I was debating giving any of this a score – I thought to put such a complex achievement into a number or score would be to undermine it, but in the end I decided to score both the series as a whole and the films individually, just to give my thoughts some context, and for those who can’t be assed reading the whole thing.
The Decalogue – 5/5
So a brief review of the series as a whole. Kieslowski was already one of my favourite directors leading into this. I had seen eight of his movies and not a one of them had I found to be less than great. But none the less I had found myself being a tad cautious before starting this, after all it’s a monumental task he set for himself to direct ten films all working independantly to address a different element of one theme – the Ten Commandments. Not to mention my own expectations, ‘A Double Life of Veronique’ is in my top films, and I think the ‘Three Colours’ is cinema’s most absoloute trilogy. And yes, ‘The Decalogue’ does faulter at times, there are notably weaker episodes. But as a complete movement, it had a profound effect of me, one I don’t think I’ve experienced since I first saw ‘Mulholland Drive.’
How could these fables or parables be so real and so human, yet be profoundly spiritual, but never overtly religous. If nothing else, they are a testiment to there is still relevance and guidance to be found in the Ten Commandments even to this day.
Kieslowski sets these ten films around an apartment block, we become almost famileur with its layout by the time the series has ended. Many of the films include a nod or small role from a character in a previous film, this creates this feeling of connection that Kieslowski revisted and perfect with ‘Veronique’ and ‘Three Colours.’ Moments that you think have no meaning or sense at first may become relevant or even important in later films, in a way this makes the series become more personal. Kieslowski originally intended to have a different director for each film, but couldn’t part with his screenplays so he chose a different cinematographer for each film in order to keep the visual style for each movie unique.
He uses two motifs – milk and the ‘watcher.’ They aren’t used all that consistently, milk appears a number of times as an element of pain or healing. In One (I) it’s sour, Two (II) the old, grief stricken doctor carries milk constantly. In Six (VI) Magda knocks its over signifying another broken relationship. However also in Six (VI) Tomek becomes a milk man as part of love to see her. In Four (IV) the milk is there as a symbol of a bound between parent and child despite how far that bound has been pushed.
The other motif, the character of the ‘watcher’ is far more complicated. A young man who appears in most of the films, never speaks, he just watches. I’ve seen some suggest he’s a Christ, which I don’t think works. At first I thought he could be an embodiment of ourselves; a silent observer who can do nothing but look on at the events present. But then I think he’s something more important, I think he is someone, an observer or an embodiment of the force that connects and guides these people through not just the series, but through all of Kieslowski’s later films. If anything it makes his absence in Ten (X) quite disturbing. (I understand he’s missing in Seven (VII) as well, but that was due to techincal difficulties rather than a thematic decision.
So with that I’ll get onto the films individually.
One (I) – 4/5
This remains one of the strongest, and perhaps the saddest of Kieslowski’s monumental effort. The story revolving around the first commandment follows a single-parent university professor and his bright son who is extremely open to everything in the world. Togethery they work out the freezing rate of the ice on the local pond by means of a computer, which is the false God and the consequences are tragic. This one has such a large impact today because of how regulary we channel so much of ourselves and our trust into technology. An astonishing performance from the boy who we are immediately drawn to as a figure of wonder and mystery makes this film genuinely moving.
Two (II) – 5/5
This has grown on me to be one of my favourites, not just in the series, but in Kieslowski in general. This one follows the idea of placing life in the hands of someone else, except yourself (and by extension your soul) and the dangers or difficulties that come with it. Our two main protagonists; the doctor and the pregnant woman are both wounded people who have a lot riding on the doctors decision. Kieslowski’s moral drama is quietly stirring and effective here, his direction is slight. Edward Klosinski did the cinematography here, and he manages to bring forward a lot of pain through consistent use of close ups. Inside the hospital is viewed as a death. Rust, dripping water, surely more a reminded of the Russian gulag. The ending, in typical Kieslowski fashion, is quite beautiful and what can simply be described as a miracle, which I think we needed it after the amount of human pain building to it.
Three (III) – 3/5
This is my least favourite I think. I find it quite hard to dissect, one interpretation opted for ‘Keeping the Sabbath Day holy is to take a break, or rest, from our normal day lives and tackle our inner issues, I guess that’s the one that I find most agreeable. Our main characters are too people who embarked on an affair some time ago only for it to end badly. So when they meet, they have to work through their issues with each other. The result is a more episodic structure and more difficult characters, in the end, the woman wins our sympathy with her frank reveal. Perhaps the fact that this one comes across as weaker is more a testament to the series as a whole, rather than the films own failings.
Four (IV) – 5/5
Kieslowski takes on a difficult theme with the fourth commandment, only then to take it to controversial territory. It’s about the relationship between a widowed father and his daughter, who finds an envelope containing a letter from her mother. She hopes it reveals what they have both suspected – that her father is not her real Dad and that they are free to explore their love for each other in a different way. Kieslowski is bold and frank, but delicate in his look at what happens when the boundaries of parent/child relationship are shattered. There are some terrific little scenes such as a moment right in the middle in the conflict that takes place in a confiend elevator (and also has a character from II.) The final, late in the game revelation leads to poingnant conclusion that allows the two to have a new but strong relationship.
Five (V) – 4/5
Note: Going into this one I had already seen ‘A Short Film About Killing’ and this review will contain some comparisons between the two that will explain some of my criticisms.
Easily the darkest work in the series, probably of his whole career (maybe No End?). Although ‘A Short Film About Killing’ does not give us much information to analyze or dissect, this shorter version is much less developed. As much as this is a statement against Capital Punishment, I think it is equally just a story about death, about how senseless killing is, no matter if it’s in the name of revenge or justice. The filters in the theatrical release or not as present here, but I personally loved how over bearing and well… grotesque the tone was in that version. Here it’s still there… but it’s not as strong. Regardless it’s still an uncomfortable film, the two ‘killing’ sequences are pretty upsetting due to sound design and staging.
I suggest watching this one first before the theatrical release if you can help it. Due to the music, some important scenes and the visual filters its a much more powerful film.
Six (VI) – 3/5
Note: Like Five (V) I also had seen the theatrical release of this episode, and that also had an impact on my viewing of this, especially the ending.
When I first watched ‘A Short Film About Love’ I was a little disappointed, I couldn’t really work out if it was trying to highlight the fine line between love and obsession, or if it was about anything else. But over time it has grown on me, and watching this only made my attachment develop further.
As I was looking for some comparisons online between the two I stumbled across this analysis. Here it suggests that the longer version is about time and space as well as a commentary on film-making and watching. I’m not so sure, at least, I see what they’re getting at. But I think it is something much more pure. It is a simply a film about love and perception.
Decalogue Six (VI) is certainly not as good as it’s theatrical part, in fact I find it much more damaged in the shorter version than Episode 5 (V). The characters are less developed, the ending and beginning have been scrapped or altered so that the tone of the story. Still, as an examination of what it is to love, and how they our percieved through our own reality it works. Watching Tomek be humiliated by Magda is distressing because of how the film’s POV is from his perspective. As we move into the final act it jumps to Magda’s perspective as she slowly awakens her compassion that she thought was long lost, as it grows, Tomek’s perception, manifested in the telescope, is removed. I really am not a fan of the ending in this one, but whatever.
My rating for this one is largely to do with my relation to the theatrical release, I feel this is a vastly inferior film that is not as detailed nor as thematically rich, but it is still a good entry.
Seven (VII) – 3/5
Possibly my least favourite, tied with Three (III). As a look at what it means to steal, not someone’s belongings but someone the greater reach – to steal their soul and their heart it’s interestin, if a little mishandled. Some of the subtler moments; when we learn the (real) father has given up his teaching and his other dreams when the child was ‘stolen’ from him are good. But Kieslowski’s approach is a little too heavy handed. Like when the child grabs his hand in her sleep and wont let go. In Four (IV) and Five (V) Kieslowski’s approach needed to be strong, but here it could have been a little more delicate. The two main women feel very Bergmanesque, they both draw on our frustrations and our sympathies, but not enough. You ended up feeling more for the two men, who are given no choice in this more than either of them. But of course the main victim is the child.
Eight (VIII) – 4/5
This is probably the most dialogue heavy of the series due to its theme. It follows an ethics teacher and a Jewish woman who sits in on one of her classes. As the story from Two (II) is told, the teacher mentions that ‘nothing is more important than the life of a child’ at which point the Jewish woman challenges her to the story of a little girl who was suppose to be adopted in order to be saved from the Jewish Ghetto in WW2. But at the last moment her Godparents change their mind because to forge the confirmation papers would be to ‘bear false witness against God.’
Kieslowski looks at the power of words, and their lasting effects here. The actual mystery behind the story is rather uninteresting, even the characters point it out. Instead he focuses on the consequences of what one says. The Jewish girl is haunted by the uncaring decision to abandon her, the woman is also plauged by the guilt for over 40 years. As the two talk it out between themselves, they confront each other and themselves only to find some inner peace. It’s slow but effective, the two characters are well drawn and there are some excellent moments, one particular sequence involves the two going to the apartment where the girl was left 40 years prior. And the ending is ultimately cathartic.
Nine (IX) – 5/5
This is easily one of the highlights of the series. On the surface it’s a more ‘common’ story, a man suspects his wife is having an affair and he becomes paranoid but it is a much more complex tale that goes from being about infidelity to loyalty, commitment and sacrifice. Our main character is impotent, he is the one who suggests his wife take up a lover but when it actually comes to it, he cannot come to terms. There is a dual plotline here to reinforce the themes; a beautiful singer with an astonding voice cannot sing until her heart is fixed or it will give out, and kill her. Sound famileur? Thats because it was here that Kieslowski got the storyline for ‘Veronique.’ Here is feels like a physical representation of the emotional pain our protagnoist is going through. He knows he asks to much and that his heart may not be able to withstand, but he needs to do it anyway for love which is ‘in the heart, not between the legs.’ Both the characters are flawed and interesting and this film is perhaps the most engaging on a techincal level. A lot of cross cutting and interesting lighting as well as a haunting score. One sequence in particular – Our protagonist rides his bike into a river as his wife sleeps. She jolts awake just as he collides with the water, another allude to the connection between people. It’s a dark scene, but bathed in this beautiful ironic golden light.
Ten (X) – 4/5
So the final chapter of the series follows two brothers as they reconnect over their deceased father’s incredibly valuable stamp collection only for it to become a source of mistrust, secrecy and even danger. This one is obviously addressing the final commandment ‘Thou shall not covet they neighbours goods.’ The two brothers have opposing life styles – one is a front man of a successful band, the other is a family man. As their greed consumes them, all else in their life is simply forgotten – the younger brother drops out of his band and the older man ignores his family to the point of forgetting about his son’s tooth ache. As the two become more paranoid, cinematographer Blawut incorprates it into his visuals, we get a lot of peering shots from behind trees and low lighting moments.
The ending may not have the sheer overwhelming power of Kieslowski’s later ‘Red’ but it feels so appropriately human.
So The Decalogue, I try to refrain from naming any film or movement ‘the best ever’ especially so prematurely after having watching it. I think the only two times a film has automatically arrived near the top of my favourites list and stayed there once I’ve had time to reflect have been ‘Mulholland Drive’ and ‘Night of the Hunter’ (First and fourth respectively) but The Decalogue reminded me of why I watch films. Over the last few months I’ve been slugging out watch after watch and it’s gradually become a routine, not a passion. But over the last few days, watching these films I have been totally transfixed. It’s not perfect, it’s something more – it’s human. Filled with inconsistencies, pain, sadness, ugliness, beauty, happiness and ultimately at the end of it all, laughter. I don’t know what it is, the best cinematic movement ever? Maybe. It doesn’t really matter in the end does it. But I’m so happy I’ve seen it.
A fuck, look at that length of that. Man I hope somebody reads this… I’m going to bed.