Dekalog and Other Television Works: Dekalog One & Two/Pedestrian Subway
Dekalog is one of the great achievements of television drama. It was made as a coproduction between Poland's Telewizja Polska (TVP) and West Germany's Sender Freies Berlin (SFB) for a total budget equating to $100,000 – not a lot for a project shot on 35mm totalling nearly ten hours. With additional funding from the Polish Ministry of Culture, two of the ten hour-long films – Five and Six - were expanded into features intended for cinema release: A Short Film About Killing (Krótki film o zabijaniu) and A Short Film About Love (Krótki film o miłości). Little was expected of them beyond television showings in their native countries, but Dekalog changed Krzysztof Kieślowski's career completely.
A short note. The series is often known under its original Polish title Dekalog or in English as The Decalogue. I will use the Polish title throughout. The two Short Films are not included in this box set as the UK rights are with Curzon Artificial Eye, who will no doubt release their own Blu-ray editions in due course. Their DVD releases were reviewed for this site by Noel Megahey here and here and his review of Artificial Eye's DVD release of Dekalog is here.
Krzysztof Kieślowski (1941-1996) was a very experienced television director. As well as Dekalog itself, this boxset contains five other television films of his. He originally wanted to become a theatre director but as he lacked the required college degree he switch to film instead. He applied to the Łódź Film School, a world-famous institution which numbers Roman Polański and Andrzej Wajda amongst its former pupils. He was rejected twice but admitted on his third attempt. He made his first films which at the Film School, leaving in 1968. His earliest films were documentaries, and he made his fiction debut with a short film for Polish television, Pedestrian Subway, which is discussed below. His first dramatic feature was Personnel, which is on Disc Three of this set.
Outside the country, Kieślowski's second and fourth cinema features, Camera Buff (Amator) (1979) and No End (Bez końca) (1985) had received good notices. In the UK, they had followed the common pattern of a limited release in arthouse cinemas followed by a showing on television, in both cases Channel Four, video distribution of foreign-language film being then non-existent. His first feature, The Scar (Blizna) (1976) did not receive British distribution until its DVD release in 2004. His third feature, Blind Chance (Przypadek) (1981), had been banned by the Polish authorities and not released until 1987. It also bypassed British cinemas but had a showing on BBC2 in its Film Club strand, introduced by Lindsay Anderson.
No End was cowritten by Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a lawyer as well as a writer, who went on to cowrite all of Kieślowski's feature films to come. It was also the first of Kieślowski's films for another key collaborator, who would also work on all of his later films: composer Zbigniew Preisner. However, the film was badly received in Poland, not just by the authorities but also the opposition. It's not Kieślowski's most accessible work, but in it, as with Blind Chance, you can see the beginnings of the metaphysical themes that come to dominate Kieślowski's later work, taking it beyond straightforward documentary realism. There's a sense of Kieślowski and his collaborators trying to dramatise things beyond the surface of the everyday world, a sense of mysterious connections and the workings of fate, all of which feature heavily in Dekalog.
By the mid-Eighties, the Polish film industry was in a slump, so the prospect of working on a television series for a director of Kieślowski was no doubt attractive to actors and crew members. It was Piesiewicz's idea to make a series of films based on the Ten Commandments. Kieślowski originally thought it a bad idea and the original plan was that the ten scripts would be handed to ten younger directors to make. But as the writing progressed, Kieślowski realised that he wanted to make them himself, and so he did. He employed nine different cinematographers and gave them a lot of influence in the way their films looked. However, for the most part, they photographed their episodes naturalistically on the whole. The major exception to this was Sławomir Idziak on Dekalog Five/A Short Film About Killing: I'll discuss his contribution further when I review that episode.
Kieślowski was an agnostic. The films are not religious in any conventional sense, despite the Biblical source underpinning them. They are simply entitled with numbers, One to Ten. The Commandments each are based on are not shown on screen, and in fact the way the films interpret God's edicts, as revealed to Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy, is often quite loose. Each film is a standalone, but other than the link with the Commandments, they are set on the same Warsaw housing estate. The protagonists of some episodes turn up in brief roles in another episode. Also linking the films is the figure of a young man (played by Artur Barciś) who looks on at key moments in eight of the ten, silently watching. Who is he? Is he God? Is he judging the characters, or simply observing? If he is observing, he seems to be doing so with distinct sadness.
A Short Film About Killing premiered at Cannes in 1988. It's fair to say it had a galvanising impact, winning the Jury Prize and jointly winning the FIPRESCI Prize. With A Short Film About Love making its festival debut later the same year, there was now considerable interest in the television series these two feature films had been derived from. The entire cycle received its world premiere at Venice in September 1989, three months before the series was shown om Polish television. As a result, the series was sold widely internationally. In the UK, the two Short Films had had cinema releases. The television series was shown on BBC2 on ten consecutive Sundays, beginning on 6 May 1990. It had a cinema release (as five double-bills of episodes) in 1991.
Dekalog, One (Dekalog, jeden, 53:31)
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
The first person we see in this first film of the cycle is Artur Barciś's silent watcher, sitting by the side of a frozen lake. He's more than usually sad: there's a tear in his eye. Tears are a recurrent motif in this episode. So are cathode-ray screens, whether computer monitors, or, wrenchingly, towards the end, a television set.
Eleven-year-old Paweł (Wojciech Klata) lives with his father Krzysztof (Henryk Baranowski), the boy's mother having departed. Paweł is a particularly bright child, and his and his father's shared passion is their computer, which is used not just for homework. Paweł has even programmed it to open and close the doors of the apartment. Although most of the display is in Polish, the welcome command is in English - “I am ready” - a salutation that becomes positively ominous as the film goes on. It's a hard lesson to have to learn that for all the calculations you might make with this machine's aid, it can't prevent a random twist of fate, one which has tragic results. Paweł gets his Christmas present – ice skates – early and is desperate to try them out. So Henryk uses the computer to calculate the thickness of the lake ice and the load it could bear. The story was inspired by a real-life experience of Krzysztof Piesiewicz.
This episode is more than usually prescient. In 1988, when this was made, hardly anyone was on the Internet as we know it, and computers were not central in most people's lives. Social media was merely a glint in Krzysztof and Paweł's “god's” eye. We should have no other gods. The silent watcher's stare does not let us off the hook.
Dekalog, Two (Dekalog, dwa, 56:52)
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
Dorota Geller (Krystyna Janda) approaches the doctor (Aleksander Bardini) who is treating her husband Andrzej (Olgierd Łukaszewicz) for cancer. The prognosis is not good, but Dorota wants to know for certain if Andrzej will live or die. She is three months pregnant, not by her husband but by her lover. She's not showing yet, and Andrzej does not know of her condition. If the doctor can tell her Andrzej's fate one way or the other, she will make a decision. If he is to live, she will have an abortion, with likely no more chances to bear a child. If Andrzej is to die, she will keep the child.
The fact that they are having this conversation at all makes Dekalog Two a period piece. Poland was and is a deeply Catholic country, but during the Communist era abortion was legal. Access was tightened after the fall of Communism and in 1993 it was made illegal except in cases of incest, rape, severe disability or a serious risk to the life of the mother. (A proposal to remove even this limited legality provoked a nationwide strike by Poland's women on 3 October 2016.) As mentioned above, Dekalog is a largely secular interpretation of the Commandments, and this is no exception. However, fate works its inexplicable way, and the episode resolves in some kind of miracle. Artur Barciś's appearance here is as a hospital orderly, looking on at a key moment.
Pedestrian Subway (Przejście podziemne (28:38)
Pedestrian Subway was Kieślowski's first dramatic film, made for Polish television in 1973 and first broadcast on 13 January 1974. By then, Kieślowski knew that he wanted to make feature films, and followed what was then a standard career path: a short film for television (this one) and then a mid-length one before graduating to feature length. Polish television had started broadcasting in colour in 1971, but clearly work was still made in black and white, as Pedestrian Subway was.
Michał (Andrzej Seweryn) is a teacher visiting Warsaw with a school party. He takes time out to visit Lena (Teresa Krzyżanowska, later known under her married name of Teresa Budzisz-Krzyżanowska), who is working as a shop decorator in one of the city's pedestrian subways...
The film takes place over one night, almost all of it in the subways of the title which run underneath Warsaw's main streets. (If you want to do a Kieslowski location tour of Warsaw, this particular subway is under the crossroads joining aleja (avenue) Jerozolimskie and ulica (street) Marszałkowska. Needless to say, it looks somewhat different now than it did in 1973.) Kieślowski cowrote the script with Ireneusz Iredyński, and was assigned a small budget and a shooting schedule of ten nights. After nine, Kieślowski realised that he was considerably dissatisfied with the film he was making. Shot in a more classical manner, it seemed phony to him. So he took a considerable risk and shot the whole film again on the last night, using handheld 16mm cameras with magazines sufficient for just four minutes of film each, the type of camera he might have used on one of his earlier documentaries. This was his first collaboration with Sławomir Idziak, a cinematographer whose experience was in experimental film and was not afraid to take risks. The film was shot silent with its soundtrack added afterwards. The final film was made up of something like eighty percent of the material shot on the final night. The film is a third through when we learn that Michał and Lena know each other, and another third gone when we found out that they are a separated married couple, and she is considering applying for divorce. He is trying to win her back.
Kieslowski was not fond of this film and rather disparaging of it as a result. However, he felt that the shooting of the last night did make the film more authentic, with a veracity of small details he was to strive for throughout his work. Parts of it could pass as extracts from a documentary about the subways as night, with fewer people and cleaners at work, rather like the documentaries Kieslowski made about the workings of a hospital or a railway station. Pedestrian Subway is minor Kieslowski but as the first professional fictional work of a major director it's still of considerable interest.
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. While I suspect that none of these films will have much appeal to the young, Pedestrian Subway has a 12 certificate. Dekalog One and Dekalog Two were given a U and a PG respectively on their cinema release.
Dekalog was shot in 35mm, but as it was originally intended for television it was shot in the old Academy ratio – still then sometimes used in Polish cinemas – of 1.37:1. The television ratio was 1.33:1, most likely cropping the sides a little and not forgetting that sets would most likely cut off a little more due to overscan. Arrow's transfer, derived from a 4K restoration, is in the full Academy ratio, which is how these two episodes would have been seen in cinemas. Arrow's transfers are 1080i50, reflecting that the films were shot at twenty-five frames per second for compatibility with European television standards, whether PAL or (in Poland's case) SECAM. The cinema standard for sound films is twenty-four fps, and no doubt that's the speed they would have been shown at theatrically. (For more evidence of this, see the BBFC's listings of the ten episodes, all with running times of around two minutes longer than the ones they have on these discs.) I have only seen Dekalog on television and on DVD, and the quality of these restorations speaks for themselves: very detailed, with strong blacks and filmlike grain. They may not be now many chances to see Dekalog projected from 35mm prints (and I suspect original ones may display wear and tear now) but this is as good as you can currently get when viewing at home.
Pedestrian Subway is presented in HD, but this transfer is more problematic. That's not because of its 16mm origins, not to mention the catch-as-catch-can shooting and lighting method, which results in a softer and grainier image – that's to be expected, and the results look as good as you can reasonably expect. There is some minor damage throughout, and a large reel change cue dot about halfway through. However, this is presented in a ratio of 1.78:1. If you think that's an unlikely ratio for a television production made in 1973, you would be right: the ratio should be 1.33:1. You can see the picture shift downwards as Kieslowski's directing credit appears at the end. There are 4:3 clips from this film in the documentary Still Alive (see below) and it would seem that the cropping has been done at the bottom of the frame, as characters' heads are hitting the top of the frame in both versions. Given that, due to the shooting circumstances, precise visual composition was not on the agenda, the cropping isn't ruinous, but is noted here for the record.
The soundtracks are in LPCM 1.0 for the two Dekalog episodes and Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono for Pedestrian Subway and all are clear, with dialogue, music and sound effects well balanced. English subtitles are optional.
The extra on this disc is Still Alive (81:34), a documentary made by Kieslowski's former student Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz in 2005 for Polish television, nine years after his death. It's an affectionate tribute, made up of interviews with Kieslowski's friends and colleagues, taking us through his career chronologically. The non-Poles amongst the interviewees (such as Juliette Binoche and Irène Jacob) speak in their native language and are provided with a Polish voiceover, and all is subtitled into English. This is presented in SD with an aspect ratio of 4:3, which is the ratio of many of the film clips (including, as mentioned above, Pedestrian Subway).