like the characters in the films–who watch one another with various degrees of insight and with emotional responses that range from malign indifference to sympathy–viewers themselves are capable of degrees of insight and sympathy. Kieslowski’s films offer a kind of pedagogy in the proper viewing of films.
Critics have noted that Kieslowski does not tie each episode tightly to an explicit commandment; some critics go so far as to describe the films as “sardonic riffs” on the Commandments. It’s hard to know whether that reveals a greater misunderstanding of the Commandments or of Kieslowski’s films. Kieslowski’s own comments about this topic are considerably more interesting: “The relationship between the films and the individual commandments is a tentative one. The films should be influenced by the individual commandments to the same degree that the Commandments influence our daily lives.” This suggests that there are layers to these films, and that deeper understanding will come not just from careful viewing but from living a certain way of life. Characters in these films are caught in what the current (Polish) Pope has described as a struggle between the cultures of death and of life. It is striking that pictures of the Pope figure prominently, and he is the only person identified as knowing what the meaning of human life is.
Critics also see the films in terms of complex moral dilemmas. This is true, but superficial. Choices are crucial, but they are not the sole determinants of the contours of the drama. The shape of things involves a mysterious confluence of what’s within our control and what lies beyond it. The orchestration of events in a benevolent, if still obscure, direction suggests a providential structure to human life. At their best, these films are about the mediation of the divine in and through sensible realities, and about the sacramental bonds of human community, especially in marriage and the rearing of children. These themes crystallize in the remarkable ending of the first film, in which familial loss drives a man to rage, despair, and church. There he vents his anger at God and then collapses in sobs before an icon of the Virgin Mary, an icon that weeps tears of sorrow and mercy.
–Thomas Hibbs is author of Shows About Nothing.