Watching the episodes of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog reminds me of how few auteurs there are anymore. Part of it is probably the current trends in how movies are made and distributed that make it harder to be an artist with a voice. In many ways, the most creative works are happening on television. FX, HBO, Showtime, AMC, and even Starz are allowing creators the freedom to tell long stories however they please. In 1988, a year before ABC let David Lynch loose with Twin Peaks, Kieslowski told ten hour-long, relatively linked short stories on Polish TV. The episodes predate his The Double Life of Veronique and his Three Colors trilogy but you can see the way he is working on themes he would later explore in those films.
The episodes are all based around the residents of a Polish housing complex that looks like American versions of the Projects most of the time and Manhattan penthouse at others. Each story focuses on a resident or residents facing some moral or ethical dilemma. The series was given a Ten Commandments theme after it was already made. I guess it made sense since there are ten episodes, but thematically the stories are not each linked to a specific Commandment. The problems of telling a realistic story is the real problems are complex and usually concern multiple dilemmas. It’s more relaxing if you approach the films as separate standalone stories and not worry about the biblical implications.
“Dekalog: Five” is my favorite and usually the pick of most people. It was later expanded into A Short Film About Killing. Here, it’s a slow burn of a story that gains complexity and heat with each minute. The shocking murder of a taxi driver by a drifter isn’t what the episode is about – it’s the impetus for a deeper discussion of the rights and wrongs of killing and the punishment of killers. The episode doesn’t unfold like any traditional narrative. It unravels just like an author would tell it on paper. There is the intercutting of the taxi driver and the killer and the lawyer who will prosecute the case. We see things as Kieslowski wants us to think about them. The plot is just what happens. The story is how we think about the events. This selective release of details would play a big role in his later films. This episode is stark and powerful and I can’t imagine how ahead of the curve this had to feel in 1988.
“Dekalog: Three” is a good illustration of how the Ten Commandments are more of a suggestion than an actual plan. The plot revolves around a former couple who had both been married at the time. We are aware that the affair was discovered about three years before. It is Christmas Eve and the pair travel through the town trying to find her missing husband. The whole time we are dealing with issues from three years before. The issues here don’t encompass just one Commandment. These are real-life issues that unfold like poetry. The future and the past are all intertwined. Nothing feels more real than thinking how things that happened in our past inform what is happening in our now. The Christmas setting is perfect for thinking about love and our past lives. The simple set-up of this story and the way it feels to relive the past makes this one of my favorites in the group.
“Dekalog: Four” deals with some really uncomfortable and interesting issues. It’s possibly about incest but it’s also about fathers and daughters and it’s about communication and openness. Most of it is Anka and Michal, a daughter and father and their relationship. An unopened letter from her deceased mother changes the way she views her “reality”. There’s certainly a weird feeling we get about their relationship at first but the way it’s acted makes the viewer feel more comfortable as the episode continues. It’s a testament to the acting and script that I needed to just stop and think after the episode finished. There are a few scenes that it’s the blocking of the actors or the way they lean in to talk to each other that say way more than the words they are saying. That’s the beauty of this series of short films – they all call for a time of reflection afterwards.
The characters come and go through the ten episodes. You will see characters from one or more of the episodes in the background in other films. It builds the feeling of a universe. The idea of the Ten Commandments I see as much more of a way to talk about what motivates us as humans and what happens in our minds. In a country like Poland at the end of the 1980s, you might think Kieslowski would be bitter about the future. but he isn’t. This series doesn’t judge people for any of their actions. Even a killer isn’t judged; his actions are seen in perspective that the viewer is left thinking that there are two sides to every story even with the most violent of acts.
This series tells stories like few had at that point. Shows like Breaking Bad and The Wire owe much to how Dekalog lets stories play out. I think of the couple walking through an abandoned train station on Christmas Eve in “Dekalog: Three” and how I don’t even have to read the subtitles to know what is happening. You could watch this with the sound off (don’t though – the music by Zbigniew Presner is the best) and you would still feel the loss and the pain.
Few directors could pull this off. I’m sad that he didn’t live to see the renaissance of storytelling in television. This series is worth all ten hours of investment of your time. The world misses the true auteurs of the screen.
Dekalog received a new 4K digital restoration and is playing at select theaters across North America, followed by the Blu-ray and DVD release from The Criterion Collection on September 27th.