“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.
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).
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.
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