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The Decalogue

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A 10-hour Polish television serial based on The Ten Commandments, Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue was branded a masterpiece when it first appeared on the festival circuit in 1988. It's been talked about in hushed tones ever since, yet its reputation is deceptive: not because the film doesn't deserve to be confettied with superlatives, but because the word "masterpiece" can sound as impenetrable and monolithic as the Commandments themselves. On the contrary, The Decalogue finds Kieslowski and co-scenarist Krzysztof Piesiewicz turning a delicate cycle of intimate, funny, heartbreaking, and compassionate works into a symphony of human fallibility. After a decade of bootlegs, imports, and repertory showings, The Decalogue has finally received a proper release on home video, the ideal format for watching this epic in miniature. The late director had specific ideas about cinema and television audiences that factored into his conception of the film, and, as he succinctly puts it in the book Kieslowski On Kieslowski, "Television means solitude while cinema means community." To his mind, colorless Warsaw high-rises like the one where he photographed the episodes fostered no sense of community; the effect for Polish viewers at the time was to have their loneliness and alienation reflected back at them. American moviegoers who know Kieslowski from his luxuriant trilogy, Three Colors: Blue, White, Red, may be surprised by the simple, pared-down visuals and emotional accessibility of the series, but both can be approached in much the same way. Like the trilogy, which took its central themes from the French flag (Blue for liberty, White for equality, Red for fraternity), The Decalogue is profoundly interconnected, but can be watched piecemeal without confusion. Some of the episodes deal with their respective Commandments directly, others indirectly, and a few require interpretive acrobatics to make the connection. More important than any specific Commandment is how these old laws figure into the way people choose to live their lives, and what they pay for their transgressions. Although the episodes have been broken up at various festivals and screenings, with two expanded and released as full-length features (A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love), the tapes are best seen in order. Decalogue 1 ("I am the Lord thy God; Thou shalt have no other Gods before me"), the devastating tale of a father who relies on his computer to determine whether it's safe for his boy to go ice skating, is a primer for things to come. The boy's precocious questions—why do people die? what is death? is there a God? who is He?—cannot be dodged by his father's rational explanations, which is why they're fundamental to religion (and to these films). Other major issues follow, but waiting at the end of Kieslowski's difficult journey is the brisk and hilarious Decalogue 10 ("Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods"), which wipes the palette clean. The plot concerns two mismatched brothers—one the lead singer in a death-metal band, the other a suited businessman—who inherit the most valuable stamp collection in Poland but have an awful time trying to sell it. Their greed comes at a steep price: a hundred million zlotys and a spare kidney. Between the bookends, The Decalogue reflects on the Commandments through an extraordinary range of subject matter, including abortion, incest, capital punishment, sexual obsession, parenthood, the Holocaust, and adultery. More a pragmatist than a moralist, Kieslowski finds original ways to muddy issues that would appear to be clear. The blunt Decalogue 5 ("Thou shalt not kill") measures the strangling death of a cab driver against the strangling death of the killer by the state. What's the difference? Under such a sharp moral law, how is one form of killing more justifiable than another? Another plainly stated Commandment is called into question in Decalogue 7 ("Thou shalt not steal"), a wrenching tale of a vulnerable young woman forced by her mother to pretend that she's a sister to her six-year-old daughter. With no money and no destination in mind, she kidnaps the girl and runs away from home. Is this stealing? If so, is it stealing for the mother and the child to be robbed of the truth? Such ambiguities and contradictions inform every relationship in Kieslowski's world, and each individual is left to his or her own devices to sort them out. The films are all set around what the director considered Warsaw's most beautiful housing estate ("It looks pretty awful, so you can imagine what the others are like"), but its inhabitants are all strangers to one another. Characters who play a major role in one story often make a cameo appearance in another later on—bumping into somebody at the entrance, selling postage stamps from behind a counter, and so on—but there's no connection between them. And, barring some random intrusion of fate (a Kieslowski trademark, as it happens), there never will be. Like no film since Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, The Decalogue uses the camera to peer across a courtyard and into people's private lives, where a new story unfolds from one apartment to the next. It's a tribute to Kieslowski's mastery that he not only survives the comparison, but takes Hitchcock's idea further than anyone could have imagined. One of the great legacies of The Decalogue is that its vision of humanity is infinite: Behind every door, there are desires, secrets, and feelings worth exploring on film. Kieslowski pays homage to Hitchcock directly in Decalogue 6 ("Thou shalt not commit adultery"), perhaps the richest and most affecting episode in the series (a tight race with 4, 5, and 9). In the Jimmy Stewart role, a lonely teenage boy spies on a promiscuous woman through a telescope, but his obsession leads him into trouble. When he eventually declares his love for her, their relationship is altered in ways he's too inexperienced to handle. With astonishing economy, Kieslowski covers more territory in an hour—from the erotic charge of voyeurism and exhibitionism to the promise of real tenderness and love—than most directors could accomplish in twice the time. If there's one especially optimistic image in the mostly bleak cycle, it's the woman looking through the telescope, startled and moved by imagining what she looks like in the boy's eyes. The Decalogue presents a perfect synthesis of ideas and emotions, nourishment for the heart and mind. Kieslowski, who was only 54 when he died in 1996, had a grim view of Poland as it approached the end of Communist rule. This extended to himself and the rest of its citizens, too, who had "become too egotistic, too much in love with ourselves and our needs, as if everybody else [had] disappeared into the background." His feelings are echoed throughout the series, yet a deep empathy and warmth illuminates every scene. The Decalogue is a masterpiece, all right, but on an achingly human scale.