Kieslowski’s ‘Decalogue’: An Existential Reading

Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941-1996) is considered one of his country’s most important filmmakers. He began his career in the 1960s making politically subversive documentaries under Poland’s Communist regime.

Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz’s Decalogue, a set of ten short films, is an exploration of the subtleties, contradictions and ambiguities of the Ten Commandments and their significance in a contemporary world. Each episode takes up one commandment and explores the grey areas beyond the realm of right and wrong. By merely enumerating the different episodes without titles, viewers make sense of each commandment in their own way as the director deliberately chooses to leave interpretations open-ended. Much of the ambiguity associated with the films’ subtext has to do with an age of censorship that posed serious limitations. Limitations that Kieslowski saw as a new climate for creativity in order to establish that no law can ever wholly grasp or deal with the complexity of being human. In this write-up, I touch upon some of the short films that moved me in order see the Decalogue not only as a re-examination of the Ten Commandments in a modern context, but also as a text which draws heavily from Sartrian existentialism in the way that “individuals alone are real.”

All the films of the Decalogue share the same setting of a tall housing project in which the characters are confined, almost in the claustrophobic anxiety of Sartre’s ‘No Exit’ or ‘Nausea’. The apartment complex is an ideal set for Kieslowski because his camera is fond of windows, mirrors, reflections of any kind and through any window of the housing project, there are people behind them. But in the films, characters remain masked, unknown to each other, neighbours and strangers at the same time. They meet each other unexpectedly, they drop in briefly from other episodes, run into the key characters into the elevator, leave a message on the phone informing of their absences and asking neighbourly favours. These devices to “inscribe people in the spectator’s memory” as Lucas notes, remind the viewer that human beings after all cannot live independently of each other and any external divinity is merely observatory.

This is portrayed through the character of the mysterious ‘silent observer’ who comes in all the episodes except 7 and 10 of the Decalogue. The use of the silent figure/ God, as Kieslowski remarked was that it has no influence on the action but “leads the characters to reflect on what they are in the process of doing. His intense look at the characters leads them to ask themselves questions” (Abrahamson, np). In many episodes, the silent observer merely gazes upon the characters in critical moments but does not intervene. His passive presence is superfluous within the context of human struggle and anxiety as only human actions and decisions shape events. This we see in the Decalogue 5, A Short Film about Killing, where the silent observer, cognizant of the murder that is to happen doesn’t not avert it or intervene while the lawyer of the murderous youth expresses regret over not exercising his human agency in preventing it.

In Decalogue 1, Kieslowski explores the relationship between scientific rationality and religious faith through an atheist scientist Krzysztof, a man for whom “reality alone is reliable” (Sartre, 42). When his son, who sees a dead dog in the snow, is deeply moved and asks him what death is, he merely gives a biological definition. Death is the cessation of the heart’s pumping of blood to the brain. The boy, Pavel however is not convinced. Kieslowski himself has to say: “In believing too much in rationality, our contemporaries have lost something” (Lucas, np). Could it be that we have bartered our humanness, even with all our fallible instincts and flaws, for the cold perfection of measured and evaluated decisions taken by machines?

When the scientist loses his own son, it is the same devastating loss that unites him with his Catholic sister in spite of their different beliefs. Kieslowski makes a more fundamental point that while reason and religion, like so many other things, divide us, it is only the endeavour of being human that unites us and binds us together. While the first commandment says “Thou shalt have no god before me”, Krzysztof’s suffering might apparently be justified as a punishment for his ‘worship’ of rationality, but we nevertheless ask ourselves whether he hasn’t paid too dearly for this disobedience. Nor does Kieslowski offer any explicit openings to grace. “Man”, as Sartre says, and Krzysztof of Decalogue 1 seems to agree, “is left alone, without excuse” (34).

Decalogue 2 settles more comfortably into the existential domain. The opening shot is, in an Angelopoulosian manner, an extreme wide shot and reveals the towering buildings of a housing complex in the early hours of the morning contrasted against the frail figure of a sweeper. And in the silence as he continues to sweep the ground, there arises a gentle sense of irony. Though the sweeper sweeps the ground, there is no ‘outside’ in which the dust can be got rid of. The dust will settle again and the sweeper will sweep again much in the futile repetition of Sisyphus’ toils. There is no exit.

The true nature and condition of one of the main characters in this film, a doctor, is revealed through an array of rich and expressive visual cues. He is a man of science and the first shot shows him testing a cactus plant with his hands, a symbol of death, barrenness and futility. As in the case of the father of Decalogue 1, the rational man desperately tries to make peace with his surrounding and unravel himself through whatever little his arid world can provide him with. His despair and reason’s indispensable need to imprison things for analysis can be clearly seen in his room much in the way that Tarkovsky reveals the scientist in ‘Solaris’.

Dorota Geller, a lady who lives right above the doctor finds herself forced to speak to him as her terminally ill husband is under his care. When she asks him if he knows who she is, the doctor curtly replies: “Yes, you’re the one who ran over my dog two years ago.” But it is this sense of loss, as in Decalogue 1, that unites them. Dorota has never had children and now the only time that she is pregnant, it is by somebody other than her husband. She wrings herself to agony in trying to decide whose life is more precious to her. After trying in vain to obtain an appointment with the doctor, she cruelly breaks one by one the new shoots of a young plant on her windowsill as she helplessly watches the doctor walking away. The act of destroying a young plant that is the first sign of life in the coldness of concrete reeking with death and decay seems gruesome but portrayed with stunning cinematic beauty.

In a silent scene, Dorota reaches the threshold of her sanity and her despair is portrayed in silence as she slowly pushes inch by inch a glass of wine to the edge of the table. There is no violence in her touch, but the spectacular shot of the glass as it falls and shatters to the floor into a million specks of light and the wine as it spills out of it gloriously, is reminiscent of Bergman. Even in that moment of dire agony, like in the earlier films of Bergman, Kieslowski gives us an image whose exquisite beauty and splendour transcend that agony.

In yet another example of this beauty, when Dorota learns from the doctor that he cannot know what the future holds, in her frustration she unwitting tries to snuff her cigarette in the matchbox. The matchbox catches fire and there is a bigger flame than the one she tries to extinguish. The doctor’s uncertain reply sets fire to her already burning self and plunges her into greater agony. If her husband dies she wants to keep the child, but if there is a possibility that he will get better then she will abort it, and with it the only chance of being a mother. But the doctor provides no final judgement to help her make a decision and Dorota is left to trust her own instincts.

If a man has committed a crime, however cruel and meaningless, how far should the law draw the line between holding the criminal responsible for his actions and granting him clemency? Decalogue 5, A Short Film about Killing, is an unsettling film about the justice of capital punishment. The protagonist is a young man, Jacek, who is shown throughout the film as a sadist and finally as a murderer. He is callous and impassive; he sees a street fight in which a young man is cornered and beaten up by several others but Jacek merely looks on and coolly walks away.

An old woman asks him to clear off because he is unknowingly frightening her pigeons. But he deliberately runs towards pigeons and scatters them all away while the woman watches on in helpless anger. In an instance of meaningless violence, Jacek looks down from the square onto the traffic that is circulating below and finding a large stone nearby, drops it on a car below. The car honks and goes awry and Jacek doesn’t even stop to look at the disaster he has initiated.

The film is strewn with such incidents of senseless violence and cruelty until Kieslowski makes sure that he has secured the disgust of the viewer towards this character. Eventually Jacek commits a brutal murder of a cab driver for no apparent reason. And yet, however deserving of capital punishment Jacek seems to be because of his crime, the last few scenes of execution leave the viewer in a state of deep malaise. And instead of the moral and ethical satisfaction that justice ought to provide, there is an ever increasing sense of inner discomfort. What we see of Jacek is not the cruel brutal murderer towards whom we harbour hate, but the poor helpless human being who is afraid to die and as helpless as the cab driver whom he has murdered. There is something in that terrible condition of vulnerability that makes us go beyond moral or ethical satisfaction and cry out in despair like the lawyer in the end: “I abhor it, I abhor it.”

Kieslowski’s characters are lonely, inarticulate yet proud people who are capable of reflection. There are long meditative moments of silence where the image is let to speak for itself. In each moment of reflection the character finds itself in the liminal spaces of being and lives constantly in a kind of mental smog. Like Bergman’s Pastor in Winter Light and Jonas who are both filled with different types of anguish and find different ways to deal with it, the Decalogue’s characters meander their way through their despair and finally reach an authentic action emerging through a debate with the self.

This action is nevertheless based on a freedom that is individual and is as the lawyer in Decalogue 2 says, “restricted only by the freedom of others”. And yet, they are cruelly faced with the realisation that they need and depend on others. There is no escape from the nemesis of culture except in the recognition that, although they can never be other than free beings they can also never be self-sufficient; they are free to open their lives-but in anguish-to the influence of the living God, or in pride to deny and repel Him. It is in this condition that both Bergman’s and Kieslowski’s characters find themselves in and proceed to resolve it in their individual ways.

Bergman explores these individual ways of dealing with anguish. Resolutions emerge through conflicts and tumults in the soul, anxieties, agonies, perilous adventures of faith into unknown territories. The reality of their existence proceeds thus from their ‘inwardness’, and not from anything that the mind can codify. Eventually, there is no legislator but man himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of god.

Kieslowski deals with this anguish by touching upon subject matters and situations that link people: “There are too many things in the world which divide people, such as religion, politics, history, and nationalism. If culture is capable of anything, then it is finding that which unites us all. It doesn’t matter who you are or who I am, if your tooth aches or mine, it’s still the same pain.” (Abrahamson, np) And it is finally this pain, like all other feelings that link us together. We all fear the same way and the same things. And we all love in the same way. Sartre’s Inez also seems to agree: “What’s the point of playacting, trying to throw dust in each other’s eyes? We’re all tarred with the same brush” (No Exit, 7).

Works Cited

Abrahamson, Patrick. “Kieslowski’s Many Colours.” Oxford University Student Newspaper, June 2, 1995.

Corliss, Richard. “The Dazzling Decalogues.” The Arts/Show Business July 27, 1998 Vol. 152 No. 4 Time.com.

Corliss, Richard: The Dazzling Decalogues, The Arts/Show Business, Time Magazine, Vol. 152 No. 4, July 27, 1998.

Cunneen, Joseph: “Kieslowski On The Mountaintop: Ten Commandments from the latePolish director”, Commonweal, Vol. 124, No. 14, August 15, 1997.

Kieslowski, Krzysztof. “A Masterclass for Young Directors 1994.” Documentart, Filmmaking, Cinephilia & Beyond. Transcript. https://cinephiliabeyond.org/krzysztof-kieslowski-masterclass-young-directors/

Lucas, Tim, “‘How Death Will Judge Us’: A Krzysztof Kieślowski Videolog,” in Video Watchdog (Cincinnati, Ohio), no. 30, 1995.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit and Three Other Plays. (tr.) L. Abel. Vintage Books Edition, September 1955.

–. Existentialism and Humanism. (tr.) Philip Mairet. Methuen & Co. Ltd: London, 1970.

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