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[ BIOGRAPHY ON WIKIPEDIA --- FILMOGRAPHY ON IMDB.COM ]
More on Krzystof Kieslowski [01] [02] [03] [04]

Kieslowski On The Mountaintop
Ten Commandments from the late Polish director
by Joseph Cunneen - August 15, 1997

The death of Krzysztof Kieslowski in March 1996 was widely moumed. The Polish director had achieved considerable critical and popular success for The Double Life of Vgronique and for a trilogy whose titles were keyed to the French tricolor-Red, his last movie (1994), being the most successful. But to get a sense of the continuity of his central themes, one has to hunt in special video stores for Kieslowski's earlier work. His most significant achievement, The Decalogue, remains largely unknown in the United States. It was produced for Polish TV in 1989 as a series of ten one-hour films on the Ten Commandments. Two ninety-minute films, A Short Film about Killing and A Short Film about Love, are versions of Decalogue 5 and 6 that have played widely in Europe, but the series is an unlikely program for your neighborhood multiplex.

It was, however, aired on the BBC several years ago, and there is no good reason why public television here could not do the same.

One of the great achievements in cinema of the last generation, The Decalogue combines tough-minded realism and hallucinatory style. Although Kieslowski considered himself an agnostic, he acknowledged that "there are mysteries, secret zones in each individual," that somehow create a climate in which transcendence can be glimpsed even in the midst of an unbelieving society.

Kieslowski was born in Warsaw in 1941. After attending film school in Lodz, he gained a considerable reputation for making documentaries about contemporary Polish social life. Though not directly political, his films encouraged a critical spirit in a country dominated by a Communist regime that owed its place to Soviet power. Kieslowski's awareness of film's capacity to raise questions is evident in an early narrative film, Camera Buff (1979), which describes what happens when a Polish worker gets hold of a movie camera. At first intending to chronicle only family events, the worker gets carried away by all that the camera can record. He ends up alienating the authorities with his indiscreet filming, and his monomania destroys his marriage.

Stanley Kubrick, who wrote the introduction to the edition of the screenplays of The Decalogue, emphasizes the importance of fate for Kieslowski. In Blind Chance (1981), which was banned after martial law was declared in December 1981, Kieslowski presents the different choices a person might make: cooperation with the authorities, work with Solidarity, or concentrate on one's career. The movie, Kieslowski noted, "is a description of the powers that meddle with our fate, that push us this way and that." But he insisted that we accept moral responsibility for our choices.

It would be wrong to think of The Decalogue as a personal achievement by Kieslowski alone. A considerable share of credit should go to Krzysztof Piesiewicz. A criminal lawyer in Warsaw who thinks of himself as "Christian rather than Catholic," Piesiewicz met Kieslowski in 1982. The latter was then trying to make a documentary about political trials that took place after General Wojciech Jaruzelski took power.


Observing the moral chaos of society, Piesiewicz one day said to Kieslowski, "Someone should make a film about the Ten Commandments." The project gradually took shape, the screenplays a product of their collaboration. "Our idea was very simple," Kieslowski said. "The Decalogue is one of the ethical foundations of today's society. Everyone is more or less familiar with the Ten Commandments, and agrees with them, but no one really observes them."

It was never a question of photographing simple-minded illustrations of the commandments. Rather, by relating the commandments to contemporary situations, Kieslowski hoped to make them real. In fact, the explicit statement of a commandment is never used as a film's title; the viewer sees only an opening number: Decalogue 1, 2,3, etc. The films do not pretend to provide answers, but to present questions. "We didn't want to adopt the tone of those who praise or condemn, handing out a reward here for doing good, and a punishment there for doing evil," Kieslowski wrote. "Rather, we wished to say, 'We know no more than you.... But maybe it is worth investigating the unknown, if only because the very feeling of not knowing is a painful one.’”

This means that the relationship between the films and the individual commandments is "tentative." The moviegoer is forced to think. For example, instead of illustrating stealing with an action-packed bank robbery, Decalogue 7 deals with a mother who had previously forced her daughter to whom she had never shown much affection-to sign over legal custody of her little girl (born out of wedlock), and now lavishes all her love on the granddaughter. In the course of the film the daughter runs away with the little girl. Is she “stealing" her own child (who has nightmares that only the grandmother seems able to soothe)? Or has the grandmother stolen the child's affection and trust? At the very least, the rights and wrongs of the situation are interrelated. The Decalogue does not present saints and villains; its characters are imperfect but never totally unsympathetic.

"The films," Kieslowski remarked, "should be influenced by the individual commandments to the same degree that the commandments influence our daily lives"-that is, only partly. This means that you are often unsure of the relationship between a film and a particular commandment; to the director, if the numbers of some episodes were reversed-for example 6 and 9-it would make no difference. By not giving real titles to the separate films, Kieslowski said he established a sort of game with the viewers. "I merely announce, for example, Decalogue 1. The spectator looks at the film and she would like to know what it's about... She begins to think about the commandment. Whether she wants to or not, she is beginning to perform a certain intellectual work. That's what I want her to do because I take the questions seriously." Ironically, Kieslowski added, some of his actors who were Catholic "didn't want to perform in a given film if I didn't tell them what commandment it was dealing with."

Decalogue 2 is a good example of the complexity Kieslowski intended. The story introduces Dorota, a married woman pregnant by a man not her husband, who asks a doctor to tell her whether her desperately ill spouse will live or die. An immediate connection between the action and a specific commandment is hard to perceive, but you are caught up in a serious ethical dilemma. The woman genuinely cares about both her husband and her lover, and believes-even though she herself would like to have the child-that, if her husband is going to live, she must have an abortion. The doctor at first
seems coldly unwilling to help, drily reminding her that science doesn't know everything. (We learn later what had left him so emotionally empty: His wife and children had been suddenly killed ten years earlier when a bomb obliterated their home while he was at work.) But Dorota is insistent, even asking the
doctor if he believes in God. While suggesting that she herself has no one to call on, she asks the doctor to swear an oath.

Finally, he tells her that her husband will die. Dorota has her child, and her fears prove groundless: We see the husband delightedly embracing the baby at the end.

Obviously, Kieslowski is not encouraging us to respond to the Decalogue in a mechanical way; in purely literal terms, the commandment against swearing a false oath may have been broken, but the decision has been made on behalf of life. No abstract principle has been taught; we are simply made intimate observers of two sympathetic people who are struggling painfully for some sense of direction. Because this inner, ethical struggle is the action, the emphasis is on closeups. As Georgia Brown wrote in 1989 in the Village Voice: "Faces are crucial... Strikingly, these are real faces, the hair is real hair, the
actors wear real clothes. They aren't cosmeticized or photographed to look their 'best'... The overall impression is one of transcendent modesty and a degree of realism, of humanness, we almost never see on screen."

The degree of the spectator's involvement in The Decalogue is also affected by the fact that Kieslowski and Piesiewicz linked the episodes in suggestive ways. The principal characters are different in each episode, but some return to play a minor role in another story; to emphasize such relationships, Kieslowski hoped that The Decalogue would be presented two episodes at a time. Planned as a series, the films take place in a large Warsaw apartment complex; we see the same few buildings each time. As Kieslowski pointed out, "Someone knocks at the door of an apartment to borrow salt or sugar, people run into each other in the elevator, and in this way become inscribed in the spectator's memory."

The apartment complex is an ideal set for Kieslowski because his camera is fond of windows, mirrors, reflections of any kind: Look through any window [of the housing project], there are people behind them. If you look closely, there is something interesting going on at their place. In other words, in the interior of each person you can find something interesting. You simply have to remove the mask, then we can remain together for a while... To have all the stories take place in the same neighborhood also had the advantage of always presenting closed spaces. The way in which those buildings are constructed and laid out limits the field of vision and this offered me many interesting compositions for the camera.

As always, esthetic, social, and moral concerns work together to concentrate and deepen Kieslowski's films. Another significant link between the different films is the presence, in all but 7 and 1 0, of a single, silent observer. He usually appears just before the central character is to encounter a special challenge or to make a crucial choice. This recurring figure is played by the same actor, although he wears different clothing in each episode. His presence, however, is not intended to encourage pretentious symbolic readings or idle talk about angels. Kieslowski remarked that this figure had no influence on the action but that "he leads the characters to reflect on what they are in the process of doing... His intense look at the characters leads them to ask themselves questions."

Kieslowski told a story that partly explains how he came to employ this device: One day, when several of us were discussing a film we had just seen,... an older writer happened to be present. "It's only a average movie," he said. "But I liked the burial scene very much, and the face of the man who was in black, at the left of the frame, was nothing less than sublime." None of the rest of us had seen this man; the director insisted that he didn't exist, no such person was in the shot. "But yes," the old writer insisted, without convincing us.

A week later, the writer died. The incident made an impression on me. What if, in the course of our lives, someone passed by that only those who are at some special crossroad are able to see?

The silent observer is frequently visible in Decalogue 1, wearing a sheepskin coat and trying to keep warm in front of a fire. The episode sets the tone for the series by dramatizing the conflict between the rational and the spiritual. "In believing too much in rationality," Kieslowski said, "our contemporaries have lost something." A bright ten-year-old boy, Pavel, lives alone with his father, Krzysztof; the mother is apparently far away, but will phone for Christmas. Father and son have a close relationship-Krzysztof gives the boy problems to solve on a computer-but, when Pavel encounters a dog frozen in the snow and asks about death, all he gets from his father is the definition from an encyclopedia: "the cessation of all functions of the central nervous system." Pavel is divided; he knows that his Aunt Irene believes that there is such a thing as a soul. Later, she picks him up at school, takes him to her house for lunch, and shows him pictures from her trip to Rome, including one of the pope. When Pavel asks her, "What's God?" she simply takes him in her arms. "What do you feel?" she asks, holding him against her breast. "I love you. He is in that." It is a powerful moment.

Kieslowski, however, is not setting up a neat opposition between the aunt's faith and the father's excessive confidence in technology. The director reminds us of the camaraderie between father and son in a sequence that shows Pavel coaching his father to victory in a chess match. It is out of fondness for his son that Krzysztof gives Pavel his Christmas present-ice skates-ahead of time, while insisting that he can't try them out until the ice has hardened sufficiently. Krzysztof calculates the thickness and resistance of the ice on his computer, and even walks out on the ice himself to verify his findings before authorizing Pavel's skating.

But there is an accident, the ice cracks, and we watch with dread as the father searches futilely for his son, and then observes helplessly as a rescue team lifts a small, lifeless body from a black hole. Finally, Krzysztof wanders into a nearby church, and overturns an altar and the candles that are burning before it. The wax leaves a tear on the large image of the Virgin that dominates the scene.

Decalogue 1 shows us the rigor of Kieslowski's approach to filmmaking. Nothing is extraneous; the plaintive music of Zbigniew Preisner-who worked regularly with the director-is used with great restraint; there is no forcing of emotion. No conclusions are offered, either; if computers, like chess, do not provide all the answers, they do teach us that we constantly have to choose the best among several possibilities.

A Short Film about Killing (the ninety-minute version of
Decalogue 5) is even more demanding in this respect. Unlike
the countless movies about violence that dominate our screens,
it shows the horror of killing. It takes seven minutes early on in
its first half for twenty-year-old Jacek to throttle a cabdriver
and another five minutes at the end for the state to execute him.
Kieslowski believed that inflicting death was the highest form
of violence and reported that his film crew was shaking while
the execution scene was being rehearsed, even though they
knew it was only pretense.

Jacek seems to have only the vaguest motives for the killing of
the cabdriver, yet he is relentlessly brutal in the way he ignores
the victim's pleas and finishes him off. Although Kieslowski
refused to sentimentalize the killer, there is a touch of humanity
in Jacek's retention of a photograph of his younger sister, who
had been killed in a tractor accident in his native village. The
film stresses the chance factors that led to the cabbie's picking
up his passenger, and contrasts them with the boy's cool
determination as he prepares the rope he will use in the murder.
Jacek's attitude is paralleled by the impersonal efficiency with
which the executioner prepares for his work. The
cinematographic use of filters makes everything seem soiled
and opaque. The young defense lawyer knows his efforts are
futile but listens sympathetically to his client's last requests. At
the end, Jacek's confession is cut short by his jailers because
he's taking too long.

The deep humanism behind Kieslowski's minute observation of
how people behave, both alone and in company, is equally
evident in A Short Film about Love (Decalogue 6). Tomek, a
young mail clerk, uses a stolen telephoto lens to spy on Magda,
an attractive young woman who entertains her lovers in her
apartment, the windows of which face his. The movie does not
treat his voyeurism as simply contemptible; there is a shyness
that coexists with an obsessive romanticism, which is
heightened when one night he observes her weeping. Tomek
makes anonymous phone calls and even takes a second job as a
milkman so that he can deliver bottles to her door. When
Magda finally agrees to see him, however, she destroys his
unrealistic adoration by offering herself to him; he is so
shattered that he goes back to his apartment and slashes his
wrists. What is distinctive is that sex here-unlike its
presentation in so many movies-is never a titillating distraction.
Kieslowski emphasized that in 6 the camera is always "looking
at the world through the eyes of the person who is loving, not
the person who is loved." Later, when Tomek is in the hospital,
Magda begins to feel some compassion for him, and we see the
world from her vantage point: "We're always looking at this
love," said Kieslowski, "through the eyes of the person who is
suffering because of this love."

The death of the boy Pavel in 1, and the decision for life in 2,
only reinforce the power of Decalogue 8, which for me is the
high point of the series. Before the titles, there is a shot of a
little girl under a porch holding the hand of an adult; it is the
only flashback of the series. The episode brings together two
women: Zofia, an aging ethics professor, and Elzbeita, a
younger woman, an American Jew, who has translated some of
the professor's work. The latter is invited to sit in on Zofia's
seminar at the university. During the class, students are asked
to bring up ethical cases, and one of them raises the issue
dramatized in Decalogue 2. When Zofia comments that the
important thing is that "the child is alive," Elzbeita is prompted
to bring up another case, "which has the advantage of being
true." It is the story of a six-year-old Jewish girl in 1943 who
was taken to the home of a couple who had volunteered to be
her fictional godparents, but at the last moment withdrew their
offer. Zofia knows that Elzbeita is really addressing her: Forty
years ago Zofia was the young woman who had refused to
provide the asylum requested. Zofia invites the younger woman
to her apartment and explains her past action as a choice not to
endanger a resistance network. She is now convinced, she says,
that "there is no cause more important than the life of a child."
Her humility and deep sincerity turn what could have been a
combative encounter into a warm exchange. Elzbeita
recognizes the professor's moral courage; after refusing to
receive the little girl, in 1943, Zofia had worked to save a good
number of Jews. The American expresses some surprise,
though, that "I've never read anything in your work about
God." I

"I am reluctant to use the word God," Zofia responds. "One
can believe without having to use certain words. Man was
created in order to choose... If so, perhaps we can leave God
out of it."

Kieslowski's Decalogue strengthens my conviction that
religious art in our time must inevitably be a very indirect kind
of testimony, not intended as such by the artist. In strict fidelity
to the laws of movie-making, Kieslowski looks unflinchingly
at a reality we can neither control nor fully understand; he
shows characters and actions that are at first opaque, and only
gradually take on significance. Nor does he offer any explicit
openings to grace, as are sometimes suggested in the endings of
Robert Bresson's films; we only recognize the limitations of
our resources. As the desperate father cries out at the end of the
screenplay of Decalogue I-a line not spoken in the film-"Who
is there to turn to?"