“ Genre: Drama / Theatrical Release: 1988 / Suitable for 15 years and over / Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski / Actors: Krystyna Janda, Henryk Baranowski, Wojciech Klata, Daniel Olbrychski, Maria Pakulnis ... / DVD released 2002-05-27 at Artificial Eye / Features of the DVD: PAL „
Dekalog is probably my favourite movie experience of all time, I had the videos, I spent a whole night watching the 10 films back to back once in a cinema in Hammersmith and I now own the 2 dvd's which make up 10 one hour stories based in 1980's Poland, each one representing one of the Ten Commandments.
The films are all set on the same Warsaw Council block, and therefore their stories are often interlinked as are the characters that often appear in numerous stories. The transition of the Ten Commandments to a bleak Polish council estate is a genius idea and one which questions the role of religion and government as well as our own morality and ability to manage the consequences of our actions.
It is a brilliantly thought out and wonderfully directed collection and for me is possibly Krzysztof Kieslowski's greatest work. It was regarded by the demi-god that is Stanley Kubrick as the only truly masterpiece he saw in his lifetime. I would concur on many points, no matter how long it is since I have seen these films, the power of the thought that went into each one and the incredible intricacy that melds many of these tales together is truly exceptional.
The series was once shown over 10 weeks on BBC back in the 1990's and was really well received, since Kieslowski died it has not had the same fanfare as his more audience friendly works such as the Three Colours Trilogy, which is also excellent, but it really is a rewarding and exceptional collection that should demand the attention of anyone who loves thought provoking art. This review could never do justice to the amazing intricacies of this awesome collection.
Made in 1998 in Polish (With English subtitles), the collection is available over two dvd's, prices are high and always will be as this isn't a widely produced work, but I bought DVD 1 (Parts 1-5) and DVD 2 (Parts 6-10) for £6.99 each ten years ago in Krakow, Poland, you can buy copies today on Amazon for £14.99 or cheaper for used copies, you can also watch them on YouTube and as a taster I would suggest watching them in order to really develop with the story.
I have suggested to Dooyoo that this should be on their site and they have kindly accepted my suggestion, as there are two DVD's, this has been split over two reviews, this is the first describing the first 5 parts of the collection, they are broken down into their specific elements for your attention:
Part 1: I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me
This for me is the perfect start to the series, a truly aweing film study, the title of the story refers to the commandment that there can be no other god's for people to worship. The story interestingly looks at the lives of a bright man, Krystof (Henryk Baranowski) who believes in the power of his computer, he creates a programme on the computer with his young son Pawel (Wojciech Klata) to determine when the ice on the local lake will be strong enough for Pawel to try out his new skates, the computer makes its calculations and father and son take this advice as being completely correct. The story pan's out and characters are required to assess their beliefs and their own role in determining their own destinies rather than relying on the advice of others.
The film is stark, incredibly sad and yet intelligent and thought provoking, how many of us trust our computers or other instruments to make decisions for us, does this belief in the validity of our machines make them the gods of the modern age, and if things don't go to plan who do we turn to, do we blame the computer, ourselves or some holy divinity who we have ignored until this moment.
The film is emotive and you will be gripped, the visuals are incredible, one moment in a church is so well shot involving wax on an icon, it deserves repeated viewings simply for that reason. Something else incredibly interesting for me in the films is a strange character who has no name (Artur Barciś), in this film and in many other parts of the anthology he appears at key moments, sometimes simply watching in the background, or walking past, but his appearance is generally the catalyst for a moment of change or a key moment in the film, some have questioned whether he is playing god, but Kieslowski himself confirmed this was not the case, as the film is not really about religion but the reality of the commandments in Poland during the 1980's, the character's appearance is eerie and easy to miss but always important for its significance in the story.
Part 2 - Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain
This story is inspired by the commandment but not overwhelmed by it. It follows Dorota (Krystyna Janda) a woman with an awful moral dilemma, her husband Andrzej (Olgierd Lukasiewicz) is in hospital with a potentially life ending illness, she seeks confirmation from a hospital consultant (Aleksander Bardini) as to whether he will live or die. The reason for her keenness for an answer is because she is pregnant, the child is not Andrzej's and also she has a medical condition which means she can only have one pregnancy in her life, if Andrzej lives she must terminate the pregnancy, if he dies the child can live. Dorota is overwhelmed by this dilemma and tries to pass the decision to the Consultant, who is not keen to play god and make decisions on the lives of either parts.
She makes his prognosis the key to her decisions indirectly giving him the power of life and death. With such power, what decision will this man make and what consequences will it have for the lives of 3 other people?
This is an exceptionally complex and emotive drama, the acting is excellent, Bardini is brilliant as a lonely and weary consultant, the moment where his own past experiences are revealed is so natural and has a real effect on the story, while Janda is brilliant as a woman with an enormous moral quandary, in Roman Catholic Poland, a country controlled by communism at the time, this dilemma was very real and the connection between the story and the title is very clear.
Part 3 - Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy
Janusz (Daniel Olbrychski) returns home (to the eponymous block of flats from which the series is centred) from his day job as a taxi driver dressed as Santa Claus with presents for his family, everyone is overjoyed and a happy Christmas Eve ensues (In Poland this is as important as Christmas Day), before everyone goes to Midnight Mass, at Mass, Janusz observes Ewa (Maria Pakulnis) but before he can speak to her, she disappears. Later at home he hears her frantic mutterings on his home answerphone and rushes to the door before his wife can see who it is.
From this moment it is clear that Ewa and Janusz had a relationship in the past, and she asks him to help her find her husband who is missing, but it is unclear whether this is true or if she is still caught up in the affair she ended, and needing attention on a special night.
The film centres on Janusz and his stuggle to dissect his past from his present, he has a wife and children and yet on this most special of nights, is driving round a frozen Warsaw with a woman who coolly rejected him in the past. The moral here seems to centre on the power of our obsessions, even a special family day can be ruined by feelings of lust, misplaced needs for attention and desire, but it is unclear why either party are drawn to each other. As the feelings of all parties become clear the story builds to an interesting end, where it becomes clear that perhaps some things are best just left alone.
Visually this is the best film for showing off the city of Warsaw, as we follow Janusz and his taxi around the City streets, we not only get a view of the city we see the city from our protagonists eyes, at times a bleak communist grey bubble at others filled with light and signs of hope.
Part 4 - Honour thy father and thy mother
Anka (Adrianna Biedrzynska) lives with her father Michal (Janusz Gajos). When Michal travels abroad on business. Whilst looking for a bill which needs paying she find a letter addressed to her, which states that it can only be opened after her father's death.
This proves incredibly tempting for Anka, she is incredibly close to her father, as her mother died a few days after she was born and their relationship is warm.
Temptation eventually proves too much and Anka opens the envelope to reveal a further envelope for her in her mother's handwriting, she also discovers new information about her mother's life from family friends. Anka confronts Michal about the envelopes and their lives change forever.
At first Anka is upset at the thought that Michal may not be her biological father and he is upset too, although he has always had a slight doubt about it. What follows from here is a confusing and at times taboo breaking scenario, twisted by a very delicate ending which reveals that hidden desires and emotions are sometimes more forceful than the truth.
The film is revealing as much in the unspoken issues this family have, Anka and Michal's relationship is incredibly close and the idea that they might not be related frees them both to explore their love for each other evolves gently. Their feelings of repression over the situation are terribly emotional, they both feel raw emotions of both loss of a father and daughter and the discovery of something else, but the story isn't finished with its twists and turns and moves to a thoughtful and wonderfully memorable conclusion that makes the whole tale that much sadder and more real.
The lingering looks between the pair are wonderfully shot and whilst most of the film is shot in a dank estate apartment, the lighting at times makes for an almost religious view as the light descends and at other times darkness controls the screen.
Part 5 - Thou Shalt Not Kill
This was also released in cinemas as 'A short film about killing'; it is one of the best of the entire collection and is a moral maze, which demands repeated viewings to fully comprehend the complexity of the situation. It is first and foremost an indictment of Capital punishment and fits the title perfectly.
Jacek (Miroslaw Baka) is a youth with little future, he has no direction and is petty criminal, bored with muggings and dropping bricks on vehicles he decides to up the stakes. He stumbles upon an overweight, middle-aged taxi driver (Jan Tesarz) who lives in the central flat complex. He is studious in avoiding drunks and any passenger who looks like trouble.
The Taxi driver picks up Jacek who asks to be driven out of town, as they head off, Jacek plays with a cord in his hands, nervously considering whether to kill the driver or not.
The murder takes place without motive, it is pointless and dispassionate, Jacek is doing it as something to do rather than with reason, he is caught and then the film moves into phase two, a court room drama centred on the build up to Jacek's execution.
The film follows Piotr (Krzysztof Globisz), a young and idealistic lawyer who defends Jacek. As proceedings descend to an obvious conclusion Piotr as the voice of the director questions why anyone should have the right to cause somebody elses death, the title refers to the murderer and the capital punishment system in general.
This film for me is a wonderful argument against capital punishment but accepts that the murderer was an obnoxious individual with little hope or care for his future.
The visuals are exceptional , especially the paralleled sequences before each death when the killing equipment is set up and assembled, it is done in an emotionless manner which suggests it is routine, this coldness just makes the whole idea that this should be acceptable even less palatable.
The Collection as a whole:
The thing I really like about these films is the interlinking of characters, at times in the first few films characters will say hello in the lift or walk past, in later films their own story is told and it is almost rewarding to spot these people. The idea that a comparison with the ten commandments could be set on a Polish Council estate sounds odd, but it works perfectly. Kieslowski always had a love/hate relationship with religion and with the suppression of art and film during the communist era Poland, this collection reviews both situations and at times when there is talk of not worshipping other gods, the clear parallel with the power of Government at that time are clear.
The Direction is exceptional, it is never sensationalist, the stories are given time to develop naturally and they all seem realistic for this, each story is filmed by a different cinematographer to ensure that they have their own style and feel which really is clear, the acting is always very good and at times exceptional, particularly from Janusz Gajos in Dekalog 4 and Krystyna Janda in Dekalog 2.
The music is by Zbigniew Preisner a long-time Kieslowski collaboration and its string led music is both emotive and emptily beautiful.
Each story on it's own is evocative and really well thought out, as a package this is exceptional, the visuals are beautiful and as anyone who knows Warsaw will accept, this is a city which in the 1980's had vast expanses of grey communist buildings, to make such areas appear beautiful is a wonderful skill, Kieslowski at all times fills all of his characters with real emotions and thoughts, at no time are characters dealt a two dimensional hand, even the nastiest killer has a redeeming feature and even the noblest doctor or lawyer has their faults, this is our world and these moral issues affect us all, this is a wonderful collection of stories that covers a wide range of these issues and deals with them honestly, sympathetically and with class. I can't recommend this highly enough.