Decalogue : One (1988) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
6May/100

Decalogue : One (1988)

My examination of The Decalogue is a full analysis of each film, its themes and visual strategy.  If you have not seen The Decalogue, I would highly advise stopping here and watching it before continuing.

"I am the Lord thy God; thou
shalt have no other gods before me."

Andrew COMMENTARYOne of Polish filmmaker Kryzstof Kieslowskis curiosities was the way conventional church morality played into the actually day to day decisions of life.  He was not so curious about the potential outcome of following these rules into the hereafter.  Rather he was curious about the practical application of these rules and regulation.  What could possibly be gained, or lost, if the rules of the church are used in our daily lives?

This is a question that he seeks to answer with The Decalogue.  It is a series of ten short films, each about an hour long, that address one of the Ten Commandments.  But rather than make it a film that might play in your local church, the role of God and the supernatural is largely absent in these films.  Rather, they center on the lives of the tenants of an apartment complex in Warsaw.  The characters of each film have little direct contact with each other.  We see them coming and going, oblivious to the heartache and despair that each are going through.

Other than the apartment complex there are a few things that tie all of the films together.  Each film is written and directed by Kieslowski and his longtime writing partner  Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and features music by Kieslowski’s equally longtime composer, Zbigniew Preisner.  With each new short film comes a new cinematographer, and Kieslowski plays to the strengths of each one depending on the story.

The final connection between each film is the angelic, flat faced young man with sad eyes that watches the characters.  He seems to be the only one that is aware of what is going on in each of their lives but never gets involved in what is going on.  There has been a lot of speculation as to who this young man is – if he is an angel, or a neighbor, perhaps just a man that happens to be around when things are going wrong.  What I can tell you for certain is that he is sensitive to the pain of the tenants.  He never speaks, and is always watching.  The nameless man is the closest reflection of Kieslowski that we can find in his work.  Both desperately identify with the pain of fellow Polish citizens without having the means to directly affect change.  The only thing that they can do is watch, report, and see what happens as fate collides in their orderly worlds.

The first film of The Declagoue sets the tone for what is to come, and is also one of the more blunt in its associations with the first Commandment.  For those that need a refresher course, the first Commandment is “I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me”.  The order and wording of the commandments can change depending on the religion, a fact that Kieslowski seems very aware of with the fluid nature of morality in these pieces, but largely stays within the confines of the Commandment he chooses to anchor each story around.

We see the young man, sitting around a fire to keep warm, as he watches the apartment building where we will find the remainder of our characters.  At this point we are introduced to the two principal actors of the first story.  The first film centers on Krzysztof (played by Henryk Baranowski) and his son Pawel (Wojciech Klata), who have taken to using their computer to control most aspects of their life.  They ask the computer questions about the weather, physics problems, and use it to lock and unlock parts of the house.  It comes as no shock that this is the being that is worshipped in their household.  God has had little place here since Krzysztofs wife died some years ago.

Pawel himself has been more curious about matters of spiritual concern.  He has begun questioning what lies beyond this life, and his father is of little help.  It’s hard not to see a little bit of Kieslowski in the professor.  The fictional Krzysztof represents a side of Kieslowski that is eternally skeptical of what spirituality conceals.  Krzysztof’s sister (played by Maja Komorowska) recently offered to set Pawel up with some spiritual education at a local church.  This does not exactly thrill Krzysztof, but he is ok with allowing his son to take part in what will make him happy.

As life goes on both Krzysztof and son continue to search for patterns and logical sequences wherever they go.  Life has lost its sense of randomness to these two.  They reach to the computer for answers to everything and, when confronted with a particularly good chess player, see that she is using a system for her moves and break it quickly.  Eventually Pawel wants to go ice skating and, before he can, Krzysztof wants to make sure that the lake is frozen over enough.  The two get one last chance to allow their natural instincts to drive their decisions, but ultimately decide to use the computer again.

A bottle, filled to the brim with frozen water, leads the two to think that it may be safe enough to go ice skating.  But instead of waiting and making sure, they decide to ask the computer how long the temperature will need to stay at a certain level before it is safe.  Time passes, and one day Krzysztof arrives home to find that Pawel is missing.  Outside, the bottle is thawing, and Krzysztof sees that the temperature has risen very suddenly.  The bottle, combined with the ink that Krzysztof accidentally spills on his work, show that this system of prediction that they had set up will leave Krzysztof with his sons blood on his hands.

Krzysztof goes into a panic to try and find his son.  Unfriendly neighbors and unhelpful emergency personell get in his way and prevent him from learning the truth for a while.  His son was ice skating on the lake, and when the heat suddenly climbed, he fell through the ice and died.  Kieslowski allows the computer to take a menacing form.  It turns itself on without any input from Krzysztof and serves as a constant reminder that not everything can be catalogued.  Broken, he goes into a ramshackle altar set up to the Black Madonna of Częstochowa (a representation of the Virgin Mary), and as he tears into the altar a candle is knocked over, sending white tears down the darkened face of the Black Madonna.

Our final image of Krzysztof leaves us with some intriguing questions as well.  After his incident at the altar we see him holding a piece of ice shaped like a communion wafer.  He touches it to his face and forehead before allowing it to slowly melt in his hand.  Does this mean that he still, in some way, is capable of believing in the God that his sister does?  I do not think so.  The consolations of religion are icy and painful to him at this point, and he is merely trying to force himself to feel what it is that his sister encouraged in his son.

In Kieslowski’s world, anyone that relies on any aspect of life too much to make decisions will be punished.  In the case of the fictional Krzysztof, he and his son used the scientific method and their technology to take the place of all human intuition and desire.  Their flaw was in not allowing for anything unpredictable to happen in their lives.  Everything had to be catalogued within the system and could be explained by the system.  His sister’s religious comforts do not aid them as well.  They serve as a coping mechanism for tragedies after they occur, but do very little to stem the approach of these tragedies or prepare for the random horror that life can inflict.

Kieslowski approaches this first story with the first Commandment firmly in mind.  We see that Krzysztof and son have taken the computer to be their false God.  But the real God would have also served little use for Krzysztof, as his son is taken away by His random machination of nature.  He presents this story with very little of the mysticism that we will see in coming films, but still allows a little room for the spiritual.  His tone is elegiac and sad, one that will be reduplicated many times, and still allows for some absolutely striking images.

There are three that stand out in Decalogue : One over all others.  The first is when Krzysztof arrives at home and finds the frozen bottle slowly thawing and dripping into pavement.  Here he foreshadows how the unpredictable nature of life will soon reclaim his son into the Earth.  The second is when Krzysztof is tearing into the altar of the Black Madonna.  Her tears serve as a reminder that the only comfort religion can provide is one of observance and empathy, but never action.  Finally, the closing image of the film (which is previously referred to early on) when a recording of Pawel, happy and smiling, is shown playing on a television a frame at a time until slowly growing more distorted out of existence.  For Krzysztof, since he does not have the comforts of religion to guide him through his loss, it is in this way that he will remember his son – as bits of information looping endlessly on the machines that have been guiding his life.

The first film of The Decalogue is a potent reminder of the way that religion and science play into modern lives.  It is also one of the more bluntly obvious with its approach and message.  In subsequent chapters Kieslowski will not be as broad as he is in this opening film.  This does not, however, detract from the power of what Kieslowski is trying to do.  But his more political and subversive side will be revealed next week, as I go through the second Decalogue, “Thou shalt not take the name of Lord thy God in vain.”

The Decalogue:

Two "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain"
Three “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”
Four "Honor thy father and thy mother"
Five “Thou shalt not kill.”
Six "Thou shalt not commit adultery."
Seven "Thou shalt not steal."
Eight "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."
Nine "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors wife."
Ten "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors goods."

Decalogue : One (1988)

Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Written by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz.
Starring Henryk Baranowski, Wojciech Klata, and Maja Komorowska.

Posted by Andrew

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