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.