“The Namesake” - Mira Nair (2006)

The Namesake (2006) begins and ends with a young man reading a book by Gogol while riding on a train. In the intervening two hours the story charts a period of about twenty-eight years covering how the initially-seen young man, Ashoke Ganguli, survives a disastrous train wreck, marries a fellow Bengali Indian woman, and comes to America to study, work, and raise a family. He names his son after Gogol, and much of the film covers the growing up and coming of age of this boy in a world that is so very different from that of his parents.

The general topic of the collision of cultural values and the contrasting ways that people make accommodations to new circumstances and a new culture would be intrinsically interesting in any age, but it is particularly fascinating in today’s globalizing world. The story is based on the popular 2003 novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri, a London-born Bengali woman who has resided in the United States since moving there as a child in 1970.

The plot of the film first covers the experiences of Ashoke, how he accepts a family-arranged marriage to his bride, Ashima, and then settles in the New York area as a graduate student and later university academic. Ashoke and Ashima are from educated, upper-class Bengali backgrounds, and they more or less gracefully deal with the dual problems of first getting to know each other and then getting to know the new land that is now their home. Their son, Gogol, however, follows an entirely different path, as he struggles with his own unique identity problems. On the one hand he emerges as a rather typical unruly American teenager, flouting authority and drowning his parent’s house with heavy-metal rock music. But on the other hand, his parents have rather loosely instilled in him an appreciation of their reserved and traditional way of doing things. All in all, though, Gogol is very much an American, and the difference between his parents ways and his own is most evident in the direct way he relates to girls of his own age. First he has a serious love affair with a wealthy young blonde girl, Maxine, and he appears to be headed for marriage with her, until a family crisis rocks his bearings and sidelines the affair. Later he falls in love with and marries a sophisticated Bengali girl, Moushumi, who has an even more modern attitude and lifestyle than he has.

The principal theme of the movie is the struggle for self-identity – and the idea of how one’s name can shape one’s social persona is a central motif of the film. Gogol struggles with his name, which seems ludicrous to his high school classmates, and he denounces his parents for having haphazardly condemned him to a lifetime of derision by giving him that name. But the name is actually something of a literary conceit, since the most famous story of Gogol Ganguli’s namesake, Nikolai Gogol, is “The Overcoat”, and the young Bengali’s troubles are echoed in that original tale, which is contained in the book that is read by Ahoke at the film’s beginning (and also by Gogol Ganguli at the end). In that nineteenth century Russian story the protagonist, Akakiy Akakievich, also has an alliterative and ridiculous-sounding name, and it seems to shadow that character’s own identity crisis and miserable social standing that is the dominant theme of the story.

With such an insightful underpinning and rich cultural mix, along with the pedigrees of the production staff, one would expect this to be masterful film. Unfortunately it is not the case. Mira Nair’s work here continues her wallowing in over-the-top comedy-drama. Her first major film, Salaam Bombay (1988), was a moving and penetrating drama about homeless children living on the streets of Mumbai, and she established herself as a rising star on the world stage of cinema. With her followup film, Mississippi Masala (1991), she added comic touches, but there was still a certain subtlety of expression. But since then, she has succumbed to increasingly sprawling and self-indulgent, comic tapestries that are heavy-handed and quasi-operatic. While The Namesake is superior to the randomly focused Monsoon Wedding (2001), it is a disappointment and continues the drift away from the virtues of Salaam Bombay.

There are a few elements, in particular, that are illustrative of the film’s shortcomings.
  • The three relatively explicit sexual scenes in the film (one between Ashoke and Ashima, one with Gogol and Maxine, and one with Gogol and Moushumi) are unconvincing and relatively tasteless. These scenes may have been intended to reflect the feelings of romantic love, but they come across as artificially staged and garish.
  • Ashima is one of the major perspectival characters in the movie, but the performance of Bollywood actress Tabu does not sustain the role. In her late thirties, Tabu is unconvincing as the roughly nineteen-year-old bride in the early parts of the film, and, overall, she doesn’t offer a compelling focal point for the narrative. On the other hand the performances of the two principal male leads, Irrfan Khan, as Ashoke, and Kal Penn, as Gogol, are more sturdy and compelling. Penn, who currently serves in the US government administration of President Barack Obama, uncomfortably reminds me of Nicolas Cage and is almost too much to take. But he has the American teenage attitudinal gestures down pat, and his uneasy encounters with a multitude of social cultural norms are among the more interesting segments in the film.
  • Some of the scenes of India and the US are picturesque, but many of them appear more like isolated picture postcards than situated elements of a continuous narrative. They do not move the story along towards any foreseeable goals or resolutions.
This is the principal flaw of the story – the fascinating narrative potential is too often swamped by excessive attention to the details of superficial social interactions. Nikolai Gogol’s original short story of self-identity had such an impact on later Russian writers that Dostoyevsky was to remark that “we all come out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’”. And in both a literal and a metaphorical way, Ashoke was saved by Gogo’s “Overcoat”. At one point in The Namesake, Ashoke cryptically utters to his son the very same words that Dostoyevsky wrote about Gogol, but without reference or atribution, and tells him that someday he will understand what this means. The film audience may well miss that point. Finally, in the last scene of the film, Gogol Ganguli is seen reading that same story and “coming out” from that “overcoat”, just as his father had. That narrative connection should have been made more effectively, and that iconic final image should have generated a more resonating moment than it does onscreen in The Namesake.

Dekalog 10: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.”

The final episode of Kieslowski’s brilliant Dekalog series, Dekalog 10: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.”, is a departure from the general tone and style of the rest of the series. This one is more cynical, almost comic, compared to the others, and there is, for once, an outward-looking glance at the degeneracy of contemporary Polish society at the time. The overall picture of the world is one that is less civilized, less polished, and there are fatalistic overtones to this story, perhaps influenced by the participation of cinematographer Jacek Blawut, who had also photographed the tragedy-laden Dekalog 1: “I am the Lord, thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” Maybe for this reason the compassionate witness, played by Artur Barcis, who is silently observed in all the other episodes, makes no appearance here.

The story concerns two adult brothers, both of whom are tired of their own perpetually penurious financial circumstances. The older brother, Jerzy, is a possibly out-of-work, lower middle-class family man, and the younger one, Artur, is a semi-destitute punk-rock singer of a group called, “City Dead”. They learn that their reclusive father, with whom they had both been out of contact for years, has just died, and they must attend his funeral and wind up his affairs. In fact the two brothers, whose lifestyles are so different, have, themselves, been out of touch for years, and their father’s death is a chance for them to catch up with each other.

Their father had been an obsessive stamp collector, and when the brothers go to clean out their father’s dingy one-room apartment, they begin to wonder if the extensive stamp collection is worth quite a bit of money. They consult a former philatelist colleague of their father’s, who informs them that the collection might be worth something like a hundred thousand dollars. This shocking and lust-inspiring revelation leads the two brothers down a slippery slope of greed, paranoia, and ultimately mutual mistrust. They try to interact with stamp traders and some of the other former associates of their father, who had famously been known as “Root” in the philately community, to see how they might convert the collection into cash, and they begin to learn why their own father had become so reclusive and suspicious of others: everyone they meet is trying to cheat them out of their potential fortune. Yet it seems that there are no other avenues for them to pursue. They will have to make deals with these shady characters.

Although Jerzy and Artur also become suspicious and conniving, there is evidence from the outset that they are both in over their heads on this venture. This is well-conveyed by the acting performances, which depict the amateurish body language displayed by Jerzy and Artur in the face of their mild-mannered, but ultimately far more sinister, adversaries. As the story evolves through the various ups and downs that the hapless brothers experience in their quest to become rich, it becomes something of a metaphor for the pervasive corruption and loss of faith prevalent in Poland in the dying days of the Communist dictatorship. Artur’s ludicrously over-the-top punk rock lyrics are exemplary. These supposedly anthems of contemporary youthful yearnings represent pure trash-talk: advocating greed, plunder, and self-satisfaction at the expense of all others. Even he doesn’t believe the message of these lyrics, yet young women admire him for them, just the same.

There is also the general issue of what has real value. The stamps are just old pieces of paper that have no intrinsic utility. They only have worth if others in the trading game believe that they can be sold onward to other traders. The two brothers have no idea how this trading game works and no hope of winning at it, especially when there is widespread collusion, cheating, and criminal activity embedded in its very core.

Some reviewers have found this film to be extremely funny and ultimately a clever warning against the greed displayed by Jerzy and Artur, but I don’t see it that way. Greed does triumph in this one, it’s just not the more amateurishly greedy Jerzy and Artur who benefit. The tougher, greedier ones do. But in the end, perhaps the two brothers come to an understanding and comradeship that is worth more than anything money can buy.

Dekalog 9: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”

The ninth episode of Kieslowski’s Dekalog, Dekalog 9: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” is one of the best in the series. It is about marital infidelity, which one might have expected to have been the subject of episode 6 (Dekalog 6: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”), but was not. In this story Roman, a successful, thirty-something heart surgeon, visits a colleague friend and learns that his own sexual dysfunction problems are permanent and incurable. He has a beautiful wife, Hanka, and now must come to terms with how, or whether, he is going to live the rest of his life with her.

Roman returns to his wife and hesitantly, but stoically, tells her the grim news. He dolefully offers to do the honorable thing: if she chooses to stay with him, she can start seeing other men. Hanka swears by her love for Roman, but finds the conversation about sex a bit too explicit -- love for her is more than just those kinds of physical aspects.

Nevertheless Roman’s new feelings of inadequacy start eating away at him. He begins to watch his wife’s habits a bit more than he used to. He notices an unusual notebook belonging to some physics student in the glove compartment of his car. He constructs an electronic device to secretly tap his wife’s phone conversations. And finally, he makes copies of the keys to his mother-in-law’s apartment, which is currently vacant while his mother-in-law is away. He suspects that his wife is having trysts with the physics graduate student there.

After awhile all of Romans’ jealous suspicions are confirmed. His wife has a lover, and this has been going on for some time, even before his medical problems. The physics student lover, Mariusz, is shown to be seriously in love with Hanka. But Hanka is now overcome with feelings of concern for her troubled husband and feeling guilty about the affair.

Hanka’s moral crisis concerns how she should manage her love life and how honest she should be with her husband about what has happened. Roman’s crisis concerns his self-image as a man. He wants to avoid being jealous about something that he cannot provide for his wife, but at the same time he cannot hold himself back from finding out the horrible details.

There is a side story in the film that reflects on Roman’s situation. A young patient, Ola, is faced with a potentially risky operation to rectify a heart condition. If she doesn’t have the operation, she will have to abandon her promising career as a classical singer. She asks Dr. Roman what she should do, and he tells her that these operations are usually only performed as a last resort. She nods and says that she only wants to live, not risk death just to acquire fame as an opera singer. Roman then ruefully reflects on the value of a diminished life that cannot reach fulfilment. (Later on in the story, Ola is talked into going ahead with the operation, but, she says thoughtfully to Roman, she will then become “someone else”)

Hanka does break off her affair with Mariusz, but it’s a little late: Roman has spied on her and knows everything. He is shattered by the explicitness of what he sees, and his feelings of hopelessness and oblivion generate thoughts of suicide.

When Hanka faces up to everything and tries to reconcile with Roman, she humbly begs forgiveness and agrees that they should go ahead and adopt a child (thereby affirming concretely that their marriage is forever). At this point, we might expect that the story has reached its dramatic conclusion, but not quite.

Roman, not surprisingly, has not really recovered from his moribund thoughts and insists that they need some time apart in order for him to regain himself. Hanka suggests that he might travel somewhere, but Roman says that he cannot bear to be away and think about leaving his wife alone in the same town with “that physicist”, so it is agreed that Hanka will go on a ski holiday. It turns out, however, that Mariusz, “that physicist”, hasn’t given up on his relationship with Hanka and heads out to the same ski resort to meet her. And Roman’s suicidal thoughts haven’t disappeared, either. This leads to a dramatic conclusion of the film that is one of the most moving in the Dekalog series.

A further comment is in order concerning the camera work of Piotr Sobocinski in this film. It is masterfully carried out with all sorts of inventive and evocative shots that highlight the dramatic elements of the storytelling. This is one of the key features that make this episode stand out.

Dekalog 8: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

This episode, Dekalog 8: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.", of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog series squarely addresses the commandment concerning bearing false witness. But like many of the installments of the series, it raises the issue of the relative priorities of moral precepts. This issue was raised most directly in Dekalog 2: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”, and, in fact, that earlier story is explicitly referenced in this episode for comparative purposes.

In this story Zofia is a well-known professor of ethics at the university in Warsaw, and in her large lecture class she challenges her students with moral questions. She lives alone, engages in daily exercises and jogging, chats with other elderly neighbors in the apartment complex, and, all in all, has a well-laid-out and tidy existence. One day, she is visited by an American scholar, Elzbieta, who has previously translated some of Zofia's works into English and who has come to Poland to research those who survived the Jewish Holocaust. Elzbieta asks to attend one of Zofia’s ethic lectures and listens while Zofia asks her students to pose moral dilemmas. One student discusses the moral situation that was presented in Dekalog 2. In that story, a woman queries a doctor whether her seriously ill husband will live or not. If the doctor thinks the husband will live, then the woman will abort her pregnancy that is the result of an affair with a paramour. The doctor realizes that his response has life-or-death consequences. Zofia, who knows that the student drew this example from the “real-life” incident in her apartment complex, points out that in the actual case, the most important result eventuated: the unborn child lived.

Upon hearing Zofia’s response, Elzbieta asks if she can tell another “real-life” story. It concerns a six-year-old Jewish girl who was to be harbored outside the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 by a Catholic couple who were to swear that the girl was Catholic. The child was taken to the home of the would-be foster parents, but at the last minute, the Catholic couple balked, saying that, as good Catholics, they could not commit the sin of lying. In this instance, the child was turned away to face an almost certain death.

Zofia is shaken by this story, and we soon learn why. Elzbieta was that same Jewish child back in 1943 who was turned away, and Zofia, herself, was the young woman who made the moral claim about lying and denied shelter to the child. More than forty years have passed, and it is only now that Zofia learns that the child that she had turned away did indeed survive. So, in fact, Elzbieta has come to accuse Zofia of a moral crime: for the sake of a petty concern about a small lie, Zofia had essentially condemned a young girl to death. This is quite the opposite moral concern that Zofia had just expressed in her classroom – that the saving of a life was paramount.

Could Zofia, who seems like such a benevolent and well-balanced person, have been so heartless forty years earlier? As the two women discuss what happened on that occasion long ago, it is revealed that Zofia did have some moral grounds for doing what she did. She and her husband were working for the underground resistance movement at that time and acted as they did, not simply to avoid lying, but to protect others in the underground.

So, at this point, there is evidence given that seems to provide a full justification of Zofia’s behaviour of that earlier period. Nevertheless, Zofia acknowledges that the decision that she made then was not the correct one. She now accepts that the life of that young child was more important than anything else.

As the two women further discuss their own feelings about morality and what is important, Zofia’s rather sophisticated and enlightened perspective concerning moral action in an immoral universe is revealed. Surprisingly, it turns out that Elzbieta is the truly religious one, and Zofia is not – Zofia doesn’t attend church. Elzbieta initially accused Zofia of being too rigidly attached to moral dogma (by refusing to bear false witness of any kind, even when lives are at stake), but we now see that it is Elzbieta who is the more rigidly moralistic person. In the end, Elzbieta comes to appreciate Zofia’s more humanistic perspective and is mollified. Zofia, in turn, has been able to see how she, herself, has grown from the idealistic person that she had been forty years earlier. Both women have benefited from this encounter and widened their perspectives.

So the principal moral issue in this story is not so much about the priority or importance of the literal truth and more about the relative moral importance of two kinds of actions: a concrete action that would save a single life in the concrete instance versus a political action that might have the probability of saving many more lives. Despite the interesting nature of this moral quandary and the connections with “Dekalog 2", however, the film is diminished by three weaknesses:
  • Cinematography. There are extensive hand-held tracking shots of Zofia in closeup that are not smoothly accomplished. Many of the shots, which include pointless zooms and camera movements that almost stalk the characters,, are artificial and not well motivated. Kieslowsky used different cinematographers for most of the episodes in the series, and this has the poorest cinematic execution. Contrast the cinematography here with the superb cinematic realization of the next episode, Dekalog 9: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”.
  • The dynamics of the narrative are weakened by its dependence on Elzbieta’s verbal account of the events that had happened forty years earlier. These dramatic events are merely recited in the lecture theatre rather than given visual portrayal.
  • The key personal interaction, the theatrical chemistry, between Maria Koscialkowska, as Zofia, and Teresa Marczewska, as Elzbieta, is not sufficiently gripping to hold the audience.
Nevertheless Zofia’s confession to Elzbieta still resonatess: “You are right; no ideal is worth more than the life of a child.”

Dekalog 7: “Thou shalt not steal.”

The seventh episode of Kieslowski’s Dekalog, Dekalog 7: “Thou shalt not steal.”, opens with the sounds of a child’s nightmare-fueled cries from the apartment complex that is the home of the series. These cries offer the clue that this film will not only be about theft, but will also be about the essentiality of a mother’s love. Ania, the crying child, is a six-year-old girl living in a family that includes Stefan, a retired musical instrument maker, his wife, Ewa, the headmistress of a school, and their 22-year-old daughter, Majka, who has just been expelled from the university.

It is evident from the outset that Majka has a tortured relationship with her mother, and it takes some time for the details concerning this family relationship to emerge. Although ostensibly Ania is the daughter of Ewa, it is later revealed that the biological mother is Majka, who gave birth to Ania when she was only sixteen as a result of a clandestine affair with one of her teachers at Ewa’s school. Since Majka was underage, the family arranged for a coverup to keep up appearances. Majka’s mother was announced as Ania’s mother, and falsified medical records certified the legality of that status. Now, six-years-later, Majka wants to reclaim her real daughter, and she intends to do it by kidnaping her. But, Majka asks, “can you steal something that’s yours?”

Majka does manage to spirit Ania away when she is attending a school function and heads off to hook up with Ania’s father, Wojtek, who had apparently been forced out of a teaching job by Majka’s mother six years earlier and now lives in a remote rural house, eking out a living as a toy-maker. Majka apparently wants to run away to Canada with Wojtek and the child, but the first meeting in six years between the two former lovers is not as warm as Majka had hoped. Fearing that Wojtek will betray her to the authorities, Majka flees his cottage, too. She calls her mother and gives her an ultimatum: either give legal permission for her to take Ania with her to Canada, or she will kill herself and Ania, too. The chilling telephone conversation between mother and daughter reveals the depths of contempt that they feel for each other.

This Dekalog episode has more action, more of a conventional plot, than most of others. It is the story of a mother kidnaping her own child from the grandparents and trying to make an escape. These events include a getaway, a desperate search for the fugitives, death threats, and chance encounters – all the conventional ingredients of an adventure. But despite the fact that the plot of this episode has these adventurous elements, there is a narrative weakness, too. Too much backstory information has to be revealed by explanatory conversations. These take place during dialogues between Stefan and Ewa and between Majka and Wojtek. As a consequence, much crucial information is revealed by textual exposition, rather than by visual experience. On the other hand, the acting in the film is exceptional, even by Kieslowski’s high standards. All of the players give outstanding performances, but perhaps the most amazing of all is the resonating performance of the child actress, Katarzyna Piwowarczyk, as Ania. But, as with the other Kieslowski efforts, it is not adventure that lies at the heart of the story. The real story in this episode is about Majka and her search for motherhood.

From the very first images, when Majka is seen returning her damaged textbooks to the university office, it is evident that Majka is a person with no self-confidence. She is plain, untalented, and overlooked by everyone. Her mother, Ewa, by contrast, is self-confident, charming, and imperious. Ewa is used to giving orders and manipulating people to get her own way. When she gave birth to Majka, we are told, she learned that she could never have another child, and so she never forgave her daughter for causing this deficiency. Majka’s father, Stefan, is a kindly, but ineffectual, parent – unable to match or counter Ewa’s domineering ways.

So it appears that Majka grew up seeing herself as a loser, unloved and unwanted. Her expulsion from college was undoubtedly just one more event in a long story of failure. In the end, she felt that perhaps Ania was the one person who might love her. After all, Majka is Ania’s natural mother – she has to love Majka. For Majka this was the opportunity to give Ania the kind of mother’s love that she, herself, never received. In this story it was Majka who was the unloved child that needed a mother’s love.

This film suggest to me that perhaps there should be an additional commandment, in addition to “Honour thy father and thy mother”, for this modern age: "Love and forgive your child".

Dekalog 6: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

The sixth episode of Kieslowsky’s Dekalog, Dekalog 6: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”, seems at first to be a rather trivial story about a naive young man who becomes obsessively enamored with a woman he doesn’t even know. Both he and the more mature woman he admires, Magda, live in the same apartment complex that links all the characters and stories of the Dekalog series. In this installment the young man, Tomek, is a shy nineteen-year-old who works in the post office and lives with his godmother in an apartment facing Magda’s apartment. From his window at night, he spies on Magda by peering into her apartment with a telescope that he stole for that purpose from a local school. As we share his nightly gazing, we see that Magda is an attractive, confident, and somewhat promiscuous young woman who lives alone but has several lovers who pay frequent visits. Tomek sees everything through the unshielded window of Magda’s apartment.

In order to get a little closer to Magda, Tomek engages in a number of subterfuges that do not involve the risk of a genuine encounter. He makes phone calls to her at night, but doesn’t say anything into the phone. He sends her bogus money-order notices, so that she will come to the post office and make inquiries at his window. He steals some of her letters and reads them. Then he gets a morning milk-delivery job just so he can deliver milk to her apartment. And occasionally he interferes more emphatically, when he prankishly summons the gas-leak inspectors to her apartment while she is in the process of bedding one of her lovers. Eventually one of his bogus money-order notices causes an argument between Magda and the post office manager, and Tomek, feeling guilty, confesses everything to Magda. When she asks why he has done these things, he responds by saying that he loves her.

For Magda, “love” means making love; there is no such ethereal thing as true romantic love. But Tomek’s love is just that, and it is utterly innocent. He has no explicit carnal desires for Magda; he simply loves her. Magda is initially dismissive of this wimp, but also a little fascinated. Tomek is clearly too innocent and shy to be a serious threat to her, so she taunts him by puting on a show for his peeping telescope by positioning her lovemaking in front of the window and then informing her lover that they have been spied upon. The lover reacts with predictable rage by decking Tomek with one punch, and now it’s Magda’s turn to feel guilty. She accepts Tomek’s timid invitation to go to an ice-cream parlor, and they get to know each other a little. Tomek tells her all about his love for her, while Magda assures him that there is no such thing. Feeling sympathetic for him now, Magda tries to initiate Tomek into the kind of love that she knows, but this proves disastrous and Tomek runs away in horror. Little by little the tables are turned; it is Magda who is now seeking out Tomek with her spyglass and trying to find out what has happened to him. His innocent, passionate love has awakened something long-forgotten or dismissed in her. Has she destroyed something beautiful? The final stages of this story are exquisite in their understatement.

This episode, which initially seems trivial, proves in the end to be profound. The film is not about marital adultery, at all, but about adulterated love. Indeed, 'adulterated', i.e. debased, is not simply a corruption of 'adultery', but derived from the Latin 'adulteratus' and is the more primitive. The superb cinematography underscores what is the operative theme of the film. Most of the scenes in the film, even more than episode five (Dekalog 5: “Thou shalt not kill.”), comprise point-of-view shots of people looking at each other and trying to fathom what the other is thinking. This episode is almost a textbook example of how to shoot such scenes with effective continuity. In addition, Zbigniew Preisner’s melancholic music, which through its varying styles moodily permeates the entire Dekalog series, is unusually soulful in this one.

As Magda becomes aware that she is the object of such rapturous attention, she is at first angry, then playfully dismissive, and finally charmed. It is a passage from self-reflection, to contemplation of the ‘other’, and finally to further self-reflection. The idea of “the gaze” has drawn the attention of a number of philosophers, including Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and the Feminist philosophers. Philosopher Shaun Gallagher summarizes the operative aspect of the gaze:
[T]he primary experience of the other is not that I perceive her as some kind of object in which I must find a person, but I perceive the other as a subject who perceives me as an object. My experience of the other is at the same time an experience that involves my own self-consciousness, a self-consciousness in which I am pre-reflectively aware that I am an object for another. This experience can further motivate a reflective self-consciousness, as I consider how I must appear to the other.
Actually, Tomek himself, has been the object of a tender gaze from the outset – that from his sympathetic godmother, sensitively played by Stefania Iwinska in her final role. She understands his lonely longing.

But the film is Magda’s ordeal as much as Tomek’s. When she is earnestly trying to find out what has happened to Tomek in the latter part of the film, one of her lovers knocks on her door. She doesn’t open it, and only tells him through the closed door, “I am not here”. Indeed, she isn’t. Her self-identity is now preoccupied with concern for another person and what may be going on in his mind (if he is still alive). She is not that “I” anymore.

Dekalog 5: “Thou shalt not kill.”

Kieslowski’s fifth installment of his Dekalog series, Dekalog 5: “Thou shalt not kill.”, is an intense, sometimes unbearable, depiction of the horror of killing. The story follows three characters who are initially separate but whose paths not unexpectedly cross as the film develops. There is little contextual background concerning the characters, but as the story proceeds, we get an idea of their psychological profiles.
  • Piotr is a young lawyer who is telling the story in connection with an interview for a prominent law firm. He is clean-cut, intelligent, sensitive, and committed to the highest ideals of justice. Early on in his storytelling, he reveals his strongly-held convictions opposing capital punishment.
  • The taxi driver is a middle-aged man who lives in the housing complex that links all the episodes of Dekalog. As he goes about his daily activities, he is seen to be a mean-spirited, unsympathetic character, who refuses to pick up fares who might inconvenience him, leers at pretty young girls, and finds amusement in scaring little dogs by honking his horn at them.
  • Jacek is an angry and alienated twenty-year-old who is aimlessly wandering about the city looking for and causing trouble wherever he goes. He throws rocks through car windshields on the freeway, scares away birds from bird-feeders, and roughs up weaker individuals when noone else is looking.
The separation of the characters, their alienation, is reflected in the distinctive cinematography, which has few establishing shots. The film isolates them from each other and from their environment by concentrating on closeups of the individuals throughout much of the film. By so doing, the filmmakers raise the narrative to an abstract level -- it is as if all three principal characters were involved in some meta-level dialogue with each other (and with the unseen witness).

It doesn’t take long for the viewer to suspect that Jacek is going to commit a murder, and he soon chooses the hapless taxi driver as his victim. The murder scene is not brief, as it is in most films, but excruciatingly long and brutal, and it takes some time for the bludgeoned taxi driver to die. Jacek is inhuman and remorseless throughout. But we are still only halfway through the film, and another murder will occupy the second half.

Soon enough, Jacek is duly arrested and convicted of the crime, and despite the efforts of his earnest defense attorney, Piotr, Jacek is sentenced to death. The rest of the film depicts the equally inhuman machinations of the government legal and punitive system as it prepares for and executes the second murder: the execution of Jacek.

The brutality of the execution sequences has led many reviewers to view the film as primarily a statement against capital punishment. But Kieslowski has objected to this characterisation: it’s not against capital punishment per se, he says, it’s against killing, categorically. And to emphasize this distinction, scenarists Piesiewicz and Kieslowski have departed from the usual depiction of murder, which focuses on the victim – the injury, the suffering, the death. In this film, instead, the focus is on the brutality of the killer and the killing, irrespective of the alleged innocence of the victim. To emphasize this focus, the victim of each of the two killings is far from being a sympathetic character. In the first half of the film, a repugnant character, the taxi driver, is killed by Jacek. We are forced to face up to the wrongfulness of this act, no matter how unlikable the victim. In the second half of the film, the focus is on the societal killing-machine that carries out capital punishment. But unlike many films opposed to capital punishment which depict the victimization and wrongful execution of an essentially innocent man who was the victim of circumstances, there is absolutely no doubt or qualification about the guilt of Jacek. He is infinitely more objectionable than the taxi driver. And yet he is a human being, just as the taxi driver was. Piotr is granted a final half hour in Jacek’s cell just prior to his execution, and he learns a little more about Jacek. There is some suggestion revealed in this scene that Jacek’s recollections of his beloved younger sister, who had been run over and killed five years earlier, set him off in a murderous rage when he happened to see the taxi driver leering at a young woman. But this is neither an explanation nor a justification of Jacek’s heinous act – it only reminds us of the pervasiveness of human weakness and vulnerability.

Although the emphasis on the essential inhumanity of the killing, itself, and away from the suffering of the victim distills the argument against killing, it also make the film less compelling as a story and more cerebral. This is because the moral conundrum that underlies this episode is centered on the social-thinking Piotr, rather than on the other two self-interested characters, the taxi driver and Jacek. Thus depending on your tastes, you may find that this more-distancing narrative style either weakens or strengthens the argument.

Of course, almost everyone would say that he or she is generally opposed to killing, but the issue becomes more cloudy to them when the subject of punishing vicious killers is raised. How is social order to be maintained in this age of declining values? In the outer narrative Piotr remarks to his legal interviewers,
“People ask themselves whether what they do has a meaning. The meaning is becoming increasingly evasive.. . . there’s a decline in criteria, values.”
So how should society react to this degenerative social condition, a condition that produces minor sinners like of the taxi driver and major sinners like Jacek? Should it merely take revenge by punishing those people who have lost their way, who have lost their values? Or should it do something to help restore those lost values? Certainly the penal machinery that carries out Jacek’s execution is as valueless and inhuman as Jacek, himself. This does not support social values, but further devalues society. This carrying out of “justice” is merely an act of animalistic revenge, and there is no convincing evidence that executions have a deterrent effect on homicides. So what is the payoff derived from capital punishment? Piotr asks rhetorically,
“For whom does the law avenge? In the name of the innocent? Do the innocent make the rules?”
In this case the rules are made by the vengeful, and they are not the innocent. In fact even if it were some day to be shown that capital punishment did have some deterrent effect, it would still be wrong for the state to engage in killing. Taking life is not an act that should be condoned by any truly civilized society, a society in which our actions are held to be meaningful. In fact, participation in the killing of any animals for any reason, such as for eating meat, is unworthy of the truly civilized individual.

"The Killers" - Robert Siodmak (1946)

Robert Siodmak’s classic film noir, The Killers (1946), is notable today for its adroit combination of an intricate narrative with an expressionistic visual style. Born to a Polish Jewish family in Dresden, Siodmak started out in the German film industry and was imbued with German Expressionism. But with the rise of Nazism, he was forced to flee to France and eventually made his way to the United States in 1939, whereupon he made a number of important films noir during the 1940s. The Killers was said to be based on Ernest Hemingway’s suggestive 1927 short story, but in fact the film merely uses that story to set the initial stage for the ensuing narrative, which is entirely original. It is ultimately this intriguing original screen narrative, said to have been largely written by an uncredited John Huston, that has fascinated viewers ever since. It comprises a serpentine investigation into the events leading up to a murder that takes place at the outset of the film; and as the story unwinds and the truth is revealed, the fatalistic gloom that haunted the original homicide victim never lifts.

Expressionistic films do not always give leeway for nuanced dramatic characterisations, but this film is graced by a number of memorable performances. At the top of the list is the alluring and seductive Ava Gardner, in her first major role. Sam Levene, as police lieutenant Sam Lubinsky, is extremely good, while Jack Lambert, as “Dum-Dum” Clark, and the soon-to-be-blacklisted Jeff Corey, as “Blinky” Franklin, are superb, as well. However Burt Lancaster, who was never a great actor but was often an engaging screen personality, is merely adequate here in his first screen appearance. Interestingly, Siodmak would later use Lancaster in Criss Cross (1948) and again cast him as something of a sucker, not the ideal showcase for Lancaster’s magnetism.

The narrative structure of the film has been carefully analysed by David Bordwell in his Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), which I recommend to readers. The film story starts out exactly like Hemmingway’s short story, with two hired killers terrorising the occupants of a small-town diner as they look for their intended victim, Ole Anderson, “the Swede”. One of the killers, by the way, is played by William Conrad, who was only 25 at the time of the filming but looks twenty years older. He would later look pretty much the same almost thirty years later when he starred in the television series, “Cannon”. Most of Hemmingway’s suggestive, laconic dialogue is preserved here word-for-word. But Hemmingway’s story, which did not describe any killing and gave no motivation for the killer’s intentions, is completely told after just twelve minutes of the film. The openness of Hemmingway’s moody story is what made it fascinating: we never know why the killers are hunting down Anderson, or why he is so resigned to his inevitable destruction. That original story's lack of resolution gave off an aura of fatalism and the hopelessness of overcoming brute, malevolent power. The film takes off from there and resolves some things, but remains fatalistic. Immediately after this opening cover of Hemmingway’s story, the killers in the film do find the Swede and bump him off straightaway. The rest of the story of The Killers reveals the intricate set of events that led up to this execution.

Jim Reardon (played by Edmund O’Brien) is an insurance investigator given the routine assignment of examining the circumstances of the murder, and he quickly becomes obsessed in his efforts to find out what really happened. It is his quest for a fuller understanding that represents the narrative journey of the film.

As Reardon investigates, he is told eleven brief stories by his various interlocutors, which are each visualized as dramatic episodes. As the information accumulates, both the viewer and Reardon are constructing their fabulas, their models of what happened over time, from the plot as presented, i.e. the syuzhet. Some of the information in these episodes is purely visual (we recognize unnamed characters we have seen from earlier episodes) that is apparently not available to Reardon. So we sometimes have to be aware as the story develops that what the viewer learns and what Reardon learns are not entirely aligned. Thus the fabula construction on the part of Reardon and on the part of the viewer presumably go on in parallel -- although we must acknowledge that our own model of what Reardon knows, is, itself, simply a more detailed aspect of our constructed fabula. The visualized episodes are as follows:
1. 1946: Reardon learns from one of Swede’s coworkers at a small-town gas station that, very recently, Swede had been carefully eyed by a customer. Swede had quickly turned pale and gone home.
2. 1940: Reardon visits Swede’s insurance beneficiary in Atlantic City. It turns out to be a maid at a hotel that Swede and some unnamed woman had once visited for a couple of days back in 1940. Trying to understand why she would be named his beneficiary, the maid recollects in a visualized flashback how she tried to comfort Swede the next morning when he had become suicidal over having been abandoned by his woman friend

3. 1935: Reardon learns that Swede had been prizefighter and later had been arrested and imprisoned for two years, 1938-40, so he visits the cop who arrested him, Sam Lubinsky. Lubinsky’s visualized recollection tells of how he had been a boyhood friend of Swede and had seen his final fight in 1935.

4. 1938: Lubinsky’s wife, a former girlfriend of Swede, then recalls her final date with Swede in 1938, during which Swede became attracted to another woman, Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). It was evident that Swede, no longer able to make money as a fighter, was now lured to criminal activities.

5. 1938: Lubinsky recalls how he had intended to arrest Kitty as a jewel thief in 1938. There is a nice scene in a nightclub here showing a smalltime crook signalling with his lighted match to Kitty’s group at another table to hide her stolen jewels. Lubinsky was wise to this ruse, though, and it didn’t work. When Kitty was caught, Swede, now her boyfriend, gallantly took the wrap for her and was sent to prison for two years
Reardon then finds a former prison cell-mate, Charleston, who tells him two stories.
6. ~1939-40: Chareston's first story is simply his account of how he warned Swede that when a woman (in Swede’s case this would have been Kitty) stops writing to a guy in prison, it doesn’t always mean that she is ill.

7. 1940: Charleston recalls another time when they were both just out of prison, and he had escorted Swede to a meeting of crooks who were planning a big caper that could net $250,000. When Swede arrives at the meeting, he is shocked to see Kitty there with the others, which include Blinky Frankly, “Dum Dum” Clark, and the boss, “Big Jim” Colfax (whom we recognize, but probably unknown to Reardon, as the gas station customer from episode 1) who is now apparently Kitty’s new boyfriend.
8. 1940: Reardon then finds a newspaper story revealing that there was a $250,000 payroll heist about this time in 1940 at the Prentiss Hat Factory. As Reardon’s boss reads the newspaper account aloud, the heist is visually dramatised, with a spectacular crane shot showing the heist and getaway in a single, long take. Reardon’s, and the viewer’s, fabulas are now taking shape – he can link the robbery with what happened at the Atlantic City hotel.
Lubinsky, in the present, now informs Reardon that Blinky Franklin has just been shot and taken to the hospital. The dying Franklin, who had recently read about Swede’s murder and his last whereabouts is almost delirious, but his rambling statements are dramatized in two successive episodes.
9. 1940: In the first visualization of Blinky's ravings, he recalls the nasty chemistry between Colfax and Swede just before the robbery back in 1940.
10. 1940: The second visualisation of Blinky’s ravings recalls how three of the robbers, but not Swede, had gathered together just after the robbery at a farmhouse, which was not at the “halfway” house as originally planned, because it had burned down the night before. They were interrupted by Swede, who broke into the meeting at gunpoint and complained of haveing been uninformed about the changed meeting venue. Swede then left with all of the loot.
At this point Reardon, in the present, figures the money must be hidden back in Swede’s hotel room where he was killed. He goes there and runs into Dum Dum Clark, and they get into a scuffle, which results in an unwilling exchange of information. After Dum Dum gets away, Reardon heads out to Pittsburgh with Lubinsky to seek out Colfax, who reportedly now operates as a legitimate building contractor there. Reardon has also let it be known to the underworld that he now has the “goods” on Kitty, and by this ruse he manages to smoke her out of hiding and take her to a local nightclub to “talk”.
11. 1940: In the last visualized episode of the past, Kitty reveals how she suckered the Swede and made off with all the money. The whole thing was an elaborate double-doublecross – making Swede think that he had been doublecrossed at one level so that he could serve their purposes by counterstriking, but actually doublecrossing him at another level so they could collect all the money for themselves. It had all been planned from the beginning by herself and Colfax.
Then in a nightclub gunfight involving the same “killers" who had murdered Swede and who had now been sent to finish off Reardon, Lubinsky kills both of them, but Kitty manages to escape. Lubinsky and Rearden (his fabula construction now slightly ahead of ours) then rush off to Colfax’s mansion, but Dum Dum, seeking his share of the lost loot, got there first, and the two gangsters have both already fatally wounded each other.

Each of the episodes provides Reardon (and us) with some additional information that will shed light on upcoming episodes and ultimately help him unravel the mystery. According to the plot as presented (the syuzhet), the episodes are numbered sequentially, as listed above. But according to the fabula, the episode sequence should be ordered as follows: 3-4-5-6-7-9-8-10-11-2-1.

The fatalistic mood of The Killers is pervasive. None criminal characters ever really has a chance. Swede, Dum Dum, Blinky, and Colfax die in 1946 over events that took place in 1940. As far as the outer world is concerned, the fates of these people are pointless, anyway. Reardon’s boss points out how the insurance business works. As we know from the present economic and financial news, the business world is a vast mechanised structure that always ensures the public will be fleeced for whatever costs are encountered. Reardon’s boss reminds him that whenever the insurance business loses money, they simply recoup their losses by increasing their rates to the public for the next year. There is no escape. The two original Hemmingway “killers” were wiped out, too. Kitty is also going to be sent away to prison. In fact, Ava Gardner’s role as Kitty, the ultimate, soulless femme fatale, is particularly emblematic of our vulnerability to malicious seduction. She completely dominates the muscular but helpless Swede, and even at the end of the film she is seen trying to coax one more favour out of Colfax -- only, Colfax is dead.