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Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue explores the timeless moral issues of human existence through ten contemporary tales, each based on one of the Ten Commandments. Originally produced for Polish television, this brilliant series of ten separate but subtly intertwining films transcended the boundaries of film and TV, winning honors in both arenas as it played around the world. The Decalogue won the FIPRESCI Award at the 1989 Venice Film Festival, was honored as Best Foreign Television Program by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and was named Best Foreign Language Film by the Chicago Film Critics Association in 1997. Each episode was co-written by Kieslowski's longtime collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz and features music by Zbigniew Preisner. All ten films in a three-disc set.
One of the great movie achievements of our time. --Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune
- "Roger Ebert on The Decalogue"
- "On the Set of The Decalogue"
- "Kieslowski Meets the Press"
- "Kieslowski Known and Unknown"
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I strongly suggest when you view this masterpiece you do not miss the fifteen plus minute Roger Ebert introduction because unlike some of the extras garbage you will find on other DVD's this one is actually quite good and he will give you some excellent ways to approach the ten stories. Ebert will also explain that the idea for the films came when in 1985 during the solidarity trials, Kieslowski met a trial lawyer named Krzysztof Piesiewicz and the two developed the film "No End". The film came up against criticism from the government who called it unsympathetic, the opposition who called it compromised and the Catholic Church who said it was immoral. The two writers apparently met one day on the street in the rain later and Piesiewicz shouted "Someone should make a film about the ten commandments!" And they did. It ran on Polish television in 1988 and the Venice Film Festival but it was not available on film in America until ten years later despite its huge praise. All the films take place in the same apartment complex in Poland, each story is a meditation on arguments centering on moral dilemmas. Here's a quick break down of all of them.
Decalogue One called "I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me" is about a young boy caught in between his atheist father, a university science professor and his aunt, the professor's sister and a devout Christian who wants the boy to begin studying religion. The professor is enamored with his personal computer which is his god and he and the boy use it to measure things, the most important being to what degree a nearby pond has frozen over which works excellently quietly building the tension of the film which kicks into full gear by the end. Here you will first meet the mystery man who appears like an angel or a Christ figure throughout all the films. You will see him sitting in front of a fire by the lake at the beginning of the film and note that he is absent from the fire by the end. In my opinion it is the most daunting to watch of the ten films.
Decalogue Two is entitled "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" is well placed after the first story, centering again on children. It is about a violinist who never able to conceive with her husband whom she loves deeply has an affair with another musician. She becomes pregnant by the latter around the same time her husband grows dangerously ill and finds herself in a difficult position. She tells the doctor, (who has an interesting story of his own which is used brilliantly to steer the story to its conclusion) she will abort the baby if her husband lives and keep it if he dies putting the doctor in a place where he is unable take his diagnoses of her husband's outcome lightly as he is now in the position to play God and determine the fate of the unborn child. I love the way a dead hare falls off the roof at the beginning and the doctor who also lives in the same complex as her asks if the rabbit is hers (reference to her pregnancy). Also take note of an aspidistra plant the woman tears apart trying to kill something living but not quite succeeding, the water dripping from the ceiling in the dying man's room and a bee crawling struggling to escape a glass.
Decalogue Three is entitled "Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it Holy". The film takes place on Christmas Eve night to Christmas Eve morning. Christmas Eve in 1988 fell on a Saturday. Christmas Day fell on a Sunday. A man who is a taxi driver with a wife and young son and daughter had an affair three years prior with a woman who comes to him on Christmas asking him to help find the man in her life who has gone missing. Her goal is to keep the ex-lover with her until 7:00 AM on Christmas Day for reasons which are revealed at the end of the film. We see her lie a couple of times during the story and there is a very telling scene of the woman's fear at the beginning where she goes to visit her mother. There is a quiet tension in the film where you wonder if they will or will not reignite their affair as the man says at one point he was willing, until her boyfriend caught them three years ago, to leave his family for her so there is uncertainty as which way it's going to go as the two search through the nearby hospitals trying to find the missing man.
Decalogue Four is "Honor thy Father and thy Mother". It begins on Easter Monday which was on the fourth day of April in 1988, thus the fourth Decalogue begins on the fourth day. Easter Monday is also called "Renewal Monday". Kieslowski brilliantly chooses a day of rebirth to address this commandment. The story is about a father and his young adult daughter who is studying acting. Kieslowski chose this this as her discipline because if you study acting you may be asked to do what is called "the letter exercise". The point of this exercise is to have the actor walk into the room with a goal for their character. The actor then finds and opens a letter which contains information that changes the goal of the character upon their reading it. And that is what this story hinges on. The daughter finds a letter on Easter Monday from her deceased mother that her father has been withholding from her. During the week he is gone we find out she is having trouble with her vision (Note how the letters in the eye test spell out the word FATHER). By the end of the week she has a pair of glasses and tells her father upon his return she has opened the letter reveals to him she now knows he is not who she thought he was causing their relationship to take a hairpin turn into a direction they have both wanted and feared. Note that the daughter sees the mystery man walk by with a small white boat on his back (possibly because of its shape suggesting a cross) as she is sitting by the water deciding whether or not to open the letter.
Decalogue Five is entitled "Thou Shalt Not Kill". This is my least favorite of the stories but it is no less well done. It is the story of Jacek who from the beginning of the film appears to have the disposition of a sociopath. He walks through the world emotionless carrying a small bag with white rope in it. Devoid of emotion he commits several unsavory random acts including pushing a man into a urinal, chasing away birds and dropping rocks on cars that pass under him on the freeway. Pay attention to the way Kieslowski juxtaposes the colors red and white throughout the story: a red and white car parked next to each other, red and white boarder behind a guard and two little girls one in a red coat and one in a white one amongst other things, most importantly a red and white rod with numbers on it that is being held by the mystery man in the road. Note the man stares directly at the number five (fifth Decalogue) and subtly shakes his head at Jacek who is sitting in a taxi. A hideous plastic face dangles from the rearview mirror in the car which looks very much like Jacek. He commits his crime the day before his birthday; St. Patrick's Day and he is just short of the age twenty one when he is to receive his punishment for his crime. Perhaps this was Kieslowski making a reference to "A Clockwork Orange" with its twenty one chapters and meditation on the violence of youth. You will find as the film goes alone there are reasons, though peculiar ones for Jacek's actions surrounding an incident which happens in a meadow (the meadow is shown late in the film with a bright white ray of sunlight on it) and a photograph of a young girl at communion which he takes in to have enlarged. Young girls are shown to be a weakness for Jacek throughout the story but not for the reasons you might think. The story is an exploration on nature and the inability to control it.
The sixth Decalogue is called "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery" and this is hands down my favorite story in the collection. Unlike the washed out sepia tones of the fifth film, this one has a bolder look, shot mostly at night using the colors white, black, blue and especially red. The film focuses on the argument of whether love is a truth or a fallacy. Tomek, a virginal nineteen year old man who has been watching a promiscuous female artist in her late twenties or early thirties named Magda for a year first through opera glasses and more recently through a telescope (phallic symbol) he broke into a building and stole. You will see the mystery man smiles at Tomek as they pass each other at one point in the film letting us know there is a moral purity to Tomek. Note his telescope is covered with a red cloth matching the bedspread in the woman's apartment and the sensuous way Tomek removes it before looking through the lens. Tomek sneaks money order notices into the woman's mailbox so she'll visit him at the post office where he works. The two characters see each other through glass a lot in the film such as windows of the apartments and the protective glass he sits behind at the post office. Tomek is an orphan and the attraction to the woman is oedipal denoted by milk either being delivered or spilled at different points in the film. Tomek takes a second job which allows him to bring her a bottle of milk every morning. Note that of all the milk crates on the cart he picks up the one that is blue. You will often see Tomek wearing blue (true blue as in love) and at the end he is in black, a color commonly worn by Magda. Red is used to represent two things the first being love and passion. In a scene where he asks Magda out for ice cream (a milk product) the two are framed by a window bordered in bright red. Magda's phone is red. But the second meaning of red takes on a more sinister symbolism. Pay close attention to the scene where Magda finds her opera glasses in a box symbolizing a shift in power and the change in the color's meaning. It is at this point we see her argument against love tested right after she has severely challenged Tomek's argument for love.
The seventh Decalogue is called "Thou Shalt Not Steal" and the villain here is a truly detestable human being. The film asks the question can you steal something if it already belongs to you. It tells the story of Majka a twenty two year old student who has a six year old daughter Ania. The two live with Majka's father and mother Ewa. Majka tells her father she can no longer live with Ewa. She has been planning for a few years to escape with her child to Canada. The father of the child was Majka's teacher and she gave birth to the child when she was sixteen meaning she slept with him when she was underage thus putting him in a position to be up for charges. Ewa was the headmistress of the school at the time and used her power to keep the teacher from being charged and used threats to keep the two lovers apart thus allowing her to steal the baby. Much like the pigs do with the puppies in "Animal Farm" Ewa has been manipulating the young girl ever since the child was a baby to believe she is her real mother and even attempting to do such things as breast feed it and keep Majka from being able to comfort her. Shortly after kidnapping Ania and escaping with her, Majka goes to the teacher, Ania's father who ironically makes teddy bears for a living now and attempts to reunite father with daughter. The question is can she trust him? Pay close attention to the color red in this film as a symbol for bloodlines. The girl wears a red coat. The phones switch back and forth from being black ones to red ones. Also note that the train at the end, which is also red leaves on a Sunday.
Decalogue Eight is called "Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness against Thy Neighbor". At the beginning of the film a female student presents to an elderly female ethics professor (the film's lead) the story we see played out in Decalogue Two as an argument of ethical hell. The professor tells the student and the class that because the child lives that is what matters. A visiting female professor from New York who's come to sit in on the ethic professor's classes wears a gold chain with both a cross and a chai continues with the discussion with a new story...a true one. She tells about six year old Jewish Girl who in 1943 is hiding in a Polish house until she loses that hiding place and finds refuge in a new home but her new guardians say the child must acquire a certificate of Christening. The woman's story is disrupted when a drunken man enters the lecture hall. One of the students tells him to leave, which is a set up for what happens next. The visiting professor goes on to say the girl is rejected by the Christian people when she is delivered there. They say holding her would be an act of bearing false witness if they let her take refuge with them and the girl is turned out into the cold. Note that the mystery man is one of the students sitting in the lecture hall and we see him as soon as the words bearing false witness are mentioned by the visiting professor. The film then becomes a revealing of who the girl is, who turned her away and the reasons behind their actions. Notice there is a picture in the ethic professor's apartment no one can straighten. Also note the professor tends to gather what look like white chrysanthemums and put them in a vase in her spare room. White chrysanthemums represent truth.
Decalogue Nine is "Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Wife". It is the most tense of the films because it is about sexual tension. Note there is a scene where the lead character must put a hose into a gas tank that is as explicit as anything you'll see in porn. A surgeon (ironically named Roman which means strong and powerful) is diagnosed with permanent impotency which is a blow as he's been with his fair share of women. He has a beautiful wife with gold hair his doctor suggests he divorce as his situation is irreversible. On his way home after finding this out the mystery man rides around him on a bike. This incident will come to bookend at the end of the story. The film, much like Decalogue Six plays with bold colors, most importantly the color blue. But where Decalogue Six uses blue to denote true love here it is to represent the inability to find sexual release or "blue balls". The doctor's scrubs are blue, the files on his work desk are blue, his wife wears a blue suit for work, the device he uses to listen in on her calls is blue, the bike he rides (in a sexually suggestive scene) is blue and so on. The doctor suspects shortly after his diagnosis his wife is cheating on him. He finds a physics notebook in his faulty glove box and throws it into a dumpster but retrieves finding it lying next to a blue wrapper suspecting it belongs to his wife lover. He finds out on one of her phone calls the young man sent her a humorous picture of the Pope which shows the man of the cloth looking though his fingers suggesting spying much like the doctor begins to do. He copies one of her keys to a location where he hides on the stairwell. He hides in a closet and watches her. He asks her a physics question. To further torture him, the surgeon has a pretty young patient who needs drastic surgery in order to sing opera. He is attracted to the girl and his inability to perform sexually becomes more and more of a cross to bear as he deals with both her and his search to find if his wife has been unfaithful.
The tenth and final Decalogue is called "Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Goods" and this one is a change of pace because it is a black comedy about two brothers whose father dies. It is the most plot driven of all the stories. The older of the two has to go retrieve his younger brother who is a rock singer (check out the lyrics he's singing) at one of his concerts to give him the news. (I might note here the actor playing the younger brother also plays the lead in one of my favorite films, Kieslowski's "White"). After the funeral they find at their father's apartment alarms, padlocks and bars on his windows. They cannot figure out why...until they discover he was an avid collector of stamps and coins. We also find out the man was a miser and his older son had to buy him a suit to bury him in. But we also find he collected many newspaper clippings of the youngest brother's music career. A man comes by the apartment saying their father owes him money. He says he could just take something of his fathers for payment instead and the brothers become suspicious. They decide to take some of the collection to a stamp exchange. Before they do the older brother gives his son a set of three zeppelin stamps and thinks no more of it. When they show some of the collection at the exchange they are immediately sent to meet with the Commissioner because everyone in the stamp world knows their father. I love how he points to a single stamp and tell them they could by a Fiat with it, then two cars for the next two stamps and an apartment for the next. The collection as a whole is worth tens of millions of dollars and their father was going to insure it for two hundred fifty million but died before he could. He advises they keep the collection together. But when the older brother returns home he finds his son has swapped the zeppelin stamps to a con artist who has sold them to a dangerous collector. Shortly after older brother discovers there was one stamp their father was unable to acquire. Their father has the yellow one and the blue one but not the Austrian rose Mercury 1957. Mercury, by the way is the Roman god of financial gain and also the god of thieves and trickery. The younger brother recovers the zeppelin stamps from the collector who then tells them he knows how they can acquire the Austrian rose Mercury...but for a price.
Very little American television is produced for adults. I would guess that American television directors target their programs for twelve-year-old kids. In contrast, "The Decalogue" dramas have adult characters dealing with complex, adult themes. I have never before seen anything on television that matches the intellectual and emotional impact of the "Decalogue" films. Kieslowski is a brilliant director. He is a poet really. Where other (lesser) directors might require a long, explicit monologue, Kieslowski can communicate volumes of deep, complex human thought and emotion with just one subtle glance, word, or expression.
Krzysztof Kieslowski is the director who later made the awe-inspiring Three Colors Trilogy of films ("Red," "White," and "Blue), as well as "The Double Life of Veronique." All are available here: Three Colors: Blue, White, Red (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray], The Double Life of Veronique (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]. If you enjoyed these films, then you will love the "Decalogue." Expanded versions of two of the "Decalogue" episodes are also available (A Short Film About Love, A Short Film About Killing): The Krzysztof Kieslowski Collection (A Short Film About Love/Blind Chance/Camera Buff/No End/The Scar/A Short Film About Killing).
Of course, since these films were made in Polish, you must be willing to read subtitles.
Guess what? This magnificent film collection WAS picked up by the Criterion Collection and has been given the complete Criterion Treatment. I purchased a copy for EVERYONE on my Christmas list …and one for ME.