Body-builder showing off in 1942 and 1968

The question is whether ‘Nevinost bez zastite” (Innocence Unprotected), the documentary Dusan Makavejev (W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism; Montenegro; The Gorilla Bathes at Noon) made about/incorporating the first talkie shot in “Yugoslavian” (Serbian and Croatian use different scripts, but these inscribe the same spoken language) the 1942 ‘Nevinost bez zastite,” written, produced and directed by, and starring acrobat/bodybuilder/strongman Dragoljub Aleksic (1900-85) is one strange movie — or two strange movies intercut together.

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The 1942 melodrama has the creakiness of a particularly hokey silent-movie or Victorian play melodrama, except that the damsel in distress, Nada (Ana Milosavljevic) — on whom a rich man ((Bratoljub Gligorijević) is being pressed by a stereotypical wicked stepmother (Vera Jovanovic-Segvić) — is in love with Akrobata Aleksic, and when she speaks of his exploits, records of Aleksic’s daring feats are cut in. Hanging by his teeth from an airplane flying over Belgrade is not the most spectacular of these. (Hey! I have to leave something for the viewer to discover!)

In 1968, Aleksic remained a flamboyant exhibitionist, ready and more or less able to repeat some of his shows of strength. Other cast members (including both the female leads) gather at the grave of a departed one to picnic and reminisce. Makavejev splices in some maps of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, some WWII documentary footage, and large chunks of the 1942 movie.

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It seems that Aleksic and his brother intended to show their movie only after the war, but it did show in Belgrade during the war, which led to postwar charges of collaboration, though both were partisans (guerilla fighters against the Nazis) and even in the “right” partisan faction (the victorious communist one). Though filmed without any official permission, the theatrical release in Belgrade had at least implicit Nazi approval.

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The movie is part of a Criterion Eclipse (barebones) collection “Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical” with two earlier, also short movies shot in Tito’s Yugoslavia: “Man Is Not A Bird” (1965) and “Love Affair” (1967). “Innocence Unprotected” is like its immediate predecessor and “WR” in mixing found footage, documentary, and little narrative.

I’d actually like to know more about what people other than Aleksic thought of the 1942 movie in general and in using the (main) Yugoslavian language in particular, though I knew better than to expect any straightforward documentary from Makavejev. An idiosyncratic collage of “documentary” footage and fiction, much of the movie holds together because of the strength of ego (one completely unjustified by his film-making skill) of Dragoljub Aleksic. Aleksic is the kind of delusional larger-than-life character who would appearl to Werner Herzog, someone also more than willing to blur the fiction/documentary line.

What he shot and spliced together is only fitfully interesting, but is probably more interesting to someone more familiar with the 20th-century history and culture of the Southern Slavs (and I think that I am more familiar with these than most North Americans who are not of Southern Slav ancestry). The 1942 movie is now the first Serbian movie, I guess.

©2009, Stephen O. Murray

 

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Dusan Makavejev’s feature-film debut: “Man Is Not a Bird”

“Covek nije tica” (Man Is Not a Bird, 1965) is the first feature film of writer-director Dusan Makavejev (1932-), who is most (in)famous for the X-rated “WR: Mystery of the Orgasm” (1971). It is also the best of the three early Makavejev movies in the Criterion Eclipse (without bonus features) set “Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical.”

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The movie begins with a lecture on hypnosis (delivered by hypnotist (Roko Cirkovic) and ends with a demonstration of a hypnotist making hypnotized Yugoslavian men laughing stocks for an audience, foreshadowing the lectures by a sexologist and by a criminologist in “Ljubavni slucaj ili tragedija sluzbenice P.T.T.” (Love Affair, (1967). There is also a very provincial circus foreshadowing the focus on strongman/acrobat turned filmmaker Dragoljub Aleksic in “Nevinost bez zastite” (Innocence Unprotected, 1968). And a 3-4 minute performance of the Beethoven 9th Symphony (foreshadowing “Clockwork Orange”?)

There is a bit of a plot, involving a middle-aged expert from Slovenia, Jan Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec) who is in a copper-mining town on the border between Serbia and Bosnia (all three parts of Yugoslavia at the time) to supervise assembly of some turbo that will speed production and reduce electricity usage in copper smelting.

When first seen, Jan is having his hair cut by a youngish blonde Rajka (Milena Dravic). He asks her if she knows of anyone with a room to rent for his stay in town. She leads him home and becomes his landlady… and more. She pretty much throws herself at him. At the very least, she seduces him without his making any moves to seduce her.

Rajka has a more ardent, younger and very persistent admirer, a truck driver Vozac (Boris Dvornik, who bears some resemblance to Omar Sharif of the same time).

The movie also shows workers pilfering (including rolling a sort of girdle of copper wiring), corrupt managers, and workers expressing dissatisfaction with communism. It is surprising that these were not censored, especially in that the movie is a quasi-documentary about communist industrialization. The only nudity is a brief scene of some men in a shower. The sex scenes are discreet — well, if a sexual congress with the “Freedom!” part of Beethoven’s 9th can be considered discreet. None of the Yugoslavians are free, they cannot fly, are not birds (as the title emphasizes). They can, however, have sexual dalliances.

There’s also a drunkard, Barbulović (Stole Arandelovic), who gives his mistress three of his wife’s best dresses, outraging the wife, but this subplot is left unresolved. (Though, the end of that story may have been shown early on.)

There are some impressive compositions of the land scarred by mining operations and of the operating factory.

I don’t think it would be plot spoiling to report that the turbo gets installed and Jan is awarded a medal and a banquet (I’m not sure whether a cash bonus for getting the work done ahead of schedule is awarded, though I think it was approved by an official who did not think a medal was sufficient recompense.)

The mix of satire, documentary, and sex comedy runs only 78 minutes. It is not as wild or as chaotic as Makavejev’s later movies (the other two in the “Free Radical” set are far more disjointed). The images are not sharp, which I think was probably not a result of the movie’s age but of inferior film stock being used in the first place.

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The sly use of documentary style has been said to be “a cornerstone of Eastern European cinema.” It preceded the films of the Prague Spring, though Milos Forman’s “Loves of a Blonde” also dates from 1965 and Jirí Menzel’s film “Closely Watched Trains” (adapted from his own novel by Bohumil Hrabal, released in 1966) was probably already in production by the time “Man Is Not a Bird” came out. And I don’t think that the later two movies in “Free Radical” mark any advance on the sex plus mockumentary format. The sex got more explicit though.

 

©2010, Stephen O. Murray

My favorite Krzysztof Kieslowski film: “Red”

“Red” the third film of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy based on (and saturated by) the colors of the French flag, which represent liberty, equality, and fraternity, This film, the one with fraternity as its theme, has been greatly admired by many critics. I recall that there was a major flap about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ruling that it could not be nominated for the “best foreign picture” award in 1994. Kieslowski, who died two years later, was nominated for the best director award, one of the rare occasions a nomination went to the director of a film not in English.

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The film was shot by the Polish director in Francophone Geneva. Like most European art films since the end of the Second World War, if one had to say what it is “about,” the answer would be “alienation and failed connections.” The connections do not altogether fail, but as in Kieslowski’s “Double Life of Veronique“—which also starred Irène Jacob— the leading female character fails to recognize her match. In the earlier film it was an exact replica (both played by Jacob). In “Red,” it is potential partners (soul mates) who are out of synch.

“Synch” is the right word, because there is a very strong suggestion that Valentine (Jacob) is the “right woman” to have made the never-named retired judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant happy—had she been born earlier and he been born later. Or, perhaps she is the “right woman” for Auguste ((Jean- Pierre Lorit), the newer version, a young law student who passes an examination to become a judge over the course of the film . Although he lives across the street from Valentine, they do not meet. He is repeating the older judge’s basic life pattern with a relationship on the rocks (with a woman who provides individualized weather forecasts by telephone). As far as the viewer can tell, the younger judge knows nothing of the older one. He certainly has no inkling that he is verging on reincarnating the older judge (except that the older one is still alive), or, at least, recapitulating his mistakes.

But Valentine does not seem to me to be repeating the infidelity of the woman who broke the older judge’s heart. Nor is she evasive as the weather-service woman is. Valentine is a model. In the photo shoot she is asked to look sadder and sadder, but she does not strike me as particularly melancholic. Conscientious is an apter epitomization.

Distracted by static on her car radio one night, she accidentally hits a runaway dog. She goes to the address on its collar. The owner (Trintignant) tells her to do whatever she wants. Valentine asks, “You don’t want her?” He answers, “I want nothing,” and she snaps back “Then stop breathing.” A bracing experience, it seems, for the self-pitying older man.

After the dog runs away and returns to the “home” where his owner doesn’t care about him, Valentine drops by again. She is shocked to learn that the man spends his time eavesdropping on his neighbors’ telephone conversations. He dares her to expose him. She goes to tell one of the neighbors, but decided that doing so will cause more suffering than it allays.

When the story of a retired judge electronically eavesdropping hits the papers, she returns to reassure him that she did not report him. He smiles and tells her he knows that, because he reported himself. He is now getting bricks thrown through his windows and she helps sweep up.

Later he tells her the story of the unhappy love when he was young that embittered him. Indeed, “Red” is a very talky movie, generally telling rather than showing.

At least the main relationship in the movie is long on explanatory narration. There are also telephone conversations between Valentine and her boyfriend who is in England, and between the younger judge and the weather reporter. The one relationship that is not constituted by talk is the non-relationship between Valentine and Auguste. They are physically proximate often, but never meet, let alone connect.

Arguably, a fraternity emerges between the temporarily isolated Valentine and the permanently frozen out older judge, but it seems that there is generally a longing for connection that is not satisfied. (As I said, isn’t this the theme of most European art films?) Mostly, the characters’ connections are by cell phone and answering machine (and intercepted cell phone calls in the case of the older judge)—prototypically alienated forms of communication, typical of postmodern society.

There is a suggestion of salvation (and, indeed, election in the full Calvinist sense) in the end (for the leading characters from all three films of the trilogy).

I began writing this, planning to dismiss the film as overrated. I recognized that the two leads turned in extraordinary performances. I continue to think that the film is unnecessarily murky and far too talky. And the saturation of one color seems so 1970s (so 1970s German). . . However, it does draw the viewer in and forced me to try to figure out what Kieslowski intended. The characters have a greater hold on my imagination than I thought they did before I started writing about the film, and I have surprised myself by writing myself into the ranks of its admirers.

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I still think that “Blue,” the second film in the trilogy, starring the even-more-beautiful Juliette Binoche, is the best of the three, but for those liking to try to solve puzzles of human relationships, “Red” is a worthy candidate and much less depressing. (“White” is a lightweight comedy.). Viewers wanting plots and action should avoid it.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Two stand-alone Kieslowski films

I’m not at all surprised that Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blind Chance” (Przypadek) was blocked in communist Poland after he shot it in 1981. I’m surprised that it was released even in 1987. It not only shows the communist party as opportunistic, but shows organized resistance to the regime.

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The protagonist, a medical student, Witek Dlugosh (Boguslaw Linda), joins the party and negotiates for the state. In the first iteration he managed to run and get on a train that was en route from Lodz to Warsaw. In the second version in which he misses the train and collides with a petty official on the platform, he becomes a Christian involved in underground resistance to the communist state. In both these versions, he is denied a passport to fly to Paris.

In the third and shortest in which he gives up on catching the train and instead sees a colleague (Monika Gozdzik), he marries and has impregnated a second time, he changes his flight to Libya to the one he was blocked from taking in the other versions.

There is full-frontal female nudity (different women) in all three. I thought the movie very, very schematic a portrayal of the fateful repercussions of one happenstance (making or not making the train). The fascination with contingency became Kieslowski’s leitmotif in the (far greater!) Decalogue and the Three Colors trilogy before his death at the age of 52. It also prefigured Tom Twyker’s marvelous “Run, Lola, Run” (1998). (For a Kino DVD release, there is a rich array of special features, though Annette Insdorf’s plot summary is wrong in several particulars and it is unclear how Irena Strazakowska went from being a censor to a Kieslowski intimate.)

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Kieslowski’s 1991 “The Double Life of Veronique” is like a parody of what Americans find insufferable about European art films: glacially paced, plotless, with opaque characters (particularly a beautiful female lead, here Irène Jacob, star of the Kieslowski film I like most, “Rouge”) having chance encounters, everything being unnaturally lit (sepia), and with a non-rock soundtrack (this one, by Zbigniew Preisner, is the best part of the movie for me, followed by the puppets). The elliptical doubling of characters and/or their experience also seems an oft-repeated aspect of European art films. I’m supposed to view it as a mystic connection? Pu-leeze!

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“Episode VII” of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Dekalog”/”Decalogue” is linked to “Thou Shalt Not Steal.” Majka (Maja Barelkowska), its anti-heroine, at one point asks if one can steal what is one’s own, in this instance, Ana (Katarzyna Piwowarczyk), a child Majka bore at age 16 and who has been raised as the younger sister of the biological mother, Ewa (Anna Polony). Majka is resentful of the greater affection Ana shows her second daughter (grand-daughter) and generally aggrieved. Maja Barelkowska reminds me of Mia Farrow in Medea mode. She desperately begs the child to call her “Mama.” The child is, not surprisingly, confused by being told that her mother is not her mother and her father is not her father.

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One can see reasons for Majka to dislike her mother… and reasons for her mother to find Majka a petulant, spoiled, and unpleasant daughter. The two men, Ana’s biological and social father (Wladyslaw Kowalski and Boguslaw Linda, respectively) are portrayed much more sympathetically, but the battle for the third generation is between the first and second generation females of the story.

Unlike in many episodes of the Decalogue, something happens. Majka snatches the child and goes to the biological father, a former teacher who has become a toy-maker. Majka has a passport for him and urges him to run away to Canada with their child.

Although the dramatic confrontation at the heart of “episode VIII” is not any more contrived than those in the latter two episodes of the Decalogue (two of the best, IMO), it is more like life (and like episode VII) in lacking a resolution (never mind a satisfying resolution). The relationship between the story and the commandment (“Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness”) is as oblique as that in IX. It has a very compelling performance by Maria Koscialkowska, who plays Zofia, a long-widowed college professor, rejected by her son (for reasons unspecified within the film). She seems to teach courses on ethics and in one class is confronted by a researcher visiting from America (who was born in Poland), Elzbieta, played by Teresa Marczewska. The visitor, roughly two decades younger than the professor, has returned to find out what happened during World War II. She succeeds with the professor, fails utterly with a tailor who was also involved in the wartime story.

The first 20 or so minutes (of a 52-minute movie) are tellings in Koscialkowska’s class—first a reprise of the dilemma that was dramatized in Decalogue II, then the visitor’s story, that is, the parts she knows and that she thinks she knows. The whole episode is talky to the extreme, though there is finally something visual when the professor is jogging in a park. I’m not quite sure what the point of episode VIII is (that there are not artistically neat resolutions of conflicts in real life? that the more you learn the less you know?), but it is not arbitrary as what occurs in episodes III and IV seems to me to be, and it has two sympathetic characters (two more than in III).

Although each of the ten episodes had a different cinematographer, they don’t look very different from each other. Some are more visually static than others, but none has much camera movement or cutting. None has much music, either. The people portrayed are mostly agonizing about unsatisfying relationships (getting along with no problems with the repressive state, even getting exit visas easily).

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In The Uses of the Knife, the enthusiastic pruner David Mamet wrote: “We live in an extraordinarily debauched, interesting, savage world, where thing really don’t come out even. The purpose of true drama is to help remind us of that. Perhaps this does have an accidental, a cumulative social effect—to remind us to be a little more humble or a little more grateful or a little more ruminative.” They setting of the legendary if uneven “Dekalog” was Warsaw at the end of communist rule, though the ten one-hour movies made for state-owned Polish television do not provide the slightest indication that the society was managed by a doddering, collapsing communist oligarchy. Director/writer Krzysztof Kieslowski famously(/notoriously) said that he did not accept martial law in Poland but had to live with it. During a lengthy press conference that is included on the DVD of Decalogue VIII-X, he also said that he was more interested in life than in politics. I find this an interesting rationalization for going along to get along (and Kieslowski was criticized by Polish dissidents for careerism). Yet, if Kieslowski had not found a way to work within a corrupt system, we would not have the movies of the Decalogue to watch.

Kieslowski disclaimed any intent to edify viewers (“I don’t have any goals. I’m not going to change anything through movies”), though I suspect he would have gone along with the heavily hedged (“perhaps,” “accidental”) second sentence from the quotation from David Mamet with which I began. Mamet also seems to belong in the same universe of discourse with Kieslowski as someone who coolly lays out human follies—not least aspirations—in a world with very few heroes and equally few thoroughly despicable villains. The last of the ten movies of the Decalogue (“”Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s goods”,” henceforth X) has particular resonances with David Mamet’s break-out play (which opened on Broadway in 1977), “American Buffalo.” The plots of both X and “American Buffalo” center on rare collectibles (stamps in X, a nickel coin in “American Buffalo”) for which collectors will pay huge sums. This unleashes greed in characters unaccustomed to the prospects of huge payoffs and vying for ownership of the collectible (which has value because of its rarity, not any intrinsic usefulness, though the nickel could at least be spent as a nickel, I guess; the stamps are from vanished states, so could not get an envelope delivered if they were affixed).

In X, two very different-looking brothers, a corpulent business-like Jerzy (Jerzy Stuhr) and the lead “singer” in a punk-rock band Civil Death (ah-hum!), Artur (Zbigniew Zamachowski, who would star in “White” in the “Three Colors” trilogy) are going through the apartment of their father who has just died. They did not know him, for reasons that are never explained. The apartment has bars and a steel-plated door and an alarm system. Eventually, the brothers find out that their father was a major stamp collector and that they have inherited a very valuable collection. Various others are eager to swindle them (very Mamet!), including the very proper-appearing dealer played by Henryk Bista, whom the brothers attempt to outsmart. The brothers’ trust in each other is very finite, but they turn out to be more similar than they appear (“brothers under the skin”), both starting to feel the lure of being a collector and the excitement of the chase for rarity that were central to their dead father. (In an American movie they would surely talk about trying to feel what the father they didn’t know felt, but there is no verbalizing of this recapitulation (a sin of the father visited on the next generation?) here.)

The ultimate scheme is very elaborate (also very Mamet a con) and certainly should not be revealed in a review. Although a very dark comedy, a comedy X nonetheless is (not as anarchic as Zamachowski’s turn in “White”). It is my favorite of the six installments of the Decalogue I have seen. I don’t recall any of it taking place in the apartment building in which most of the characters reside in most of the other movies in the Decalogue.

Much of IX (“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” though no neighbor is involved) occurs in the house of the wife’s mother, in an airline (KLM) agency office, and outdoors, though I think the central couple live in the Warsaw apartment building.

At the outset the husband, a surgeon Roman (Piotr Machalica), is in a medical consultation in which he is told he is irreparably impotent (the pre-Viagra era; and I thought he was sterile). He tells his (younger) wife Hanka (Ewa Blaszczyk) that she should meet her sexual needs elsewhere. She tries to (more out of dutifulness than any apparent desire; he is the one who seems to have strong adulterous feelings—for a patient who wants him to operate so that she can have a career as a singer…) with a physics student, Mariusz (Jan Jankowski). Having renounced possessiveness, the husband is consumed by jealousy, spies on her, and drives himself beyond distraction (over the edge). It is his own wife whom he covets and is too unimaginative (phallocentric) to find ways to please. (Contrary to Kieslowski’s dismissal of films as able to change anything, I think the surgeon might have learned something from watching “Coming Home.”)

IX is self-contained; it does not seem at all sketchy. I find the wife very sane and sympathetic, but have a hard time sympathizing with the husband’s combination of overheated imagination (jealousy) and lack of imagination (sexual), of morbid tracking of his wife and of still leaping to false conclusions. (IX also provides a precursor to the wiretapping that is central to “Rouge.”)

Although the dramatic confrontation at the heart of VIII is not any more contrived than those in the latter two episodes on the third DVD of the Decalogue, it is more like life in lacking a resolution (never mind a satisfying resolution). The relationship between the story and the commandment (“Thou shalt not bear false witness”) is as oblique as that in IX. It has a very compelling performance by Maria Koscialkowska, who plays Zofia, a long-widowed college professor, rejected by her son (for reasons unspecified within the film). She seems to teach courses on ethics and in one class is confronted by a researcher visiting from America (who was born in Poland), Elzbieta, played by Teresa Marczewska. The visitor, roughly two decades younger than the professor, has returned to find out what happened during World War II. She succeeds with the professor, fails utterly with a tailor who was also involved in the wartime story.

The first 20 or so minutes (of a 52-minute movie) are tellings in Koscialkowska’s class—first a reprise of the dilemma that was dramatized in Decalogue II, then the visitor’s story, that is, the parts she knows and that she thinks she knows. The whole episode is talky to the extreme, though there is finally something visual when the professor is jogging in a park. I’m not quite sure what the point of episode VIII is (that there are not artistically neat resolutions of conflicts in real life? that the more you learn the less you know?), but it is not arbitrary as what occurs in episode III seems to me to be and has two sympathetic characters (two more than in III).

I would rate VIII 3.5, IX 4, and X 4.5. VIII is the least grimly photographed, and I read all three as ending with some hopefulness. Whereas I found the endings of I and II predictable and couldn’t care about the ending of III, the last three kept me guessing to the ends (and caring).

The DVD (volume III of the Decalogue) included a 42-minute dubbed recording meeting by Kieslowski with the Polish press just after the completion of the Decalogue (and after acclaimed showing of part V as “A Short Film About Killing” in France). Kieslowski appears annoyed and impatient with many of the questions, rejecting many of the premises underlying them, yet comes across as serious, unegotistical, and sympathetic. He is also recalled fondly for 13 minutes in another feature of Polish talking heads (dubbed). And there is a 4-minute feature “Kieslowski on the set of the Decalogue,” half directing an actress playing a violinist in an orchestra (for II, if I recall it correctly), half answering some inane questions.

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Between listening to Kieslowski respond to the press and being impressed by the last two parts of the Decalogue, my overall valuation of him has risen. I think that both the Decalogue and the Three Colors Trilogy have been overpraised, and remain underwhelmed by “White” and Decalogue III and VIII, but that there is much in them to praise in Kieslowski’s body of work that was regrettably cut off by his early death in 1996 at age 54.

©2005, Stephen O.Murray

Decalogue 4-6

Krystof Kieslowski is at the top of my list of overrated directors, with Mike Leigh, just ahead of Stanley Kubrick. By “overrated” I don’t mean that they were bad directors or that they made no movies I regard highly, only that I am much less impressed by their body of work than are many cinema enthusiasts. In my opinion, the “Color Trilogy” is uneven and has stretches of tedium. The Decalogue—ten one-hour movies made for Polish state television, each keyed to one of the Ten Commandments, all written by Kieslowski and Krystof Piesiewicz, directed by Kieslowski, and using ten different cinematographers—is more uneven. I think that all but the last of the ten episodes drags at least some of the time. Kieslowski favored a static camera and fairly long takes. The parts of the Decalogue all have a dark palette with overdoses of sickly greens. Most (but not this pair) are very talky.

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In the fourth episode of the Kieslowski/Piesiewicz Decalogue, “Honor they father and thy mother, “a young woman, Anka (Adrianna Biedrzynska), who is a disengaged, passionless acting student, finds a letter marked to be opened after her father’s death. Later, the viewer learns that she has known of its existence for a long time and that her father (Janusz Gajos) usually takes it with him when he travels, but he left it behind on this trip. It seems that at least a quarter of the episode involves her staring at the envelope. There is a brief flash of feeling when she confronts her father at the airport upon his return to Warsaw, followed by what I find totally unconvincing dialogue between the two for the rest of the episode.

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I don’t believe in the father-daughter relationship portrayed or the girl’s understanding of paternity (or, for that matter, of maternity), though part of this may be that my view of parenthood is more about raising a child than about supplying the sperm that fertilized the egg that became an offspring. Also, in my view, Anka honors neither her father nor her mother (who died when Anka was five days old, after having written her a letter to be opened in the then-future.)

Even for an episode of the Decalogue, this one moves very slowly and gets nowhere. (Arguably, as with the third episode, it makes a circle, though I don’t see how the status quo ante can be resumed in #3 and have a hard time imaging it in #4.)

Parts V and VI were expanded into feature films: V into “A Short Film About Killing” (from 57 to 84 minutes in length) and VI into “A Short Film About Love” (from 59 to 86 minutes).

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is the part of the Decalogue most obviously connected to its commandment. There is not the slightest question that it is about killing. The killings are not at all stylized or glamorized. The first involves a sickeningly extended murder of a taxi driver. The taxi driver (Jan Tesarz) is shown to be something of a pig, but not in any way to be deserving the fate, Jacek (Miroslaw Baka), who kills him brutally and very inefficiently.

The second killing is the murderer’s execution. He is hanged, and the killing itself take practically no time, though something like a third of the movie concerns the preparations by the prison and the prisoner for the execution.

Despite Kieslowski’s frequent disclaiming of any didactic or polemical intent, some have claimed that the movie was a significant impetus to the abolition of the death penalty in Poland (near the end of the Soviet puppet state there). I find this somewhat surprising, in that there is not the slightest doubt that the man being executed committed a particularly gruesome murder and is completely without charm.

As narrative cinema rather than as a statement on capital punishment, I think that the movie can be faulted for being confusing. There is no information about whether the murderer had any previous contact with the taxi driver he murdered, and not much about the victim. What is confusing is that the portrayal of the taxi driver’s morning, the murderer’s morning, and the drive onto a deserted lane is juxtaposed with the graduation of Piotr (Krzysztof Globisz) from something. Eventually, one can infer back that he joined the bar. Defending Jacek was seemingly Piotr’s first case, and he is wracked by fear that it is his inexperience and inability that resulted in the death penalty—though the judge tells him that he was particularly eloquent and that a more experienced lawyer could not have saved Jacek from execution… and though Jacek’s crimes were heinous and in no doubt (and there were more that the viewer saw that were not linked to Jacek’s perpetration).

Jacek’s bravado runs out before he is hanged and Piotr’s anguish is further increased by seeing his client’s end. The drama is stripped down to observation of concrete detail in a very Bresson manner. Decalogue V is an outstanding, if hard to take, film.

Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery

is one of the more intriguing and accomplished episodes of the Decalogue (and bluer than green; V may be the greenest of the ten). It has a young male lead who is almost as blank a slate as Jacek, but one who is socially very backward rather than one who is a psychopathic murder.

Tomek (Olaf Linde Lubaszenko) is a post office clerk whose only friend has left Warsaw. Tomek stays with his friend’s mother (Stefania Iwinska, who reminds me of Alice B. Toklas without the mustache). He is obsessed with a young (but older than he is and way more sexually experienced) woman across the way. His friend first began peeping and labeled her as SSIA (she spreads it around). Tomek has a telescope trained on the woman’s window and also calls her up and does not speak.

Tomek devises some rather bizarre and complicated ways to meet this woman, whose name is Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska). When he admits to his campaign of harassment, Tomek tells her that he loves her.

I think the viewer is supposed to believe that Magda knows a lot about sex but not much about love and that Tomek knows little about either, but is touchingly ardent. She has experience and he doesn’t, but “innocent” is not a label I would apply to Tomek. He strikes me as more than a little corrupt, if earnest and inept. The hunter is easily captured and toyed with by the game, but there is also a sense in which Tomek corrupts Magda (that would be plot-spoiling to elaborate upon).

The very strange romance develops in interesting ways, though the conclusion of the movie is rushed (after some longeurs en route). It is not as kinky as I may have made it sound, but it is definitely a quirky romance, and others seem to regard Tomek as purer than I do. (He is purer than the retired judge turned electronic eavesdropper played by Jean-Louis Trintignant in Kieslowski’s masterpiece, “Red”, however. And has considerably less personality…)

In that neither Tomek nor Magda is married, I don’t understand how they can be committing adultery (fornication, I guess)

I don’t want to spoil the plot, but recommend it. My favorite part of the Decalogue is the last (X), but VI is with I and IX in the second tier (with V just below it).

I don’t think that the order in which one watches the individual components of the Decalogue matters (though there is something to be said for saving the best for last, as I think that Kieslowski did).

In the packaging in 5 parts, this one is second only to the last (9-10) one. In the packaging of three parts (1-3, 4-7, 8-10) and of two parts (1-5, 6-10), the last one is still the best one.

©2005, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

Decalogue 1-3

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…)

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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.

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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…”)

Conclusion

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).

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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