What is the true meaning of life? Why get up in the morning? Politics doesn’t answer that. — Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski
The Decalogue, Kieslowski’s extraordinary, challenging collection of ten one-hour films made for Polish television in the dying days of the Soviet Union, doesn’t answer Kieslowski’s questions either. What it does is pose them as hauntingly and seriously as any cinematic effort in the last twenty years.
"Everyone seems to accept the Ten Commandments as a kind of moral basis," Kieslowski has said, "and everyone breaks them daily. Just the attempt to respect them is already a major achievement."
The Decalogue is not easy to keep, and The Decalogue is not easy to watch. Although the films explore moral questions, they do so in the context of disordered, sometimes dysfunctional lives of a modern, generally areligious urban populace. Kieslowski never preaches, and seldom even seeks explicitly to clarify lines between right and wrong, but the prevailing mood is somber and downbeat, the general sense of something having gone wrong unavoidable. Like much of the Old Testament, The Decalogue is a chronicle of human failure.
But unlike the Old Testament, The Decalogue chronicles human failure without seeking to put it all in context, to persuade its audience to live morally, or even to define what that means. There is no apologia here for the Ten Commandments; characters break the commandments, but there is generally no particular effort to persuade the viewer of the wrongness of doing so, or to show the harmful consequences that follow.
That doesn’t mean the morality of the situation is neither here nor there — far from it — only that the film challenges the viewer to grapple with the morality of complex situations without providing an answer key.
For example, in "Decalogue 2" a character breaks the second commandment by swearing in vain, but the episode makes no particular effort to persuade the viewer of the wrongness of swearing in vain (on the contrary, the character’s oath may avert a potential tragedy). Again, "Decalogue 5" involves two killings, one a random act of violence and the other a state-sanctioned execution; yet the episode is not, as some critics have claimed, an "indictment of capital punishment" ("It’s not about capital punishment, it’s about killing," Kieslowski has said).
Far from being morality tales, these short stories are in a sense closer to parables — at least, they are as confounding and strange as Jesus’ parables were to his first hearers. Their achievement, in part, is to throw the viewer off balance, to unsettle, to leave one pondering rather than to convince.
The ten episodes are linked by a common setting, a Warsaw high-rise apartment complex where all the characters live (an early establishing shot perhaps suggests the Tower of Babel), and also by the occasional overlapping of characters from one episode into another.
Another linking device is an enigmatic character, a silent observer, whose presence in nearly all the episodes suggests some symbolic role. This observer has been variously identified with God, truth, conscience, and so forth; Kieslowski’s agnostic comment was "I don’t know who he is" — though he also added, "He’s not very pleased with us."
The episodes are also interconnected morally. Few deal straightforwardly with one and only one commandment; lying, adultery, and other sins crop up repeatedly, for example, reflecting the principle that it is impossible to break only one commandment, that he who breaks one commandment breaks them all. (Kieslowski has even said that some of the episodes could be considered interchangeable, such as the sixth and the ninth.)
More surprisingly, some of the episodes can be said to reflect the corresponding commandment only tangentially or in an accommodated sense. For example, "Decalogue 3" deals not with the Sabbath or the Lord’s Day, but with Christmas. "Decalogue 6" involves characters who are unmarried and thus do not commit adultery (though the sixth commandment is violated in a broader sense). And "Decalogue 7" involves kidnapping, which one wouldn’t ordinarily think of as "theft."
Behind these elliptical explorations of moral principles are larger questions about life, meaning, and existence itself. Two women in two episodes engage in sexual immorality, but one does so claiming that it’s possible to "love" two men at the same time, while the other claims there is no such thing as "love" at all, only sex. The Decalogue is haunted by the atheistic ideology of Soviet Communism, which reduced man to purely biological and scientific terms, yet Kieslowski is not content to view human experience through this narrow lens.
Kieslowski’s musical collaborator Zbigniew Preisner has called The Decalogue "an attempt to return to the elementary values destroyed by communism." Taken at face value, that might be an overstatement. But certainly The Decalogue is an attempt to take seriously moral and spiritual questions that communism sought to preempt. And while Kieslowski doesn’t pretend to explain the meaning of life, one episode points to an even more famous son of Poland — John Paul II — as someone who might have the answers.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.