The Decalogue

Provost's Film Series 

March 23, 2005



The Decalogue began in court—in the friendship of the Polish director Kryzsztof Kieslowski, a documentary filmmaker, and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a lawyer.  In 1980, Polish workers united in the Solidarity movement against the Communist authorities, and the government imposed martial law.  Many dissenters were dragged into court.  A recent graduate of film school in Lodz, Kieslowski won the right to make a film about the trials, at least until authorities noted that a camera encouraged the judges to be lenient.  Banned from the courtroom, Kieslowski never finished the film—in fact, he had already developed scruples about the documentary form, fearing that he could be "a very real danger" to his subjects by revealing too much information about them.  But the trials did introduce him to a new soul mate, the lawyer Piesiewicz. 

The two Polish intellectuals soon collaborated on the script for No End, a feature based in part on the trials. Praised by reviewers, No End pleased virtually no one else.  The government pronounced it too critical and the Catholic Church branded it immoral.  Even the political radicals considered it compromised, far too pessimistic about their struggles, far too silent about martial law.  For his part, Kieslowski compared himself to a skier weaving his way through slalom gates set by the censors.  And censorship, Kieslowski once said, was the only thing that functioned well in Poland.  In the midst of the backlash, he met his collaborator on a cold, rain-soaked afternoon.  After some commiserating about social ills, Piesiewicz challenged the director: "Someone should make a film about the Ten Commandments."  Then, for several months, the two sat in a kitchen and a smoke-filled living room and wrote the scripts that would become The Decalogue.


Delayed Recognition

Originally Kieslowski intended to write the ten scripts and then pass them on to others.  As an assistant director of the Tor Film Studio, he sought "to help young directors make their first film."  Traditionally, in Poland television was the medium where young directors gained their footing, so the project was conceived as ten one-hour TV episodes.   But as he drafted the scripts he grew "quite attached" to them and decided to direct them on his own.  His direction does give all of the films some stylistic unity, yet he tried to avoid boredom and predictability by using a different cinematographer each time.  Due to its unwieldy length and some copyright issues, The Decalogue was not seen in North America for nearly a decade after its Polish TV debut.  It initially caused a buzz at film festivals, but not until a DVD version was released in America in the mid-1990s did it win the widespread acclaim that has followed it since.  By then, Kieslowski had achieved international notoriety for his "three colors trilogy"—films entitled Red, White and Blue, after the stripes on the French flag and the themes of "liberty, equality and fraternity."  Film critics lauded the rediscovered Decalogue as a landmark and religious leaders found it captivating.  Esteem for the series has grown ever since Kieslowski died, prematurely, in 1996.  Christianity Today's listed The Decalogue as one of the most "spiritually significant" films ever made.  


Morals and Metaphor

Loved on the set for his humility and his concern for his team, Kieslowski always had a frisky relationship with the Polish press, and he refused to assure them that his film had any moral or political aims.  He dismissed reporters' questions about whether The Decalogue was "a treatise on the canon of morality," and he insisted that he "had no such delusions" about film "accomplishing or changing anything."  On questions of his own faith, he remained coy, claiming to believe in a "Supreme Being" but not in "intermediaries."  Nevertheless, his friends and admirers attributed to him an acute social conscience and religious yearning. 

Although each of the films in The Decalogue stands on its own, there are some interlocking images in the set of ten.  All of the films take place in the same dreary Warsaw high rise.  Main characters in some films will reappear as incidental characters in others, popping up in the hallways or on the elevator.  One character, a sober, pensive young man, appears in several films, and his face is the first that we see in Part I.  The camera often zooms in on his eyes, but he never says a word.  When asked, Kieslowski proclaimed that he had no idea about what the character symbolized, yet that has not stopped viewers from speculating if he is a type of Christ.  Others see him as a weary angel or even an emblem of human loneliness.


Ten Commandments

Kieslowski admitted that the link between the specific films and the individual Commandments was a "tentative one."  Ostensibly, each of the ten biblical mandates provides a spark for one film. (Kieslowski follows the Catholic structure of the Commandments; Protestants divide the first Catholic Commandment into two and blend the ninth and tenth Catholic Commandments into one.)  Two films—on the prohibitions against adultery and murder—were eventually expanded into A Short Film about Love and A Short Film About Killing.  Even if each episode springs off one rule, all of the ten stories explore the moral vision advocated by the Commandments as a whole.


The First Film

Part I—which portrays a professor's confidence in his computers and research—echoes the first Commandment in Exodus by revealing a man who trusts science and disregards God.  But it would be far too simplistic to reduce this episode to a simple appeal to abandon modern skepticism and return to faith.  There are so many echoes from other Commandments in the story—a devoted child's love and honor for his father, the intimation of a mother's infidelity, and a desire to seek out and tell the truth.  With both tenderness and anguish, this film portrays the challenges of observing all of the Commandments at once. 


The Second Film

The austere high rise figures prominently in the second film.  Dorota Geller, a string player in a local orchestra, waits forlornly around the building for a conversation with an upstairs neighbor, a weary, grumpy doctor.   Since the doctor is treating Dorota’s husband in the local hospital, he assumes that she is simply anxious about her husband’s condition.  Full of his own sadness, and irritated with Dorota, he endeavors to push her away by insisting that he cannot forecast her husband’s chances.  But, in time, he learns that she is stuck in a bigger moral quandary, a dilemma that leads her to contemplate an abortion.

The dialogue in the film is unusually sparse, forcing us to decipher the interior states of the characters from the visual clues.  The camera dwells on a wasp, flaking paint on the shoddy hospital walls, a leaky pipe, and a handful of leaves ripped off an indoor plant.  Although the doctor tries to keep his emotional distance from Dorota’s crisis, it soon becomes apparent that he is carrying some sorrow and moral anguish of his own. The great riddle of the film may be connecting it to the commandment against taking the Lord’s name in vain.  The doctor, who claims that he believes in his “own god,” lives a disheveled home life except for the small array of plants that he strives to keep alive.  They appear, almost comically, as a sad shrine in his poor apartment flat, a counterpart to some photographic images of his family that he treats with similar devotion. In time, he makes a decision that can be seen either as a deeply humane ethical gesture or a defiant endeavor to play God. Kieslowski leaves us to sort through the subtle clues to form our own judgments about whether the doctor has violated an oath to achieve something noble or merely retreated vainly into his own self-interest.


The Tenth Film

The final episode—about two brothers who covet their deceased father's stamp collection—also provides a humorous variation on the list of ten.  The film opens absurdly, as the older, coat-and-tie-clad brother squeezes through the swaying crowd at a Warsaw pub to reach his younger sibling, a singer in a punk band.  Without the truly raw nihilistic energy of the punk movement, the younger brother appears silly as he screams lyrics about indulging passions that will violate all of the Commandments.  This banal summary of the Commandments is a comic relief after several films of austere intensity, but it also insinuates how easily pop culture and the habits of our hearts provoke us to parody, rather than to respect, the highest moral decrees. 

As Kieslowski claimed, he was "aware that no philosophy or ideology had ever challenged the fundamental tenets of the Commandments during their several thousand years of existence, yet they are nevertheless transgressed on a routine basis."  In each film, the camera will eventually find the clash between the Bible's high ideals and the characters' moral lapses, yet it views its characters without disdain but rather with either a kind of poetic detachment or deep empathy.  These are films about the severe struggle of being good—and the inevitable struggle of being human.