The Decalogue I-III

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In 1987 Krzysztof Kieslowski did a series of ten films for Polish Television. We might refer to it as a mini-series; however, it differs in that while some characters show up in the films that feature others, there is no continuity of story and no strong connections between them. These are short stories, short films, to be viewed each as a separate piece. Kieslowski employed ten different cinematographers so that there would be a distinct visual style with each one.

So far I've seen the first third of these films and all I can say is that if television were like this even 10% of the time, it would be worth watching. They are superbly acted miniatures, each dealing with the dilemmas and problems that come from violating the commandments. Roger Ebert points out that there is little purpose in trying to determine which film is linked to which commandment, as many are linked to more than one, and some are obscure.

For example, in the first film, a young, brilliant professor and his son work together to devise a program that will calculate when ice will be thick enough to safely skate on a nearby lake. The results are disastrous. It appears that this might be "I am a jealous God , thou shalt have no other gods before me." But it's difficult to say. The second of the three is somewhat easier--"Thou shalt not commit adultery." But it presents us with a profound moral dilemma of the type "you will not do evil that good will result."

What follows has spoilers, although I'm uncertain that these films can be spoiled. A young woman consults her husband's doctor to find out if her husband is going to survive after an operation. She loves her husband but she had been seeing another man and is pregnant by him. If her husband will survive, she will abort the baby--her only chance of having a child because her husband is infertile. But if he will die anyway, she will carry the child to term. In the Poland of this time, there appeared to have been restrictions with regard to the term during which one might have an abortion and she is at the very limits of that term. Anyway, the problem is resolved because of a lie the doctor both manufactures and supports with false evidence and another doctor's opinion. The husband will survive after all and the end of the movie shows the husband thanking the doctor for the lie that will preserve the child he and his wife are to have.

Thus, this film deals not only with adultery, but also with false witness--a pair that seems to go together rather naturally. Believe it or not, even with this spoiler, there is tons of other stuff going on, both subtle and overt, that make this film worth watching over and over.


The third of the three I've seen so far has been the weakest and least conclusive. It covers "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." It features a woman who at one time had an affair with a man and now, on Christmas Eve, seems to be seeking him again.

The films are instructive in another sense. We see in them the elite of Polish society--a musician in an orchestra, a Doctor, a Professor. We see also the conditions in which they live, which, while not absolutely squalid, are bleak. The hospital the husband is recovering in has a leak in the ceiling and down the walls and the paint is peeling off and flaking, the Doctor's offices are tiny uncomfortable cubicles. We have here a chronicle of just post-Soviet Poland and the bleak grayness to which communist policies reduced everything.

So far these films have the very highest recommendation. They are short, taut, brilliantly conceived. They are to cinema what Chekhov or deMaupassant were to literature--brilliant miniatures connected by theme and recurrent characters, but each an individual film.

As I view the remainder I'll keep you updated.

Tonight we'll do the Swedish Film, Fanny and Alexander, supposedly an autobiographical film by Ingmar Bergman. Also on the agenda are possibly a Thai film found at the local public library, a post-invasion/war Iraqi film Turtles Can Fly and François Truffaut's masterpiece Jules and Jim. I'm getting quite the film education this summer. It helps when there's ironing to do.

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I picked up a DVD set of "Dekalog" with English subtitles here in Korea for about twenty bucks.

I watched two a night during Advent last year. I agree with your assessment. All ten are fantastic.

I forgot to include my review, from my previous blog: On the Tube.

Dear Joshua,

It may have been that lingering review along with some other things that provoked me to get these from NetFlix in the first place. If so thank you. If not, you still do a service when you review such fine material. Thanks for leaving a link to the review. This will just show that TSO! Only 12 people in the U.S., but perhaps 20-25 worldwide--see, my spoiler alert was definitely necessary. :-P



Hmm...perhaps it's not quite as obscurse as I'd thought!

My viewing stalled after the fifth or sixth installment, at which point my copies were permanently borrowed by my sister. Very impressive collection. I like his "Red" and "Blue" of the Three Colors Trilogy as well; still can't figure out "White."

What would a series of movies based on the Eight Beatitudes look like?



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 10, 2006 8:52 AM.

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