A Short Film About Everything: On Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Dekalog”
by Brian TallericoPrint PageTweet
“If a person knows what they should do, why do they do something else?”—Krzysztof Kieslowski
In the late ‘80s, Krzysztof Kieslowski collaborated with Krzysztof Piesiewicz to produce one of the most lauded and discussed works in film and television history. As the conversation over the current state of both film and television continues (often reduced to a silly “which is better” debate), “Dekalog” stands as something that feels like it transcends both. It’s constructed like a television series, broken down into one-hour installments, but it undeniably contains film language, often reminiscent of that we see in other Kieslowski masterpieces such as “The Double Life of Veronique” and “The Three Colours Trilogy.” Whatever category in which one places “Dekalog” (once referred to stateside as “The Decalogue,” and in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies collection under that name), it remains a vital piece of filmmaking. Criterion has restored all ten shorts, including the feature film versions of two of them, with 4K remasters, and released them in a gorgeous, four-disc Blu-ray box set. Almost three decades after its release, “Dekalog” feels as important and current as ever.
It’s tough to capture the impact of “Dekalog” in words because modern viewers have become so accustomed to high-concept, gimmicky television; a ten-episode series based on the ten commandments sounds like something Ryan Murphy would try in 2017. And yet “Dekalog” transcends its structure. First, it’s not so much about each specific commandment—in fact, some episodes are about multiple ones and it’s never explicitly stated which one is which. The examination of “Thou shalt not kill” in episode five is harrowing and direct, calling into question the death penalty as a violation of that commandment as much as murder, but episode three integrates “Thou shall not commit adultery” with “Remember the Sabbath day.” Instead of offering direct examinations of the commandments, "Dekalog" is an exploration of how they exist in an increasingly complex world.
Take the first episode, arguably the most examined and discussed hour of “Dekalog” (with the possible exception of five). Krzysztof is a good father and teacher. He seems like a decent man, one who is taking care of his lovely son, a 12-year-old who we come to feel honest affection for over the episode. This professor happens to be a man who believes there is an order to the world that can be discerned and analyzed. He programs computers with his son, even teaching one to turn tap water on and off. Is he playing God? The heartbreaking ending of “Dekalog: One” could be read as a castigation against atheism, but Kieslowski has compassion for Krzysztof, refusing to turn him into a villain. And a bit of trivia about the screenplay for episode one and the final product’s exclusion of a major detail about the accident in the episode’s climax as-written is a remarkable one to learn.
Throughout “Dekalog,” we sense this compassion for Kieslowski’s characters. Most examinations of the Ten Commandments would be more reliant on showing sin in the modern world, but that’s not Kieslowski’s motivation at all. His characters are deeply flawed, and arguably in a way that has come about because of a lack of belief in something greater than themselves, but Kieslowski is more interested in common human experience than vilification of the Godless.
Watching multiple episodes of “Dekalog” in a short period of time has overwhelming power. While all the episodes take place in the same apartment complex, and we sometimes see some of the same characters (the doctor from episode two gets on the elevator with our protagonists in episode four), one starts to notice thematic throughlines more than literal ones—the vulnerability of children, the institutional conditions, suicidal characters—and Kieslowski is always very subtly using visual cues to compound that cumulative effect (many of which are well-detailed in the special features of this set).
Much has been written on this site in recent years about the need for kindness and compassion in cinema, especially as the real world continues to reflect opposite traits. Personally, I’m exhausted by films that feel made by auteurs who don’t actually like their characters and see little more than misanthropy in the world around them. What was breathtaking about my latest excursion through most of “Dekalog” in preparation for this piece was Kieslowski’s willingness to relate to the people in his films. “Dekalog” transports us into situations with which most of us have no actual correlation—the potentially incestuous action of episode four, for example—and yet we see something of ourselves in every single one of these characters. And what we see changes. Episode one takes on a whole new light now that I’ve had three sons of my own. Episode three no longer feels slighter than the rest. Episode five evolves with every single viewing. “Dekalog” transforms with us as we age, offering new things with each viewing. It was essential then, it is essential now, and it will always be essential.
The Blu-ray box set is a beauty. Not only do the ten films look remarkable (and I didn’t even get into the various visual styles that Kieslowski and his cinematographers employ … next time) but the film versions of episodes five and six, “A Short Film About Killing” and “A Short Film About Love,” are also included. There’s a full disc of special features, highlights of which include “A Short Film About Dekalog,” a look at the series by film professor Annette Insdorf and tons of archival interviews taken from a 1987 TV piece about the production of episode two. There’s also a rich, long booklet including essays about the films by Paul Coates and excerpts from “Kieslowski on Kieslowski.”
To get your copy of "Dekalog" on Criterion Blu-ray or DVD, click here.
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Thou shalt go see Krzysztof Kieślowski’s magnum opus, which looks more divine than ever thanks to Janus Films' 4K restoration.
Ten commandments. 10 episodes. 10 hours. When it first aired on Polish television in 1989, decades before long-form filmmaking would come to be regarded as the last bastion of auteurism, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Dekalog” was one of the most immense undertakings the cinema had ever seen. There had been longer works, and more lavishly financed ones — even when accounting for inflation, “Dekalog” would qualify as a micro-budget project — but the existential girth of Kieślowski’s magnum opus immediately made it feel like a monolith among molehills.
Even in the age of Netflix and “The Knick,” when directors are often responsible for delivering 600 minutes of footage at a time, Kieślowski’s epic still towers above the rest, and still seems somehow fuller than any of the similarly ambitious projects that have sprung up in its wake. It may not be the tallest building on the block, but — crammed with sex, death, love, murder, regret, reprisals, and enough moral fiber to earn the Vatican’s highest endorsement in spite of its many iniquities — it’s almost certainly the one most dense with life.
And yet, for a biblically-scaled film cycle so rich with irony that it seems to be chipping off the walls of the brutalist apartment complex where most of it takes place, perhaps the greatest irony of them all is that “Dekalog” is ultimately defined by its humility.
“Humility” may not seem like the most natural word to associate with a man who tended to think in trilogies, a storyteller who wouldn’t get out of bed to make a movie that didn’t look to poke holes in the very fabric of the universe, but Kieślowski was only so good at asking the impossible questions because he never attempted to answer them.
He was obsessed with matters of everyday happenstance, drawn to the depth of petty details (see: the bee in “Dekalog 2,” or the fish in “Dekalog 10”). He was enchanted by chance, and utterly convinced that fate is the sum of the choices we make. His films argued that life cannot be solved, only accepted — if that became a solution in itself, then so be it. “Everyone has a story to tell,” someone observes in “Dekalog 8,” more than two thirds of the way through a film cycle which seems determined to prove that point as well as any work of fiction ever had. If, as Roger Ebert once wrote, “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” then “Dekalog” is one of the cinema’s greatest marvels of engineering.
There have been precious few filmmakers for whom bigger was truly better, but Kieślowski was one of them. Like a particle accelerator that needs a massive slab of real estate in order to find something the size of a single atom, Kieślowski’s 10-tiered epic uses a thousand tons of concrete and glass — and a cast of hundreds — in order to access something so small that it’s seldom been captured on film. In fact, it could be argued that Kieślowski was attempting to depict the feeling of smallness itself, using this untenably large project to help us locate ourselves on a cosmic scale.
It’s one thing to watch “For All Mankind” and recognize our place in a vast and indifferent universe, but quite another to see things on a granular level and grapple with the egocentricity of human existence, to dig into the narrow reality of our lives and appreciate how — for all of our laws and guidelines — we’re ultimately a planet of unsupervised children.
Inspired by the Ten Commandments but never the least bit didactic about their meaning, “Dekalog” is a far cry from the heavy-handed religious treaty suggested by its premise. In fact, while the subject of some episodes can be neatly assigned to a single line of Old Testament scripture, all of these stories — much like the man who directed them — are too dazzled by the sheer complexity of existence to pretend that life can fit within a rigid set of guidelines. The oppressive drabness of the housing development that shelves all of these characters on top of each other only serves to accentuate the strikingly ordinary nature of the dramas that unfold inside (and far beyond). Remember that self-immolating speech the fake Robert McKee delivers in “Adaptation?” You know: “Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind?” “Dekalog” proves his point.
Describing the dictum that he set for himself and his co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Kieślowski once suggested that the episodes “Should be influenced by the individual Commandments to the same degree that the Commandments influence our daily lives.” Which is to say, very loosely.