Dekalog and Other Television Works: Dekalog Seven & Eight/The Calm
This is the fourth of five reviews of Arrow Academy's dual-format box set. For the other reviews, go to:
Dekalog One & Two/Pedestrian Subway
Dekalog Three & Four/First Love
Dekalog Five & Six/Personnel
Dekalog, Seven (Dekalog, siedem, 55:10)
Thou shalt not steal
Six-year-old Ania (Katarzyna Piwowarczyk) believes that Majka (Maja Barełkowska) is her older sister. However, Ewa is her mother, having given birth to her at the age of sixteen, the result of an affair with her teacher. To avoid scandal, Majka's mother Ewa (Anna Polony) raised Ania as her own daughter. However, this has never sat well with Majka, who one day takes Ania with her as she runs away from home.
Krzysztof Piesiewicz encountered a similar case to this in his work as a lawyer, except that in reality the child brought up to believe her grandmother was her actual mother was the result of incest. Piesiewicz and Kieślowski turned this story into another moral dilemma and question, in an episode based more closely on its Commandment than others: can you steal which is rightfully yours? Ewa may have been motivated to avoid scandal, but is her deception for the good, however well intentioned it may have been? This is an almost entirely female-driven story, with the fathers involved distant or absent, taking no responsibility for the result of their actions.
This is one of two episodes where Artur Barciś's silent watcher does not appear, though he still has his name in the credits. He was filmed as a man at the train station towards the end, but Kieślowski had technical problems so deleted him. In Dekalog several main characters in one episode will make a cameo appearance in another: Ania can be seen briefly in Dekalog Nine.
Dekalog, Eight (Dekalog, osiem, 54:22)
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour
Dekalog Eight is one of the most philosophical of the episodes, quite literally so as its central character Zofia (Maria Kościałkowska) is an ethics professor. Elżbieta Loranc (Teresa Marczewska) is a Polish Jew living in the USA attending her classes. It turns out that the two women had met before, more than forty years earlier. Zofia then had refused to help Elżbieta during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, to avoid putting the Resistance at risk.
Bearing false witness is central to this episode, as when the two women meet and the reasons behind Zofia's actions become clear, the theme of lies and lying comes to the fore. Zofia has believed for four decades that she was responsible for the death of a young child, and Elżbieta has believed she was rejected. It's an optimistic story in that it suggests that division can be healed and resolution is possible.
Dekalog Eight circles back to an earlier episode in that the moral dilemma posited by one of Zofia's students in her class is that of Dekalog Two. Zofia recognises the story – it seems, the gossip has quickly travelled round Warsaw – and suggests that its resolution was the right one, in that the child involved is alive and well. Shortly afterwards, as Elżbieta begins to speak, Kieślowski tracks sideways to take in the face of another of the students: Artur Barciś, still silently watching.
The Calm (Spokój, 81:57)
1976 was a busy year for Kieślowski, in which he made his first feature for the cinema. The Scar is generally considered a minor workm but has had a higher profile – and been more widely seen – simply because it was shown in cinemas. That's relative, of course: it may have had festival showings in the UK but it didn't receive a theatrical release and came out on DVD in 2004. But that's still a higher profile than The Calm, given that that film was made for the small screen in 16mm. But it is the superior work.
Antek (Jerzy Stuhr) is released from prison after three years. He moves away from his old life and takes a job in a building site, meanwhile having an affair with his landlady (Izabela Olszewska) and later with Bożena (Danuta Ruksza), who becomes pregnant and whom he marries. What he wants is a quiet, calm life, but events conspire so that he doesn't get it...
Adapted from a short story by Lech Borski, The Calm began the longest collaboration between Kieślowski and an actor. He had met Jerzy Stuhr, and the film was written for him, with Stuhr being co-credited for the dialogue. Stuhr acted in four more of Kieślowski's films: lead roles in Camera Buff and Dekalog Ten, third-billed in The Scar, an uncredited appearance in Blind Chance and a supporting role in Three Colours: White. Their collaboration continued after Kieślowski's death, as Stuhr directed The Big Animal from a previously unproduced script Kieślowski had written in 1972.
Visually, like Pedestrian Subway and Personnel before it, The Calm has its roots in Kieślowski's documentary work, not least in the use of often-handheld 16mm. Yet the film also looks forward to Kieślowski's later work in its use of inexplicable occurrences, for example the television which shows footage of running horses when it goes on the blink, something which as the film progresses turns into a symbol of the chaos that threatens to overtake Antek's life. (The horses are from a 1964 documentary, Arabian Horses (Araby), directed by Zbigniew Raplewski.) Incidentally, colour television came to Poland in 1971 but as in other countries it took several years before colour sets were in the majority. The Calm was made in colour, but shows that five years after the introduction of colour broadcasting many people were still watching black and white televisions. The Calm ran into censorship difficulties – largely because of the depiction of a strike, at a time of civil unrest in Polish society - and was shelved for four years, not shown until 19 September 1980.
Dekalog and Other Television Works is a dual-format boxset released by Arrow Academy. It comprises five Blu-ray discs and five DVDs, encoded for Region B and Region 2 (PAL) respectively. These reviews are from supplied Blu-ray checkdiscs. Ratings apply to the boxset as a whole, not to individual discs. I will be discussing the 128-page book which comes with release during the last of these five reviews.
The boxset as a whole carries a 15 certificate. The Calm bears a 12, and Dekalog Seven and Dekalog Eight were given a PG and a U certificate respectively in 1991 for their cinema release.
The two Dekalog episodes were shot in 35mm at Academy Ratio (1.37:1), which is the ratio they were shown at in cinemas. On television they were shown at the slightly narrower ratio of 1.33:1. The transfers on this Blu-ray are derived from a 4K restoration and look very good indeed, with true colours, strong blacks and natural, filmlike grain. The Calm is presented in standard definition at the correct ratio of 1.33:1. Given its 16mm origins, it's inevitably grainier and softer. The source materials show some minor damage, but nothing too distracting. As the series was shot at twenty-five frames per second instead of the cinema standard of twenty-four, the transfers are 1080i50 to respect the correct framerate.
The soundtracks are the original mono, rendered as LPCM 1.0 for the two Dekalog episodes and Dolby Digital 1.0 for The Calm. All are clear and well-balanced. English subtitles are optional.
The extra on this disc is an interview with Kieślowski (92:22), conducted by Derek Malcolm, which took place at the National Film Theatre on 2 April 1990. This was after the series' premiere at the Venice Film Festival but before its first showing on BBC2, which began on 6 May, preceded two days earlier by an Arena documentary. Kieślowski speaks through an interpreter called Ewa. Malcolm interviews Kieślowski for nearly an hour, and then takes questions from the audience, which aren't always easy to make out on this audio recording. Kieślowski is clearly enjoying himself, showing a considerable sense of humour. I was in the audience at this event, though as I didn't ask a question, you won't hear me – and as this is an audio-recording you'll have to imagine such things as Kieślowski's imitation of the arm gestures of an Italian at Venice talking enthusiastically about “Decalogo”. On this Blu-ray, the recording is backed by extracts from Dekalog, where appropriate illustrating a point being made – for example, shots of the first killing in Dekalog Five during a description of how the scene was made. Kieślowski talks about the paradox that when Poland did not have democracy he could make films in the country, but now that the country had been returned to democracy there was no money to be had, so he would be looking overseas for financing, as indeed he did, with two thirds of The Double Life of Véronique and two out of the Three Colours trilogy set outside Poland.