Every Christmas season brings a spate of “holiday” movies and late-year titles with Oscar ambitions. This year let me recommend instead a cinematic treasure of enduring value — a true movie gift that will keep on giving.
This fall The Criterion Collection released a superb fully remastered edition of Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski’s justly acclaimed greatest achievement, Dekalog (Decalogue), originally made for Polish television broadcast in 1988, a late-Communist period following the rise of Solidarity but before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet collapse. As described, its “10 hour-long films, drawing from the Ten Commandments for thematic inspiration and an overarching structure, grapple deftly with moral and existential questions concerning life, death, love, hate, truth, and the passage of time.” Kieslowski used nine different cinematographers on the series but the same music composer, Zbigniew Preisner, and the screenplays were all co-written with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a trial lawyer with whom he had collaborated on No End (1984), a controversial depiction of Polish political trials under martial law.
The Blu-Ray edition which I have also includes the longer theatrical versions of Dekalog 5 and Dekalog 6, A Short Film about Killing and A Short Film about Love, masterpieces that are among the most profoundly affecting movies ever made. In addition, there are a number of archival interviews and recordings as well as expert commentaries including a 70-page booklet by University of Western Ontario film studies emeritus professor Paul Coates. (More information at: https://www.criterion.com/films/28661-dekalog.)
Kieslowski died of a heart attack at age 54, not long after completing his famous trilogy Three Colours: Blue, White, Red, which were post-Communist French co-productions situated outside Poland. One wonders what he would have made of contemporary European anxieties.
Kieslowski’s life and filmography coincided with a troubled and turbulent period in post-war Polish history in which the façade of totalitarian Communism masked a deepening malaise both societal and personal. Born in Warsaw, he had a Catholic upbringing and retained a close complex relationship with God that he describes as “personal and private.” In interviews he has said he believes that “an absolute point of reference must exist.” At the same time, like the gospel parables, Dekalog puts forward probing questions rather than pat answers to the doubts and dilemmas of human life.
Kieslowski’s determination to become a filmmaker was a fateful choice. As recounted in a new video, Memoirs of an Angel, an anniversary tribute to his career featuring a selection of interview and film clips, he had to be persistent after three times failing the entrance exam of the prestigious Lodz film school. (The documentary can be viewed online at: http://www.indiewire.com/2016/03/watch-77-minute-tribute-documentary-to-the-great-krzysztof-kieslowski-259592/ .)
Kieslowski started out making realistic documentaries about Polish life that, while not overtly political, caused conflicts with the official censors. In the 1970s he turned to fictional narratives which he saw as affording more artistic freedom while remaining true to the conditions of life. This developed into what Paul Coates refers to as an observational “metaphysics of the everyday,” a cinematic gaze into the human heart, mind and soul that reaches its apogee in Dekalog. These films have a documentary aspect while revealing deeper truths about the nature of human beings and their relationships. As Coates writes: “Fiction is the speculation that follows from description, its question being, What lies within? . . . The desire to penetrate suffering more deeply, without exposing any individual, was a major motive for Kieslowski’s move to fiction.”
That searching examination of life implied a social critique, especially given the cultural and political ferment in Poland leading up to the rise of the Solidarity movement, years that also produced a “Cinema of Moral Anxiety.” However, unlike contemporaries making films of activist political dissent, notably Andrzej Wajda (Man of Marble, Man of Iron) who died this year, Kieslowski was interested in probing human behaviour at a more universal level, in making films “about individuals who can’t quite find their bearings.” The Poland of the 1980s, disoriented between resistance and repression, was fertile ground for such explorations. In interviews conducted in Paris in 1991-92 Kieslowski explains: “I sensed mutual indifference behind polite smiles and had the overwhelming impression that, more and more frequently, I was watching people who didn’t really know why they were living.”
The idea of using the Catholic enumeration of the Ten Commandments as a moral anchor was suggested by the devoutly Catholic co-writer Piesiewicz, although the resulting Dekalog films go beyond the literal to evoke profound allegorical meanings. Corresponding themes range from the idolization of secular gods to family relationships, crime and punishment, honesty, love, sex and jealousy, greed and other temptations. As Roger Ebert observed in an April 2000 introduction to the first North American video release: “There isn’t a one-to-one correlation; some films touch on more than one commandment, and others involve the whole ethical system suggested by the commandments. These are not simplistic illustrations of the rules, but stories that involve real people in the complexities of real problems. . . . None of these films is a simple demonstration of black and white moral issues.”
Dekalog is set in a single Warsaw housing complex with many windows that can be looked out of and into. Its mid-1980s Polish residents are not abstractions. The characters are parents, children, husbands, wives, lovers, the young and the old, the strong and the weak. They form an actual community of sorts, however arbitrary and elusive. At the same time, Kieslowski deliberately does not dwell on specific external details, such as the restrictions imposed by the tottering officially atheistic edifice of the Communist system. What he wants us to concentrate on are the interior lives and moral struggles of his subjects that, while existing in an oppressive material reality, carry a larger metaphysical import — as if to say, at some level are we not all sinners who must decide how to live our lives in a world of sinful social structures?
By the late 1980s Kieslowski had become disillusioned with political developments. Moreover, politics cannot address some of the most important and essential questions of human life. As he put it during the Paris interviews, “it doesn’t matter much whether you live in a Communist country or a prosperous capitalist one, as far as such questions are concerned — questions like, What is the true meaning of life? Why do you get up in the morning? Politics doesn’t answer that.” There is no political cure for loneliness or loss.
That is not to say that the humanism of the Dekalog films is without socio-political implications. For example, as Kieslowski described A Short Film about Killing: “The film was an indictment of violence. Inflicting death is probably the highest form of violence imaginable; capital punishment is an infliction of death. In this way, we link violence and capital punishment as a form of violence.” That message has yet to be taken to heart in much of the United States.
Kieslowski’s approach is sober and serious, never superficial. As Ebert wrote, it is the opposite of “the simpleminded struggles of Hollywood plots.” What Kieslowski disliked about American culture was its “pursuit of empty talk and too much self-satisfaction.” He would certainly find plenty of challenging material in the excesses and moral ambiguities of contemporary western societies.
If you are looking for cinematic food for thought, The Criterion Collection’s Dekalog release delivers a truly impressive feast that will last long after this season’s passing amusements.