Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. France. Poland. 1988.


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To commemorate the tenth anniversary of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s death, the National Film Theatre and the BBC have again screened his masterpiece Decalogue, the series of ten 1-hour made-for-TV films from 1988 set in a Warsaw housing estate, and loosely based on the theme of the Ten Commandments. This provided an opportunity to revalue these films, and to my mind they hold up superbly.

Each episode presents a protagonist who, in the course of the story, faces a particular moral dilemma. In most of the stories the point of decision is marked by the appearance of a man, a sort of “guardian angel”, who silently watches the protagonist as he or she makes the moral choice, whether for good or ill. The episodes are not “preachy”, they are merely illustrative of how the traditional biblical commandments can be relevant to modern life. It is sometimes ambiguous as to which commandment is being illustrated; it is not stated in the films, though commentators have tried to assign them as they think appropriate. It is also made clear that they are not simple black-or-white issues; for example, at least one episode shows that it may be necessary to lie (“bear false witness”) in order to (possibly) save a life. Nearly every episode comes with an unexpected final twist.

The entire series is shot through with Kieslowski’s trademark qualities, familiar to anyone who knows his popular later films The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colours trilogy: the ideas of chance and interconnections, with central characters from one episode being briefly glimpsed in others, frequent visual motifs such as reflections and distortions, and stunning camerawork (with a different cinematographer for each episode). The brilliant scripts are by Kieslowski himself and his regular collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz.

The best-known episodes, nos. 5 and 6, were expanded into 90-minute films for the cinema, A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. The former, containing a long-drawn-out murder and an equally gruesome state execution, is said to have led to the abolition of capital punishment in Poland. The latter, about a young Peeping Tom who imagines himself in love with a promiscuous older woman whose activities he watches through a telescope, has been seen as near-pornographic by some viewers. However one writer, Lloyd Baugh, in a book called Imaging the Divine, sees the boy as a Christ-figure who “saves” the woman. Baugh points out that, after the woman has humiliated the boy and disillusioned him about love, she becomes much more modest in her appearance and seeks him out; her name is Magda, a deliberate reference to Mary Magdalene, Baugh suggests.

Some of Poland’s best-known actors appear in the series. Krystyna Janda, brilliant in Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble, is in Decalogue 2 as a woman who does not want her husband to know that the child she is carrying is not his. Daniel Olbrychski, dynamic star of many of Wajda’s other films, is in Decalogue 3 as a married man who meets up with an old lover on Christmas Eve. Grazyna Szapolowska, star of Kieslowski’s earlier No End and of Wajda’s Pan Tadeusz, is the promiscuous woman of Decalogue 6. And in the only comic episode, Decalogue 10, Zbigniew Zamachowski and Jerzy Stuhr play brothers who are virtually the same characters as they would later play in Kieslowski’s Three Colours White.

Most critics, asked to name the greatest Polish film, would probably opt for either Ashes and Diamonds or Man of Marble, both by Wajda. It is significant, however, that the only Polish film to show up prominently in Sight and Sound’s revered Critics’ Poll in 2002 was Decalogue, named in their “top ten” by four critics and two directors. It richly deserves this reputation.

Alan Pavelin
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