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.