Long before The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and every other fancy pants TV series of the past decade, Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski beat we lazy Americans to the single-season-punch with what remains among the best TV series ever made, The Decalogue (Dekalog).
Consisting of ten one-hour episodes, The Decalogue takes its inspiration from the Ten Commandments, with every episode more or less taking one commandment and spinning a tale that, sometimes very directly, sometimes very indirectly, gets to the heart of it. Some episodes are clearly based on a particular commandment, while some are hard to pin down, seeming to touch on more than just one of the commandments.
Which is great. This is not a religious show. It endeavors not to teach lessons, but to bring up morally and ethically questionable situations. The viewer is forced to decide for themselves what to take away. You can’t watch it without wondering what you’d do, faced with similar circumstances.
For example, in the second episode, a woman goes to a doctor living in her apartment building—every episode contains at least one character who lives in the same apartment complex—and asks after her husband, in a coma in the hospital. The doctor refuses to offer a prognosis; he simply doesn’t know. The man could either recover or not. The woman is exceptionally upset. She eventually reveals to the doctor that she’s pregnant by another man. If her husband dies, she’ll keep the baby. If he lives, she’ll abort. But the time to decide is nearing.
So the woman, by telling the doctor, has removed herself from making a difficult choice. And the doctor, being told what his prognosis will mean, finds himself put in the position of indirectly deciding the fate of an unborn child. What should he do? What should she do? What would you do?
Nobody in The Decalogue is definitively good or bad. We learn enough about every character to understand why they make the choices they do, or at least to see in them people from our own lives. We may not like these people, not all of them, but we sympathize.
A sixteen-year-old girl has an affair with a professor, gets pregnant, has the baby, and her parents raise the girl as their own. But by the time the girl is twenty-one, she wants her daughter back. Her mother won’t allow it. So the girl kidnaps her own daughter. Is that stealing? Is what her own mother did stealing? Who’s to blame for a horrible situation? Has anyone taken into consideration the one to be affected most, the five-year-old girl?
In all but two of the episodes a mysterious man appears (his absences having not to do with a deeper meaning, but the actor’s schedule). He never says a thing, only watches the characters at key moments. He can be interpreted in any way you see fit. He can be god, fate, the universe, the characters’ consciences, or just some guy.
The vibe of the series is heavy and sad. The apartment complex at its center is gray and dark and even in the daylight appears drab and uninviting. Or maybe that’s just Poland in general? Ha. Sorry, Poland! I would never insult you!
There’s humor, too, most notably in the final episode, which plays as a wicked black comedy about covetousness, with a touch of honoring one’s parents thrown in. Two brothers find in their dead father’s possessions an incredible stamp collection they knew nothing about. It’s worth millions. But they don’t sell it. They become enthralled with it, like Gollum with his ring. They must protect it, their precious collection. Better yet, they must improve it. It would look so much better with a certain missing stamp, a rare and expensive one. How will they get it?
Perhaps the most direct episode is the one about killing. It plays like a mini-version of In Cold Blood. In the first half a young man kills a cab driver at random, for no discernable reason. In the second half, a lawyer attempts to save him from execution and fails. The boy is hanged in appalling fashion. Is one murder moral and the other evil?
Kieślowski turned his thou shalt not kill episode into a ninety minute movie, A Short Film About Killing, that won the Jury Prize at Cannes in ’88. The episode/movie is also notable for its look, shot by Slawomir Idziak to appear dirty and washed out, almost monochromatic, with different scenes shot in different, deadened colors. Warsaw never looked more miserable.
There’s sex in the show too, though not of the too-pretty HBO variety. In the other esisode Kieślowski turned into a film, A Short Film About Love, a teenager spies through a telescope a woman of loose morals in another apartment building. He tricks her into coming to the post office, where he works, in search of money that doesn’t exist. He finally admits to what he’s done, and to spying on her. She’s both repulsed and curious. They go to dinner. She brings him home. Things get uncomfortable.
Kieślowski would go on to make a trilogy of movies loosely connected in a similar way to The Decalogue, his Three Colors Trilogy, Blue (’93), White (’94), and Red (’94), named for the French Tricolor flag and the symbolic meanings connected with the colors, liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Kieślowski is drawn to this kind of connective tissue between stories, which show how every life may affect the lives of many others, whether known to us or not. Coincidence plays a huge role in the lives of his characters.
The power and intelligence of The Decalogue is perhaps best captured by Stanley Kubrick, who put it thus, in a forward to a book of The Decalogue‘s ten screenplays:
I am always reluctant to single out some particular feature of the work of a major filmmaker because it tends inevitably to simplify and reduce the work. But in this book of screenplays by Krzysztof Kieślowski and his co-author, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, it should not be out of place to observe that they have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what’s really going on rather than being told. They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don’t realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.