What have Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz in common? Each was made as a series of television programs. To this odd source of film achievement we must now ascribe another fine work, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue. This is a series of ten films, each one slightly less than an hour long, made for Polish TV in 1988-1989. The series has since been shown at several festivals and on special occasions in various countries. Two parts of the series have been released here separately (and were reviewed in this column). Now Decalogue, widely written and talked about in the last decade, is released in American theaters in its entirety.
It arrives after some other Kieslowski films—The Double Life of Véronique and the trilogy Blue, White, and Red among them—have displayed his exceptional talent, as did those two excerpts from Decalogue. But the whole series, seen right through, surpasses my previous experience of his work. It not only belongs with the Bergman and the Fassbinder series as another prime instance of what has been called the amphibious film, one that thrives on both the small and the large screen; it breathes—it almost trembles with—compassion and insight.
The purpose, as the title and the number of parts make clear, is a series dealing with each of the Ten Commandments. At first this idea might seem suspect: too neat, too temptingly moralistic. But Kieslowski and his co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who have collaborated before, saw it as a chance for inquiry, not for sermon, ten avenues of exploration into the acceptances and the values of their world, investigations of the way the commandments still function and apply—if they do. This approach is so important to the work that comment on Decalogue must start with the screenplays.
Decalogue is fundamentally a Kieslowski-Piesiewicz project, subsequently fulfilled by the director. This view is more fitting in film judgment than is often acknowledged; and in this case it is absolutely unavoidable. All the parts take place in, or are connected with, a huge modern apartment-house complex in Warsaw. Each of the ten parts is separate and complete. A few references in later parts to people who were encountered earlier are only private nudges, not essential matters. In the best of the parts, the commandment is approached obliquely and is wrung for its deepest pervasive relevance, not thundered from a latter-day Sinai. For instance, the sixth, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”: far from marital stricture, this is about a very young, inexperienced man who lives in one of the apartments and who spies with a telescope on the sexual activities of an attractive woman across the courtyard, a woman whom he does not know but with whom he is in consuming love. Eventually she discovers his spying, which angers her, and the force of his love, which touches her. The episode concludes with the conclusion of that love. “Adultery” is seen here as the violation of a spiritual union rather than a legal one.
In No. 7, “Thou shalt not steal” a woman in her twenties kidnaps a little girl who we think is her sister but who is in fact the daughter she bore when she was sixteen.
The child was brought up as the daughter of the young woman’s own parents, the couple who are really the child’s grandparents. The true mother’s plan to abduct her child runs into emotional tangles that could not be foreseen. Stealing here has implications far beyond pilfering.
About some of the screenplay there must be reservations. Cleverness falters in No. 10, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods” which is about two sons who inherit their elderly father’s valuable stamp collection. They begin as two brothers who are close to each other; the changes that the inheritance causes in them are predictable. In No. 1, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” the point is overly blunt. A youngish scientist learns a terrible but blatant lesson about the fallibility of the science that has become his divinity.
But, after the script, consider the directing. The screenplay’s beauties are magnified, and its lesser moments are generally overcome, by the intense power of the film as such. Possibly because it was planned for television but in any case very aptly, Kieslowski works in close to his actors a good deal of the time, making us feel almost like privileged intruders into private situations. He varies this visual approach occasionally with a long shot from a window above a street or a curious angle underneath someone’s crooked arm, almost as if to remind us that we are audience, not members of the cast, but for the most part we are in there breathing with his people. At the finish we are so immersed that we almost feel Middle European, saddened and seasoned.
For some unknown reason, Kieslowski used a different cinematographer for almost every episode. (One of them, Piotr Sobocinski, was used twice.) But the variety is imperceptible: the series looks like the work of one man. Almost all of the lighting depends a good deal on shadow—there is more side lighting than frontal lighting, so that the characters seem to be moving through textured lives. Most of the episodes take place in winter or cool weather, and the visual mode of the film agrees with the temperature. Often a splash of red or green, carefully placed, reminds us that this is a color film, but much of the time the frame has the no-nonsense gravity of black-and-white, intent not on news-photo candor but on shades of gray.
The music for the series was written by Zbigniew Preisner, and in every case, though individually in every case, it has a suspended, open feeling, a sense of exploration. Preisner uses only a few instruments and uses them sparingly, as audible atmosphere. In No. 9, for instance, a three-note figure, plucked, is repeated with variations throughout, suggesting astringency, the barrenness that is the theme of that part.
For the actors there can be only praise, even awe. What a fine company, each of them acutely cast, many of them surprising us as their episodes unroll with facets of character that are apt but unexpected. Some of these actors are as well-known in the United States as Polish actors can be—Daniel Olbrychski, Maja Komorowska, Krystyna Janda—and all of them are distinguished by three qualities. They all understand that the secret of realistic film acting is to let the camera find the performance, not to splash it at the camera. They all understand that true realism is not a matter of veristic detail but of sensibility. And they all seem like aspects of a treasury, of a culture in which acting is esteemed as an agency of truth.
Kieslowski, who made eleven feature films, died in 1996 at the age of fifty-four. Decalogue has its first extended American theatrical engagement, too long delayed, at the Lincoln Plaza in New York. The first two parts are being shown together for two weeks, then the next two for two weeks, and so on for a total of five weeks. Engagements in other cities are being planned. Decalogue is also available on tape, a five-cassette set with two films on each reel, from Facets Video in Chicago.
With this film, like the other series mentioned earlier, it doesn’t greatly matter whether the work is seen on a small or a large screen, since it was designed for the former and adjusts comfortably to the latter. However it is seen, Decalogue, like every good film, like every good work of art, immediately becomes a paradox: an intensely private possession that is shared with others.
The New Republic, June 26, 2000