"The Law determined who we are and how we live. We either observe it, or break it."
Few television series are remembered not only for their entertainment value, but also for their artistic relevance. The Prisoner, Twin Peaks, Neon Genesis Evangelion, the best moments of Ernie Kovacs. In 1987, Krzysztof Kieslowski (later to win international acclaim for his "Three Colors" trilogy and The Double Life of Veronique) directed a 10 part series for Polish television. Dekalog (in English, The Decalogue) is an intimate, probing examination of how ordinary people grapple with temptation and sin.
Facts of the Case
Any one of The Decalogue's 10 episodes could easily stand on its own. Rather than try and give a thin survey of all of them, I will focus in on one, in order to give a sense of the subtlety and complexity with which Kieslowski approaches the material. Episode IV (ostensibly about the Commandment "Honor thy father and mother") tells the story of Anka and her father Michal. Anka (Adrianna Biedrynska; for some reason the subtitles spell the name "Anna") discovers a mysterious letter one day while her beloved father (Janusz Gajos) is away on a business trip. Suffering herself from blurry vision (a loss of clear perspective?) and a troubled relationship with her boyfriend, Anka succumbs to temptation and opens the letter. When Michal returns, she tells him that the letter (written and sealed by her mother, who died when she was an infant) reveals that he is not her biological father. After an initial period spent in lonely frustration, the two meet and discuss the matter. Anka feels deceived, but to her, the letter really explains her long-conflicted sexual feelings toward her father. Michal feels paralyzed: he has always suspected that some crucial secret existed between him and Anka, and was always secretly hoping that the problem would solve itself without his interference. Should he think of himself now as her protective father (the desire for familiar protection), or a potentially jealous suitor (sexual desire)? How will they both negotiate the narrow boundary between these desires?
But they both realize that the bond between them as father and daughter is stronger than biology. The next day, Anka admits that the letter was a fake: she copied the handwriting from the front of the real letter without ever reading it. They burn the mother's original letter unread. But a tiny fragment remains, hinting that Anka's lie may have been the truth after all…
Krzysztof Kieslowski (who died in 1996) always seemed to love interlocking narratives. Most of his films involve multiple character arcs which form often tenuous intersections (our most familiar American equivalents would be Robert Altman and P.T. Anderson). In The Decalogue, all the narratives take place in and around the same Warsaw apartment block, and the characters pop up in the background of each other's stories. The result is a curiously intimate and human look at the problem of sin. This is not a series about cosmic justice: this is about how ordinary people grapple with difficult ethical decisions. Kieslowski isolates his characters in the snowy, drab industrial center of post-Communist Poland, focusing on their expressive faces and mostly avoiding grandiose melodrama. The Decalogue being a television series, with a different production crew on each episode (Kieslowski, longtime writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and composer Zbigniew Preisner are the only consistent contributors), some episodes work better than others.
For instance, what could have easily turned into soap-opera melodrama in Episode IV is kept on an even keel by strong performances by Biedrynska and Gajos, who must carry most of the hour-long story in tight close-ups and long silences. Kieslowski and cinematographer Krysztof Pakulski (each episode uses a different cinematographer, but Kieslowski keeps the overall look fairly uniform) allow long, slow shadows to penetrate each scene in order to heighten the emotional ambiguity. Colors are muted: most greys and browns (the dingy look of 1980s Warsaw), with small swaths of bright color on Anna to play upon her attempts at emotional freedom. Kieslowski also plays the symbolism card: a mysterious young man wanders by twice at key moments of revelation, carrying a canoe over his head, like Christ burdened with his Cross. The overall result has the feel of a small-scale Bergman production, in which the line between spiritual fulfillment (obeying the Commandments) and human desire overlap, and raise more questions than can be answered in one short hour.
Some episodes, like Episode VII (on "stealing;" another story of confused parentage, this time culminating in a kidnapping) and Episode VI (on "adultery;" a promiscuous woman seduces her stalker, then becomes emotionally obsessed with him in return) are not as carefully constructed, slipping quite close to incoherence by the end. Some episodes tackle larger social issues. Episode V ("Thou shalt not kill") explores the ethical implications of capital punishment. Episode VIII (on "bearing false witness") deals with the lingering guilt associated with the Holocaust, attempting to reconcile the direct victims and those who were victims by default due to their own frightened paralysis: a Jewish camp survivor confronts the woman who refused to help her hide during the war. That story (and Episode X, on "coveting thy neighbor's goods," which plays as a black comedy) is ultimately upbeat; others end in tragedy. In Episode I (on idolatry), a father and son trust in the infallibility of their computer to predict the thickness of the ice before a skating excursion. Is the tragic result an accident, or divine punishment? Kieslowski is never clear, as he leaves the question open for his audience to decide.
The "Ten Commandments" gimmick is not as preachy as you might think. The "Commandment titles" themselves are tacked on by Facets for the American DVD packaging: the actual episodes are not specifically titled. Most of the episodes have a thin connection to their "Commandments." In fact, if you didn't watch the episodes in order, you might be hard-pressed at times to figure out exactly which Commandment you are supposed to be learning about. In truth, the Commandments are merely a jumping-off point for each moral dilemma, which invariably turns out to be far more complex than a simple Sunday School lesson. That seems to be Kieslowski's point: our ethical conflicts are not black and white. Like the subtle colorings that surround his conflicted characters, our transgressions and triumphs are very human, filled with sorrow, anxiety, and even humor.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Image Entertainment and Facets Video have released this thoughtful series in a rather thoughtlessly bare-bones manner. Granted, The Decalogue is a low-budget, foreign television series, so the video quality is unspectacular, but the transfer to DVD could have been better handled. The print appears to be slightly washed out with occasional flicker, affecting Kieslowski's subtle use of lighting. There are numerous small nicks and scratches as well. The sound, while cleaned up a bit, is monaural. On the plus side, the subtitles are clear and easy to read: solid white with black edging. But they are matted directly to the print and cannot be turned off. Of course, being a television series, the image is full frame, but that is certainly not a problem.
But the mediocre transfer is not as disappointing as the packaging and lack of extras. The series comes on two discs, each double sided (3/3 on the first disc, 2/2 on the second). Image has chosen to use a pair of cheap cardboard case things that hold each disc in some sort of death grip. The foldouts contain brief episode summaries, chapter titles, and a few quotes of praise from critics, but not much else. As for the discs themselves, each episode is on a separate track and must be watched individually (fortunately, each is divided into 8 chapters) through the main menu. And the "feature start" option on the main menu is pretty useless, since it only plays Episode 1 and then goes right back to the menu. There are no other extras. Nothing.
The Decalogue is well worth watching, and you will certainly find that its complex approach to serious ethical questions will resonate long after you have finished the series. At around $70 for the whole set (the discounted price at several online retailers), it is a pretty good bargain and will have strong replay value over the years. Even the weaker episodes are still far more thoughtful and visually interesting than most anything else you are likely to watch on television. See? Sometimes TV isn't such a vast wasteland.
Director Kieslowski and company are commended by the court for their moral character and artistic skill. Image Entertainment and Facets Video however are reprimanded for breaking the First Commandment of DVD Verdict: Thou shalt not release underproduced, bare-bones editions. Now go do penance.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
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