All the films of the Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Dekalog” are set in contemporary Warsaw, Poland, a decade after the election of St. John Paul II as pope (he makes a cameo appearance in one installment via photographs), but still a communist-run nation as soulless apartment block after soulless apartment block fills the screen in each episode.
There are a handful of returning characters, mostly having to do with the post office and a university, but no character is a featured player in more than one installment. There is, though, a mute Greek chorus of sorts — Kieslowski himself? — who witnesses a pivotal moment in most, if not all (I hadn’t been looking for him early on) of the films. But with multiple pivotal moments in each episode, you can’t count on this fellow popping up each and every time.
Here is an overview of the plot of the “Dekalog” films, one for each of the Ten Commandments:
One: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall not have other gods beside me.” An agnostic (at best) university mathematics professor, so well off he has not one but two home computers — remember, this is 1988 — also has a bright and inquisitive son who is curious about God, aided and abetted by his Catholic aunt. The lad gets an early Christmas present of ice skates and he wants to try them out on the nearby pond. But, despite Dad’s computer calculations of ice thickness — plus a personal test — tragedy strikes, calling the meaning of virtually everything into question.
Two: “You shall not invoke the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.” A woman whose husband is desperately ill in the hospital insists on a prognosis from his doctor. She’s carrying another man’s child, but will go through with the pregnancy only if her husband dies; otherwise, she will have an abortion. The woman makes the doctor swear to the veracity of his diagnosis once she revealed the truth of her situation.
Three: “Remember the Sabbath day — keep it holy.” A woman, upon seeing an old flame at midnight Mass, enlists his aid on an all-night wild goose chase to find the woman’s missing husband. All is not what it seems to be at first glance.
Four: “Honor your father and your mother.” A college girl stumbles upon a sealed envelope with her out-of-the-country father’s instruction written on it: “To be opened after my death.” Ignoring the instruction, she opens it to find another sealed envelope — this one in the handwriting of her mother, who died not long after giving birth to the girl. The contents of that envelope and the implications they hold for both father and daughter serve as the basis for a drama far unlike any you would see on U.S. television.
Five: “You shall not kill.” In yet another mundane day in the lives of several people, a disaffected young man commits a brutal murder for no apparent reason, and is given an idealistic young lawyer who is ardently against capital punishment to serve as his attorney.
Six: “You shall not commit adultery.” A free-spirited woman who drifts in and out of affairs has been spied upon, and even pranked, by a man half her age who can train his telescope from his room in a nearby apartment complex on her window. After he confesses to his deeds, the woman is repulsed, then intrigued, and possibly a bit charmed. But when she turns the tables on him, the young man’s reaction is nothing like what she expected — as is the denouement.
Seven: “You shall not steal.” In another all-is-not-what-it-seems situation, a girl expelled from college kidnaps her 6-year-old sister, who has always been doted on by Mom. Except that the college dropout is the child’s actual mother, sired by her high school Polish teacher; Mom and Dad had made her sign away rights to the child to avoid scandal. The college student’s desire to get back at her mother is matched only by her mother’s desire to reclaim her precious little one.
Eight: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” A university ethics professor is visited by the American translator of her books. Auditing one ethics class, the translator poses an ethical conundrum: Would you take in a 6-year-old Jewish girl in 1943 wartime Warsaw and give her baptismal papers ensuring her safe travel, despite the bearing of false witness — or refuse her, consigning her to a near-certain death on the streets before she can make it to the city’s Jewish ghetto past curfew? The conundrum is not rhetorical: The translator had been that child, and the professor had turned her away 45 years ago. Trying to make sense of their pasts, their lives and their friendship are the key points once the truth is out.
Nine: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” A surgeon, despondent over being told he is impotent, gives permission to his wife to divorce him or seek an affair so she can be fulfilled. But when she falls into an affair, her husband’s jealousy and agony can become almost too much to bear.
Ten: “You shall not covet … anything that belongs to your neighbor.” The most comic of the 10 films, it deals with two brothers now grown — one a well-off family man, the other a punk rocker — who were raised in near-privation by their father. After the old man dies, they discover the reason for their austere upbringing: He had spent every last zloty on rare stamps. The brothers’ inability to make an immediate decision over what to do with this find leads them to commit the same kind of avarice their father had, by pursuing the Holy Grail of Polish stamps — an exceedingly rare issue that won’t cost them a cent but a whole lot more — showing that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Taken individually, each film is thought-provoking. Seeing eight in a row — or possibly all 10 — comes close to being a transformational experience. After the first couple of installments, I thought that perhaps Kieslowski wasn’t going in the exact order of the commandments as outlined in Exodus 20. However, his films show that more than one commandment can be broken, or brokered, by a set of characters.
And while none of the stories is religious, each one grapples with moral conflicts arising from ordinary situations and relationships, and for that “Dekalog” made it on the Vatican’s list of top films of the 20th century.