The Dekalog are films I am reluctant to write much about. They are works that ought not to be discussed so much as experienced. Indeed, one of them is used in a course at Regis College (Toronto) to provide a “communal experience of the ineffable”. How is it possible to feel so strongly, but lack the words to describe what it is that one feels? This is the accomplishment of Dekalog, and because of its power, it deserves to be called art in the highest sense. The series is, in my opinion, a masterpiece of cinema.
We can point out, however, some general lines of interpretation that may help us process what it is we see. As the title suggests, the Dekalog is ten short films, about 55 minutes each, created by Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski in the late 1980s. For nearly a decade and a half they were practically unavailable in the West, although they screened at the Venice Film Festival and were broadcast on Polish television. They roughly correspond to the Ten Commandments, but it would be a mistake to try to match each film too strictly to a particular commandment. The existential and ethical dilemmas tend to interpenetrate, although some general outlines emerge.
Foremost, they are human stories, steeped in the pathos of the human condition. Kieslowski once said, “each film addresses a different subject matter… I would call most of them psychological films, films in which I try to peel away a few layers from my protagonists.” Like all good artists, he wishes to refrain from making definitive interpretations of his work. We can be certain that the films do not moralize. They present fascinatingly complex human situations, in which the murky combat of good and evil takes place often in understatement, in the interior dramas of the protagonists. As such, they resemble our real lives much more than normal stories do.
The films explore the lives of the inhabitants of a Warsaw apartment complex in the twilight of the Communist era. The overall tone is drab and grey, although thanks to the excellence of the acting (never was “suspending your disbelief” so easy), the “human factor” grants a flicker of warmth in the mechanical, bureaucratic lives of these Polish souls. As we gaze at their difficulties, we feel compassion, perhaps like the “Trinity looking down upon the earth” in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, when the Three Persons makes the decision to send the Son.
Indeed, there is a mysterious male figure who appears in eight of the films who never utters a word, but gazes at the people in their most trying moments. Many have thought of him as a Christ-figure, but perhaps he is more like the angels in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, who are “pure gaze”, able, as Annette Insdorf wrote, “to record human folly and suffering but unable to alter the course of the lives they witness.” Perhaps he represents the hidden aspect of God’s suffering too.
“Dekalog One” is arguably among the most powerful. A father and son live in a tiny apartment, where they enjoy playing chess, and conversing about the difficult questions the son poses about death. The father is a scientist, perhaps representing the materialist worldview, and there is a clear inadequacy to the responses he can provide. He reluctantly allows his sister to teach his son a bit about religion, and oddly, this provides some answers, albeit in a still elusive manner. He is a likeable man, and perhaps has just a bit of hubris as a university instructor. In the end, his computer proves to be unreliable, perhaps even a false god.
In “Dekalog Two”, a woman wants a doctor to tell her whether her husband will live or die, but he will not easily acquiesce to her yes-or-no demands. She is pregnant with another man’s child. Her husband is infertile, and if he dies, she will keep the baby. If he lives, she will abort the baby. This indeed is an “intractable situation”, in which either outcome will be tragic. Yet, even here we see how grace enters, and performs its inscrutable labour.
That is all that ought to be said about these magnificent films. In recent weeks, a newly remastered Blu-ray edition has been released for the first time, and we will screen the first two Dekalog films back to back from this edition,
The screening of “Dekalog One and Two” takes place at Regis College, Toronto this Wednesday, Oct 5, at 7pm. Hand-out reflections and a short optional discussion to follow. The series of film screenings, curated by John D. O’Brien, S.J., runs Wednesday evenings until October 26. Dedicated to the Year of Mercy, these films develop the theme “justice and mercy shall embrace”. For details, see Regis College Film Series http://regiscollege.ca/event/film-series-2016