The Decalogue is a series of 10 Polish films related to the Ten Commandments created by Krzysztof Kieslowski. The films are in black and white with subtitles. The following are notes from the director.
“I believe fate is an important part of life. Of all our lives, my own included. How many twists of fate must there have been for me to be sitting here in Warsaw, writing an introduction to the English language edition of the Decalogue? Naturally, a person may select his or her path through life and so to a certain extent determines what happens along the way. But to understand where you are in the present, it is necessary to retrace the steps of your life and isolate the parts played by necessity, free will and pure chance.”
During difficult political times in Poland, Kieslowski got permission from the government to film trials. “The camera was received coldly in the court room at first; it was a witness, with an extremely long memory. The judges were never quite certain of my intentions, while the defense lawyers and their clients probably suspected that I was working on behalf of a completely compromised institution, state-controlled television, and refused to co-operate with me. But this did not last long. After only a few days, the lawyers noticed that whenever the camera was present during the hearings there were either no jail sentences at all, or they were suspended by the judges. There was a simple explanation for this. The judges were afraid that the reels of film recording their faces at the very moment they delivered unjust prison sentences could one day be sued as evidence against them.”
(Note: As I write this it is October 2003 and the President of MTSU has checked himself into the hospital after being accused of sexual harassment. He has chosen not to give any details as to why he is in the hospital or what the charges against him are as he doesn’t seem to understand the repercussions of an attempt at secrecy. The judges understood that with the cameras present, they had lost one of the most important elements of the abuse of power---secrecy. Our President, apparently, has not learned this lesson---yet. The future is one in which dimensions of power and the games those in power play is rapidly changing because they are losing their ability to keep their actions secret. If you know for sure you will be caught you are far less likely to cheat. Some schools are starting to put cameras in the classrooms and on the schoolyards and are finding that the level of violence significantly declines. Not everyone is happy about this as they see a decline in privacy as the cost. However, considering the costs of greed, of bullying, of all the evils that we are plagued with, is not a marginal loss of privacy a reasonable cost when it significantly limits the growth of evil? In many ways this is the most important issue of this new millennium! How can we limit power and evil without giving away our freedoms? Films like Decalogue cannot answer that question, however, such films do help us understand the complexities of human behavior so that we are better able to craft policies to guide that behavior.)
“I believe the life of every person is worthy of scrutiny, containing its own secrets and dramas. People don’t talk about them because they are embarrassed, because they do not like to scratch old wounds, or are afraid of being judged unfashionably sentimental. Therefore we wanted to start each film in such a way that would suggest that the lead character had been chosen by the camera almost by accident, as if one of many. The idea occurred to us of showing a huge stadium in which, form among the hundred thousand faces, we would focus on one in particular. There was also the idea of the camera picking out one person from a crowded street and then following that person for the rest of the film. Finally we decided to place the action of Decalogue in a large housing estate, with thousands of similar windows framed within the establishing shot. Behind each of these windows, we said to ourselves, is a living human being, whose mind, whose heart and, even better, whose stomach is worthy of investigation.”
From this experience the director made friends with one of the defense lawyers who suggested almost off-handedly that he should make a movie about the Ten Commandments. The lawyer, who had the same first name, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, became a collaborator on these 10 films and co-wrote the screenplays with Kieslowski.
“I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
It is a cold and snowy Polish winter. A father and son, both highly intelligent, live alone in a high-rise apartment complex. Both are computer whiz-types, chess masters, able to measure everything brilliantly. The father is an agnostic. The father’s sister is a Catholic and she gets her nephew involved in a study of God…in part because of the boy’s curiosity.
The father is very loving, gentle, smiling at life.
A symbolic man sitting by the lake, never talks, only watches.
The boy’s mother is not with them but is referred to…is she dead?
The son finds skates he is to get for Christmas from his father and gets permission to use them early. But first the father and son thoroughly calculate whether the ice is safe to skate on. In addition to doing the math, the father tests it out by walking on it but additionally warns his son not to go near where the stream enters the lake as it doesn’t freeze there.
The next day the son goes skating. The ice breaks. The father says: “It can’t!” The boy’s body is recovered as his father and aunt look on at the rescue effort. The father then goes home and finds the computer reading: “I am ready.” The father then goes to an empty church and knocks over a table in anger. An overturned candle drips on a picture of Christ so that it looks like Christ is crying.
Before his death the young boy has seen a dead dog in the snow. He asks his father: “Why do people die?” “It depends: heart failure, cancer, accidents, old age.” “I mean, what IS death?” “The heart stops pumping blood…it doesn’t reach the brain, movement ceases, everything stops. It’s the end.” “So what’s left?” “What a person has achieved, the memory of that person. The memory’s important. The memory that someone moved in a certain way, or that they were kind…you remember their face, their smile, that a tooth was missing.”
The boy then gives a partial quotation: “For the peace of her soul…” And then says to his father: “You didn’t mention a soul.” Referring to the quote, the father says: “It’s a form of words of farewell; there is no soul.” “Auntie says there is.” “Some find it easier to live thinking that.” And the son says: “And you?” “Me? Frankly, I don’t know.”
In a conversation with the Aunt the son says: “Dad told me that we are living in order to make life easier…for those who will come after us. But it doesn’t always work out.” “Not alw2ays, your father is right. It’s just if you can do something for others, to help, to be there…even if it’s only a little thing, you know you are needed…and life becomes brighter somehow. There are big and small things. Today you like the dumplings, so that made me happy. One is alive, and it’s a present, a gift.” The aunt goes on to talk of how her brother, his father, early on “concluded that measurement could be applied to everything. Your dad’s way of life may seem more reasonable, but it doesn’t rule out God. Even for your dad. God is…very simple, if you have faith.”
The boy asks his Aunt about God: “So who is He?” The Aunt then hugs him and asks: “What do you feel now?” “I love you.” “Exactly; that’s where He is.”
This opening film of the Decalogue can be interpreted in more than one way…, which is exactly the intent of its creators. They are not trying to answer all your questions. They are trying to get you to think about each of the Ten Commandments and how complex and wondrous life is. Are they in any way trying to say that God took the life of the boy to punish the father for his failure to believe? I very much doubt that because that is a simplistic way of looking at life. I see them saying that life is more complex, not simplistic. They are saying that it is so complex that even the more thorough investigation will not reveal all of its mysteries. Science can help us begin to understand more, but it also can fool us into thinking that we understand more than we really do. We must never elevate science to the level of a god, as then we will fail to appreciate God and all the wonders He has created.
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
We are now back at the same high rise apartment complex and it is still cold but we have no snow on the ground. An older man, a medical doctor, lives in the complex. A younger woman who lives in the complex contacts him. Her husband is on his ward and she wants to know how he is doing. The doctor says he is bad off but doesn’t’ know if he will live or not. She pushes him for a more definitive answer. “Our marriage is a very good one. I love him very much. Tell me if he’s going to die: I just have to know.” It turns out that she is three months pregnant by another man. She loves both of these men. “If my husband lives, I can’t have the baby.” The doctor says his chances are 15%. “My husband gave me tranquility and support. The other…one shouldn’t wish for everything, that’s pride.”
She decides to have the abortion. She goes to the hospital to see her sick husband. While there she tells the doctor she has decided on an abortion. He says: “Don’t do it.” Her husband is dying he tells her. It is a lie to save the unborn child.
The husband recovers.
The husband tells the doctor he looks forward to having the baby. Asks doctor if he had children. The answer is yes, but he doesn’t tell him that they died in the war.
Was this the ethical thing to do? Does a doctor have the right to play God and lie to a person about whether or not someone is going to live or die in order to save an unborn child? My guess is that many of you said yes, he did the right thing. But is that not a slippery slope? If you can lie for a good cause, then who is to judge whether the next time the “good” cause is really all that good? Is it not better to tell the truth and try to convince the woman not to have the abortion? But, if you do that you are risking the life of the unborn, are you not? Are you ready to live with that on your conscience? Remember the commandment we are examining here. It is one about taking the Lord’s name in vain---as applied to this story, it is about lying. “I swear to you, in God’s name, the husband is going to die.” I have now broken one of the commandments in order to save a life.
Hey! Remember, we are not giving you answers, we are giving you problems to struggle with in the Decalogue. How is that struggle going?
“Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”
Again the apartment complex, again the cold. It is winter. It is Christmas Eve.
A man is celebrating with his wife and their children. Another woman, who he use to be intimate with, asks for his help in finding her husband who is missing. He lies to his wife and goes off with the other woman to help her. It soon is clear to the viewer that she is lying. They visit hospitals together. At one they look at a corpse and she says she wishes it were her husband…or him (her ex-lover). They drive recklessly---daring, tempting fate, somewhat suicidal. They go to her place together.
We now learn that her husband found the two of them together in the past years ago. Her husband told her that she could go with him as long as she agreed never to see her lover again. She agreed. They both loved one another but chose to go back to their spouses instead of continuing the affair.
After a number of lies, she finally shows her ex-lover a picture of her “husband”---he left her three years ago and has remarried and has a child with his new wife. She has been playing games with her ex-lover, racing around town, looking for a person that is no longer part of her life. She is doing this because she made a deal with herself. If she could get him to take her places until 7 am, she felt she would be OK---otherwise she would kill herself. She explains this to him after it is 7am. She states that: “It’s difficult to be alone on a night like this.”
Years before when they were caught by her husband, someone had informed on them. She has told her ex-lover that he had betrayed them, but it was really her that did it.
He now leaves her and goes home to his wife and family. His wife knows what really happened and asks if he will be having the affair again. He says no. That is the end of the story.
At first glance this appears to be more of a story about adultery, the sixth commandment, rather than the third commandment on keeping the Sabbath day holy. So, let us assume that it is not about adultery. Then what is the point of it all? This is a holy time, Christmas Eve and day, during which they are running around looking for the non-missing non-husband. They are failing to show respect at this important time. They are disrespectful of both God and the man’s family in doing what they are doing. He should never have gone out on this search. He knew it was wrong, we know he knew that because he lied to his wife about what he was going out for. Do you help people, even those who you love, if it means that you hurt those you are committed to? Yes, it was a good thing to try to help her…and she might very well have committed suicide if he had simply shut the door to her on this important night. But didn’t he have other options? You play the one in charge of what is going to happen. You write the script from the point where she has come to him asking for help. Assume that you are aware that she will commit suicide if he does not help her. She has to get to 7am or she dies. How do you then write the rest of the script? Don’t tell me she changes her mind. I have given you that as a must in your script. He helps her until 7 or she dies. So, what can you have him do? Does he run off and help her? Or….does he close the door and she dies?
“Honor thy father and thy mother.”
Well….what do you make out of this one? It is open to lots of interpretations and the interpretation you make is most likely going to reveal more about you and the way you see the world than it will enlighten anything about the fourth commandment.
For me it is about honoring your parents, even if you are not sure they are your parents. The honor process is far more than biology. The honor transcends sexual urges. The honoring is about relationship and how important it is for us to value the most important relationships of our lives---the ones that are most intimate and lasting, the ones between ourselves and those who make the sacrifice of raising us. If a person has done a good job of raising his children, as this man has, then he has succeeded in one of the most vital and loving of tasks that a human being faces in their lifetime. Therefore, honor is clearly appropriate. Tragically all too many children take their parents for granted. Taking any relationship for granted is the kiss of death upon that relationship.
“Thou shalt not kill.”
A young 20-year-old man is wandering about Warsaw. He chases a woman’s pigeons, drops a rock off an overpass hitting a car, pushes another young man into a toilet. Clearly he is an unpleasant young man. He lacks civility. But he is also very dangerous.
We also are introduced to a cab driver who is also a person with little civility. He doesn’t treat his customers respectfully.
The young man takes a ride in the taxi and kills the driver and steals the cab.
His defense lawyer meets with him in prison as they prepare for his execution. He asks the lawyer to see his mother and to ask a favor from her. H wants her to give the one remaining family burial plot to him. He has a last cigarette. They hang him.
The final scene is with the lawyer, alone, in anguish, repeating over and over: “I abhor it.”
Just to let you know I can count, of all the Ten Commandments, this one has the least number of letters in it. Its brevity accentuates its importance.
Is society better off without such people as this young man who is so dangerous? I would tend to say: “Yes!” I don’t want the likes of him wandering the streets and endangering others. That I know for a certainty. But, at the same time, I join his defense lawyer: “I abhor it.” What do I abhor? The execution of another human being? Yes, in part, that is what I abhor. The commandment says that we are not to kill. The commandment is right. But…what should we do with people like this who are willing to kill us without any remorse. He never apologizes to his victims. He has no thoughts for the well being of others. He is very self-centered and dangerous. Sure, we can lock him up for the rest of his life---but that is a very expensive alternative. Keep in mind that any society is willing to give only so much of its assets for the maintenance of resources for the general good. If we spend a huge amount keeping people locked up, like this young man, for many years; then we inevitably have fewer resources for other things---for better and safer schools, for better and more healing hospitals and medical care, for better and safer roads, et cetera. That means that others will die because we have chosen to imprison the murderer rather than execute them. This means that we will have a weaker society, a less civil one that is more likely to help create another person just like this murderer. And, then, if we do execute him, do we not lower ourselves into that same dismal swamp out of which he rose? Hey, this commandment starts to get very very complicated. It is such a brief and simple one……or is it??? And that is what the movie is about. It challenges us to think more carefully about what the costs of killing really are and what might we want to do to make this a safer and saner society.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
A young man, age 19, is watching a somewhat older lovely woman through a telescope looking into her apartment from the one he lives in.
The young man works in the post office, steals her letters, gets a second job delivering milk just so he can deliver her mild. He calls in a gas leak to her apartment to interrupt her being with her lover.
He lives with his friend’s mother, he is an orphan. The friend is the one that started spying on the lady across the way but he has now gone off to war.
The young man confesses to the lady so she knows what he is up to. She accepts his invitation to go out. She brings him back to her apartment---while his friend’s mother is watching through the telescope. He prematurely ejaculates so that they do not consummate their sexual encounter. She tells the younger man that it is all there is to love---just biology, just sex, just coming. He goes home and cuts his wrists---he has built his life around her for a year now and all his fantasies come tumbling down.
He has left his coat back in her apartment and she brings it to his apartment to return it. The ambulance has already carried him off to the hospital. She now becomes obsessed with him just as he had been with her. When he finally is out of the hospital and back to work she visits him. She lovingly looks at him, saying nothing. He says: “I’m not peeping at you any more.” You feel that she is profoundly disappointed. The movie is over.
Some of you may be complaining that this is not adultery. Adultery is a violation of the marriage bed; sexual intercourse between a married man and a woman not his wife or vice versa. However, in Scripture, all manner of lewdness or unchastity is defined as adultery. Perhaps more importantly is how one thing leads to another. The older woman’s lack of chastity---she would be making love with her boyfriend with the blinds open so that others could peep, as the young man did---led to the boys behavior which almost killed him. Even in what we would sometimes label as victimless crimes or behavior, we can find victims---people that are drawn into bad behavior through your lack of thinking about how others might be impacted by what you are doing. Yes, he was the perpetrator, the peeper, but as we saw, she got drawn into the obsessive behavior as well.
Then again the movie can be seen in terms of the difference in ages. The young boy has an adolescent fantasy and he moves on with his life---“I’m not peeping at you any more.” But the older woman doesn’t want him to stop, she wants him to continue being part of her life---because she was for the first time in ages, perhaps the first time ever, falling in love, getting beyond her resistance to the intimacy beyond sexuality.
So where does that all leave us? “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Perhaps it should read: “Thou shalt not take intimacy lightly---it is too important.” Adultery is one dimension; let us expand the commandment, as this is one of the most important issues of human existence.
“Thou shalt not steal.”
A young Polish college student is dropping out to go to Canada. We find out that when she was 16 she had a child out of wedlock and her mother has raised this child as her own. The only daughter feels that her mother treats the grandchild better than she treats her. During a school play that the little child is in, the college student mother “steals” her daughter and runs off with her. She goes to the natural father’s house. He was her teacher when the whole affair began and her mother was the headmistress of the same school. It would have been a scandal if it had come out and this is one reason the grandmother raised the child as her own. However, we also learn that a larger reason exists. She had wanted a second child and was unable to have one so when her only daughter got pregnant this was an opportunity to have another child.
The grandmother is going crazy with worry and fear not knowing what has happened to the child. The daughter calls her mother and tells her that she has the child. Later the natural father calls and tells the parents that the college student and child had been with him for a while but had now gone off. They join forces and in two separate cars start searching for them---worried that they might do something drastic, perhaps even suicidal.
The grandmother finds them at a train station.
The child hugs her grandmother, who she sees as her mother, and the college student runs off and jumps on the train. The film ends.
Well, that sure was a surprise. Didn’t you expect to meet some thief? Someone that was involved in stealing something? But you did. The college student states that: “Can you steal something that belongs to you?” Surprisingly, the answer is yes! She came to the realization that it was stealing. That the time for her to be the mother to her child had come and gone. To now pretend to be the mother, just to hurt the grandmother for what she had done, was wrong. She came to the realization that the right thing to do was to not steal back her child. Therefore, she lets go…she makes the sacrifice.
Now this raises some very very interesting questions about stealing. Yes, it is wrong to steal. But…is it OK to steal something back that has been stolen from you in the first place? Apparently not---or at least not in this case. The commandment doesn’t say: “Thou shalt not steal in most circumstances.” It doesn’t say: “Thou shalt not steal except when you steal something back that was stolen from you.” It is more dogmatic than that. And, that is perhaps the lesson. We can often find perfectly good rationales for doing what we know is wrong. Stealing is stealing. Killing is killing. These two commandments are very clear and efforts to make excuses don’t change the commandment, they only change you. So, be careful of how you try to twist things to fit your needs.
“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
An older female professor has a younger female American professor sitting in on her ethics class as she is studying the fate of Jews who survived the war.
One of the students presents a case for the classes consideration. The case is the script from Decalogue Two where the wife with the dying husband is trying to decide whether or not to have an abortion. The professor comes down on the side of the doctor declaring that saving the child was the right ethical decision.
The visiting professor then presents another case. This one of a Jewish girl in 1943 during the war who was going to be hidden by a Christian family that changed its mind as it would be false witnessing to pretend she was a Christian child.
The visiting professor was that child. The ethics professor was the one that turned her away to almost certain death at the hands of the German occupiers of Warsaw at that horrific time.
Later the two professors visit the place where she was turned away and they both explain what happened back then. Another family fortunately took her in and saved her. The older ethics professor explains that her husband was part of the underground and could not risk helping the child as the Germans were looking for her.
All these years this has burdened the professor as she thought the child most likely died as a result of her actions. The old professor says: “No ideal, nothing, is more important than the life of a child.”
The film ends with them becoming friends. They have both learned from this encounter.
So one message you can take away from this film is that nothing is what it appears outwardly to be. To understand events, to appreciate life, you have to dig deeper than the façade, than the outer appearances, you have to get deep into the emotions and motivations. People think, feel, then act. So to understand the actions you have to understand how they are thinking and feeling. Yes, you should not bear false witness, but it is more complex than that. Remember, you are also not suppose to kill---and the old ethics professor was acting in ways that she knew would most likely kill the child. So, oft times the commandments are in conflict with one another. What do you do under such circumstances? The professor has an answer: “No ideal, nothing, is more important than the life of a child”---not even the Ten Commandments. So when you are trying to use the Ten Commandments as your guide, which is an excellent thing to do, you also have to have other important things guiding your actions. The Ten Commandments are a general guiding structure, designed to help you, to assist you, but you have to see how best to apply them and when you do that you always recognize that our children come first.
“Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife”
He is a doctor with a medical problem---he is unable to sexually perform in bed with his lovely and beloved wife. Nothing can be done to correct the situation. His doctor tells him that he has no chance of recovery.
His wife says that this is only a small part of love. But he encourages her to take a lover.
This problem has been going on for some time and she has already taken a lover. Her husband becomes increasingly fixated on finding out if she has a lover. He taps the phone, makes a duplicate key for his wife’s mother’s house in case she is meeting her lover there. He finds out that she is having an affair. He hides in the closet when his wife meets her lover. However, she is only having the meeting to say it is over between them. But then she finds her husband hiding. She says that they should adopt a child, that they can work through this together. They clearly still love one another. He says they should have a little time apart. She decides to go skiing alone.
By chance he sees his wife’s ex-lover with skis on the top of his car. He calls his house and finds out that he has gone skiing at the same resort as his wife has gone to. He comes to the obvious conclusion---that this is not just a coincidence. And, it isn’t. The lover has found out where the wife was going and went there to meet with her. When she sees him on the slopes she realizes that this is a disaster and rushes back to Warsaw. But it is too late. Her husband has assumed the worst and attempts suicide.
She gets home to find the suicide note.
But he survives and calls her from the hospital. Life will go on. The marriage will survive. Perhaps it will even get better???
What is the message? When adultery seems like a reasonable choice, when adultery is even agreed upon by both husband and wife, it really isn’t wise and can lead to great disaster. But it also says more than that, it says that no matter how difficult things seem to be, you can find solutions, solutions that can even enrich your life.
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.”
This tenth and final Commandment in many ways is the most important of all of them. Why so? Because if you look back over the others you will find that many times other commandments are broken because this one gets broken first.
The film starts out at a rock concert mobbed with young dancers. The lead singer screams out the lyrics:
“Kill! Kill! Kill! Commit adultery, covet things all the week. And on Sunday, on Sunday…beat up your mother, your father, your sister…beat up the young one and steal…because everything belongs to you, everything belongs to you!”
We see an older man, we find out it is his brother, making his way toward the lead singer through the mob. Later the two of them go together to the funeral of their father. When they go to their father’s apartment they discover his stamp collection. Something they always hated about him as he was obsessed by the collection and spent money on it even when food was scarce.
The younger brother asks: “Where does it come from, this urge to have something?” The older brother says: “I never understood the old man.”
Then as the story progresses, they both get caught up in the stamps. They become as obsessed as their father. Obsessed, as he was, over security for the very valuable collection. Obsessed over getting more stamps.
They reflect on how other concerns in their lives disappear and that time itself disappears. Their obsession takes over. It becomes an addiction---which is both good and bad. Good because it enriches their lives. Bad because it pushes everything else out of their lives. The younger brother gives up on his rock band. The older brother literally gives up a kidney in order to be able to buy a particularly valuable stamp. After the operation they discover that the apartment has been robbed and all the stamps, except for the one he got for his kidney, are stolen.
The older brother meets privately with the police and tells them he thinks it is his brother that has been involved in the theft.
The younger brother meets privately with the police and tells them he thinks it is his brother that has been involved in the theft.
Then both brothers come to the conclusion that others committed the robbery. They confess to one another that they went to the police because of their false suspicions of one another. Then one brother puts some inexpensive brand new stamps out on the table to show him. The other brother does the same---they have both bought the exact same stamps…they have both started to become collectors in their own small ways. They laugh together. The film ends and as the credits roll the rock music starts up with the following lyrics:
“Darkness, lawlessness and lying all the week. You are the only hope. You are the only light in your tunnel. Because all around you is within you, everything belongs to you!”
In many ways I found this last film to be the most satisfying of the ten films. It is very Zen in its final comment. Yes, you have everything, so you need nothing when you finally realize this profound fact of life. To covet what others have is sheer stupidity when you are not even appreciating all the things that you already have in the world.
Just as the stamp collection captured our two brothers, the advertising industry is doing its very best, at great cost, to capture you and get you addicted to their products.
When so addicted, brother will turn against brother. People will give up what is good that they already have to get something that is nowhere near as good.
Only when you begin to recognize the insanity, when you laugh at yourself, as the brothers did in the final scene, only then will you then be free.