I am less awed than many by Polish writer/director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s (1941-96) widely acclaimed “Three Colors” trilogy (though I like the perverse humor of “Rouge”/“Red”). There is no way that I would try one of the marathon screenings of all ten hour-long parts of the 1989 “Decalogue,” and I have (obviously!) been in no hurry to examine this work much hyped as “profound” and a “masterpiece” (or series of masterpieces). Just for starters, I think that “masterpiece” requires a higher degree of craft than the generally uninteresting visual compositions, flat acting, and slow pacing of Kieslowski’s dramatization of violations of the Ten Commandments. (Didn’t I just review “The Bible”? Yes, but that movie did not get to Moses and the famous tablets…)
The DVD of the first three of the ten parts (each of these in the 53-56-minute range in length, (co-written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz) of the Decalogue, with a general introduction by Roger Ebert (that seems to me to count as “plot-spoiling”), includes two stories in which I anticipated the ending “twists” before the mid-point. I didn’t guess where the third one was going, because it did not seem to be anywhere or to be going anywhere. At the end this feeling was modified to the past tense: it did not go anywhere. The viewer knows a bit more about the relationships of the characters at the end, but they are not transformed by what occurred on the long night.
Leading characters in all ten episodes reside in a standard-issue high-rise apartment building in Warsaw of the late-1980s (before the Soviet Empire collapsed, but with mounting consumerism more on display than any of the incessant queuing for food and secret police surveillance of the regime) and have some connection to violations of commandments, given the variable quality and different cinematographers shooting each part, I’ll comment on each separately.
I : What is Death?
The best—or at least the most engaging—of the three episodes on the first Decalogue disk involves a university physics professor (Henryk Baranowski) and his son (Wojciech Klata) who place their faith in calculation and the ultra-calculator, a computer. The mother, who is off at some undisclosed location (I assumed in the West) communicates in cyberspace, and I don’t really see that the computer addicts are putting the computer before God. They are treating the natural world as more predictable and calculable than it is (though one could argue that their equations do not include enough variables, and there are better demonstrations of chance than what the story uses).
The eager child (eager to use what is supposed to be his Christmas present, not just eager to use the computer) is played very effectively by Wojciech Klata.
II: The Doctor
The second episode is most interesting to me in showing a medical system in which physicians play God even more than in America. The title character (played gravely by Aleksander Bardini) is very unwilling to provide information that really is needed by the wife (Krystyna Janda) of a critically-ill patient unlikely to survive an operation. (Families are provided information on patients’ condition only on Wednesdays between 2 and 5 pm! Dying patients are not told they are dying. ) I thought that the commandment involved was “Thou shalt not kill,” but apparently it was “”Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain,” though I did not notice either commandment being violated during the proceedings (to an ending I saw coming as soon as the wife explained the dilemma that required reliable professional assessment from the doctor. (I’d say this episode was, like the first, more about the difficulty of predicting outcomes with chance and/or multiple unknown variables and the physician is reluctant to play God, continually stressing that medical “miracles” happen. That is, he is not a determinist like the physics professor father in the first episode.)
The patient (husband) spends a lot of time being tortured by the dripping of a leaking pipe and there is also an extended sequence of a fly trying to climb a spoon to avoid drowning in a glass. More interesting than watching paint dry, but not enough more!
III : Christmas Eve
Purportedly, the relevant commandment for this boring and in my view pointless episode is “Thou shalt remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” As the episode’s title indicates, the “story” is set not on the Sabbath, but on Christmas Eve, not a sacred day at the time Moses came down the mountain with the Ten Commandments…
There is a woman (Maria Palkunis) on the edge of hysteria who is stalking a dour man(Daniel Olbrychski, with whom she was romantically involved three years earlier. First she is dressed as Santa Claus in front of the apartment building (the one in which characters of each part of the Decalogue live), then she calls the man and persuades him to leave the family Christmas Eve celebration to go down and talk to her. Then she persuades him to help her search for her husband (who had walked in on them making love three years earlier). The search is complicated and there is what might qualify as “action,” including a police chase into a tunnel, and vehicles swerving on ice, and a corpse. The only component I found entertaining was the arrival on a skateboard of a female security guard at one of the places they go. I found it impossible to care in the least for either the man or the woman or what happened to them. (And the moral seemed “Though shalt not commit adultery” rather than “Remember the Sabbath…”)
Having been in no rush to start with the Decalogue, I’m in no rush to see the other seven episodes (on two more DVDs). The influence of Ingmar Bergman’s movies about the agonies (and game-playing) of confused adults is an obvious influence on the Decalogue (and color trilogy), but Bergman often (not always!) dramatized the dilemmas better. It seems to me that all three of this tv movies are excessively talky, though it takes some time in each episode to figure out who the characters are (and in the case of the third episode, the main characters remain opaque even at the end).
Much of each episode runs without background music.
Some admire the movies’ “contemplative style.” I think each of the stories could have been told more effectively in roughly half the running time (including showing the dynamics of the former couple’s reunion, which is not much of a story, in the third). Some claim that, despite the source inspiration, the stories are not preachy. The first three seem somewhat preachy to me (despite the obscurity of the third) and certainly counter-revolutionary (to the sexual revolution).
The one DVD extra, Roger Ebert’s appreciation for the Decalogue, includes clips from several of the episodes and gives away the ending of one not even on this disk (#6). Although providing some information about the plot of the second episode, I would not judge it as “plot-spoiling” (though, come to think of it, I guessed how the story would end from seeing the clip a few days before getting to the second story).
©2005, 2018, Stephen O. Murray