Dekalog and Other Television Works: Dekalog Three & Four/First Love

This is the second of five reviews of Arrow Academy's dual-format box set. For the other reviews, go to:

Dekalog One & Two/Pedestrian Subway
Dekalog Five & Six/Personnel
Dekalog Seven & Eight/The Calm

Dekalog, Three (Dekalog, trzy, 55:44)
Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy

It's Christmas Eve. Janusz (Daniel Olbrychski), now married, is approached by his former lover Ewa (Maria Pakulnis) with a strange request, to help her find her husband, who has gone missing. Janusz complies, leaving his apartment and his wife (Joanna Szczepkowska) behind. He makes an excuse, though it's fairly clear his wife knows what's going on. But it becomes clear that Ewa has an ulterior motive.

Dekalog is a secular, though certainly not unspiritual, interpretation of the Biblical Ten Commandments, with some episodes loosely tied to a particular commandment, others more closely. Dekalog Three is one of the loosest, given that it takes place on the day before a Christian holy day, that's not the same as the Sabbath. Christmas Eve, known as Wigilia, has particular significance for Poles, with families coming together for feasting, and often neighbours invited over so that they are not alone that night. In Dekalog One we saw a family btoken up by tragedy and, while there's little indication that the ten episodes are in chronological order, you can't help but read that into the cameo appearance of that first episode's father (Henryk Baranowski) near the start of this third episode. Yet the Commandments are central: Janusz and Ewa's journey around nighttime Warsaw shows that if we break one Commandment, then breaking others can often follow.

Daniel Olbrychski, who played the lead in this episode, was one of the actors in the series most likely to be known outside Poland, from his roles for Andrzej Wajda and in Western-made films such as The Tin Drum and Margarethe von Trotta's Rosa Luxemburg. One of the series's older protagonists (forty-three at the time of making), he gives an authoritative performance in one of the more undersung episodes of the series. The cinematography was by Piotr Sobociński, the only DP to film two episodes, the other being Dekalog Nine. However, Edward Kłosiński, the DP for Dekalog Two, and the husband of that episode's lead, Krystyna Janda, turns up in an acting role here. Artur Barciś's silent watcher is this time a tram driver.

Dekalog, Four (Dekalog, cztery, 55:31)
Honour thy father and thymother

That fourth Commandment receives a perverse twist in this episode. Anka (Adrianna Biedrzyńska) lives with her father Michał (Janusz Gajos), her mother having died five days after she was born. From the outset it's clear that their relationship isn't the usual parent-child one, as she wakes him up by throwing water over him in bed, and he retaliates in kind. When he goes on a business trip, he leaves behind an envelope marked “Open after my death”. Inside is another envelope, apparently written by Anka's mother as she was close to death, wishing to pass on something important to her daughter. But what? It's left ambiguous as to whether Anka does read what's inside and, as we see her forging her mother's handwriting later on, we don't know how much of it is true. But Anka certainly has doubts in her mind. Is she really Michał's biological daughter or is she actually the result of her mother's extramarital affair? (In this respect, this episode is something of a mirror image of Dekalog Two.) And if she and the man she knew as her father for the twenty years of her life is not actually biological related to her, is a love more than that of a daughter for her father possible, certainly quasi-incestuous if not literally so? Dekalog Four is a small-scale intimate drama, mainly a two-hander, but it's as tense as any thriller, and leaves us to consider the moral choices the characters make.

Dekalog is marked by the lead character of one episode making cameo appearances in another, and here a single lift journey involves the consultant (Aleksander Bardini) from Dekalog Two and the fated taxi driver (Jan Tesarz) from Dekalog Five and its expanded big-screen version A Short Film About Killing. Artur Barciś appears here as a man carrying a canoe, appearing just as Anka decides whether to read her mother's letter or not, and appears again – seen from behind – towards the end as another decision is made.

First Love (Pierwsza miłość, 51:58)

Jadwiga, aged seventeen, is pregnant. We first see her talking to a doctor discussing the possibility of abortion. (As with Dekalog Two, this scene makes First Love a period piece.) Jadwiga (Jadzia) is intending to marry her twenty-year-old boyfriend Roman (Romek). As an abortion is declined, they decide to have the baby. Living in a tiny room in her grandmother's house, they apply for a flat of their own, though as their situation isn't all that unusual they have to stay in the queue for one…

First Love was filmed over seven months in 1974, from Jadwiga being four months' pregnant to her daughter, Ewa, being two months old. Shot in colour 16mm for Polish television, at just under an hour First Love is Kieślowski's longest documentary. However, appearances are deceptive, as Kieślowski's filming methods move this away from pure fly-on-the-wall (with a microphone appearing prominently in shot at one point) to something closer to documentary-drama, his only work in that form. First Love is an illustration of Jean-Luc Godard's dictum that drama and documentary are closer than they may seem. A drama (a non-animated one at least) is also a record of real people and the real locations they appear in, while a documentary is just as shaped and structured as a drama is. While Jadwiga and Roman are real people with their real names, interacting with other real people, they are aware of the presence of the camera and the sound equipment. At times, Kieślowski puts non-diegetic music on the soundtrack, sometimes supplanting any diegectic sound. However, some of what we see on screen was brought about by Kieślowski: he bought them the book on child development we see them reading, and also arranged for the policeman to arrive in one scene to tell them they aren't registered and are therefore living there illegally. Polish television's wish for a happy ending to the film resulted in Jadwiga and Roman being given a flat sooner than they might have been – Roman is quoted a possible five years' wait near the start. So there's a slightly sentimental side to First Love, something Kieślowski isn't often accused of being, but this may be excused by the fact that he himself had become the father of a daughter the previous year. The film is very affecting nonetheless.

Kieślowski were prepared for the birth, setting up lights in the delivery room in advance of the day, and being on alert for when Jadwiga went into labour. For the sake of Jadwiga's privacy, he reduced the crew for this scene and hired a female sound recordist instead of the male one who had recorded the rest of the film. However, they almost missed the birth as assistant director Krzysztof Wierzbicki had gone out drinking and had fallen asleep at the back of a bus as a result. The birth plays out in close-up on Jadwiga's face, so no full-on spread-legged childbirth as Hungarian director Márta Mészáros filmed her lead actress Lili Monori in her film Nine Months, made two years later. Kieślowski's discretion bore itself out after the film was made. He envisaged a series of films, following Ewa's life from birth to the birth of her own child (assuming of course that that would happen). He did shoot some material for this but abandoned the project, feeling that he was interfering too much in real people's lives. So the prospect of a Kieślowski answer to projects as Michael Apted's ongoing Up series, or (on a smaller scale) the Swedish Mods trilogy, beginning with Dom kallar oss mods (They Call Us Misfits) in 1968, never arose. However, assistant director Wierzbicki did make a follow-up after Kieślowski's death, Horoscope (Horoskop, 2000, a film without an IMDB entry as I write this) which found Jadwiga and Roman in Canada, having had two more children, and now made grandparents by Ewa. During the course of the film they all watch First Love.

The Disc

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 the release during the last of these five reviews.

The boxset as a whole carries a 15 certificate. First Love was passed PG for this release. Dekalog Three was passed at PG in 1991 for its cinema release, though I suspect it would receive a 12 now if it were resubmitted separately, due to a shot of a body on a slap which Janusz and Ewa are asked to identify as her missing husband or not. Dekalog Four was given a 15.

These two episodes were shot in 35mm at Academy Ratio (1.37:1), though shown on television slightly cropped at the sides (with or without further overscan from the television set) at 1.33:1. Arrow's transfers, derived from a 4K restoration, ate in the slightly wider ratio the films would have been shown at in cinemas. The results are excellent, with filmlike grain, good shadow detail (especially in Dekalog Three, set mostly at night) and strong blacks. Other than new 35mm prints shown in a cinema, this is as good as you can currently get. As the episodes were shot at twenty-five frames per second, reflecting their television origins, Arrow's transfers are 1080i50 and so show the films at the correct speed rather than slowed down to 24 fps as they almost certainly were in cinemas.

First Love is a standard-definition transfer from the 16mm original, presented in the 1.33:1 television ratio. I've no doubt it's faithful to its source, though that's a source that hasn't been restored. There are splices and scratches, including green emulsion scratches, through a large part of it. Given the 16mm origins, it's grainier than the Dekalog episodes, though that's to be expected.

The soundtracks are the original mono, rendered as LPCM 1.0 on the two Dekalog episodes and Dolby Digital 1.0 for First Love. All are clear and well-balanced, and dialogue is clearly audible – even with First Love, inevitably roughly recorded in places. English subtitles are optional.

The extra on this disc is KKTV (75:10) in which Michael Brooke takes us through Kieślowski's career up to the end of the 1970s. As the title suggests, the emphasis is on Kieślowski's television work, including the five films in this boxset, but Brooke also refers to his documentary work, his two cinema features The Scar (Blizna) and Camera Buff (Amator), made during this period, the latter being the film which first had Kieślowski' noticed in the West. He also takes in what was happening in Polish society at the time, and some of the key films made by Kieślowski''s colleagues, including the Cinema of Moral Anxiety movement of that decade. One of two purpose-made extras for this boxset (the other, equally substantial, is on Disc Three), this is highly informative about Kieślowski's work and the films in this set, and it's worth revisiting the relevant parts of this featurette once you have watched them. (There aren't major spoilers here.)




out of 10

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