Adrianna Biedrzyńska in The Dekalog

 

Sit in any public space – a subway car, a restaurant, a hospital waiting room, etc. Look around at the faces that surround you. They don’t look like movie stars – in fact more than half the time they don’t even look all that memorable. They just look “like people”. Certainly these aren’t the faces of high drama, right? Certainly these aren’t the lives that they make movies about.

…what if they were though? What if they did?

The masterpiece of Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski, THE DEKALOG is a series of ten short films originally produced for television. Each of the ten films has at its core one of the ten commandments, though in each instance, Kieślowski has used a specific interpretation and application of the commandment to fuel the narrative engine. In a nutshell, the stories are as follows:

  • A scientific professor teaches his young son to continually look to scientific methodology in his approach to life. The absence of broader sense of reason and common sense leads to tragic results.
  • A married woman pleads with the doctor charged with the care of her very sick husband for guidance. She is pregnant by another man, and the decision on whether or not she brings the pregnancy to term hangs on her husband’s chances of survival.
  • On Christmas Eve, a man spends the night shuttling his ex-lover around in a taxi in a desperate search for her ex-lover.
  • A teenage girl finds an envelope in her father’s effects. It is addressed to her, and clearly not in her father’s handwriting. She deduces that it was written by her mother who died in childbirth. The contents of the envelope threaten to splinter father and child.
  • A vicious and senseless killing brings together the perpetrator, his lawyer, and a cab driver as the accused stands subject to the death penalty.
  • A young man spends his nights peeping on a woman in the apartment complex across the way. He searches for ways to remain in periphery contact with her, hoping for a better and better contact high. He eventually gets drawn into her life fully, though the results aren’t what one expects.
  • A young woman abducts a child in broad daylight. The shock of the act is given a heart-wrenching twist when we learn who the young woman truly is, and who the young girl’s parents are.
  • At a university, a professor is confronted by a holocaust survivor on the true morality of bearing false witness.
  • A man who has become impotent discovers that his wife has taken another lover.
  • Two grown men discover their father has suddenly died and begin going through his effects. Their father turns out to have amassed a stamp collection that is immensely valuable. They suddenly they are not only dealing with a man’s possessions, but also his legacy.

There is no link to the ten tales – no common character that acts as our spirit guide. One story is alluded to in a later story, and one actor appears in eight of the ten stories, but that’s it.

In the universe of THE DEKALOG these things all happen, without the comfort that it is somehow all connected.

 

Artur Barcis in The Dekalog

 

What might be the most beautiful thing about a series like THE DEKALOG, is how incredibly brisk the whole series feels. The mere mention of a ten part film series that clocks in over nine hours is enough to scare away many, and roll the eyes of many more. As it happens, it threw this humble critic for a loop when he forgot to properly budget time for such a series during the busiest part of the year (oops).

However, never once does this series of stories feel like a task, a chore, a slog, or homework. Every story is so tight, compact, and wickedly engaging, that before you realize it, the chapter credits are rolling and you’re asking yourself “and then what happened??”. It almost promotes binge-watching, if binge watching was a thing in Communist Poland.

Kieślowski doesn’t waste a frame. Every look is urgent, every gesture is charged. There is much that needs to unfold within every chapter’s allotted fifty-five minutes, so in true Eastern European style, he gets straight to the point. He has much to say about why we covet, why we fail, why we take, and why we kill. He is introducing us to a long line of sinners, but doesn’t want us to fall into temptation, so he keeps the line moving. Interestingly, in so doing, he leaves us deeply curious about what else might be happening with the part of the line that has passed us by.

We have arrived at an age where the average big budget blockbuster is over two hours long and feels like a chore. It’s astonishing in the face of that to bear witness to a nine-hour film that feels so swift.

 

Grażyna Szapołowska in The Dekalog

 

It’s difficult to watch the complete DEKALOG and not see something of yourself in it. We are all sinners, of course – all likely to break a commandment weekly. It’s not that we want to, or that it has anything to do with how religious we may-or-may-not-be, it’s just who we are. This is emphasized all the more by the way Kieślowski chose not to make these stories strictly about “the rules”, but how “the rules” apply in a modern society. For instance, rather than making a film about worshipping a false God, THE DEKALOG spends chapter one examining a man who puts too much faith in technology.

By that measure, we’re all guilty of something…and all the more likely to tune in and reflect on the nature of our sins.

This film is littered with questions of self discovery – like what would we actually do if we got the attention of that stranger we’d been lusting after? What is the measure of a life’s work, when that life has come to an end? And while we all know that parenting can be a result of both nature and nurture, what is the full responsibility of the natural or nurturing parent? What are the complete rights or the natural or nurtured child?

I’ve said many times in this space, that if you spend enough time looking at the movie screen, eventually, it will look back. THE DEKALOG is a film that looks back – often. It comes from a time and place where frivolities were far fewer, and human contact was far more omnipresent. You got a better measure of the people at the fringes of your orbit. This movie is a moment where those people stare back at us. The people who work in the next cubicle, the people who deliver our packages, the people who stamp our passports, the people who serve us our breakfast…these people have rich and textured stories to tell that we may never know. In some ways, we shouldn’t be privy to these stories, but in other ways we cannot hop to learn what we do not ask.

It’s amusing to see that in chapter eight of THE DEKALOG, a university professor is faced with details of what happened in chapter two. She admits that she knows the story, and ends the admission by saying “Sometimes Warsaw is a small town”. We all live in such “small towns”…and yet, through our own absorption and obliviousness, we are making our own Warsaws bigger and bigger and bigger.

 

Mirosław Baka in The Dekalog

 

In so many unexpected ways, it was the perfect film to choose to close this particular book of film studies. You see, I’ve quietly decided to make THE DEKALOG my final blindspot post. The project has been so very rewarding, and has brought me towards so many wonderful films. Over five years of doing it, I can honestly say that I liked all but two of the films I watched, and dearly loved so very many. Almost always, my reactions teetered on “I can’t believe I haven’t seen this before!!”, and promptly added the volume to my own library.

However, that has brought me to the first reason why I want to end here. After several years of effort, attention, and study, the amount of true “blind spots” in my film vocabulary has dropped dramatically. I thought about when a friend posted a meme on their Facebook page asking for people to admit essential films they’d never seen. People were mentioning titans of the medium – LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, CASABLANCA, JAWS, APOCALYPSE NOW. Even though I was tagged, I couldn’t answer since nowadays I’d have to scroll all the way down a list until I get to something like THE LIVES OF OTHERS…and I don’t really think that’s in the spirit of his question, or this project.

What’s more, the nature of blogging has changed so much since I began this series five years ago. There’s less and less new spaces starting up, more and more old spaces closing down, and the amount of time it takes me to read and round-up everyone’s links has been dwindling. I didn’t want to do something like this alone, and through time and circumstance, I’ve noticed that I’m doing it with a precious few others. I love these people, and hope that they will keep going with this in my stead. For now though, I’m going to leave it be.

Every chapter of THE DEKALOG is laced with a lesson. It’s there in the quiet space between the lines, spoken at full volume through the expressions on those incredible actors. The lesson is not only that life is short, but that if we cannot become fixated on taking what we want. There is an obvious element of selfishness and greed there, but I also believe there is an element of fixation.

So for me, what that says is that the time to focus on specific pieces of cinema is done, and that time spent on cinema offered should begin. I’ve spent five years hunting down particular titles every month; I believe it’s time to look around and see what titles come *to me*. Be it at the glorious cinematheques in my city, on channels like TCM, or just suggestions that come from the lips of people like you wonderful readers.

I have been consumed about my cinematic blindness for five whole years; time to allow myself to be consumed with what I can see.

 

blind-spot-01

I have historically posted Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.

 

Here’s the round-up for December…

 

Dell watched SUSPIRIA

Beatrice watched BLACK SWAN

Mette watched CHUNGKING EXPRESS

Erin watched MARKETA LAZAROVA

Keisha watched HEAT

Coog watched TOUCH OF EVIL

Sean watched LAST NIGHT

Brittani watched METROPOLIS