Until the Sundance Channel acquired the television broadcast rights last March, Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue had only been seen by American audiences in fits and starts. Versions of two of the 10 hourlong films, originally produced between 1988 and 1989 for Polish television, briefly traveled the museum circuit, while word-of-mouth generated a demand for bad dubs of black-market PAL copies from Europe. The release of DVD versions last April finally brought the complete series stateside. But these artful, thought-provoking pieces deserve to be shared by an audience, as they will be when the Austin Film Society screens them digitally at the Alamo Drafthouse over five Saturdays (two films a night), beginning Feb. 3.
Each of the 10 films is constructed carefully enough to be seen on its own. But together, they are a jigsaw puzzle of color, texture, emotion, and meaning. They share a premise (in each, a character breaks one of the Ten Commandments), a setting (a block of apartments in Warsaw), even storylines. Over the course of the series, the seasons change. Characters cross paths. A mysterious wan-faced observer appears in eight of the films without explanation. And philosophical themes echo and slowly evolve -- foremost among them the importance of charity, understanding, and mercy.
Never once does its polyphonous framework seem gimmicky. Though Kieslowski was plainly obsessed with patterns and their meaning throughout his career, with doppelgängers (as in the superlative The Double Life of Veronique), coincidences, and external symbolism (as in his Trois Couleurs trilogy -- Red, White, and Blue -- based on the virtues symbolized by the French flag), he was never overwhelmed by them. They never reduced his ideas to the sort of smug structural shenanigans of, say, Peter Greenaway's counting games. The narrative machinery never obscures the power of his drama.
Rather, Kieslowski, who died in 1996, was drawn to the intimate connections that bubble under the surface of these 10 films. A certain universality of the human experience breaks through in situations both mundane (such as the sharing of an elevator) and incredible. These connections echo in and among the films of The Decalogue -- in letters from beyond the grave, in phone calls, in the flashing of headlights. Two characters are outright voyeurs, but all are involved in games of fascination to some extent, inching toward each other and reaching out with tiny overtures.
And even the darkest of the films (such as Decalogue Ten, a black comedy, or the downbeat, polemical Decalogue Five) are at the same time highly earnest -- neither dogmatic nor worshipful of institutions but deeply and honestly respectful of our native human virtues and potential. It's almost impossible, without oversimplification, to describe Kieslowski's attitude about the importance of these connections between people, who, with kindness, possess the power to give the world its very shape and meaning.
Feb. 3, Decalogue One and Two:
The series begins with Decalogue One ("Thou shalt have no other gods before me"), the searing story of a college lecturer (Henryk Baranowski) who subordinates faith and wonder to technology and reason, seeking to quantify and mechanize the ineffable. Meanwhile, his young son Pavel (Wojciech Klata, who has a captivating camera presence) wonders why people die and whether their spirit remains -- questions that will be answered by his father's transgression. Decalogue One is a work of gravity, quiet intensity, and understated beauty. The score (composed throughout by Kieslowski regular Zbigniew Preisner) is used to great effect here, and certain images, like an ink stain spreading from a broken bottle, stand out strongly among the memory of all 10 films.
Decalogue Two ("Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain") features Krystyna Janda (the star of Andrzej Wajda's Man of Marble and Man of Iron) as Dorota, a middle-class musician whose husband (Olgierd Lukaszewicz) is dying of cancer. Her reclusive neighbor (Aleksander Bardini) is the attending physician. She insists on knowing whether her husband will live or die, finally forcing the doctor to swear to his diagnosis in God's name. Here, as elsewhere in the series, the dramatic engine is the contrast between two characters. Kieslowski connects the two with one of his signature big, fluid camera moves, tracking out Dorota's window, down the side of the building, and into the doctor's modest flat. While the doctor tenderly nurtures plants, symbols of life that thrive beside photos of the family he lost in wartime, she commits petty acts of destruction -- idly pushing her teacup off a table and snapping the leaves off a houseplant of her own.
Feb. 10, Decalogue Three and Four:
Christmas Eve arrives in Decalogue Three ("Honor the Sabbath day"), in which family man Janusz (Daniel Olbrychski) is unexpectedly reunited with Ewa (Maria Pakulnis), a jilted lover from his past. Desperate, she enlists his aid in searching for her husband, whom she claims has been missing all evening. The story, one of the most accessible in the series, is a bit like a thriller; there's even a car chase. But the resolution bespeaks the need for charity, for the Christmas tradition of welcoming the uninvited guest. One of the more sympathetic "sinners," Janusz is described in the script by Kieslowski and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz as having a face "like a clown's with his mask removed," a quality Olbrychski captures nicely.
Decalogue Four ("Honor thy father and mother") is finely acted, with emotionally committed performances from Adrianna Biedrzynska and Janusz Gajos, but this two-character piece falls somewhat flat, at least in comparison to the other films, for reasons that are hard to pinpoint. College student Anka (Biedrzynska) discovers a letter written shortly before her mother's death from childbirth complications; it is sealed in an envelope to be opened after the death of her father, Michal (Gajos). It contains a secret from the past, a secret that is revealed over the course of a night between father and daughter. Bardini, the doctor from Decalogue Two, crosses paths with the characters briefly.
Feb. 17, Decalogue Five and Six:
Decalogue Five and Six were originally made as full-length features for theatrical distribution, and the two were briefly exhibited at a small number of American museums under the title A Short Film About Killing. The pairing of the two here makes Feb. 17 the night to watch.
Decalogue Five ("Thou shalt not kill") is perhaps the most celebrated of the films. It is almost certainly the most artful. The two main characters -- a drifter (Miroslaw Baka) and an idealistic neophyte attorney (Krzysztof Globisz) -- coincidentally cross paths at a cafe early in the tale. They reunite at the end, in the courtroom, after the drifter has strangled a taxi driver. It's not giving anything away to say that there are two, not one, killings in the film -- one committed by a criminal and one committed by the state as an act of retribution. Each is equally brutal, with agonizing scenes of preparation, premeditation, and a violent struggle. Much has been made of the real-time aspect of the murders: The killing of the taxi driver takes almost a full five minutes of screen time. Yet the film itself is at the same time uncommonly beautiful, shot in deep focus with a golden yellow film stock and evocative montage by series editor Ewa Smal.
In the sixth film ("Thou shalt not commit adultery"), shy clerk Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) spies on and falls in love with Magda (Grazyna Szapoloswska), his promiscuous across-the-way neighbor. In the lighter moments, he thwarts her boyfriends with emergency calls to the gas company and lures her to the post office with false delivery notices. But the fallout from his eventual confession is heartbreaking, arriving in a devastating and bravely acted scene that precipitates a reversal of their roles and which could well be the best moment of the series.
Feb. 24, Decalogue Seven and Eight:
The rest of the films have less obvious dramatic momentum. Decalogue Seven ("Thou shalt not steal") is the straightforward story of a kidnapping within a strife-torn family, interesting mainly for how Kieslowski and Piesiewicz play with the notion of people "belonging" to each other and shift viewer sympathies back and forth between the two main characters (Anna Polony and Maja Barelkowska). Are both thieves? Or neither?
Decalogue Eight is among the more structurally interesting, self-reflexive entries. When a philosophy professor (Maria Koscialkowska) asks her class for a hypothetical case of "ethical hell," a student stands and recites the storyline of Decalogue Two. The story also pivots on a seeming contradiction in the Ten Commandments, as a deeply devout Catholic must choose between being charitable and bearing false witness. The resulting "sin" isn't just a lie, but a lie about a lie about a lie.
March 3, Decalogue Nine and Ten:
Finally, Decalogue Nine ("Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife") and Decalogue Ten ("Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods") deal with aspects of the same transgression and are similar philosophically, if divergent dramatically and stylistically. The first film is the nakedly emotional (if slow-moving) story of an extramarital affair; the second is the more obviously comic tale of two mismatched brothers (Jerzy Stuhr and Zbigniew Zamachowski) attempting to complete their dead father's priceless stamp collection with a rare piece. There's a suitably bizarre twist in the plot of this crime farce, and the ethical themes are dispensed with a lighter touch.
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