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.
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.
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).
Thou Shalt Not Kill
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