Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941-1996) was an acclaimed Polish filmmaker who achieved international fame with his The Double Life of Veronique (La Double Vie de Véronique, 1991) and his multiple award-winning Three Colors trilogy: Blue (Trois Couleurs: Bleu, 1993), White (Trzy Kolory: Bialy, 1994), and Red (Trois Couleurs: Rouge, 1994). These films catapulted Kieslowski to stardom, but he was to die of heart failure in 1996 before he could complete another film. For many filmgoers, Kieslowski’s reputation rests on those four international productions that were nominated or won numerous prestigious awards. His earlier work was not widely distributed and involved film production in his native Poland, starting with documentary films and proceeding through social dramas that were primarily intended for television. But it is one of those earlier productions, a ten-part series made for Polish television, Dekalog (The Decalogue, 1989), that is not only his greatest work – it is one of the monumental film achievements of this or any age. For my own part, I also saw the four international features prior to seeing Dekalog, and although I rather liked those features, I wondered what all the excitement concerning Kieslowski was about. Once I saw Dekalog, I knew. Perhaps this more constrained format was his ideal vehicle of cinematic expression. In any case these films supply concrete evidence that it is still possible to make brilliant, world-class films on a very low budget. Due to intellectual property disputes and the series format (it comprises ten separate thematically-related 55-minute films), Dekalog has not been widely distributed to theatres and is primarily known only through its more recent distribution in DVD format.
The series was written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz and is loosely based on the Ten Commandments of the Roman Catholic Church. Co-author Krzysztof Piesiewicz was a trial lawyer whom Kieslowski had met while doing research for a planned documentary, and it is he who came up with the original idea for the series after seeing a 15th-century artwork depicting the commandments. The setting for all ten films is a Polish high-rise apartment complex. Although each of the stories focuses on different inhabitants of the complex, individuals from one segment are occasionally observed in the background of other segments, which ties all the characters into a metaphorical microcosm of humanity. In addition there is a mysterious background character who appears in most installments, but who never speaks. The meaning of this character’s presence is open to interpretation, but he is always seen at a pivotal moment of decision, and he appears to be a silent, perhaps compassionate, witness to all the moral struggles that are depicted.
Kieslowski and Piesiewicz had originally intended for each film to be directed by a different director, but in the end, Kieslowski chose to direct all of them, although with mostly different cinematographers for each of them. We can be thankful for Kieslowski’s unwillingness to share these stories with other directors: the resulting series is a wonderful interwoven fabric of philosophy, moral indecision, and human feeling that exemplifies the superiority and power of cinematic expression over the written word. In fact, it is an extraordinary experience to watch these films and realize that they are essentially low-budget productions with modest effects and set design. Nevertheless, the meticulous and unostentatious craftsmanship is revealed not in visual effects but in the total viewing experience. This viewing experience, incidentally, is immeasurably enhanced by the haunting music of Zbigniew Preisner, which adds a Sufic tonality of poetic expression to all the stories. It is no wonder that Dekalog is studied by filmmakers the world over as a model of cinematic technique.
Although the Ten Commandments supply the overriding theme, each of the ten stories is not simply confined to a single commandment and none of them is a simple moral lesson or illustration concerning the commandment. What these ten tales do is provide insight into and compassion for the struggles that even the most ethical person must make in his or her efforts to live in our complex world of human affairs. We the viewers have a profoundly shared empathy for the protagonists in these stories, and many times we share their pains and their struggles to work out a path through or an understanding of the world in which we live.
Dekalog 1: “I am the Lord, thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”
Dekalog 2: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
Dekalog 3: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
Dekalog 4: ”Honor thy father and thy mother.”
Dekalog 5: “Thou shalt not kill.”
Dekalog 6: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
Dekalog 7: “Thou shalt not steal.”
Dekalog 8: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
Dekalog 9: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”
Dekalog 10: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.”