Over 20 years old, Krzysztof Kieslowski's famous modern interpretation of the Ten Commandments in 'The Decalogue' ('Dekalog', 1989) has lost none of its dramatic power and universal, humanistic appeal.
Made for television, the ten hour-long film cycle - as Kieslowski insisted on calling it, instead of a series - creates a mosaic of human life in one large concrete apartment block in Communist Warsaw. Each of the films represents a dramatic and philosophical exploration of one Commandment. This is nowhere made explicit, and the links between the stories and the Commandments are subtle and often ambiguous.
It is the genius of the stories, written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, that they pose these moral rules as dilemmas, or even as challenges. Thus monolythic, divinely inspired laws from Biblical times have in the late 20th century become complex social and personal questions to which many answers are possible.
However, while the Commandments have become ethical dilemmas, they are still associated with religion, if only because two of the Commandments (I and II) explicitly mention God. An interesting question, then, is what role religion plays in 'The Decalogue'.
As in Kieslowski's other work, chance plays a significant role in 'The Decalogue'. At the same time, it never succumbs to postmodernist relativism, as each story shows a definite unfolding of events, thoughtful but relentless, with strange twists and often tragic outcomes.
There is a mysterious sense of chance, or fate, ruling the characters' lives, something Kieslowski would develop into a more exuberantly lyrical style in his later films. 'La Double Vie de Véronique' (1991) created a distinctly mysterious, even miraculous atmosphere, and his later trilogy 'Trois Couleurs: Bleu, Blanc, Rouge' (1994) also seemed to elevate chance to a metaphysical level.
In 'The Decalogue' this mysterious force is much more subdued but still present, and it can be seen as a very abstract concept of God. Kieslowski formulated this presence as "an absolute point of reference".
I think that an absolute point of reference does exist. Although I must say that when I think of God, it's more often the God of the Old Testament rather than the New. The God of the Old Testament is a demanding, cruel God; a God who doesn't forgive, who ruthlessly demands obedience to the principles which He has laid down. The God of the New Testament is a merciful, kind-hearted old man with a white beard, who just forgives everything. The God of the Old Testament leaves us a lot of freedom and responsibility, observes how we use it and then rewards or punishes, and there's no appeal or forgiveness. It's something which is lasting, absolute, evident and is not relative. And that's what a point of reference must be, especially for people like me, who are weak, who are looking for something, who don't know.
In the lives of the characters religion hardly plays a role, except in 'The Decalogue: One'. To be sure, the church is part of the cultural backdrop of Roman Catholic Poland, just as Communist Poland is also visible in the daily lives of the characters – as something they need to deal with in their day-to-day existence but which has little bearing on their dilemmas. (Communism is generally shown as basic utilities not working and shops being empty.) Just as Kieslowski purposely avoids politics - partly to avoid the censors and partly also perhaps out of disenchantment – he also seems to avoid explicit forms of religion.
One possibly religious element in 'The Decalogue' has received a lot of attention: the mysterious young man who appears briefly in eight out of the ten films. He never plays an active role, but he is always present at turning points in the main characters' lives. 'The Decalogue: One' opens on him, even before we're introduced to the apartment building.
Not surprisingly this character is often interpreted as being an angel watching over the characters, and he has even been compared to the observing angels in Wim Wenders' 'Der Himmel Über Berlin' (1987). In an interview, Kieslowski said about this character:
...in effect, he always appears at the crucial moments in the films. In the film as a whole, or in a scene. Each film has at least two turning points. In that case the film is divided into three parts. In turn, each part has two turning points, down to each scene and each shot. He appears at these moments. When something must be decided, or someone has to make a decision. That's when he shows up. I don't know who he is exactly. Artur [the actor] couldn't answer that either. All I know is that he observes us. And he doesn't like what we do, but he can't do anything about it. He has no influence on our lives. Maybe he gave us this life, and he expects us to cope somehow, but we can't. We make mistakes, do filthy things and he looks with sorrow at his imperfect creations.
For another possible religious element let's look more closely at 'The Decalogue: One', which explores the First Commandment: "I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me". This is the only film that deals explicitly with religion. Suffused with an eerie, portentous atmosphere, it is also one of the most memorable and heartwrenching of the ten films.
The story follows young Pawel and his father Krzysztof who live in the Warsaw apartment building. Pawel and his father, a university professor who lectures on artificial intelligence, are seen using computers – oldschool 1980s machines – in various experiments. When the nearby lake freezes over they meticulously calculate when the ice will be thick enough for Pawel to go iceskating.
The next day a tragic accident occurs: in spite of the scientific prediction the ice breaks and Pawel and two of his friends drown. A large part of the film follows Krzysztof in his search for Pawel, and his dawning realization what has happened. Simultaneously and equally shattering, this freak of nature - or act of God - contradicts Krzysztof's entire worldview. (In the screenplay Krzysztof is told the sudden thaw was due to the power plant releasing hot waste water into the lake, but in the film the event is left unexplained, thus heightening the suggestion of an act of God.)
Earlier, Krzysztof's rational, scientific mind is illustrated when he and Pawel talk about death. Krzysztof explains this in purely physical terms, denying the existence of a soul. In view of the subsequent tragedy the dialogue in this scene is especially poignant.
Pawel: Why do people die?
Krzysztof: It depends: heart failure, cancer, accidents, old age.
Pawel: I mean, what is death?
Krzysztof: The heart stops pumping blood, it doesn't reach the brain, movement ceases, everything stops. It's the end.
Pawel: So what's left?
Krzysztof: What a person has achieved, the memory of that person. The memory's important. The memory that someone moved in a certain way, or that they were kind. You remember their face, their smile, that a tooth was missing...
Pawel: "For the peace of her soul." You didn't mention a soul.
Krzysztof: It's a form of words of farewell; there is no soul.
By contrast, Pawel's aunt (his mother is absent, apparently abroad) is a devout Catholic who does believe in a soul, and stimulates his religious education. But when Pawel demonstrates his computer to her, he is convinced that with a bit more computer power, the machine would know his mother's dreams.
The power of the computer is shown in a much stranger way in two short scenes, when Krzysztof's computer apparently turns on by itself, showing a blinking text on a green screen. In both cases this is presented as erratic, unexplained behavior from the computer. The screenplay, which the film follows faithfully here, describes the first scene like this:
He glances at the new computer. To his surprise the large monitor is on and spreads a greenish light over the table and the shelves, the wires and prints, over the whole modern pile of stuff spread out on the table.
Krzysztof: Pawel! Did you turn it on?
Pawel: No. I haven't touched it.
He looks with surprise at the large screen. Neither of them moves a muscle. They only watch the screen, where lines form and move, and the lines create a text: "I am ready".
Krzysztof: I must've forgotten to turn it off.
Later, after his son has been found and Krzysztof sits at home in shock, the scene repeats itself.
With a mask-like face, Krzysztof sits in the living room. It is quiet here. A moment later his face turns green on one side. He doesn't notice. The color becomes a deeper green. Finally Krzysztof realizes there is a light burning. He turns his head. The giant screen of his computer emits a dark green light. Krzysztof watches it absently. Straight across the screen a line appears. A moment later a text appears:
Computer: I am ready.
Note how in the second scene the object has become a character, named Computer, who speaks. Of course this a detail from the screenplay that wouldn't be visible in the final film. But the film does convey the mysterious power of the green light in the dark room, the text patiently blinking in the darkness, waiting, ready.
If the film suggests a supernatural presence in these two scenes, the most obvious interpretation would be that this is a manifestation of a false god prohibited in the First Commandment. Krzysztof's faith in science and computers has taken on such proportions that he entrusts the life of his son to it, and the machine responds to his heathen faith.
Another reading, however, points in the opposite direction, treating these scenes and the film's ending as stages in a struggle between Krzysztof and God. The difference between these two interpretations lies in which aspect of the First Commandment is emphasized, the second part ("you shall have no other gods before me"), or the more basic statement "I am the Lord your God". The fact that this is the only film to deal with religion as a theme at all would favor the latter.
Immediately after the scene with Computer, Krzysztof visits a church, creating the impression that Computer is not a false god tempting Krzysztof but God calling him back. The first time God told the wayward Krzysztof that he was ready, he ignored the call. But the second time, after he has been shaken to the core by his son's death and the realization of his own hubris, he goes.
In the church he vents his anger about his senseless loss by throwing over the altar. (In a masterful stroke of visual poetry, a fallen candle leaks wax onto a madonna icon, creating tears on her cheek.) Then, finally, Krzysztof submits. Acknowledging the limitations of his soulless worldview, he symbolically entrusts himself to the same ice that killed his son by crossing himself with a frozen slab of holy water.
Ultimately, this densely symbolical film allows either interpretation without distracting from its main theme, the struggle of modern, scientific man with the unexplainable facts of life. In any case there is devious irony in the fact that besides the angel, Kieslowski made the only other metaphysical element in 'The Decalogue' a computer.
Kieslowski quotes are from the book 'Kieslowski on Kieslowski', and from the interview included on the Artificial Eye dvd set. Screenplay quotes are translated from the Dutch edition.