Weekly Video Picks

The Decalogue [Dekalog] (1988)

“What is the true meaning of life?

Why get up in the morning? Politics doesn't answer that.” — Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski

The Decalogue, Krzysztof Kieslowski's extraordinary, challenging collection of 10 one-hour films made for Polish television in the dying days of the Soviet Union, doesn't answer those questions, either. However, it poses them as hauntingly and seriously as any cinematic effort in the last 20 years.

“Everyone seems to accept the Ten Commandments as a kind of moral basis,” Kieslowski has said, “and everyone breaks them daily. Just the attempt to respect them is already a major achievement.”

The Decalogue is not easy to watch. Although the films explore moral questions, they do so in the context of disordered, sometimes dysfunctional lives of a modern, generally irreligious urban populace. Like much of the Old Testament, The Decalogue is a chronicle of human failure.

Yet unlike the Old Testament, The Decalogue chronicles human failure without clarifying the lines between right and wrong or even setting out to persuade its audience to live morally.

The 10 episodes are linked by a common setting, a Warsaw high-rise apartment complex where all the characters live (an early establishing shot perhaps suggests the Tower of Babel), and by the occasional overlapping of characters from one episode into another. The episodes are also linked by an enigmatic character, a silent observer, whose presence in nearly all the episodes suggests some symbolic function.

The episodes are also interconnected morally. Few deal straightforwardly with one and only one commandment; lying, adultery and other sins crop up repeatedly, for example, reflecting the principle that it is impossible to break only one commandment, that he who breaks one will soon be breaking another and another.

More surprisingly, some of the episodes can be said to reflect the corresponding commandment only in an accommodated sense. For example, Decalogue 3 deals not only with the Sabbath or the Lord's Day but also with Christmas, and Decalogue 7 involves kidnapping, which one wouldn't ordinarily think of as “theft.”

Behind these elliptical explorations of moral principles are larger questions about life, meaning and existence itself. Two women in two episodes engage in sexual immorality, but one does so claiming that it's possible to “love” two men at the same time while the other claims there is no such thing as “love” at all, only sex. The Decalogue is haunted by the atheistic ideology of Soviet communism, which reduced man to purely biological and scientific terms, yet Kieslowski is not content to view human experience through this narrow lens.

By now it will be abundantly clear that these short stories are far from morality plays. In a way, they are closer to parables — though we no longer find Jesus' parables confounding in the way his first hearers did. The achievement of The Decalogue, in part, is to throw the viewer off balance, to unsettle, to leave one pondering rather than convinced.

Kieslowski's musical collaborator, Zbigniew Preisner, has called The Decalogue “an attempt to return to the elementary values destroyed by communism.” Taken at face value, that might be an overstatement. But certainly The Decalogue is an attempt to take seriously moral and spiritual questions that communism had sought to pre-empt. And while Kieslowski doesn't pretend to explain the meaning of life, one episode points to another famous son of Poland — Pope John Paul II — as someone who might have the answers.

One of the 15 films on the Vatican film list in the values category, The Decalogue is available in a three-DVD set from Facets that includes an introduction by Roger Ebert.

Content advisory: Frank, sometimes disturbing exploration of disordered behavior, including a depiction of murder, extramarital and nonmarital affairs and encounters (no explicit nudity), disordered attractions and references to abortion. In Polish with subtitles.

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

This Sunday, I’ll Be Going to Church. Will You Join Me?

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” [CCC 2181]