Criterion Presents Kieslowski’s Towering Achievement: DEKALOG

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog on Criterion Collection Blu-ray is available now.

Letterboxd Synopsis
This is a series of ten shorts created for Polish Television with plots loosely based upon the Ten Commandments, directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski. Two of these, Dekalog 5 and 6, are shorter cuts from the feature-length films Krotki film o zabijaniu (“A Short Film About Killing”) and Krotki film o milosci (“A Short Film About Love”), respectively. They deal with the emotional turmoil suffered by humanity, when instinctual acts and societal morality conflict.

The Movie

We talk about “The Golden Age of Television” as if what we’re experiencing now is happening in a vacuum. Back in the late 1980s, acclaimed auteur Krzysztof Kieślowski delivered a 10 episode series of barely-interconnected shorts to Polish television that even if delivered now would be remarkable. Most TV is helmed by a show runner, and each episode is written and directed by a litany of people, but Dekalog is a pure vision with each episode directed and co-written by Kieślowski himself.

The biblical nature of the undertaking, in the literal sense, is overplayed. The series is billed as ten episodes, one for each of the commandments, but this seemed to be more of a starting point than a commitment. Some episodes are direct references, while others play loose with the meaning of their commandment.

In the series, we’re privy to the lives of residents inhabiting a singular bleak apartment complex in Poland. The apartment is the glue holding all the shorts together – other than a mysterious spectral man appearing in every episode, looking upon the humanity of it all. He seems to be an angel, although an indifferent one. There’s a ton of metaphorical levels to tackle here that people much smarter than I have addressed, but even if you’re only engaging with the series on a surface level, there’s plenty of melodrama to keep you entertained.

On a personal level it was challenging to wade through this series. Over the last month since I received the box set, I’ve had a few personal losses and it felt like a chore every time I started a new episode. It wasn’t the quality of the filmmaking, but the brutal and often depressing nature of the content. There’s only so much bleakness I can fill my life with, and I struggled finding the energy to deal with anyone else’s tragedy but my own.

It retrospect, it was probably the best timing possible for me to watch this.

After viewing the full series with virgin eyes, the end result is one of the most thorough explorations of humanity ever delivered to film. There’s one particular line during a later episode that stands out as summing up the whole series, and I’m sure it was purposefully inserted as a summary of everything before it (delivered with dramatic pause to let you know how important it is). It comes half-way through episode eight: “everyone has a story to tell, and so on, and so on…”

It’s about empathy, and contextualizing moments in other people’s lives within their greater stories. Humanity is a messy, complex engine that keeps running whether you are witness to it or not. Wading deep into that humanity had a profound effect on me. Even when it was hard to directly relate to the stories being told, I was constantly reminded of how many others are going through their own trials. My personal issues are a relatively small part of the grand tapestry, and surprisingly enough, that actually provided some comfort.

Below I’ll briefly mention my thoughts on each of the 10 parts.

IA devastating cautionary tale for trusting in any one god too much. A man replaces religion with science and it leads to catastrophic consequences for his son, but the man’s religious sister fares no better. The back half is uncomfortable in its sorrow. Depicting the death of a child needs the appropriate kind of touch to avoid feeling manipulative or melodramatic, and this is perhaps the best depiction I’ve ever seen. Not easy to watch, but this was one of the better chapters.

IIIn part two, we move on from child death to the lighter topics of infidelity, abortion, and cancer. A woman’s husband seems to be slowly dying in a hospital, and in his absence she’s become pregnant by another man. The husband’s primary physician happens to live in the same apartment complex, and the woman hounds him for a prognosis – she needs to know if he will die. If he does, she can keep the baby. If he doesn’t, she will have an abortion. The doctor knows all of this and is put in the place of indirectly deciding if an unborn child lives. It was interesting and thoughtful rather than emotionally engaging for me, a great “what if” scenario that would make for good conversation.

IIIThree is set with Christmas as a backdrop, but ends up being quite different from a Shane Black movie. A married family man is entangled by a former lover whose husband has gone missing. Relatively lighter than the rest of the series until a turn at the end that re-contextualizes what came before.

IVIf the series wasn’t upsetting enough for you yet, now we’re at the incest episode! After the death of her mother, a girl discovers her dad isn’t her biological father, and this new information helps the pair rationalize their romantic feelings toward each other. This is one episode I really struggled with, and it ultimately ended up not working for me. There’s the creep factor of a girl talking about wanting her dad to touch her when she was little, but I’ve seen plenty of movies that deal with taboo subject matter that didn’t bug me. I think it was how the plot negates the idea of adoption: even if the man isn’t her biological father, he functioned as one for her whole life, and a sexual relationship isn’t inevitable. Even though the premise didn’t work on me at all, moments were still quite moving due to the humanity Kieślowski infuses.

VOne of the stand-outs of the series, the fifth episode is also known by its feature-length version A Short Film About Killing. A harsh vignette makes everything seem bleaker in this story of a naive new lawyer who defends a young man that (seemingly) randomly murdered a taxi driver. It’s a rough segment that makes you feel pretty hopeless, as senseless violence overtakes each character’s life. It humanizes the murderer and is clearly anti-capital punishment, and in the end I was exhausted.

VISix is the other stand out and was also released in a feature-length version, this one called A Short Film About Love. A young man is obsessed with and spies on a free-spirited, slightly older woman. He takes steps to become a part of her life with uncomfortable and tragic repercussions on them both. I loved this episode: it was incredibly humanist and heart-breaking.

VIIThe only other big weak link, seven is about motherhood and what one young woman is willing to do to reassert her position as biological mother. After initially giving her daughter up to be raised by her grandmother, Majka pretends to be her daughter’s sister until a breaking point. The lead actress completely distanced and distracted me, and for some reason the whole affair came across as more of a soap opera than any other segment.

VIIIThere’s a lot of hypotheticals and philosophizing in eight, which makes sense considering one of the main characters is a philosophy professor. A ghost from the past comes back to haunt her when a young Jewish girl she turned away in Nazi occupied Poland returns as an adult in order to gain an understanding of why. This episode features what is probably the strongest glue connecting any of the series: eight directly references two with an extended scene laying out the moral dilemma of part two. It’s also incredibly lovely and introspective, and presents its themes the most clearly out of the series.

IXWhile nine was happening, I was engaged and wrapped up in the drama of it, but in the end it left the least of an impression on me. A husband learns that he won’t be able to have sex for various medical reasons, and encourages his wife to leave him – she refuses, stating that their love is enough. Unfortunately, her sexual needs are being met by a handsome young student. The rest of the episode plays out kind of like a thriller, but instead of a fun romp everything is just kind of sad and pathetic.

XThe final episode was the most shocking, but not for the reasons you might think. It took a sharp turn away from the other episodes and was a… comedy? Who would have thought. It was a smart move that endeared me to the whole Dekalog experience more than I otherwise might have if it had ended with an episode as brutal and unrelenting as some of the others. In it, a stamp collector that made a cameo in episode eight dies, and the stamps referenced in that episode feature prominently here. His sons inherit his stamp collection and eventually learn that it’s worth millions. Many antics ensue and everyone learns valuable lessons about greed and family.

The Quality

The Package
Beautifully done. The abstract art recalls the brutalist architecture of the apartment building. Four discs inside a sturdy gatefold, complete with a booklet of essays.

The Picture
No complaints. It was made for TV so the 4:3 frame isn’t going to provide much in the way of gorgeous sweeping vistas (Polish apartment complexes don’t either), but it’s still gorgeous and I can’t imagine it ever looking better at home. Great restoration from Criterion as always.

The Audio
Uncompressed and monaural, similarly impeccably restored. The score is wonderful and shines through.

The Special Features

On the Set of Dekalog
A very short interview with Kieślowski from Polish television. Not much to report here.

A Short Film About Dekalog
This is 20 minutes of interview with Kieślowski from a documentary about the filmmaker. I wish they had included the full film, but what’s here is interesting.

Cast and Crew Interviews
A self-explanatory collection of extras. The two most significant, clocking in around 20 minutes, are of Krzysztof Piesiewicz (the screenwriter), and the other, a smattering of the actors. A director of photography gets a short segment that I wish was longer. There are also brand new Criterion-produced interviews, including two more with with the cinematographers from parts one and six (I particularly loved the one on six), and one with editor Ewa Smal.

National Film Theater
A substantial interview with Kieślowski that took place at the National Film Theater in London.

Hanna Krall
A Criterion-produced interview with journalist Hanna Krall, who was close with Kieślowski.

Annette Insdorf
This was easily my favorite extra. It’s a 30 minute version of Annette Insdorf’s book, Double Lives, Second Chances. It’s all about the themes and patterns inherent in Dekalog, and it helped me better understand and appreciate Kieślowski’s achievement.

The Bottom Line

A masterwork and a must-own for any self professed cinephile.

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the author

David works for a huge tech company at the moment, does freelance video editing on the side, tries to make films, and occasionally spends his time helping this website run. He lives in Austin, Texas, and is a co-founder of Cinapse. His film philosophy is that there is no difference between "high" art and "low" art, cerebral art house films and Fast Five both bring things to the table and have merit in their own right. Some favorite directors in no particular order: Paul Thomas Anderson, Kubrick, Spielberg, Tarantino, Edgar Wright, John Carpenter, Ridley Scott. Twitter: @daviddelgadoh