Dekalog and Other Television Works: Dekalog Five & Six/Personnel
This is the third 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 Seven & Eight/The Calm
When Krzysztof Kieślowski approached the Polish Ministry of Culture for funding Dekalog, they advised him that they would not contribute to a television series but would giving him the financing for two feature films for cinema release. Kieślowski knew that he wanted to make a cinema version of Dekalog Five and offered the Ministry their choice of the scripts of the other nine episodes. They picked Dekalog Six, though Dekalog Nine was also a contender. The cinema versions are about half an hour longer than the television films, expanded from just under an hour to just under an hour and a half each, respectively A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. If a feature version of Dekalog Nine had been made, it would have been called A Short Film About Jealousy. “Short” is relative, of course: running times in the mid-eighties minute range aren't that unusual. They do show a tendency towards greater economy in Kieślowski's career, as his four previous cinema features all have three-digit running time, and his four later ones two digits, none of them much longer than the Short Films.
The two films premiered at festivals during 1988, and the reaction to them – especially, A Short Film About Killing, which won two prizes at Cannes that year – drew attention to the television series they derived from, resulting in the festival showings and cinema release of Dekalog in many countries, something unique for a Polish television drama series, before or since.
Dekalog, Five (Dekalog, pięć, 57:37)
Thou shalt not kill
The relationship between each episode and the Commandment it's inspired be can be tenuous or ambiguous. In the case of Dekalog Five it's anything but. Thou shalt not kill...and by juxtaposing two killings, both shown in some detail, one illegal and one state-mandated, the film says that killing is killing, and capital punishment is still murder. That's a provocative statement in many circles even now. Kieślowski and cowriter Krzystof Piesiewicz don't take the easy way out: the crime is clearly premeditated and unmotivated murder and not accidental and not manslaughter. The showing of Dekalog Five on Polish television contributed to a debate which resulted in the abandonment of the death penalty in that country.
The film, in both versions, is formally quite sparse: we have the lead-up to one killing, then the lead-up to the second. There's little else: we don't see the detection and arrest, nor (apart from a shot of the jury rising) do we see the trial and sentence. We don't hear Piotr's speech, which the judge later tells him is one of the best speeches against capital punishment he ever heard. Nor do we hear the unsuccessful appeal to the Supreme Court. The first half of the film takes place on 16 March 1987 and we follow the paths of three men whose lives will soon intersect. Jacek (Mirosław Baka) is nineteen years old – in fact, we later learn, this is the day before his twentieth birthday. He wonders aimlessly around Warsaw, and some of his actions hint at sociopathy: pushing someone over in a public lavatory (the man smiled at him, so maybe this is homophobia as well), dropping a stone from a bridge onto traffic and we hear the sound of a smashing windscreen, spitting in an unfinished cup of coffee. In a coffee and cake shop, under the table, he practices pulling on a rope he will later use to strangle his victim. Also in the shop, unknown to each other, is Piotr (Krzysztof Globisz), a newly-qualified lawyer, young and idealistic, opposed to the death penalty. The final character is a taxi driver, name later given as Waldemar Rekowski (Jan Tesarz). He's first seen leaving his apartment on the Warsaw housing estate which links all the episodes. In fact, this episode takes place the least in that estate, and after this beginning we don't return to it. He declines to give a ride to Dorota and Andrzej (Krystyna Janda and Olgierd Łukaszewicz), the central couple of Dekalog Two). He claims to be washing his car, but drives off while they shelter from the cold. The workings of fate...if he had driven off with them, would he have met Jacek later? Jacek gains a ride by a similar deception, misleading the driver as to where another couple wanted to go.
As an aside, I've mentioned the continuity of Dekalog before. It doesn't necessarily follow that the ten episodes are in chronological order, but Dekalog Five is one of the few that can be specifically dated. As well as the murder date, above, Jacek's death sentence is dated 27 November 1967, so the execution takes place some undetermined time after that. The opening scene in Dekalog Four takes place on Easter Monday, and the taxi driver makes a brief appearance in that episode, so the events of that episode take place no later than 1986. Whether Dekalog Five takes place before or after Dekalog Two is a good question: Andrzej is clearly not confined to a hospital bed and you can't tell if Dorota is pregnant or not.
It's only when Piotr is talking to Jacek in his cell as he awaits the sentence to be carried out, that we see the humanity in the convicted killer, when Jacek tells him that he left home after his sister's accidental death, run over by a tractor. Earlier in the film, we see Jacek dropping off a photograph of his sister in a communion dress at a photography shop to be enlarged, but only now do we find out the significance of this. If, Jacek wonders aloud, his sister hadn't been killed, would he have left his village and would his life have taken a different course? And if Piotr had been aware of what Jacek was working up to when they were both in the coffee shop, could he have prevented him from doing it? The workings of fate…
Nine different cinematographers shot the ten episodes of Dekalog and Kieślowski gave them a fair amount of freedom in their work. However, most of the episodes are naturalistic in look, with the variations in approach being more to do with, for example, shooting handheld rather than with a tripod. (Compare this with Bad Boy Bubby, which used a different cinematographer for each exterior scene, who again mostly went for naturalism with variations mostly involving camera angles and movement.) Sławomir Idziak's work on Dekalog Five and A Short Film About Killing is the major exception to this. Idziak used multiple filters on the camera, giving a sickly greenish cast to the image. This bile-and-vomit colour scheme gradually darkens as we approach the taxi driver's murder, rather like an iris effect and adding to the sense of claustrophobia. The second half of the film is more naturalistically photographed, though not entirely so.
Many people, myself included, saw A Short Film About Killing before Dekalog Five. The two are essentially the same film, but there are differences in editing. Dekalog Five begins with a voiceover by Piotr with the opening credits playing over a black screen. A Short Film About Killing opens with a series of images which seem to hint at killing being a universal fact: a dead rat lies in a puddle and the title card comes up as children run away from a (fortunately fake-looking) cat they've just hanged. Other differences are mostly of detail: the film showing in a cinema which the woman behind the box office says is “boring” can be seen in the longer version to be David Hare's cinema debut Wetherby. (I wonder if Kieślowski shared that opinion?) The two killings are a little less graphic in the television version, missing a couple of shots, which does seem to make a different to their BBFC certification, of which more below. Artur Barciś's silent watcher is here a construction worker seen pointing symbolically to the number five on a measuring rod just as Jacek has taken his taxi ride.
Dekalog, Six (Dekalog, sześć, 58:41)
Thou shalt not commit adultery
Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) is a young man who works at the post office. He has become obsessed with Magda (Grażyna Szapołowska), an older woman who lives in an apartment across the way. At night he spies on her through his telescope, often while male visitors (lovers, sexual partners) arrive at her apartment. Sometimes Tomek calls her on the telephone and not answering. He also sends her fake notices telling her that a money order is waiting for her at the post office so that he can see her more. When Magda finds out, she's at first creeped out, then arranges a “display” to engineer her boyfriend confronting Tomek and punching him in the face. Then, seemingly assuming he's essentially harmless, she makes further contact with him…
The Sixth Commandment forbids adultery, but this Dekalog episode takes that in a wider sense – fornication? - as neither Magda nor Tomek are married, though maybe some of her partners are? But as the title of the longer version of this episode hints, this story is more about love, though love with a more perverse and darker edge to it, a love that can be damaging. Kieślowski doesn't invite us to identify with Tomek, but does implicate us nonetheless. When Tomek spies on Magda we don't see a circular vignette to make us seem to be looking through a telescope, but we are still watching Magda, in long shots from outside her window. Watching a film, Kieślowski suggests, can be a voyeuristic act – after all, many viewers (those who are straight men, at least) do like to look at women on screen, especially if she is, if not nude, but certainly in a state of semi-undress in some scenes.
The cast of Dekalog contains quite a few distinguished Polish actors, though Grażyna Szapołowska was one of the few likely to be known to cinemagoers outside Poland, not only for her role in Kieślowski's earlier No End but also for her leading role in the Cannes Prizewinning Hungarian film Another Way. Olaf Lubaszenko was born in 1968 so was still in his teens when he played Tomek, though he had acted since 1981. He also served as assistant director on Dekalog One, Two, Three and Ten (also reappearing briefly as Tomek in the last-named) and has gone on to a career as a director as well as an actor. Both performances are pitch-perfect, contributing to this episode being one of the highlights of the whole series. Artur Barciś's silent watcher is here carrying a suitcase.
As with Dekalog Five, many people saw the cinema version before the television one, and I was no exception. The additional half hour of running time allows for differences of detail, but in this case the ending is different. Dekalog Six ends quite abruptly, leaving the future open. A Short Film About Love extends the ending and gives us a more optimistic conclusion. Magda has her chance to look through Tomek's telescope and – by means of flashback, or by our entering her imagination – is seen to spy upon herself.
Personnel (Personel, 66:34)
Romek (Juliusz Machulski) is a young man working in the costume department of an opera company. However, his ideals are soon tested as he becomes aware of the backstage politics of the company. He is befriended by Sowa (Michał Tarkowski), a tailor, but is faced with a choice when Sowa is fired after a confrontation with one of the cast.
Personnel, first broadcast on Polish television on 13 January 1976, shows Kieślowski continuing the career path he'd set out for himself: make a half-hour film for television (Pedestrian Subway, first broadcast two years earlier to the day), then an hour-long one (this one, actually just over an hour) before he could make a full-length feature film. In fact, he achieved the latter on both small screen and big the same year, making The Calm (which is on Disc Four of this set) for television and The Scar for the cinema.
Similarly to Pedestrian Subway, for much of Personnel, you could mistake it for fly-on-the-wall documentary, what with its being shot handheld in 16mm, though in colour this time. In fact, some of the tailors we see on screen were real theatrical tailors and one of the cast, Andrzej Siedlecki, is playing himself on screen. Yet this is fiction, and is in fact Kieślowski's first dramatic feature. The story is certainly autobiographical in setting, as Kieślowski did work in the costume department of a theatrical company before he went to film school. The production was shot in Wrocław and, as with his earlier film, Kieślowski was dissatisfied by what he was shooting and almost abandoned the film, but was convinced to complete it. A lot of the film was improvised.
Personnel is also an example of the Cinema of Moral Anxiety, which included many of the major Polish films of the Seventies: moral choice and moral compromise are the order of the day, though not so directly critical as to attract censure from the authorities. Romek instinctively defends Sowa from the attacks on him and therefore comes to the attention of those authorities. With promises of career advancement, Romek is encouraged to denounce Sowa, but does he go ahead with it?
Personnel was well received, winning prizes at the Gdansk Film Festival and, despite being a television production, had some festival exposure outside the country.
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.
A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love both received 18 certificates from the BBFC for their cinema releases. The 18 still stands for the former, but A Short Film About Love dropped to a 15 for its original VHS release in 1994. Dekalog Five and Dekalog Six were both passed 18 in 1991 for their cinema releases, but a year later, Dekalog, certified as a single 558-minute entity, was rated 15, and that's the certificate this boxset bears. Personnel is rated 12.
Given that both these Dekalog episodes formed part of cinema features, they were shot in the ratio of 1.66:1 instead of the 1.37:1 of the other eight episodes. The transfers on this disc are 1080i50, reflecting the twenty-five frames per second speed they would have been shown at on television. They would have been shown at 24 fps in cinemas, as the two Short Films undoubtedly were. I don't know if these two were shot at 25fps or 24fps or a mixture of both, but the television episodes and the two feature films have different sound mixes, intended to be played at the different speeds. As for the transfers, derived from 4K restorations, they are again first-rate, dealing ably with what is probably the most difficult episode to transfer, due to Idziak's camerawork. Personnel, presented in standard definition, is understandably softer and grainier, due to its 16mm origins. I didn't see anything untoward about it, and the source seems less damaged than the one for First Love was.
The soundtracks are LPCM 1.0 for the two Dekalog episodes and Dolby Digital 1.0 for Personnel. Both are clear and well-balanced. English subtitles are optionally available.
The extra on this disc is the second of the two purpose-made items, and like the other runs just over an hour and a quarter. Here, Tony Rayns, a longtime Kieślowski champion, talks at length (77:57) about Dekalog. He begins with telling how he met Kieślowski – in a bar in Tokyo, due their both attending a film festival – and goes on to discuss Dekalog in detail, from the input of Krzysztof Piesiewicz, to that of the nine cinematographers, structure and themes. There are some spoilers, so it may be best to watch this after watching the episodes if you haven't seen them before.