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.