Dekalog Review

Created for Polish television in 1988, Dekalog (Decalogue) is a series of ten short films co-written and directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. Despite their television origin and an incredibly low budget of $100,000 which paid for all 10 episodes and the two extended films that came from the series, the cycle represents a high-point of the career of one of the true geniuses of modern cinema.

Loosely based on themes suggested by each of the 10 commandments, each film deals with the lives of the inhabitants of the same tower block, whose stories sometimes overlap into other films, raising complex issues for which there are no easy answers. Understanding thus remains elusive for many of the films, since they depend heavily on chance and individual choice, but as such their message is universal. Resisting the temptation to moralise or preach, in their totality the films examine the capacity of humans to deal with great challenges and contain a wealth of knowledge, thoughts, ideas, and emotions as well as being a marvellous and rare demonstration of ultimate craftsmanship in cinema.

The DVDs
The whole series of films is available as two separate double DVD sets from Artificial Eye, each containing around 5 hours of films. Set 1 contains episodes 1-5 with a director biography and filmography as the only extras. Set 2 contains episodes 6-10, with a rare interview with the director, filmed shortly before his death in 1996.

Set 1, Disc 1
Dekalog 1: I Am The Lord Thy God: Thou Shalt Have No Other God But Me (52.55)
An exceptionally bright child, Pawel finds a dead dog in the street and it sets off a series of questions on life and death that he cannot answer. His aunt wants the boy to have religious instruction while his father has faith in logic and reason, but they find that the computer they use to solve complex puzzles is not always right and the consequences are serious.
The subject (and object) of faith is quite apparent in this episode. Personally, I find it and the symbolism a little heavy-handed, but it is one of the most famous films in the Dekalog cycle. A lot of similar themes here are covered in Kieslowski’s last film, Three Colours: Red.

Dekalog 2: Thou Shalt Not Take The Name Of Thy Lord God In Vain (56.37)
A man is seriously ill in hospital. His wife seeks information from the doctor who is treating him – a neighbour whose dog she ran over 2 years previously (the dog in the previous episode?) – wanting to know his chances of recovery. The wife has a special reason for wanting to know his chances of survival, as an important decision depends on the outcome.
This is a moving, atmospheric piece – a complex situation where decisions have to be made regardless of the consequences. Some probing of the many levels of this episode is required. Its answers don’t come easy and the film doesn’t try to trivialise them.

Dekalog 3: Honour The Sabbath Day (55.47)
Christmas Eve. Janusz, on the pretext of his car being stolen, leaves his family to meet an old flame, Ewa, who claims that her husband is missing. Together they spend Christmas Eve night searching the city’s hospitals and mortuaries.
The film explores the extremes that loneliness can drive a person to – a loneliness that is particularly acute even on the holiest of days. The picture quality is better here than most of the other episodes with full colours and good contrast.

Set 1, Disc 2
Dekalog 4: Honour Thy Father and Thy Mother (55.24)
When her father leaves on a trip, Anka finds an envelope from him with instructions for it to be opened on his death. The envelope contains a letter from Anka’s dead mother and holds a secret that sets the girl off onto a series of disturbing realisations.
A mysterious character who appears occasionally through episodes, makes several ominous appearances here, but symbolism of his appearance here seems a little forced and unnecessary. The film again deals with a very serious subject and is quite tense and dramatic.

Dekalog 5: Thou Shalt Not Kill (56.51)
A young man brutally murders a taxi driver apparently at random. A young, novice lawyer is assigned to his case, but despite his best efforts his client is sentenced to the death penalty causing him concern at his own abilities as a lawyer and the nature of the legal system.
Although death is a theme throughout many of the other films, here it is dealt with in a much more complex, multifaceted fashion. Purely in terms of concision and precision of all its points it is absolutely remarkable piece of film-making. In terms of content, its relevance and importance lie in it also being a catalyst to effecting genuine social change. The film’s grim and powerful message was instrumental in influencing public opinion and may have contributed to the abolition of the death penalty in Poland. Expanded and released as a feature film, A Short Film About Killing if anything, becomes even more bleak and oppressive. Its brilliance cannot be over-estimated.

Set 2, Disc 1
Dekalog 6: Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery (58:45)
A lonely young man spies on his beautiful and promiscuous neighbour, peeping on her from his bedroom through a telescope. Not knowing how to attract her attention he starts stealing her mail and interfering in her love life, his behaviour bordering on obsession. But there are depths to his feelings that he is unable to express easily.
Superb performances, subtle exposition and the usual economic and precise direction. This episode was expanded and the theme slightly altered to create the film A Short Film About Love. The themes work better in the context of the film than in this episode where the ending is comparatively disappointing, but it remains a profoundly sensitive examination of the nature of love, demonstrating a fresh and original approach to a subject that has inspired many and often fallen into cliché.

Dekalog 7: Thou Shalt Not Steal (55:13)
A young woman, Majka became pregnant as a schoolgirl. Her mother, to avoid scandal, brings the child up as her own. Later, Majka feels that her baby has been stolen by her mother and abducts her from school. How far will she go to keep the child to herself?
Not a false note is struck here. Sympathies lies with all the parties involved and the film doesn’t try to over-simplify.

Dekalog 8: Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness (53:59)
Elisabeth Lorenc comes from America to research the fate of Jews who survived the war in Poland. She meets Zofia, a professor in ethics and poses a true story with a moral dilemma that strikes a personal note with the professor.
Again the direction shows great skill, finesse and precision in the handling of complex issues and emotions. If anything this episode feels a little too concise, dealing with an issue that is much bigger than can be represented in less than an hour and not allowing us to feel we get to know the characters.

Set 2, Disc 2
Dekalog 9: Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour’s Wife (58.16)
A man, an eminent surgeon, finds he is impotent and encourages his wife to have an affair. However when he discovers that she is seeing a young physics student, he becomes jealous and begins spying on her movements with tragic consequences.
Again the elements of chance and coincidence – a theme Kieslowski frequently explores - play an important part in the unfolding of events. The result is an achingly poignant and deeply moving film.

Dekalog 10: Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour’s Goods (57:29)
When their father dies, two brothers discover that he owns an extensive and extremely rare stamp collection. Before they can decide how to sell it, they have to figure out how to get back one of the rare series of stamps they have given away.
Slightly less serious than the other films in the Dekalog cycle, this film features many of the Polish cast later seen in Three Colours: White and carries much of the same tone with similar capers and misadventures.

Generally the picture is quite good considering its television origin. Overall it is not bad, but it is not exactly reference material. Scratches and marks are frequently visible, but all things considered, there isn’t a great deal of distracting print damage. The quality varies from film to film however. Colours are faded on Dekalog 5 and Deklog 6, the two episodes that were expanded into feature films, with VHS-like cross colouration evident. Both episodes look much better in the Artificial Eye DVD releases of the film versions of A Short Film About Love and A Short Film About Killing. On the other hand, the picture quality on Dekalog 3 is about as good as you could expect to get and in most of the other episodes the picture is more than acceptable with reel change marks the only real distraction throughout. It would be lovely to see pristine prints of this material, and better international versions in Poland, Korea and France show that the material is available. Again because the cycle of films were developed for television, the aspect ratio is the original 4:3, although both Dekalog 5 and Dekalog 6 appear to be framed at 1.66:1.Subtitles are fixed (burnt-in) on all episodes, and are fine throughout.

The sound is merely adequate, a rather dull Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, but then again the material was never conceived with theatrical exhibition in mind much less hi-fidelity home-cinema surround-sound systems. The director’s regular composer, Zbigniew Preisner provides marvellously emotive and appropriate scores for each of the films.

Set 1 contains a biography and filmography for Kieslowski, while Set 2 contains a 47 minute amateur film A Short Film About Dekalog put together in January 1995 as "an attempt to examine the messages offered by ‘Dekalog’ as well as its idiosyncrasies" - a worthy endeavour. Kieslowski is thoroughly quizzed with a range of probing questions for which the director has much of great interest to say. The quality of the film is very poor indeed - the sound cuts out on questions and the picture is soft with smeary colours - but it is an extremely worthwhile extra that scores highly simply by virtue of its relevance and the depth of insight it offers into an important set of films. Absolutely fantastic.

If comprehension seems often within grasp but tantalisingly just out of reach in some of the films, well that’s the intention. The material is all there and all that is required is your own input and experience to make the films come to life and hold a personal meaning. "Everything is important except politics" says the director in the interview here. The political climate will constantly change, but people’s needs, desires and problems remain the same. It is for this reason that the films still hold their power and remain relevant to each new person who sees them for the first time. A full 10 then. Not because every film is perfect, but in this case, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts. You’ll not see many DVD releases this year as essential as this.

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out of 10

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