Kieslowski’s Decalogue: A Masterpiece of Religious Cinema


Pawel (Wojciech Klata), Decalogue 1

Pawel (Wojciech Klata), Decalogue 1

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?
Irena:  Yes.
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

The holy grail of cinema: Jacques Rivette’s “Out 1”

Emilie/Pauline (Bulle Ogier) in Jacques Rivette's Out 1 (1971)

Emilie/Pauline (Bulle Ogier) in Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971)

We are all rehearsing parts of which we are as yet unaware (our roles). We slip into characters which we do not master (our attitudes and postures). We serve a conspiracy of which we are completely oblivious (our masks).

— Gilles Deleuze[i]


Last weekend I watched a nearly 13-hour film on the big screen at the Seattle Film Center. Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971) has been called the “holy grail of cinema” — made infinitely precious by the rarity of its appearance. Only in recent months have art-house screenings and a home video release[ii] made it accessible to wider veneration.

Critic B. Kite has written about this fabled film as an object of longing: “Out 1 grew in darkness, secret and seemingly made of secrets, and due to this unavailability … it joined that pantheon of broken and vanished objects [e.g., von Stroheim’s Greed or Brian Wilson’s Smile] … in which, even against our better judgment, we place some unspecified hope of a definitive experience, maybe a bit too good for the world, as indicated by the fact that they live in a half-light, next door to oblivion.”[iii]

As soon as I heard about the Seattle screening, I bought my ticket. A thirteen-hour movie? Can’t miss that! I have a penchant for immersive experiences, long-form retreats from everyday reality into alternative worlds. Among the most memorable were a 72-hour science-fiction film marathon, an all-night Epiphany liturgy in a circus tent, Peter Brook’s 11-hour staging of the Mahabharata, Masaki Koybayashi’s 10-hour film epic, The Human Condition, the 500-mile Camino de Santiago, and Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video, The Clock.

But unlike any of these, Out 1 is not so clearly shaped by a sense of plot or structure. It does not set out from a premise or question toward a place of arrival or resolution. Instead, it begins and ends in media res, adrift in a sea of occurrences and characters whose connections or meanings remain perpetually elusive.

There was no original script. Rivette, one of the most experimental of the French New Wave filmmakers, sought the same freedom as the Abstract Expressionist painters, whose process was largely free from the constraints of predetermined outcomes. His actors, provided with various situations, simply improvised their lines throughout the six weeks of shooting. Since much of the action takes place in the streets and cafes of Paris, the actors at times enlisted unsuspecting Parisians in their scenes.

The first hours feel like a documentary as two separate experimental theater companies engage in warm-up exercises, acting games and psychodrama designed to break down barriers, loosen inhibitions, and spark creativity. One exercise, bordering on hysteria, is shown in a single 45-minute shot as the hand-held camera moves restlessly among writhing, clamorous bodies. In a 13-hour film, you can do this sort of thing, and still have plenty of time left over to attend to the story.

However, if this film does have a story, it consists only of hints and speculations whose reality is always in doubt. Documentary and fiction, imagination and reality, the written and the improvised, are intertwined, inseparable, often indistinguishable.

Halfway through the film, a troubled loner named Colin, played by New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud, begins to piece together fragments of Balzac and Lewis Carroll as if they are clues to a great conspiracy involving a secret society called The Thirteen, formed to subvert the social order with a radical utopian vision. But it may be that The Thirteen is no more than a long-dormant idea some of the other characters once dreamed but never enacted. When told that the object of his obsessive quest may be a hoax, Colin replies, “But that would mean that the magical, mysterious world I’ve been living in is nothing but illusion. And that,” he insists, “is impossible!”

To live in a world without underlying connections or purposeful ends is a bleak, even terrifying prospect, as Thomas Pynchon notes in Gravity’s Rainbow:

If there is something comforting-religious, if you want — about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.[iv]

Is there a middle way between the fictions of paranoia and the despair of anti-paranoia? Colin’s quest proves a dead end: there is nothing to find. He stops searching for answers and resumes his original persona as a (pretended) deaf-mute passing out envelopes at sidewalk cafes. Inside the envelopes are “messages of destiny” — pages ripped at random from paperback novels.

The two theater groups, meanwhile, are pursuing their own path toward meaning as they each grapple with a tragedy from Aeschylus. One of these, Prometheus Bound, provides a text perfectly descriptive of the obstacles to coherence in our personal and social narratives:

…they had eyes, but sight was meaningless;
Heard sounds but could not listen; all their length of life
They passed like shapes in dreams, confused and purposeless.

 In stealing fire from Zeus, Prometheus became humanity’s great benefactor, the bringer of light, technology and civilization. He would also be credited with securing us meaning, purpose, and future. But he paid the highest price for this gift. Chained to a rock in a ritual of perpetual sacrifice, he would be devoured and regenerated daily. His sacrificial suffering on behalf of humanity has drawn comparisons with Christ. And while Noli me tangere (“Touch me not”), may have been no more than Rivette’s joke about his film being something that few would ever see, its direct quote of the risen Savior (John 20:17) may be an intended link between Prometheus and Christ.

At the end of the film, Thomas (Michael Lonsdale), who assumes the role of Prometheus in his troupe’s improvisations on Aeschylus, lies forsaken on a beach, arms outspread in a crucifixion pose. After a time, he gets up and walks along the shore toward the rising sun. But this seems only a parody of resurrection. We sense no renewal, no passage to a place of transformation and new life. All the heaven-storming, psyche-delving exertions of the Aeschylus project have led precisely nowhere. Thomas has not been transposed into a higher key. He remains as “confused and purposeless” as ever.

But as we take our leave of him, after twelve hours and forty-one minutes, Thomas is still moving, not yet done, like the protagonist in Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

As the intrepid audience of eighteen men and four women exited the theater sometime after midnight, we were awarded with a button for our labors. I wore it proudly on the 2 a.m. ferry home.

New Wave button

The film ended as it began: in media res. It had not delivered us to a resting place of resolution or catharsis, but it would continue to haunt me in the days that followed. As the many online essays about the film attest, recovering from the experience may take some time. It’s not just that cinema’s magic carpet whisked me off to the Paris of 1970 for thirteen hours, or that the actors were infinitely watchable, or that Rivette’s audacious play with form was deeply fascinating.

What moved me most about Out 1 was its immense sympathy for the human condition as something more to be lived than solved. Comedy and tragedy, laughter and tears, are equally at home in Rivette’s film, as the actors rehearse “the parts of which we are as yet unaware” and “slip into characters which we do not master.”


Related post: Jacques Rivette’s “Around a Small Mountain”





[i] Gilles Deleuze, Cahiers du Cinema, no. 416, February 1989. Reprinted in Two Regimes of Madness (MIT Press, 2006): p. 355-8, and available online at

[ii] Available from Carlotta Films

[iii] B. Kite, “Jacques Rivette and the Other Place,” Cinema Scope, no. 30 (Spring 2007), p. 12. The article, along with many other essays about the film, may be found at

[iv] Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 434

My 10 favorite Jesus movie moments

My father, the Rev. James K. Friedrich, with Joanne Dru on the set of "Day of Triumph" (1954).

My father, the Rev. James K. Friedrich, with Joanne Dru on the set of “Day of Triumph” (1954).

In my last post, I listed my “ten best Jesus movies.” Here now are my ten favorite moments, scenes which not only succeed cinematically but also provide fresh and resonant images of the Christ who, as the Jesuit poet said, “plays in ten thousand places.” But my ultimate criterion is that each of these scenes, after countless viewings, never fails to engage and move me.

No single image can capture the mystery of the Word made flesh. No actor will make you think he has become the perfect movie Jesus. But whenever the gospel story is retold and re-experienced, we may yet see something we had previously missed. We may even partake of a new revelation that has been waiting all these years to be received.

1927: The little blind girl (The King of Kings)

Most of the Jesus films invent dialogue to fill the gaps, but the incidents involving Jesus remain mostly Scriptural. But this scene, performed with silent cinema’s eloquent language of faces and gestures, is entirely invented. And it’s marvelous. A boy just healed by Jesus wants to share his blessing with a blind girl. “Take my hand – let me lead thee to him.” He guides her to a window and gives her a boost. Inside, the mother of Jesus gently receives the girl, who feels Mary’s face with her hands. “Please, I have come to find Jesus.” In the original score, the string section plays “Fairest Lord Jesus” here, imploring every sentiment. Mary takes the girl to stand before her son, who has not yet appeared on screen. “Lord, I have never seen the flowers nor the light. Wilt thou open my eyes?” The pleadingly expressive girl (played unforgettably by Muriel McCormack) stands in for all of us who long to see the Light of the world. The air around her grows luminous, and then, through her own eyes, we see a blurry glow gradually become the loving face of Christ, whom we, like her, now see for the first time. It perhaps the grandest entrance in the genre, and the perfect metaphor for a medium trying to bring the reality of Christ to light.

1954: The Lost Sheep (Day of Triumph)

I admit special affection for this film because my father produced it and I got out of school for a week to play an extra (who ended up on the cutting room floor). And this sequence, employing the traditional (though unbiblical) conflation of Mary Magdalene with repentant female sinners, has moved me ever since I first saw it as a child. Magdalene, a wealthy courtesan (played by the beautiful Joanne Dru), happens to hear Jesus teaching in Jerusalem. When he tells the parable of the Lost Sheep, he looks pointedly at her. Back in her house, she asks her servant – an early follower – what she knows about Jesus, masking her spiritual longing as idle curiosity. As the conversation unfolds, something in Magdalene breaks, and we cut to a Pharisee’s house, where Jesus has been invited to dine. A repentant Magdalene, now in humble attire, arrives to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears. The Pharisee is shocked, the disciples bewildered. When Jesus speaks the words of forgiveness over her, we get the first close-up of Mary Magdalene’s tear-stained face. Every close-up in effect isolates the face from the external particularities of body, environment and social context, conveying something both universal and purely inward. For me, this intimate view of Mary’s magnified face as she raises her downcast eyes toward Jesus evokes salvation history in a single glance.

1965: The Annunciation to Joseph (The Gospel According to St. Matthew)

How do you tell the story of Joseph coming to terms with Mary’s pregnancy when you are restricted to Matthew’s actual text, which provides neither dialogue nor psychological description? Pasolini begins his film with a close-up of Mary, then of Joseph, each face suggesting an unresolved tension between them. After two more awkward close-ups, we finally see a full shot of a pregnant Mary (full of dis-grace) and the problem becomes clear. The scene moves toward resolution through entirely visual means, like silent cinema, omitting even Matthew’s sparse narration. When speech (the angel’s “annunciation” to Joseph) finally does intrude into this silent world, it feels like the shock of the transcendent. In the beginning was the Word.

1969: Jesus the teacher (Son of Man)

The Jesus in this rarely seen British television production is neither meek nor mild. In his Sermon on the Mount, he moves energetically among the crowd, prodding and challenging them to think in new and uncomfortable ways. First he invites them to embrace the kinfolk around them as a sign of love. “That’s nice, isn’t it?” he says, noting how easy it is to love those who love you. It’s nothing extraordinary. “Do you want me to congratulate you for that?” Then he delivers the kicker: “Love your enemy!” As he lists specific examples of the enemies they should love, the crowd begins to murmur its dissent, to which Jesus responds emphatically: “Did I come to tell you easy things? Do you want me to tell you easy things?”

1973: Resurrection? (Godspell)

The dead Jesus is taken down from the chain link fence where he hangs suspended. As his followers carry his body through the strangely empty streets of New York, their song turns from sorrow to joy. Some begin to dance while they process, as if Jesus has risen anew in the bodies of his disciples. As for the body which had once called “Jesus,” it is taken around a corner, out of our sight. When the camera itself finally rounds that corner, the disciples and the body they carried are gone. Instead, we see hundreds of people walking toward us – the people you would see any day on a busy city street. The body we knew has “ascended” out of our sight, and Jesus returns in the form of everyone.

1977: The Prodigal Son (Jesus of Nazareth)

Jesus invites himself to a party at Matthew’s house. The disciples are shocked that he would dine with sinners. Peter, who really hates the “blood-sucking” tax collector, tries to stay away entirely, but curiosity finally brings him to stand just outside the door. When Jesus spots him peering in, he decides to tell a parable about two sons. Not only is this scene cinema’s best example of Jesus as storyteller, it makes the parable contextual, aimed directly at Peter (the “elder brother”) and Matthew (the “prodigal”). Both get the point; both are changed by it. The whole scene is perhaps the most moving “resurrection story” in the entire genre.

1988: Christ before Pilate (The Last Temptation of Christ)

David Bowie plays a blasé, sardonic Pilate in his interrogation of Jesus, whom he dismisses as just another Jewish troublemaker. This is not a conflicted, timorous official afraid of the crowd or hesitant to condemn an innocent man, but a cold-eyed realist who knows how the world works. When Jesus explains that he wants to bring change through love, not violence, Pilate recites the creed of the status quo: “Killing or loving, it doesn’t matter how you want to change things. We don’t want them changed.”

1998: Jesus returns (The Book of Life)

The only Jesus movie about the Second Coming begins with a shabbily dressed man outside a New York airport terminal, speaking in a loud voice to no one in particular: “Forgive me, Jesus, for I have sinned. Have mercy on us now and at the hour of our death.” Over and over he cries out in the flat, mechanical tone of a mind in disarray. Passersby give him a wide berth. Suddenly a man in a nice suit enters the frame to put a hand on the vagrant’s shoulder, silencing his repetitive plea with a touch and a look. This healing stranger turns out to be Jesus, who has just flown in – on New Year’s Eve, 1999 – to judge the living and the dead (though it later turns out he just wants to forgive everyone). Then Jesus moves on to catch a taxi, followed by Mary Magdalene, who in passing reassures the stunned vagrant. “It’s OK,” she says, before hurrying on to the apocalypse.

2004: The Agony in the Garden (The Passion of the Christ)

While many find this film unwatchable for its excessive violence and uncritical use of Passion Play caricatures, it begins with a memorably haunting Gethsemane sequence. Dimly lit in the olive grove, Jesus shows real agony. “I’ve never seen him like this,” whispers a worried disciple. The horror movie tropes – full moon, deep shadows, the anxious expectancy of a camera in motion – contribute to the sense of something beyond the ordinary taking place, as though we are in a supernatural thriller. And when Jesus falls to the ground to beg the cup of suffering to pass him by, we see Satan watching him closely. Together they enact a mythic prologue to the Passion narrative: Gethsemane becomes the Garden of Eden, but this time the human will not fall to the demonic. The snake will be crushed beneath the Savior’s foot. When Satan leans down over the anguished Jesus praying to his Father, he asks him, “Who is your Father?” This seems less like a taunt than a perfect expression of evil’s blindness. Not only is it unable to see the good; it is unable even to conceive it.

2006: The Annunciation (Son of Man)

This South African film’s prologue is a Temptation scene where Jesus rebukes Satan by saying, “This is my world.” “No!” Satan replies, “This is my world.” As if to prove Satan’s point, the film cuts to a 21st-century African country torn by violent civil strife. In a small town, armed guerillas are killing everyone in sight. A young woman, fleeing the violence, hides in a schoolroom, where she is horrified to find a pile of murdered students. She lies down among them to play dead until the killers pass by. When she finally opens her eyes, there is the angel Gabriel (a shirtless boy adorned with white feathers), announcing the birth of the Savior. Mary responds with the Magnificat, sung in a powerful South African idiom. Here is the gospel absolutely in the present tense.