Masterpieces are never out of date, though sometimes they take far too long to reach us. Consider Facets’ video release of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, one of the most wondrous cinema events of a still young 2000. Made in Poland in 1988 and composed of ten episodes, each inspired by one of the Ten Commandments, Kieslowski’s masterpiece is a film dauntingly ambitious, dazzlingly well-achieved—yet scandalously little-shown. While it’s been near-legendary since the early Nineties among serious American critics—who have seen it at film festivals and isolated showings in a few major cities—it’s still largely unknown even to most educated U.S. filmgoers. Partly, that’s because of its unusual form and length (almost ten hours). But mostly it’s due to the movie’s troubled, spotty North American distribution.
This bottleneck had nothing to do with quality or appeal. Millions of people in Poland enjoyed The Decalogue immensely when it was shown on TV in 1988 and 1989. Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz wrote the script during a period of national ferment, while Poland was in the throes of the transformation from Communism to democracy, and you have a sense of both of them rising to the moment, just as Andrzej Wajda had done earlier with his Man of Marble and Man of Iron. But unlike Wajda, Kieslowski doesn’t focus on hot centers of social change. Instead his film is a vast fresco of private emotions and subtle interactions: an epic, but an intimate one.
At first glance, Kieslowski’s canvas seems small—a Warsaw high-rise apartment complex, several buildings facing each other across a barren courtyard. Within those buildings live most of the series’ important characters, a largely middle-class gallery of doctors and teachers, taxi drivers and postmen. (The cast, a who’s-who of contemporary Polish actors, includes Wajda’s charismatic signature actor Daniel Olbrychski, sexy Grazyna Szapolowska, comic Jerzy Stuhr, Miroslaw Baka, Adrianna Biedrzynska, Maja Baarelkowska, Maja Komorowska of The Year of the Quiet Sun and other Krzysztof Zanussi films, and Poland’s action-superstar-to-be, Boguslaw Linda.) Most of the characters of the separate segments of The Decalogue know each other only by sight or not at all—and they have almost no influence or effect on one another’s tales. They are isolated. And though the stories move outside to the city and countryside, Kieslowski always returns to the towering walls and monotonous windows of the highrise. There, he implies, you can see a whole world of conflicts, betrayals, loves, redemptions, and catastrophes.
In order, these are the episodes:
Decalogue 1 (Thou shalt have no other gods before Me): The life of a university teacher who trusts computers implicitly is shattered when his child falls through the ice on a lake, which had been measured as safe.
2 (Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain): An elderly doctor must decide whether to deceive the pregnant, desperate young wife of a man whose cancer may be incurable.
3 (Honor the Sabbath): On Christmas Eve, the onetime mistress of a now– married taxi driver (Olbrychski) takes him on a wild-goose chase through Warsaw.
4 (Honor thy father and mother): An acting student who lives with her father discovers a letter from her dead mother, which may reveal long-buried family secrets al@out her parentage.
5 (Thou shalt not kill): Best of the segments, released in expanded form as A Short Film About Killing. A seemingly psychopathic young drifter-killer from the provinces, his brutal cabdriver victim, and the lawyer who will argue the capital case in court cross paths on two days of death: the murder and the execution.
6 (Thou shalt not commit adultery): Released in expanded form as A Short Film About Love. A shy young postman-milkman regularly spies through his telescope on the affairs of a promiscuous young woman (Szapalowska) across the courtyard. He falls in love; she discovers him. When, angrily, she breaks the barrier to teach him a lesson, a near-tragedy ensues.
7 (Thou shalt not steal): A beautiful, melancholy young woman whose illegitimate daughter has been raised by the woman’s mother as her own daughter, kidnaps and takes the child to her real father (Linda), In a desperate attempt to establish true family ties.
8 (Thou shalt not bear false witness): A famous, elderly professor of ethics encounters a young Jewish woman she first met during World War II, when she refused to help hide the little girl from the Nazis.
9 (Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors wife): A once actively philandering doctor, whose sex life has ended because of illness, becomes racked with jealousy over his wife’s affair with a younger man.
10 (Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors goods): Two brothers—a punk rocker and a conservative family man—discover that their recently deceased father kept a fortune in stamps in his flat. As swindlers gather around them, they become obsessed with their unusual inheritance.
These episodes can be appreciated independently. In fact, the theatrical versions of Decalogue 5 and 6 were major critical hits in Europe, with Killing winning both a Cannes Special Jury Prize and the European Critics’ “best film” Felix award. But fine as they are separately, they become magnificent as a unit. A world appears. Themes recur and develop, major characters in one tale reappear as background figures in another. The episodes are linked by a mysterious, omnipresent figure who turns up at crucial moments, a young blond man with searingly watchful eyes and an Old Testament intensity. (If The Decalogue sometimes suggests Rear Window without a Jimmy Stewart, this recurring stranger/voyeur may partly fill Stewart’s “center of consciousness” function.) As with Altman’s Short Cuts, the recurrences act as narrative glue, while also becoming a prime theme. The reappearance of foreground characters in someone else’s background repeatedly reminds us of the interconnectedness of life. We are never alone. No one is unimportant.
The inspiration for The Decalogue can be seen as polemic or moralistic (though not a Marxist polemic, as some neo-conservatives may imagine they see). Why, Kieslowski and Piesiewicz wondered, are these time-tested Commandments, moral bedrock of Western culture, so hard to live up to? (Or, as Kieslowski says, “For 6,000 years, these rules have been unquestionably right. And yet we break them every day.”) Alienated, rebellious, ironic, Kieslowski uses the Commandments to throw the society and dramatis personae into relief and constant moral criticism.
Yet The Decalogue, like all great films, transcends its apparent intent. It’s one of those “testament” films, like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or Fanny and Alexander, in which a moviemaker summarizes his career and himself. In #s 6 and 9 (and also in Three Colors: Red), Kieslowski so obsessively portrays his voyeur protagonists—men obsessed with spying on loved ones or peeping on their neighbors—that we get a hint of strong psychic links with their creator. And no wonder: Kieslowski’s camera, from his earliest films on, has almost always been a voyeur, continually taken us places and shown us things that were seemingly out of bounds or dangerous. (In 1979’s Camera Buff, a factory worker turned documentary filmmaker keeps shooting things he shouldn’t; in 1984s No End, a lawyer dies and is able to kibitz unseen on the living.)
Kieslowski, whose greatest gift was his ability to create an illusion of spying on reality, started out (like Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami and Hungary’s Gyula Gazdag) as a documentarian. Born in Warsaw in 1941, educated at the Lodz Film School, member of a loose coalition of Polish filmmakers (including Wajda and Agnieszka Holland) called The Cinema of Moral Unrest, he worked primarily in short documentaries for a decade. He was a great documentarian. (Much of that early work, especially 1975’s Personnel and 1976’s Hospital, richly deserves to be revived.) And it was as a highly critical nonfiction moviemaker that Kieslowski forged his special style, alternately cryptic and outspoken, in which real events assume a nightmarish starkness and eerie clarity: a chilling vision that suggests Kafka disguised as Frederick Wiseman, Bergman wedded to Ken Loach.
Kieslowski’s most popular films internationally, Veronique and Three Colors, were largely made in a language, French, that he didn’t speak, with ravishing actresses (lrene Jacob, Juliette Binoche, the sublime Julie Delpy) in decors and cinematography far lusher than most of his purely Polish work. Yet far from the voguish peddler of fancy ennui that some detractors of Veronique saw, he was an open-eyed observer preoccupied with both the surface of life and its mysterious interior. His Polish films—none more than The Decalogue—clearly reveal the iron of his vision.
Some vital threads weave through all his work. Choice is fate. Pain underlies beauty. Isolation is an illusion. Disparate are we. Sin is inescapable. Soul is flesh. Film is life. The Decalogue, his prime act of cinematic voyeurism, draws those threads together. In the film’s Warsaw high-rise, with its odd, interlinked populace and free-floating angst, we see the vast mirror of a flawed society, full of melancholy, malaise, piercing candor, and “moral unrest.” Only one of the ten episodes, the last—with Jerzy Stuhr and Zbigniew Zamachowski becoming absurdly enmeshed in greed and intrigue over their father’s stamp collection—is comical. But like Three Colors: White (where both Stuhr and Zamachowski pop up again), it’s dark comedy indeed, a satiric view of Polish society crumbling into ashes as a new, more naked age of greed and venality approaches.
When I met Kieslowski in the early Nineties, I was shocked at the depth of his hatred of the old Polish regime; he told me, without apparent irony, that an entire generation of Communists would have to die for the country to recover. So much for national spirit. The Decalogue, which originally played to huge Polish audiences, was obviously a much more consciously provocative and “radical” statement than we Western viewers first imagined. Yet Kieslowski, despite that revulsion against the “materialist” Polish past, usually denied any religious significance in his choice of the Ten Commandments.
Perhaps this was disingenuous. Even so, by using Moses’ tablets and laws, Kieslowski questioned the foundations of the old Poland and the new. Why do we live? Why do we suffer? What brings us joy? Pain? How, in the face of a world full of cruelty, can we be decent to each other? Most modern films wouldn’t bother to ask those questions, except in conventional terms. But Kieslowski’s sad and clear-eyed The Decalogue—one of the great films of the century, an overwhelming psychological and spiritual epic—faces the darkness, beauty, and chaos, the confusion, tragedy, and spirit, of its time. Ours as well. Watching The Decalogue, we become voyeurs of Kieslowski’s private and national hell, heaven—and purgatory.