Philip Concannon revisits Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog
The camera moves slowly across the surface of a frozen lake. On its bank, hunched in the snow, we find a young man warming himself against a fire. The man raises his head and then slowly turns to look directly at us, wearing an expression that is hard to read; it could be a look of curiosity, perhaps, or one of reproach. The camera then cuts to another location, where a woman cries as she watches silent footage of a smiling child on television, before it brings us back to the young man who appears to be wiping a tear from his eye.
This is the opening scene from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog, a ten-part miniseries the director made in Poland in 1988. The young man, played by Artur Barciś, appears in eight of the ten episodes, always in a slightly different guise and always observing the drama as it plays out but never intervening, like an omnipotent angel of fate. As Dekalog progresses, we might expect some clarification on this character’s true identity, but Kieslowski was not a man who liked to provide answers.
Much of Dekalog shares that same sense of mystery. The series is based on the Ten Commandments, but Kieslowski and his co-screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz don’t link each episode to a specific commandment in a straightforward one-to-one fashion (the programmes are simply titled 1-10). Some episodes are obviously and explicitly tied to a particular biblical teaching, but the meaning of each individual story is generally more slippery and ambiguous. Dekalog is not a not a didactic work either; Kieslowski has no intention of standing at the pulpit and telling viewers why they should adhere to the commandments. Instead, the series is concerned with expressing the challenge of making moral choices under trying circumstances – in short, the difficulty of actually following the commandments to the letter. In Dekalog 7, a young woman kidnaps a child and makes plans to escape to Canada, and we assume the moral of the story will be “thou shalt not steal,” but then we learn that the woman actually is the child’s real mother, which blurs our sense of who is right and wrong in this scenario.
Stanley Kubrick (who described the series as the only masterpiece made in his lifetime) said that Kieslowski and Piesiewicz possessed “… the very rare ability to dramatise their ideas rather than just talking about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what’s really going on rather than being told. They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don’t realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.” The fact that we are drawn so completely into the human dramas concocted by Kieslowski and Piesiewicz, each with their own thorny ethical dilemmas and flawed, believable characters, is the key to Dekalog‘s success. In the very first episode, Kieslowski poses questions about the nature of the soul and the dichotomy between science and religion, but because these questions come from the mouth of an insatiably curious boy seeking knowledge from his father, we accept them as a natural element of the story. All of the ideas and core themes of Dekalog are rooted in the everyday and are explored through the lives of very ordinary individuals.
Kieslowski’s previous films had been overtly political – his 1984 picture No End was a hugely controversial examination of life under martial law in Poland – but Dekalog marked a significant transition in the nature of his work. For the most part Kieslowski deliberately disregards external pressures to deal with the internal drama of “…people who come home, lock the door on the inside and remain alone with themselves.” The stories told in Dekalog are intimate affairs, often taking place inside the cramped apartments of the Warsaw tower block that provides the setting for the entire series. After collaborating with Piesiewicz on the scripts Kieslowski had intended to pass them on to other directors, but he gradually developed a deep emotional attachment with the project and decided to direct every episode himself, a decision we can all be thankful for. These tightly focused dramas, often consisting of little more than a couple of characters interacting at close quarters, needed Kieslowski’s extraordinary command of space, his sense of timing and his ability to elicit flawless performances from his actors (you’d be hard pressed to find an unconvincing turn in the series). Dekalog 4, which depicts a father-daughter bond that verges on incest, is arguably the most potent example of the directorial dexterity and control he could display within these confined boundaries.
Of course, while Dekalog concentrates on the personal – his regular composer Zbigniew Preisner described it as “an attempt to return to the elementary values destroyed by communism.” – Kieslowski didn’t entirely omit political concerns from the series. Dekalog 5, which was later expanded into the feature A Short Film About Killing, is an astonishing tale of two murders. One is committed by a youth who kills a taxi driver in cold blood, the other is committed by the state, which executes the young man in an act depicted as being just as abhorrent as the boy’s crime. Once again, Kieslowski refuses to help us make easy judgements on the message or morality of his story, and his unflinchingly honest treatment of this subject sparked a heated debate in Poland that resulted in a five-year government moratorium on the death penalty.
After making Dekalog and his two spin-off films A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love, Kieslowski shot to international fame with his French co-productions The Double Life of Véronique and the Three Colours trilogy, but Dekalog stands alone both as a work of art and as an expression of the filmmaker’s personal beliefs and artistic sensibility. During the course of its ten hours it tells us stories that are moving, troubling, gripping, erotic and amusing, and it creates a vivid sense of a whole society being watched over and guided by a compassionate, wry and inquisitive angel of fate – no, not that mysterious stranger, but Krzysztof Kieslowski himself.
Dekalog screens at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club from September 20th to October 18th
Philip Concannon writes about film at Phil on Film