How exactly does a person go about reviewing Polish maestro Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Dekalog”? Maybe, just to start, we have to decide how to categorize the damn thing, a towering, ten hour television drama series that divides each hour into a single, self-contained micro-movie. If you think of “Dekalog” as TV, you aren’t wrong; if you think of it as cinema, you also aren’t wrong. But language only gets us so far. Writing about “Dekalog” as the sum of its parts is as taxing a feat as writing on the parts themselves. When was the last time you heard the word “epic” used appropriately? That poor, bedraggled adjective is so frequently applied to workaday cultural happenings that it has nearly ceased to be. Nothing is epic when everything is epic.
But “Dekalog” is epic in close to literary terms, even if its muted, somber veneer doesn’t tell of an epic’s nature. Kieślowski’s collection of downcast, vérité-style tales occur separately from one another, and yet occasionally they intersect, whether in theme or through the reappearance of characters met in other chapters. (Polish actor Artur Barciś makes a cameo in all but two, while milk is poured, spilled, and delivered door to door in seven installments out of ten.) None of Kieślowski’s stories can be called majestic or romantic, either in content or aesthetic; each episode is shot matter of factly, and by a different cinematographer (save for the third and the ninth, which were both shot by Piotr Sobociński), capturing “Dekalog” in flat, greyed palettes to honor Kieślowski’s desired tone and to echo the depressive atmosphere of his country at the tail-end of Communism.
READ MORE: Experience A Masterpiece With The New Re-Release Trailer For Krzysztof Kieślowski’s ‘Dekalog’
If you want to know what life was like in 1980s Poland, you can either crack open your old history textbook, surf Wikipedia, or watch “Dekalog.” Between the three, guessing the most rewarding option should be a gimme. “Dekalog” presents Poland recovering from economic woe and labor crises along with an increasingly deteriorated standard of living; each film makes the country look like a total dump, most likely because in those years it was a total dump. The great, unifying success across all ten shorts is Kieślowski’s representation of Poland, which is political, social, and personal all at once. Each movie is its own experiential encounter. If you’ve never been to Poland, describing “Dekalog” as “startlingly authentic” may be just the slightest bit generous, except that there’s no better way to describe it. Kieślowski didn’t create an anthology of films about life in Poland so much as he put Polish life on film.
That’s a philosophical quibble, perhaps, but “Dekalog” strikes as genuine from the opening shot of its first episode, “Dekalog: One,” to the final image of its last, “Dekalog: Ten.” (The numerical title convention further drives home the idea of “Dekalog” as a cinematic novel.) Kieślowski uses non-actors in tandem with professionals, a tried and true approach to verisimilitude that adds depth to the series’ realist impressions. But in the case of “Dekalog,” the skill level of the cast is a lesser component of its overarching accomplishments as art compared to Kieślowski’s layered, staggeringly intricate storytelling. The Poland we see in “Dekalog” is a grim place, but mostly because it’s a lonely place, and that pervasive sense of loneliness, of isolation and alienation, is rooted in universal human experience. Who hasn’t, at one time or another, been alone?
What Kieślowski does across all ten sections of his masterwork, then, is deceptively simple: By setting “Dekalog” and its endless travails and ordeals in Poland, he has merely invited his viewers to consider their own travails and ordeals through the lens of national tumult. It’s a neat trick, one that renders “Dekalog” as equally familiar as it is foreign. Even for an audience first seeing the production in 2016, its individual pieces speak to recognizable subjects that have gained in relevance in the decades since its 1989 release; this hold especially for “Dekalog: One,” an eerie yarn that revolves around Krzysztof (Henryk Baranowski), an atheist linguistics professor, his technologically gifted but existentially troubled son, Pawel (Wojciech Klata), and questions about society’s growing adoption of technology over religion as a means of grappling with the world.
“Dekalog: One” wouldn’t feel totally out of place in, say, “The Twilight Zone,” especially its ending, which borders on “ghastly”: Krzysztof and Pawel have their home rigged up with gadgets that let them man their house from the keyboard of a personal computer, shutting on the faucets and opening doors for guests. But Pawel has a hole in his gut after stumbling upon a dead dog, which naturally raises his curiosity about life, death, love, and God. Krzysztof helps answer Pawel’s queries as best he can, but nothing he says is particularly helpful. “Some people find it easier to live when they believe in things like souls,” he tells his child when the topic of the spirit comes up. That’s heavy lifting even for an adult. For a kid it’s too much.
His aunt, Irene (Maja Komorowska), is at least able to ease his burden with her own assurances. “Life is a present. A gift,” she says. She clearly hasn’t sat through “Dekalog” herself. That clash between science and the celestial continues in “Dekalog: Two,” as a widower doctor (Aleksander Bardini) consults a patient (Krystyna Janda) on her comatose husband’s chances of recovering. In typical “Dekalog” fashion, the doctor promises her nothing, only pointing out that people who should die by science’s calculations end up living, and vice versa. (He’s basically Gandalf’s Polish predecessor, sans the magic.) Here, and throughout the rest of the shorts, Kieślowski depicts people in desperate need of answers, and for whom faith is an inadequate substitute. Even when God isn’t invoked outright, “Dekalog” is haunted by the presence of the divine, or rather by lack thereof.
This makes good sense, of course. Kieślowski used one of the Ten Commandments as the basis for each short. Divorcing “Dekalog” from any religious interpretation is impossible, and so we consider humanity’s religious institutions and codes in all ten episodes: In the uncomfortable reveal made in “Dekalog: Four,” about a young woman’s relationship with her father, in the barbaric, dispassionate execution of a murderer in “Dekalog: Five,” in the slow-burning spat that erupts between two brothers over their dead father’s stamp collection in “Dekalog: Ten,” in the machinations a spurned woman makes against her ex-lover on Christmas Eve in “Dekalog: Three.” You may think of the characters in all of these movies as godless, but that, perhaps, is a term for the devout to use as they wish. The truth is that these characters are hopeless, which is a good deal more disquieting.
And that feeling of disquiet touches every gorgeously composed frame of “Dekalog,” whether Kieślowski is exploring the links between life and death, honesty and lies, crime and punishment, love and infidelity, or good and evil, or if he’s musing over why people invest so much meaning into the possessions we own, the names we’re given, and the holidays we celebrate. Note that that laundry list of ideas and concepts makes a dent in the vastness of “Dekalog” as narrative; if that ten hour runtime isn’t evidence enough, then the sheer thematic scope of Kieślowski’s work should be appropriately daunting for the uninitiated. Intimidating or not, “Dekalog” is required viewing for any cinephile. Then again, we’re all used to binging Netflix for days at a time. Maybe ten hours isn’t too tall an order after all. [A]