This episode of Dekalog, Dekalog 1: “I am the Lord, thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”, concerns Krzysztof, a successful young university professor who lives alone with his 11-year-old son, Pavel in the housing complex. Pavel’s mother lives elsewhere and is now only a distant presence in Pavel’s life: he is looked after by his aunt Irena when his father is occupied at the university. It is clear from the early sequences that Pavel is an intellectually gifted child, and that although there is no mother around, he has a vibrant and loving relationship with his father and aunt. He is the perfect child. His father treats him almost like an adult, patiently plays intellectual games on their computers with him, and honestly shares his thoughts with his son. But there is a difference in outlook between the two adults looking after him. As an educated modernist and rational skeptic, Krzysztof relies entirely on modern science and empirical validation. Irena is more traditional, though, and feels that there are limits to what science can explain.
One day Pavel becomes disturbed after seeing a dead dog in the neighborhood and asks his father about death – what happens when you die? Krzysztof gives his honest response: death occurs when the brain stops getting blood and it ceases to function. “Everything stops; it’s the end,” he says. Pavel asks, “so what’s left?” Krzysztof says that the only thing that persists is the memory of that person. When Pavel asks about the eternal soul, his father responds that the idea of a soul is merely a convenient fiction that comforts some people, like Aunt Irena.
For Krzysztof, the nature of reality, i.e. what is, is only what we can understand and manipulate. Reality is what can be expressed semantically using logical constructions. Everything else must be held in doubt. In this, Krzysztof embraces the mainstream position of modern Anglo-American analytical philosophy, the dominant academic school. In a lecture later on, Krzysztof, whose field is apparently computational linguistics, discusses the great difficulty of expressing all the various cultural associations of people, the “metasemantics” of a language. But he stops near the end of his lecture and speculates that with more computational resources, new algorithms, etc, it may be possible to create a computer that can replicate a human – one that can have aesthetic experiences. In this lecture Krzysztof expresses his belief, one held by those in the “Strong Artificial Intelligence” scholarly community -- that human thought and experience is not fundamentally different from the operations of a digital computer. Someday it may be possible to reproduce with mechanical and electronic artifacts a human being.
One day in the winter, Pavel wants to try out his new ice skates on the frozen lake. Krzysztof shows Pavel how his mathematical modelling computer program can determine whether the ice on the lake will be thick enough to allow safe skating. It should be based on whether the air temperature over the preceding few days was low enough. This is physics. The calculation is made, and they observe that the program returns values that indicate that the ice will be safe. Just to make sure, Krzysztof goes out on the ice after Pavel goes to sleep and tests it with his own weight.
But the world isn’t always predictable, even with the laws of physics at hand. One evening Krzysztof’s computer turns on by itself and boots up for some reason. Krzysztof, at home with the idea that computers are not that different from humans, metaphorically asks his computer what it wants. On another occasion while Krzysztof is at his desk writing in his notebook, he notices a mysterious black spot spreading across the page. It turns out to be ink from an unexpectedly cracked ink bottle. It’s always easier to explain what happened unexpectedly after the fact than it is to predict the future.
And finally the most tragically unexpected thing of all happens. When Pavel goes out alone one evening to skate on the ice, he doesn’t return. The ice has broken. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did. The last third of the film covers Krzysztof’s response to this unfathomable tragedy and what it does to him. A great narrative does not simply comprise the external events that take place, but also encompasses the goals, plans, and desires of the agents engaged in that narrative. In this story the external events are straightforward and basically simple, but the narrative interest and its beauty lie in how we understand the yearnings, plans, and accommodations made by Pavel, Krzysztof, and Irena to those external events.
A naive interpretation of this story would suggest that God punished Krzysztof for transgressing the commandment and putting his faith in science ahead of God. But certainly the story of the film is much more profound than that, and in fact the film mocks such a trivial view of reality and life. Instead of that simple view, the film narrative confronts us with the incomprehensibly tragic, fatalistic loneliness of our existence. There is no escape. Both Krzysztof and Irena, with their contrasting perspectives, are overwhelmed by the loss. Neither has an answer, and we share the recognition that we are all equally powerless. As foreshadowed in the opening sequence, only the memory persists.