How not to watch "The Decalogue"

Father and daughter?  Janusz Gajos and Adrianna Biedrzynska in Episode Four of Kieslowski's The Decalogue (1988).

This last week and a half I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterpiece The Decalogue (1988), now out in a deluxe box set by Criterion.  It’s as intelligent and demanding as I remember from the last time I saw it (in 2003 or thereabouts).  But watching it this time it seems to me that this film—or more accurately this cycle of ten films, each about sixty minutes long—continues to be mismarketed in ways that do some disservice to Kiselowski’s talent as a filmmaker.  The Decalogue is often described as a ten-part film inspired by the Ten Commandments, with each part corresponding to a particular commandment.  The first episode, for example, in which a young boy drowns in a nearby pond after consulting his father’s computer to see whether it was safe to go ice skating there, is often interpreted in light of the commandment “I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt not have any other gods before me.”  (A previous DVD release by Facets actually went so far as to label each episode with a relevant commandment.)        

Katarzyna Piwowarczyk and Maja Barelkowska in Episode Seven.

Watching the film(s) this time I’m less convinced that The Decalogue works this way; in fact I would argue that the film works best if viewers forget about trying to map each episode onto a specific moral imperative.  For one thing, Kieslowski’s approach to morality is far more complex and subtle than such a transparent gimmick would suggest.  What’s more, the films rarely line up in such a neat way as to suggest a one-to-one relationship with the commandments.  The seventh episode, for example, in which a college student “kidnaps” her six-year-old daughter from her parents (who had been raising the child as their own), refers not only to the dictum “thou shalt not steal” but also “honor thy father and thy mother” and, to a slightly lesser extent, “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”—and complicates all of them with a trenchant irony typical in Kieslowski’s cinema.  The sixth episode, in which a mild-mannered young postal worker becomes obsessed with spying on a beautiful neighbor who lives across the courtyard, engages with the ethics of love and sexuality but has nothing to do in any literal way with the prohibition against adultery; it is, in fact, one of the few episodes in the cycle that doesn’t revolve around an extramarital affair.  The more I think about Episode One, the more I feel that thinking about the drowning of the boy strictly in terms of “thou shalt not have any other gods before me”—seeing his death as some sort of cosmic punishment for his and his atheist father’s interest in computer science—sets up an interpretation that is as didactic and cruel as it is misleading, since Kieslowski is never didactic nor cruel. 

Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) spies on his neighbor in Episode Six.

Like all of the episodes in The Decalogue, Episode One is far more compelling as a film about the presence and absence of faith and the existence or non-existence of souls than as some sort of cheap cautionary tale.  Kieslowski more closely resembles the ethics professor in Episode Eight, who encourages her students to think through complicated ethical scenarios, than he does a priest or a judge.  Far from being a cycle of films “about the Ten Commandments,” The Decalogue problematizes the question of ethics in modern Western culture, specifically in a nation haunted by the ghosts of the Holocaust and riven with economic depression and despair under Communism. “Chaos and disorder ruled Poland in the mid-1980s,” Kieslowski later said.  “Tensions, a feeling of hopelessness, and a fear of yet worse to come were obvious.”  What better moment at which to revisit The Decalogue than right now?

A figure for Kieslowski?  The ethics professor (Maria Koscialkowska) in Episode Eight.

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