It’s not often that something that made its debut on Polish television gets this kind of acclaim, but Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Dekalog”(“Decalogue” in English) merited precisely that acclaim — even now, 28 years after its debut.
Kieslowski was commissioned by Polish TV to make a series of hour-long dramas on each of the Ten Commandments. This being state television, there were no commercials or promotions for other programs to rob Kieslowski of precious minutes to tell his tales.
“Dekalog” was heralded as a sensation when viewers first caught sight of it. Eventually, it made its way to the United States. I recall going to a film festival in Washington in 1994 hoping to catch the first two installments. I was at the multiplex a good half-hour early to buy tickets, but it was already sold out. I had thought that if I’d missed the first two, then the remaining eight wouldn’t make much sense to me. So I let them all slip past. The following year, Kieslowski’s “Tricolor” trilogy, based on the French bleu-blanc-et-rouge flag, makes its way to the film-festival circuit. And I caught each of the three full-length films.
Fast-forward to 2016. I’m doing my typical pre-dawn walk up and down the main drag close to my neighborhood. In full view during my walk is the marquee of the Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland. For a week, I pass by the marquee while the words “Dekalog: One and Two” or “Dekalog: Three and Four” roll by. I don’t make the connection, because in 1994 the series was being touted in English: “Decalogue.”
Then, one morning, I look at the marquee. I see five pairs of “Dekalog” encompassing 10 numbers. I realize that “Dekalog” is “Decalogue.” I make immediate plans to get out of work early to take in — well, the last eight. A phone conference commitment followed by a lunch commitment will force me to miss the first two installments yet again. Drat. At least this time, our online world can give me several days’ advance notice of screenings at the Silver, and “Dekalog: One and Two” will indeed play once more at a date and time I can slip out of the office yet again.
This time, though, there is no packed house. I’d be surprised if the crowd, if you can call it that, reaches double digits for any of the five pairs of screenings. No matter. “Dekalog” is every bit the cinematic triumph I had imagined it to be more than two decades ago. What’s more, it had been digitally remastered, keeping the late Kieslowski’s images sharp and crisp.
Had there been an Emmy award in 1988 for best miniseries or limited-series film, “Dekalog” would have won hands down. Yes, despite its Polish dialogue with English subtitles. Each script, each plot presents a weighty rumination and a myriad of choices of varying ethicality for its characters to ponder and pursue.
In a follow-up blog, I’ll try to summarize each film’s plot. I’ll include the relevant commandment from the New American Bible Revised Edition, even if it may be a bit different from the way you remember having learned them. Why do so? Because in gushing about “Dekalog” to another parent at Back to School Night, she seemed a bit befuddled as to what the Ten Commandments entailed.
I realize that “Dekalog” is probably available through some online service, but I’d never bothered to look for it before. If you live in an area where “Dekalog” is not likely to visit — and granted, that’s probably most of the country — you would do well to look for it.
Next: A description of each of the “Dekalog” films.