If I had to formulate the message of my Decalogue, I’d say,
‘Live carefully, with your eyes open, and try not to cause pain.’
– Krzysztof Kieslowski[i]
The late Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue (1988), one of cinema’s great religious masterpieces, had its origins in the depressing bleakness of Polish life in the mid-1980s. “Chaos and disorder ruled . . . everywhere, everything, practically everybody’s life,” wrote the filmmaker. “Tension, a feeling of hopelessness, and a fear of yet worse to come were obvious. I sensed mutual indifference behind polite smiles and had the overwhelming impression that, more and more frequently, I was watching people who didn’t really know why they were living.”[ii]
Driven to explore the questions of why we suffer and how we live, Kieslowski collaborated with Krzysztof Piesiewicz (not a writer but a great talker) to develop a series of scripts based on the Ten Commandments, which he then directed as ten one-hour episodes for Polish television. Subsequent theatrical screenings of the 584-minute series brought him instant international acclaim. A beautiful new restoration is now available on Blu-ray, but if you ever get a chance to see it on the big screen, don’t miss it. I’ve done the full immersion twice––in the nineties, and two months ago––and each time I exited the theater deeply affected, as though emerging from an all-night liturgy.
To call this work “religious” may seem a misnomer to those who think religious art requires explicit messaging, dogmatic certainty or a happy resolution of narratives. Decalogue offers neither clear answers nor divine fixes. Instead, it combs the landscape of doubt and anguish for the elusive traces of a power or presence which we might call grace, or even “God.”
Kieslowski’s given name, Krzysztof, means “Christ,” but he staunchly resisted religious labels and institutions. He was, he said, an “agnostic mystic,” a searcher attuned to something beyond the immanent and empirical. In exploring the idea of the Commandments as transcendent guides for living, he argued that “an absolute point of reference does exist … it’s something which is lasting, absolute, evident and is not relative… especially for people like me, who are weak, who are looking for something, who don’t know.”[iii]
The Commandments are not so much about the dictates and prohibitions in themselves as they are about relationships. In setting limits on human failings––violence, acquisitiveness, exploitation, idolatry, etc.––they create a safe space to flourish in just relation with one another, while at the same time binding human community in a covenantal relationship with a transcendent “point of reference.” As they prod us toward love of God and neighbor, the Commandments foster the deep interconnectedness which theologians call the image and way of divinity.
Decalogue’s characters are no saints. They are as weak, muddled and lost as the rest of us. The ten films don’t show us how to keep the Commandments; they show us what happens when we break them––damage and suffering, yes, but possibilities of grace as well.
All the stories involve the residents of a single apartment building, an oppressive concrete high-rise where joy is a rare commodity. Many of its occupants are lonely, broken or suffering. No one smiles much. Since we see little interaction of its inhabitants with a wider socioeconomic environment, it feels like a closed world, a laboratory for experiments in human nature, with God and the film viewer as the only outside observers. The actors themselves were not always sure which commandment applied to their story, since correlations between story and commandment were not always clear in the scripts. And a single story might actually involve multiple commandments.
But even if what to do or how to live may not seem clear to either the characters or the viewers who watch their stories, Decalogue gives us people for whom choices clearly matter. As Kieslowski put it, they “live carefully.” Even when they make a bad choice, it is the product of thought, not just careless impulse. And they convey the sense that even in seemingly small decisions, souls may be won or lost.
The stories are varied and often unexpected in their narrative twists and turns. Every situation centers on family issues: parenting, childhood, conflict, rivalry, infidelity, reconcilation and loss. I won’t spoil the pleasure of anyone’s first viewing by describing the plots, but subjects range from Christmas, ice skating, and stamp collecting to voyeurism, incest, kidnapping, suicide, murder and the holocaust. The totality is less grim than it sounds––humor, kindness and even redemption play a part––although Decalogue 1 will break your heart (even as it reveals divine compassion in an unforgettable image), and the murder in Decalogue 5 is almost unwatchable (as is the capital punishment which mirrors the original crime). Kieslowski sought God even in the abysses of human experience. His films are like the homeless drunk in Decalogue 3, dragging a scrawny tree through the streets on Christmas Eve, caroling in a slurred voice, “God is being born.”
If God is really being born, where is the birthplace? How on earth do we find it? German theologian Eberhard Jüngel says that the primary God question for modernity is not “whether God is” or “what God is,” but “where God is.” Before we argue existence or essence, we need to locate divine presence in the stories and places we ourselves inhabit.
Kieslowski looked for it through cinema. His faithful doubt gives Decalogue an honest authenticity. What he finds is not overdetermined by prior theological conviction. As critic Joseph G. Kickasola writes, “There is no evidence that Kieslowski ever felt that he concretely found that Transcendent hope, but his films stand as a testament to the integrity of his search and his longing.”[iv]
How do you show the Divine on film? God’s immanent manifestations may certainly be glimpsed in moments of human forgiveness, reconciliation, healing and liberation. But how might God’s elusive and ineffable transcendent dimension be represented? One way is through film style, using abstraction, reflections, filters, lighting, color, music, sound, and editing to dislodge the eye from habitual perceptions and suggest the possibility of less empirical realities. Decalogue abounds with such visual epiphanies. It is a world full of signs, once you start looking for them.
Another cinematic means of representing invisible Reality is to show one thing while allowing it simultaneously to mean something else. In Decalogue 9, a man lies in the hospital after a bungled suicide attempt. His wife, reading his suicide note, thinks he is dead. A hospital nurse dials her number, and holds a phone to the immobile husband’s ear. His wife answers. “God, you’re there!” she says. He responds, “I am.” It’s a very human moment of reconciliation, but in the context of the story, one cannot miss the dual meaning of this exchange. The object of deepest longing (“God”), thought to be gone forever, has not only been found (“you’re there”), but it answers the seeker with the divine name (“I am”). Fade to black.
In Decalogue 1, a man who has suffered unspeakable loss enters a candlelit church. Angry at a God whose existence he doubts, he overturns an altar beneath a large icon of the Virgin. A candle on top of the icon tips over, spilling its hot wax, which then drips slowly down the Virgin’s cheek. For this viewer at least, this is not simply a mediating image of divine compassion. It feels like direct experience. I know it’s just wax sliding down a painted surface. I know I am watching a film. But still: I see God weeping for our sorrow.
Another indicator of transcendent reality is the recurring sense of fate or destiny suggested by compelling coincidences, as if some intentional, benevolent design is trying to assert itself amid the happenstance of human affairs. There are many such uncanny connections in Decalogue. But such evidence is inherently ambiguous. As Slavoj Žižek wonders, “Is this the final answer of the Real, the proof that we are not alone, that ‘someone is out there,’ or just another stupid coincidence?”[v]
And then there is the enigmatic stranger who neither speaks nor acts. Appearing in every story but one, he witnesses but never intervenes, though at one point we see him wipe away a tear. Like the three strangers in Abraham’s tent, or the one who wrestled all night with Jacob, he suggests divine presence in anonymous human form.
In Decalogue 1, his first appearance is next to a fire, evoking the burning bush. He always seems to possess a secret knowledge of the heart, indicated by his knowing gaze. He turns up, as if omnipresent, at key moments of decision or crisis. Whether he is a powerless divinity who can sympathize but not save, or a mysterious agency which bends human causality, however subtly, toward positve outcomes, remains indeterminate throughout the Decalogue. But crucial changes or differences sometimes follow in his wake.
The script simply calls him “the young man.” The actor, Artur Barcis, thought of him as the Christ. Kieslowski told the actor to play him “as if you were five centimeters off the ground.” One critic compares him to an icon, “materially bearing [God’s] presence and eternal gaze in the broken, desolate community and reminding us that the commandments have always been perceived (by the faithful) to have a living, transcendental dimension.”[vi]
Each time I watch, I am moved by the stranger, so perfectly expressive of God’s ineffable oscillation of presence and absence: a transcendence which cannot be possessed or summoned, though it will never truly abandon us. But perhaps Decalogue’s supreme revelation––an incarnational, unambiguously human image of the divine––is found in an exchange between Pawel, an eleven-year-old boy, and his aunt Irena. Pawel has a great curiosity about God, which his single-parent father, an unbeliever, cannot satisfy. So Pawel takes his questions to his devout Catholic aunt.
Pawel: Do you believe that God exists?
Pawel: What is God?
Irena puts her arms around Pawel and pulls him close.
Irena: What do you feel now?
Pawel: I love you.
Irena: Exactly. That’s what God is.
Related post: The ten best religious films
[i] Annette Insdorf, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski (New York: Hyperion/Miramax Books, 1999), 124
[ii] ibid., 69-70
[iii] Monica Maurer, Krzysztof Kieslowski (North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2000), 13
[iv] Joseph G. Kickasola, The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski: The Liminal Image (New York: Continuum, 2004), 89
[v] Slavoj Žižek, The Fright of Real Tears: Kryzysztov Kieslowski Between Theory and Philosophy (London: British Film Institute, 2001), 123
[vi] Kickasola, 165-6
Jim. Thank you. I would never have been drawn to these stories (the mere idea of “decalogue” turns me away. But this reflection draws me in. And your writing is so strong here. I wonder if “Image” might be interested in this.
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Wonderful review… I can taste it! Is it on Netflix?
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