Last year gave us Jacques Rivette’s Out 1, and this year has given us Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog—two works that until their recent releases, Out 1 by Arrow and Dekalog by The Criterion Collection, have been extremely difficult to see on account of their length, which suited them to European television rather than theatrical distribution. It’s fitting that each film’s re-release comes in an era in which on-demand or day-and-date video releases are common distribution models, streaming services rather than cinemas are seen as the primary viewing platforms for so many, and the television season—many of which arrive all at once—and not film is the dominant moving image medium. If all this is true, is there anything challenging or even unusual about a 10 or 12 hour moving image work designed for us to watch all at once from the comfort of our homes, preferably in a small number of binges?
Maybe there is in the case of Out 1 (1971), where the episodes, which regularly exceed an hour and a half, are too long to replicate a TV experiencing and in which particular sequences steer heavily toward the abstract. But with Kieślowski’s more modest Dekalog, clocking in at a mere 572 minutes divided into 10 more-or-less standalone installments, the method and logistics of viewing are familiar and practiced. What is truly unusual about the Dekalog is what is on screen, not how long it takes to elapse.
In 1988, the year Dekalog first aired, Poland was in a precarious position; religion was officially banned under the communist regime, but it was practiced openly by much of the nation’s inhabitants as part of an informal truce: it would be allowed in private life so long as the authority of the Communists was upheld and acknowledged (a rather tenuous and uneasy bargain for its three-plus decades). Kieślowski’s saga accordingly takes inspiration from the Ten Commandments, playing out as a series of moral parables on contemporary life and maintaining the continued significance of religious morality. Paradoxically, Dekalog is often political, either through nascent metaphor (absent parents) or more explicit parallels (Dekalog Five’s condemnation of the death penalty), and only on occasion do the episodes actually seem to line up with the Biblical commandments.
Among those that unmistakably do is the first, which also reminds today’s viewer that, although length no longer separates Dekalog from other moving image media, narrative and style do. Krzysztof raises his son Pawel to see the world through the lens of reason and science, while his sister tries to instill faith and religion into the boy. Krzysztof and Pawel turn to their computer for more and more answers, including calculations about whether the ice over a frozen lake will support weight. It will, and so Krzysztof gifts Pawel ice skates, only to learn the next day that he fell through the lake. "Thou shalt have no other God before me."
Ultimately, a somewhat didactic conservative message is overshadowed out by Kieślowski’s audacious, lyrical, and ultimately humanist approach. Each episode of Dekalog deals in some form with mortality, and Krsyzstof’s confrontation with the inevitability of death leads to one of Kieślowski’s most beautiful sequences. Set in an empty church, it includes a tracking shot that seems to happen upon rather than seek out a grieving Krsyzstof before cutting to a close-up of a tearful Madonna statue, echoing his grief. For much of the episode, Kieślowski refrains from using music (such abstinence became increasingly common as his career continued), letting the sounds of Warsaw fill out the small world at the center of the narrative. Patient tracking shots and an architect’s attention to interior layout also mark Dekalog One and many other episodes in the series, with suspense mounting merely in the navigation of homes (never more so than in a scene about two-thirds of the way through Nine, in which one character finds her husband spying on her, then loses him as she goes to answer the door).
While One seems to posit and uphold the First Commandment, Four offers an ironic recantation to thou shalt honor thy father and mother, Seven addresses thou shalt not steal explicitly but obliquely, and Eight grapples with the morality of bearing false witness. In it, a Jewish woman confronts the professor who refused to shelter her from Nazis on account of this commandment decades prior. But no episode seems as literal in their enactment of the text as the first, and the remaining ones cannot effectively be pinned to any single commandment.
Instead, Kieślowski continues to work through the role of fate and coincidence, seen most fully in a man who appears throughout the series to foreshadow crucial moments. Is he an Angelic witness or a Devilish agent? Whatever the case, his presence—before Pawel falls through the ice, for example—prompts questions of what might have been. More provocatively, however, this figure foregrounds the intervention of the director’s guiding hand, his appearance reminding us that anything “coincidental” within the fiction is indeed fated. It’s a decidedly Nabokovian gambit that suggests Kieślowski’s turn from a filmmaker interested primarily in politics to one interested primarily in aesthetics.
Kieślowski’s shift toward aesthetic concerns suggests the limitations art has in conveying truth—subjects tackled explicitly in Camera Buff (1979) and that naturally follow his early work as a documentarian. As Paul Coates notes in an essay accompanying the Criterion Collection’s release of Dekalog, the script originally called for the faces of protagonists to be pulled seemingly at random from the crowd; it didn’t happen, but the brief presence of protagonists and their stories in other episodes reminds us that film and TV can offer only incomplete glimpses into larger worlds. “It’s an interesting building,” the Jewish survivor of Seven tells her would-be savior after the latter relates that the protagonists in Two live upstairs. “Like any other,” she replies.
When Dekalog first aired, it was criticized by some locals for failing to accurately reflect Polish life or ingratiate itself to the intelligentsia’s preferred political views. (It is worth noting that Hou Hsiao-hsien was facing similar charges over A City of Sadness the next year, and it wouldn’t be long before Abbas Kiarostami fought the battle in Iran.) It should be reiterated that prior to Dekalog, Kieślowski’s features were more explicitly political, and his camera tended to focus intently on its explicit subject rather than wandering or digressing, as he would learn to use it. His French-language films, made after Poland had transitioned from communism to today’s modern state, are far more veiled politically and rely more heavily on music, symbolism, and color to convey personal, humanist ideas. Dekalog is, among many other things, a portrait of an artist in transition, taking the social realist attitude of his preceding films but simultaneously suggesting those that would follow.
In other hands, these clashing sensibilities, along with Poland’s politically precarious state, could result in a schizophrenic work. The episodes traverse vast moral ground, some significantly more ambiguous than others. Kieślowski worked with a different cinematographer for each episode, and it shows; the dilapidated, putrid green Warsaw of Five,the blues of One, and the theatrical lighting of Six,are all entirely distinct. Similarly, each episode seems to unveil a new stylistic trick—by Ten, menacing point-of-view shots that recall Brian De Palma are in play. But the way the camera will linger on plants or a faucet, the cameos by protagonists of other episodes, and Zbigniew Preisner’s evocative, wonderfully utilized score create unlikely parallels and complex moral tales of startling power. With each episode it forces the viewer to recalibrate expectations to a degree that fewer TV shows or filmmakers manage. Dekalog’s re-release remind us that the meanings of art and our avenues of interpretation evolve as political and technological landscapes change, but its uniqueness and the continued rewards it offers also remind us that there is no fixed, proper way to make a TV show, or a miniseries, or a film.