Dekalog 3: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

The third episode of Dekalog, Dekalog 3: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”, concerns an encounter between a married man and his former lover on Christmas Eve. The story is not so much about remembering or breaking the Sabbath (although Christmas Eve in Poland usually entails attending a Midnight Mass to commemorate the birth of Jesus), as it is about duty, loneliness, and by implication, self identity. On this evening Janusz returns to his home from his job as a taxi driver, but he is now dressed as Santa Claus in order to delight his young children. On the way into his apartment building, he passes Krzysztof, the tragedy-struck and saddened college professor from Dekalog 1, which further evokes and reminds the viewer how important family can be to well-being. In parrallel with Janusz’s family gathering, we also see a young woman, Ewa, who goes to visit her aunt, possibly her only existing family member, who is so senile she is unable to participate in the Christmas festivities of the rest home where she is staying. Later everyone goes to Midnight Mass, and Janusz and Ewa happen to notice each other in the congregation. Ewa, we will soon learn, is Janusz’s former lover, and they will get together that night.

The acting in this episode is, as usual, very good, but Maria Pakulnis in the role of Ewa is particularly outstanding. However, the general quality of this narrative isn't quite up to the standards of most of the other episodes. Rather than being a story concerning the events and activities of external circumstances, this episode, like many others in Dekalog, is a relationship film, wherein events depicted are associated with internal journeys of individual participants. The weakness in this episode, though, is the fact that this particular internal journey doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. To a certain extent it travels aimlessly in circles during the roughly eight hours of action. Perhaps to compensate for this lack of story movement, the film only very slowly reveals the background information about the principal characters that one needs to know to understand what is going on. So the viewer is essentially engaged in a mystery, trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle in order to reach a full understanding. At the same time, Janusz is also engaged in a puzzle-solving problem of his own, trying to understand Ewa’s odd behaviour. Of course Janusz, having had a relationship with Ewa, knows many things that the viewer doesn’t, but also the viewer is sometimes shown some things that Janusz doesn’t know.

After Janusz returns home from the mass, he answers a query from his entry phone. It turns out to be Ewa, and Janusz makes up an excuse to his wife that his taxi has been stolen and rushes outside to see what Ewa wants. Ewa is distraught and tells him that her husband, Edward, has disappeared and wants Janusz to help her find him. Since this is the most family-important evening of the year, Janusz is reluctant to go with her. At the same time Janusz feels some responsibility towards Ewa, and this establishes the ethical tension that continues throughout the film: how much can he, and should he, give himself to Ewa at the expense of his wife and family? He first asks Ewa if she was at mass that night, and she responds that she wasn’t. Since he, himself, saw her there, this provides him with his first inkling that Ewa is lying. In fact it will turn out that she is lying about almost everything. The rest of the film covers their search at hospitals, police stations, and train stations to see if they can find the missing, supposedly seriously inebriated, Edward.

After some time it is revealed that the affair between Janusz and Ewa had ended three years earlier when Edward caught the two of them together in bed. They both still harbor resentment towards each other concerning that event, but it is clear that they each still have a strong attachment towards the other. Their characters are different, though. Janusz is relatively innocent and simple, while the scheming Ewa is highly emotional, contradictory, and even self-destructive. During the evening she alternately expresses affection or extreme bitterness toward Janusz, while he, himself, looks on incredulously.

Finally, we and Janusz learn the truth about Ewa's situation. It is ultimately revealed that Edward had actually left her and gone to live in Krakow three years ago. There is no Edward to be found in this city, and the whole search has been a wild goose chase. Ewa's aunt is so senile that she barely recognizes her. The one person who can see inside her, as she sees her true self, is Janusz, but he is unattainable now, since he has his family to look after. It turns out that the whole evening has merely been an elaborate game on Ewa’s part. On this the most personal and inward-looking family evening of the year, Ewa had concocted a plot of lies in order to spend the entire night until seven in the morning with Janusz. The fact that she succeeds in doing this gives her some sort of consolation and apparently has helped ward off the loneliness for one night, at least.

So nothing is really resolved by what happens in the film. Janusz goes back to his knowing and sensitive wife and assures her that he will remain loyal. He will be OK. On the other hand, the lonely Ewa is tormented by her emotional ups and downs and desperately needs someone exactly like the stalwart Janusz to look after her and keep her on a steady keel. At the end of the story, she tells Janusz about seeing an escapee from a mental institution that evening getting caught and returned to the asylum, thereby alluding to her own emotional fragility that borders on bipolar depression. What will become of her?


Anonymous said...

Well, I'm just sad now because I quite agree with your analysis: this chapter "isn't quite up to the standards of most of the other episodes". The first one was so beautiful, so moving, and the second one was also capable of provoking thought. This chapter doesn't seem to make a point. What were the consequences of their behavior? Wonderful website. Thanks!

Gianni said...

In all the world, not only in Poland, there's a midnight Mass. And it can be every day off the week, it's not Sabbath.

mark said...

Wigilia is a BIG deal in Poland. It's not a question of what Poles "usually do" on Christmas Eve.

And this episode is not weak at all. You're looking for a larger statement than the realities we build for ourselves to keep us sane? Please! There's no such thing.

zayara said...

I don't think the point of the episode was about "resolving" anything. in fact, through the episode both of them are well aware of how this- they're both distant, and attached. Janusz repeatedly figures out that Ewa is lying but he stays to be part of her elaborate ploy because of a certain understanding that he possesses of her- like you said.
essentially, the episode is about Ewa. ultimately we see that she's not that twisted, because she reveals her plan to Janusz, exposing her vulnerability. she's able to do so because she believes that Janusz is someone that imbibe her need for emotional warmth, and that too on Christmas Eve. her weakness is touching.

Shri said...

As much as it was about Ewa, I believe it was also about Janusz finding peace with his current life. At the beginning, we can read discontentment on his face, his actions towards his family seem forced, there's a distance between him and his wife from his side, because somewhere inside he longs for the life he could have had with Ewa. He had been in love with her.

But going through the events of the night, seeing how lonely Ewa is and how she longs for something that he fortunately still has in his life - a family, he realizes the worth of it. He knows he can't walk away with Ewa and can't leave his family, but seeing the emptiness in Ewa's life makes him appreciate what he has in his own life. And that's why when he returns to his wife in the end, we see an assurance in him that he's going to be better towards his family from now on, one that doesn't seem fake.

jogijaat said...

quite a journey seeing these episodes along with great reviews. your site is simply awesome. thanks man!