Decalogue: Eight (1988) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
30Jun/100

Decalogue: Eight (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.

"Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."

Andrew COMMENTARYAs we wind down the collection of Commandment based movies, Kieslowski decides it's time for something of a manifesto.  A declaration, very simple, of why he is doing these films and what they are supposed to represent.  It's a bit odd that it's contained in Eight, which has some intriguing elements, but ultimately falters under it's own sense of metacommentary.  This is a series that has thrived on subtlety and cunning, so when we have a story that's so completely spelled out it's a bit jarring.

To be fair, we already had a story like that in Five when Kieslowski railed out against the death penalty.  But even in that case we had a "villain" that still had a shred of humanity and a situation that still posed a few interesting questions.  The problem with Eight is that it feels so deliberately like a manifesto.  I thought that Kieslowski had reached that pinnacle with Five, or perhaps Two, but here he decides to come right out and say it.  There are situations in the world that cause us to stop and make moral decisions, some are good and some are bad, and whether they are good or bad is dependant on the situation.  Got it?  Good, now let's spell it out for you in the dullest of The Decalogue films.

Eight opens on the recurring images of clasping hands as we go through the Warsaw ghetto.  The much needed context for that scene will come later, so for the moment we just have to grasp at it's symbolism as we flash forward many years later.  A young woman named Elzbieta (Teresa Marczewska), is visiting from America and doing research on Jewish survivors.  There she meets Zofia (Maria Koscialkowska), and a note of recognition courses over Elzbieta's face suddenly, at which point she decides to sit in on Zofia's ethics course and listen to her lecture the students.

It's in this classroom where Kieslowski begins to shape his manifesto.  This day, the students are discussing ethical situations and are facing the topic of "ethical hell".  Spirituality still plays no specific role in these scenes, but we begin to see how Kieslowski is slowly underlining the way it has been present throughout the series.  He also indicates that the lives of those in the other films have had an impact on others that are not directly present in those story lines.  For example, one student discusses an ethical situation that involves a quietly religious doctor and a worried newly pregnant wife.  The student continues on about the situation and essentially gives us a recap of the events that took place in Two.  Zofia remarks that everyone has heard of that story, and gives us a conclusion by saying that the woman goes on to have the baby.

I found this a bit amusing.  Aside from the "angel" that appears in most of the movies, there is very little direct contact between characters.  We see them pass each other in hallways and occasionally provide small hellos to one another, but there is very little weaving together of stories in the apartment complex.  Here we see that everyone's story does have an impact on the outside world.  What may initially seem as a private dilemma shared between three people became the talk of the town for a short while.  Kieslowski shows that that actions our consciences propel us toward really do have effects beyond our little sphere.

However, the class must continue and the central ethical dilemma of Eight is posed as a hypothetical by the visiting Elzbieta.  Imagine a six year old girl, told that she will be given shelter by a young couple from the Nazis, if only the couple is provided proof of her baptism.  The girl and her caretaker arrive, but they bear no proof, and the couple sends them away because they cannot lie to others.  Elzbieta notes that their Catholic faith, which should have given the young girl comfort, has instead sent her away to face the streets.  The students note how simplistic this reason is, and Zofia (noticably shaken) postulates that there may be more reasons going on than anyone realizes.

If you haven't figured out that the child was Elzbieta and half of the young couple was Zofia, it will be revealed very shortly.  This, and many other scenes that follow, have them talking about the years since as they wander around the dark night, one seeking for an answer and the other more than willing to provide it.  These sorts of situations have proven to be interesting in previous Decalogue films, so why is Eight so lackluster?

The first issue is that the moral problems placed in the other films are being resolved as the film progresses.  Whether or not you agree with the actions taken by the characters, they unfold in (nearly) real-time and we are left to ponder their moral stances.  In Eight, the bulk of the heavy decision making has already been made many years ago, and what we are witnessing is the aftermath of those actions.  While it's interesting to see that aftermath, very little occurs to give the events true dramatic weight.  We see that Zofia is willing to provide the answer to Elzbieta's question of "Why?".  But there is very little else to get involved with in the story, so we must search other areas for insight or value.

Unfortunately, this is also one of the blandest Decalogue films in terms of presentation as well.  No matter how simplistic the stories may seem, there are a couple of shots that really stir up emotion and highlight exactly how stressful even the most casual moral decision can be.  There is no such moment in Eight.  Only once was I really moved to remark at how well a shot was composed, and the rest of the time the camera simply points at our two heroines and let's them spell out their secrets and explanations.  Even the music, a consistently strong batch of atmospheric tunes, is boring in this installment.  In short, there's very little to get excited about.

"But excitement isn't really what The Decalogue is all about!"...you may cry.  Perfectly understood, but there is at least some inherent tension presented in the stories presented.  Here it almost seems like two old friends are getting together to have tea after a slightly unfortunate mishap.  Not a catastrophic decision that could have sent the little girl to her death.  We do get the answers that Elzbieta seeks, but they come at a cost of being bluntly obvious.  It turns out that Zofia's husband was a member of the Polish resistance, and fake refugees were being sent to homes to try and draw out their members.  Hence, no paper, no admittance - as it was one of the only signs that the caretaker and girl really belonged to that home.

The actions themselves aren't as obvious as their explanation.  We receive this news after hearing about the subjectivity of morality and the students guessing that there should be other reasons.  I am going to spell out the metaphor for this story as bluntly as the film did.  Kieslowski is the teacher, kind and imperfect, and the students are us, his audience.  We sit and ponder the moral complexity of his tales and wonder what we might do in their situations.  Or, as the teacher puts it, just trying to learn how to live.

I wish that they had toyed with the specter of Catholicism that ran through the decisions made in this chapter.  But, aside from one moment, it is left alone to do a bunch of heavy-handed preaching and ruining any subtlety present.  While it sounds like I hate this film, I should note that a bad Kieslowski film is still a good film.  There's enough intrigue and atmosphere to keep me engaged by the questions, if not exactly enthralled by them.

Next time we revisit the old standby of adultery with "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors wife."

The Decalogue:

One “I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me”
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.”
Nine "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors wife."
Ten "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors goods."

Decalogue: Eight (1988)

Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Written by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz.
Starring Teresa Marczewska and Maria Koscialkowska.

Posted by Andrew

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