In our increasingly secularized culture, the Ten Commandments have become a hot-button issue. There have been several highly publicized cases in which so-called civil-liberties groups have sued to have displays of God's laws removed from public places, usually schools and courthouses. The reason for these actions is that the Ten Commandments, when properly understood, represent transcendent ethical norms that can't be tampered with. They stand for the kind of absolute truth that threatens the moral relativism currently propagated by our mass media and public schools.
The late Polish director, Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Double Life of Veronique and the trilogy Red, White, and Blue) understood the centrality of the Ten Commandments to any discussion of contemporary morality. In 1988 he and screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz created a 10-part series, called The Decalogue, for Polish Television. Each program is devoted to one of the Ten Commandments. An episode entitled A Short Film About Killing, based on “Thou shalt not kill,” won the Cannes Film Festival Jury Award. It's an argument against capital punishment which shows both a murder and the execution of the murderer.
Although the best known of the series, A Short Film About Killing isn't typical of its methods. It's the only episode in which the filmmakers approach their subject with a specific political message in mind. In all the other programs, their ambitions are more general. Piesiewicz, who describes himself as “Christian but not Catholic,” declares their intent is “a return to the elemental values destroyed by communism.”
Rather than provide answers, most episodes ask questions, often from an ironic perspective. But unlike most contemporary films, once an ethical dilemma is posed, it is pursued to its logical conclusion.
Throughout the series, characters' lives are changed by moments of coincidence and synchronicity. The viewer senses the hand of Providence behind the twists and turns of each story. The overall effect is best described as metaphysical rather than Christian. The film-makers give a semidocumentary texture to the presentation of each story despite the mysticism of some of its themes.
To provide unity to the different episodes, almost all the characters live in the same Warsaw apartment complex, and they appear briefly in programs other than the ones which center on their particular problems. Despite the urban setting, the power of nature is also evoked as each story imaginatively makes use of the season in which it unfolds.
Decalogue One examines the values behind the relationship between a college professor, Krzysztof (Henryk Baranowski), and his young son, Pawel (Wojcieck Kiata), whom he's raising on his own. The boy is beginning to ask questions about God and the meaning of existence. His aunt (Maja Komorski), a believing Catholic, wants him to begin religious instruction with a priest. Krzysztof is a rationalist with no spiritual values. He encourages his son to put his faith in their computer which he sees as a paradigm for the mechanistic workings of the universe.
It's wintertime, and Pawel wants to try out a new pair of skates on a nearby frozen pond. Father and son together use the computer to calculate whether the ice is strong enough to support the boy's weight. The answer is positive, and Pawel is granted permission to go skating.
There's an unexpected thaw, and the computer is proved wrong, with tragic results. The father's rationalist model of the universe is shattered in a way that reflects back on the meaning of the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other Gods but me.”
In despair, Krzysztof runs to the local church and angrily pushes over an altar with candles on it. The episode's last image shows the candle wax splashing against an icon of the Black Madonna, staining her face as if they were tears.
The series often explores issues from a complex, multilayered point of view. In Decalogue Eight, Elizabeth (Teresa Marczewska), a middle-aged Jewish woman from New York who survived the Holocaust as a young child in Poland, returns to Warsaw to do research on other survivors. She sits in on a lecture by Zofia (Maria Koscialkowski), a respected ethics professor who sheltered Jews during the war.
After class, Elizabeth reveals herself to Zofia as a 6-year-old child whom the professor refused to hide. At the time the older woman argued that to do so would have forced her to act counter to her beliefs as a Catholic and lie to authorities.
Zofia now explains that there was another reason. A partisan counterintelligence officer believed that the person to whom Elizabeth would have been entrusted was working for the Gestapo and that he would have turned her over to the Nazis and betrayed the entire underground network. This information was later proved false.
These facts force the audience to re-examine with the two women the meaning of lies and the nature of truth and reality. Zofia is happy to know that Elizabeth survived. A burden of guilt which she carried for 45 years is lifted. Elizabeth realizes that Zofia isn't the ogre she assumed her to be. After several difficult confrontations, the two women forgive themselves and each other.
This scene of forgiveness and reconciliation is a typical Kieslowski-Piesiewicz moment and key to their vision of what constitutes moral behavior. Variations of it are repeated with great emotional force in Decalogues Nine and Ten, in which, respectively, a woman pardons her husband for his suicidal jealousy, and two brothers re-establish a bond after years of mistrust and alienation.
The filmmakers also understand that most of us have messy lives and that it's at the rough edges of our experience that the assertion of moral values becomes all important. They want the audience to focus on the state of their characters' souls during moments when they are wrestling with their darkest desires and obsessions. As a consequence, the series' subject matter is often not G-rated material although there is never any explicit sex or violence. Within this framework, several episodes contain a pro-life message. In Decalogue Two, Dorota (Krystyna Janda) grieves over her cancer-stricken husband, Andrzej (Olgierch Lukaszewicz). But unbe-known to him, she is pregnant with another man's child. The doctor in charge of her husband's treatment (Aleksander Bandini) lives in their apartment building, and she pesters him for advice.
Dorota wants to know if her husband will live or die. If he survives, she plans to have an abortion. If he dies, she'll have the child. The doctor refuses to make a definitive pronouncement. Even though her husband's prognosis isn't good, there's always the chance he'll have a miraculous recovery.
The doctor urges Dorota to give birth to the child whatever happens. Although we root for her to do the right thing and have the baby, the filmmakers also show us the torment she endures as she comes to a decision. The proper treatment of children is an issue to which the series repeatedly returns. In Decalogue Seven, the 6-year-old Ania (Katarzyna Piwowarcyk) is the victim of the differing emotional needs of her mother, Majka (Maja Barelkowska), and her grandmother, Ewa (Anna Polony). Ania has been raised believing that Ewa is her mother and that Majka is her sister because Majka bore her out of wedlock, and the family wanted to conceal the fact out of shame.
Majka can no longer bear the pain of this deception and kidnaps the child, intending to flee to Canada. She tells her daughter the truth about her situation, but the little girl is unable to address her as “mother.” The circumstances resolve themselves in a way that's probably best for the child, but they leave scars. The episode allows us to understand and sympathize with the motivations of both Majka and Ewa.
Kieslowski's work has become the inspiration for a younger generation of filmmakers who want to explore cutting-edge, contemporary issues without the amorality, nihilism, or despair that characterizes much of the current product of both Hollywood and independent moviemakers. In The Decalogue, they are shown a way to confront life's difficulties and contradictions with moral clarity and hope.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer currently writes from Paris.