‘Dekalog’ — Great Television, Great Cinema


Dir. Krzystof Kieslowski – Poland

At the IFC Center

If you think that the television revolution is a recent phenomenon, that’s one more reason to see Dekalog, the ten-part series that Krzysztof Kieslowski wrote and directed for Polish television in the late 1980’s. Set in and around a housing bloc in Warsaw, and among its residents of all backgrounds, it’s a collection of stories that explore the spectrum of emotion and of cinema.

unnamedIt’s been 20 years since Kieslowski’s death.  Poland has changed. Those apartment towers – towers for Poland, that is – are probably covered in rust, if they are still standing. When Kieslowski shot Dekalog, these buildings must have seemed a bit more manicured that what you might actually have found in Poland. Perhaps that’s a reflection of how the Communist censors wanted them to be seen – as evidence of a modern society that seemed almost as modern as the West. Who says that Hollywood has a monopoly on cinematic wish fulfillment?

Kieslowski certainly gave you modern Poland here, walking uneasily through these characters and through decades of anguish – but also through a tradition of dramatic writing, acting, and cinematography. Even the critics agree on this one.

If possible, see the series as a marathon. Be prepared for the demands that it will make on your emotions. If not, sixty minutes of drama at a time can fit into anyone’s schedule.

Two episodes caught my attention this time.

Miroslav as the Young Killer in Dekalog 5

Miroslav Baka as the Young Killer in Dekalog 5

One was Dekalog 5, in which we follow two parallel lives – that of a young principled defense lawyer and that of a seemingly indifferent young murderer. Parallel, that is, until they intersect.

The killer (Miroslav Baka) is a young man without feeling, aloof in a style that seems influenced, if not borrowed, from American cinema. The killing, which begins with a strangling in the taxicab, takes place in what looks like the middle of nowhere. A man rides by quietly on his bicycle. A horse turns his head when he hears the taxi’s horn. A train, with its own horn, drowns out the brutality. The scene of trees by the lake where the killer leaves the body could have come out of a Corot painting.

The world, in case you didn’t notice, is indifferent.  If you judge the killer by his expression, so is he. His name is Jacek, we learn halfway through the film. We eventually learn that he had his own anguish.

The young lawyer opposed to capital punishment gets the case. The young killer gets the death sentence, nonetheless, and we see how an execution in Warsaw is carried out. Kieslowski makes you feel every step of the way.

Dekalog 8 takes us back through recent Polish history as a professor of ethics receives a special dark-haired visitor from America at her university class. As the class discusses ethical dilemmas, the dark-haired women, fashionably groomed, tells of being Jewish and hidden in 1943, a time when being discovered as a Jew meant death for you and for the Poles who tried to hide you. At the time, plans were made for her to be sheltered by a Catholic couple, provided that she agreed to be baptized. The young girl, only 6, agreed. Given the slaughter around her, it would have been a minimal compromise to make. Yet the Catholic couple stalled, saying that they could not accept a conversion that was a lie. The child was left defenseless. The professor then realizes that she herself had been involved in the scheme to hid the child and in the decision against it. Kieslowski never tells us how the child – now a woman living in America – survived a fate that meant sure extermination for most Polish Jews. It haunts the entire hour, as the older professor tries to be close to her

The broader complicity in the fate of Jews under the Nazis is a subject that Poland continues to avoid.

More on the Dekalog soon.

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