PRINT December 1990


Krzysztof Kieślowski

KRZYSZTOF KIEŚLOWKI'S “THE DECALOGUE,” 1988, is a series of investigations into the question of choice, both esthetic and moral. The director and his scriptwriter, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, based this series of ten one-hour television dramas on the Ten Commandments. (Two of the films, A Short Film about Killing and A Short Film about Love, have been expanded to feature length for cinema release.) The works have a number of constants: each is based on one of the commandments, some more directly than others. Each takes place in a bunkerlike apartment complex in Warsaw. And characters reappear from one film to another, sometimes as protagonists, sometimes merely as figures glimpsed in elevators or hallways.

Decalogue 1, Thou Shalt Worship One God, undermines the notions of certainty and blind acceptance called for in the commandment. The protagonist, Krzysztof, is a college professor of linguistics who is as scientific in his private life as in his profession. The first scene finds his 11-year-old son, Pavel—Krzysztof is a single parent—solving a child’s riddle by putting the variables on his computer. (The boy can even lock the door and turn the water on with a computer program.) When Pavel asks his father if it is safe to go skating on a local pond, the two feed weather data into the computer to calculate the thickness and safety of the ice. Convinced, Krzysztof gives his permission. Eventually we realize that the boy has drowned. Krzysztof goes to pray at an altar put up at the site of the accident, where his grief turns to rage and he overturns the altar, wax flowing down the toppled Madonna’s face like tears. Kieślowski has begun his examination of the commandments with a depiction of a crisis of belief.

Returning in each film to the same characters and location, Kieślowski balances our growing familiarity with these people and their surroundings against an inability to predict the outcome of their encounters. “I wanted to work for the television public, which is a little bit special,” he has said. “I wanted them to recognize these people, that they would get used to them every Sunday afternoon. I knew that it would not be a serial that the public waited for with all the members of their family each week. There would be different characters. But I wanted it to at least resemble a series: to limit ourselves to a certain area, to certain buildings.”1 This area, “the least unsightly of all the new apartment blocks in Warsaw,” is a real and recognizable place to the Polish public, but proves to contain an infinite number of surprising narratives.

Kieślowski consistently presents images and sounds only in part, to be explained later on. Often, these mysteries turn out to be crucial to our understanding of the story. In Decalogue 7, we hear a child screaming as the camera pans over the concrete apartment block during the opening credits. We hear the screams again as the movie continues, but we are unable to locate their source. Finally, Kieślowski shows us Ania, a young girl waking after a nightmare that has become a normal part of her life. Her scream, an attempt to exit the dream, reflects her real situation: a child raised by her maternal grandmother, she is eventually “kidnapped” by her mother. Stolen in turn by both women, she is the victim of their maneuvers, and her cry is the moral center of the film.

More foreshadowing of this kind occurs in the opening scenes of Decalogues 4 and 8. In the former, a man douses a young girl with water as a practical joke. As the soaked nightgown outlines her body, he pauses for a moment in the doorway, staring at her. Eventually we realize that she is his daughter, and that the scene predicts the incestuous conflict to come. In Decalogue 8 we find an image of two people, one a child, walking at night, visible only by their clasped hands. Later we learn that this walk took place in 1943: a young Jewish girl was fleeing the Nazis. Her return to Poland, 35 years later, is the subject of Kieślowski’s film.

The director’s use of the foreshadowing strategy plays into the understanding of realism in these films. Unraveling in a Balzac-like world of revolving characters and interlocking stories bound by the confines of geography and class, they are far from what used to be called kitchen-sink realism or “slice of life.” The coincidences that punctuate each story are explicitly acknowledged. For every time we recognize someone from another installment, for every time we feel we have put together a piece of the overall puzzle, other elements are less easily assimilated: the character who appears in different guises and professions throughout the series, the emphasis on spilled liquids, unexplained phones ringing. Visual and aural tropes are repeated in rhythmic, almost mathematical patterns, revealing a firm sense of construction and determinacy. To Kieślowski, encounters are never the result of chance.

“For me,” says Kieślowski, “this is a film on the conflict between the wish to understand the world and the impossibility of doing just that.”2 His skepticism about the possibility of an ordered view of the world results in a work about order. The director has a background in documentary work, but his style conjures memories of Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock, making The Decalogue a curious hybrid that reflects, albeit indirectly, the current transitional period in Polish politics. Yet though there is no escaping the fact that these characters are Polish and that their conflicts take place in the social context of the late ’80s, specific references to contemporary Polish history are few. Instead, suspense arises from how the characters will resolve their moral dilemmas. The only certainty is the absence of the kind of fixed moral center the Ten Commandments claim to provide.

For Kieślowski, in fact, the commandments represent a code of behavior to be rigorously questioned. The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is duplicitously applied by a society that condones capital punishment. “Thou shalt not steal” can apply to emotions as well as to possessions. “Thou shalt worship one God” may turn destructive when dogmatically applied. If it can be related to the current state of Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe, “The Decalogue” stands as testimony against any system that incorporates a monolithic interpretation of belief. Says Kieślowski, “When I hear the word ‘moral,’ I want to get out of the room.”3

The viewer of “The Decalogue” moves between recognition and ignorance. In a 1989 interview, Kieślowski remarked, “I established . . . a sort of game with the spectators. I said to them ‘Decalogue 1.’ They look at the film and then want to know which commandment it refers to. They begin to review the commandments. Whether they want to or not, they have to perform a kind of intellectual labor.”4 That labor can be hard: “The term which best defines the relationship of each of the films with the Ten Commandments would be ‘pretext.’”5 The connections that the viewer must make may develop in any number of directions. What is important is that the work is done. But in the game between director and viewer, Kieślowski can also deploy a certain sense of inexorability: in Decalogue 5, for example, in which a young man kills a taxi driver and is in turn executed by the state, one senses the ending from the first shot of a rat lying in the gutter.

The two concluding episodes are perhaps the most illustrative of the director’s approach. The ninth film—touching on the Ninth Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife”—deals with a husband, Romek, who finds out his wife is having an affair. The tone ranges between Hitchcockian dread, as in the scene where Romek finds a postcard from the lover and reads it in the apartment-building lobby as a dog howls in the background, and subtle irony, as when we see that the card is an image of the pope mugging for the camera. The film contains perhaps the most unnerving episode of the series: Romek is hiding in a closet, waiting for his wife to receive her lover. The scene is shot from his vantage point, using the door of the closet as a framing device that divides the two spaces. At one point, however, Ania turns around, looks directly at her husband (at the camera, at the spectator), walks toward him and confronts him. As in the closet scene in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, 1986, it is the spectator who is implicated in this sequence for his or her voyeuristic distance.

Decalogue 10, arising from the commandment “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods,” is perhaps the lightest in tone. It is the tale of two brothers who inherit their father’s stamp collection. At first they want to sell it, but then become obsessed by a search for a particular issue to complete the set. In the end, after a series of plot twists and turns that takes the film into a Dostoyevskian maze of paranoia and coincidence, they spot three characters from previous, quite separate encounters, all meeting in the street. This apparently coincidental yet exceedingly unlikely combination of people can be read as both an offer of narrative closure—a way of explaining what has happened—or as a demystification of narrative, for it is unlikely that these characters could have engendered a plot to match the brothers’ suspicions. The scene also provides the key to Kieślowski’s project, in which “plot,” in its double sense of mystery and explication, is stretched in any number of ways. For the director, once the bonds of history and practice are broken, the possibilities of reinterpretation begin to emerge. Recognition goes hand in hand with revision.

Michael Tarantino is a writer who lives in Brussels. He contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. Krzysztof Kieślowski, quoted in Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret, “Le Décalogue: intretien avec Krzysztof Kieślowski,” Positif 346, Paris, December 1989, p. 37.

2. Kieślowski, quoted in Joël Mogny, “Les règles du hasard,” Cahiers du Cinema 429, Paris, March 1990, p. 28.

3. Ibid.

4. Kieślowski, quoted in Ciment and Niogret, p. 39.

5. Kieślowski, quoted in Magny, p. 28.