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Decalogue, The
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by Collin Souter

"Amongst the greatest stories ever told"
5 stars

If achieving the status of a great filmmaker means possessing a passion to tell stories, than the late Polish director Krzystof Kieslowski may have been the most passionate director working in his time. His legacy consists of single narrative films such as "The Double Life Of Veronique" and "Camera Buff," but his two most notable projects, "The Decalogue" and "The Three Colors Trilogy," have been born out of ideals and principles set forth by important leaders thousands of years ago. Coming up with story ideas came from looking at a particular color, reading about what the color symbolizes (independence, strength, power, love), and building a story out of a particular theme. The late Polish filmmaker Krzystof Kieslowski mastered this technique.

Kieslowski wrote "The Decalogue" with a lawyer friend of his after his screenplay “No End,” a series of stories dealing with life under martial law, failed to win over the Catholic Church and the Polish government. His co-writer, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, jokingly suggested that someone should write a movie about the Ten Commandments. Naturally, Kieslowski didn’t take it as a joke, but as a challenge. We now have another cinematic correlation to the Ten Commandments and, thankfully, this one has nothing to do with Charlton Heston.

Film critic Roger Ebert, who taught a class on "The Decalogue," wrote, “At the end (of The Decalogue) you see that the Commandments work not like science, but like art; they are instructions for how to paint a worthy portrait with our lives.” Kieslowski wants us not to subscribe to a religion by looking at catastrophic consequences of our actions, but rather to look at ourselves as flawed individuals who can’t follow a few simple rules of life. Except maybe for Decalogue V: Thout Shalt Not Kill, the stories never take an obvious route. Decalogue VI: Thout Shalt Not Commit Adultery tells the story of an un-married voyeur who spies on a woman across the street from him, the adultery being lust instead of love. Decalogue VII: Thout Shalt Not Steal tells the story of a woman who kidnaps her own daughter.

Each story takes place at an apartment high-rise in Warsaw. The stories have nothing to do with each other, but occasionally one character will pop up in the background of another story, creating a “small world” effect where every human being matters. The characters—doctors, lawyers, postmen, and teachers—rarely talk of God. However, it has been interpreted that the one character who appears in almost every episode, a tall, solemn and silent man who appears for a few seconds observing everyone’s actions and misfortunes, represents the Almighty Himself.

When describing "The Decalogue," one might think it has religious dogma up its sleeve. Had it tried to enforce a spiritual path and rules of morality, it would have sunk quickly. Why go see a 10-hour Bible-thump when you can stay home and wait for the Jehovah’s Witnesses to come to the front door? But Kieslowski nailed it perfectly. "The Decalogue" went on to win the FIPRESCI Award at the 1989 Venice Film Festival, Best Foreign Television Program by the British Academy of Film and Television and the 1997 Best Foreign Language Film Award by the Chicago Film Critics Association.

Obviously, one problem with "The Decalogue"’s release has to do with the fact that it runs 10 hours. How does a theater show a 10-part 10-hour piece? The best solution has been to break the series up into five parts, showing each part for three days. If you miss a part (two 1-hour films), you needn’t worry. Each story in "The Decalogue" acts as a whole.


I.Thout Shalt Not Have Other Gods Before Me The God in question here--a computer—bears partial responsibility for the tragedy that ensues. Kryzstof, a single father and mathematician, teaches his son, Pavel, that we only have memories after death and the soul does not exist. Their home computer serves as a substitute for the deceased mother.

Slightly ahead of its time, this story clearly warns us about the dangers of relying on computers for everything, even math. Absorbing and heartbreaking. By the way, did you know that Microsoft Word considers “Thout Shalt” a mis-spelling?

II. Thout Shalt Not Take The Name Of The Lord Thy God In Vain Dorota’s husband has been a comatose vegetable in the hospital for quite some time now. She only wants to know if he will die. His doctor, Ordynator, does not know enough about the illness to make a valid estimation. Dorota also happens to be carrying a child of another lover. She contemplates aborting it until, at the last minute, Ordynator informs her of her husband’s condition. To play the part of God--as a doctor would supposedly be doing when aborting a fetus--would be to take His name in vain.

Dorota’s and Ordynator’s treatment of plants strengthens the message while also establishing the dichotomy between the two main characters. One of the film’s best moments comes when Kieslowski lets the camera linger on a bug trying desperately to crawl out of a cup of strawberry juice.

III. Remember The Sabbath Day, To Keep It Holy This opens with, appropriately enough, a man, Janusz, dressed as Santa Claus coming to his own house to distribute presents to his own family. Suddenly, his car gets stolen. The thief turns out to be Ewa, a former lover of his. Her boyfriend has been missing since morning and she wants Janusz’s help to find him. Or so she says. Probably the slowest-moving of the series.

IV. Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother Anka, a 20 year-old acting student, discovers a mysterious envelope in her father’s desk drawer left by her deceased mother. The envelope says, “To be opened after I die.” Anka, who never knew her mother, contemplates opening the letter knowing a deep secret exists that will change her life, or at the very least her perception of her mother, forever. The secret ends up being revealed, and it eventually snowballs into more revelations.

A thoughtful and unexpectedly heartfelt episode, one which suggests that a parents’ greatest fear may not be the family secrets their children will learn, but that the children will one day be old enough to understand them. Keep an eye out for Ordynator, the doctor from Episode II.

V. Thout Shalt Not Kill Here, Kieslowski employs the sepia tone device, one he would later use for "The Double Life Of Veronique." In this episode, a lawyer, Piotr, makes a case for his client against the death penalty, while at the same time, we see flashbacks of the client, Jacek, and the events leading up to the crime for which he has been tried, the senseless murder of a taxi driver.

Kieslowski, along with every other filmmaker who tackles this subject, clearly wants to make a case against the death penalty. Much of Kieslowski’s anger comes through in the episode, with Piotr’s repetitive cry of grievance, “I abhor it,” ringing loud and clear as the final credits roll.

VI. Thout Shalt Not Commit Adultery Tomek, A 19 year-old postman, spies from his bedroom window on a woman who lives in the apartment across the street from him. His curiosity turns to obsession as he tampers with the woman’s life just so he can get a closer look at her. Eventually, they meet, he confesses his sin to her, and oddly enough, a friendship develops.

Kieslowski keeps us in suspense by not taking any sides on the issue. We know Tomek will get in trouble for what he does, but we want to know, more than anything else, why he does it. Kieslowski won’t let us judge Tomek until we get the answer.

VII. Thout Shalt Not Steal An interesting take on Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf here being a lie about motherhood. 6 year-old Ania has bad dreams. Her mother awakens her and comforts her, much to the dismay of Ania’s older sister, Majka, who has a family secret up her sleeve. She doesn’t hesitate to use it. One day, she kidnaps Ania and reveals the truth: Majka, a troubled girl in her early 20’s, has always been Ania’s mother. Majka takes Ania to meet her real father, a teddy-bear maker named Wojtek, and tries to make negotiations with her parents regarding custody of Ania. Meanwhile, Ania has dreams about wolves as the truth leaks out about her family. She also wears red throughout the story and spends a lot of time in the forests with Majka.

Kieslowski wants us to know up front that Majka kidnapping Ania has nothing to do with the sin in question. The real crime here has more to do with the theft of a mother’s love.

VIII. Thout Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor The story opens with an elderly ethics professor, Elzbieta, engaging in something she calls “Ethical hell,” a hypothetical Q&A session dealing with (what else?) ethics of human behavior and morals. One day, a young American exchange student, Zofia, sits in and offers her own ethical discussion. As it turns out, Zofia and Elzbieta have a connection: During WWII, Elzbieta saved Zofia from being killed by the Gestapo, only to turn her over to them for fear of being killed herself. Until now, Elzbieta thought Zofia had been killed.
But why did she turn her over in the first place?

This episode makes an obvious reference to Episode II. During the “Ethical hell” session, one student poses the entire Episode II scenario as an ethical question. Elzbieta’s reply: “I know how that story turns out. Warsaw is a small city.”

XI. Thout Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Wife Roman, a doctor, has slept with 9 women in his life, maybe even 15. He lost track. No matter, because Roman has been cursed with incurable impotence. His devoted wife, Hanka, proclaims her love to him in spite of the fact that they can’t be intimate any longer. He encourages her to take a lover, but…well, these things just have a way of not working out. She takes a handsome young blond guy, and Roman takes it upon himself to eavesdrop on them.

Impotence and voyeurism would play a huge part in Kieslowski’s "White" and "Red," respectively. He also uses one of Red’s most prominent music cues, which can be found on the Red soundtrack under the title, Do Not Take Another Man’s Wife. Starts slow, but Kieslowski knows how to keep us in suspense in the second half.

X. Thout Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbors Goods Kieslowski saves the most humorous story for last. Two brothers, Jerzy and Arthur, inherit their dead father’s prized stamp collection. They learn that it would be worth millions, but it happens to be missing one particular rose-colored stamp that completes a series. One of them just might have to donate a kidney to obtain it.

The series comes to a close with a loud, thrashing punk rock song instead of somber piano cues one might expect. Furthermore, the song conveys the message Kieslowski would like us to take home with us at the end of his beloved 10-hour Decalogue:
You are the only hope
You are the light in your tunnel
Because all around you is within you
Everything belongs to you.

Consider The Decalogue a 10-hour long cinematic journey of self-discovery. What would you do if you found a forbidden letter from your deceased mother? What would you do if you conceived a child out of wedlock and your husband lay dying in a hospital? Could you rightfully defend the actions of a murderer, even if you got paid to do so on a regular basis? Bring a friend, talk about it, and learn something. How many movies out there make you do that? A sinful few. Don’t miss it.

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originally posted: 07/21/02 17:35:48
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User Comments

12/31/05 Mark simply put - essential cinema. 5 stars
5/27/05 matt quite simply, put together - this film has no peer! 5 stars
7/26/04 topher i've watched it the second time and it never ceases to awe & entertain... allows reflection 5 stars
12/01/03 Dan Very very good 5 stars
5/29/03 Mubarak One of the best works of the 20th century 5 stars
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