Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog series was originally produced for Polish television and although it is split into ten parts, each is so tonally like the rest that they are commonly regarded as a unified body of work. Nine different cinematographers stepped in to shoot the episodes but Kieślowski directed and co-wrote every one, alongside Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who would go on to work with him on the later Three Colours trilogy. These stories consider love, mortality, marriage, adultery, science, spirituality, parenthood, poetry, and the countless other aspects of humanity which allow us to recognise Dekalog as a collection of ‘films about life,’ as Kieślowski describes them.
The series is set in and around a housing project in Warsaw, an imposing set of concrete apartment blocks home to many of the characters on which Dekalog focuses. While some of the residents cross over into multiple episodes, each story stands alone. The chapters are based on the Ten Commandments, although some of the associations are looser than others. Episode five, for example, in which a young drifter is tried for murder, is clearly inspired by the Commandment ‘Thou shall not kill,’ yet episode three, said to be based on the one which says ‘Remember the Sabbath,’ is actually a story about an adulterer’s reunion with a former lover.
Dekalog is akin to a book of short stories, through which the author’s (auteur’s) personality ebbs and flows with the rise and fall of the various character arcs. The different cinematographers bring distinct visual styles to their episodes, most notably in episode five, which is layered with a swampy vignette. In those chapters where the cinematography adheres to more conventional standards, the writing of Kieślowski and Piesiewicz takes precedence over the visual style.
The best episodes of Dekalog are those in which these two aspects, the writing and the aesthetic, are completely attuned to each other. The first episode is one such. Its story is based on the First Commandment, which states, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’ In it, Krzysztof (Henryk Baranowksi) and his son Paweł (Wojciech Klata) spend their time conducting scientific experiments around their home. They automate the locks on their doors and set the water running in their bathroom using a computer screen which casts an eerie green glow through the apartment.
This bold use of colour is one of Dekalog’s most distinctive features. The palette is predominantly drab and grey, informed by the brutalist concrete apartment structures around which the series is set. Kieślowski stated, rather ironically, that ‘it’s the most beautiful housing estate in Warsaw.’ The fact that it is often snowing, or night-time, further bleaches the image, so when the frame is splashed with vibrant primary colours, their impact is dramatic.
This is not done just for the sake of a pretty image, however. On many occasions this saturation of colour accompanies a meaningful moment in a character’s story, a point of tension, or an epiphany. In chapter one, the green of the computer screen is a constant light source in Krzysztof’s apartment, but after tragedy strikes, it becomes a macabre reminder of his misplaced faith in his scientific abilities.
Later, in chapter three, two former lovers, Ewa (Maria Pakulnis) and Janusz (Daniel Olbrychski), reunite one Christmas Eve to find her missing husband (a story which turns out to be fabricated). As they drive through the streets of Warsaw in Janusz’s taxi, their faces are cast in the red glow of tail-lights and flashing police strobes. The tension between them builds until out of frustration, or defiance, Ewa grabs the steering wheel, causing the car to collide with a Christmas tree. The luminescent tree bathes the interior of the car in crimson, as if the strobe from the police car has subsided into a dim warning light or, as Paul Coates describes it in the notes to the Criterion edition of Dekalog, like ‘the desperate afterlife of a passion their words cannot voice.’
The stories that Dekalog tells often touch upon profound existential and metaphysical subjects. In episode two, a young pregnant woman bases the decision to abort her baby on whether her severely ill husband lives or dies. A university professor is confronted with a shameful secret from her past in episode eight, which reveals her complicity with the occupying Nazi forces during World War ll. These cases, and others throughout Dekalog, present complex moral puzzles for the viewer to untangle.
In the context of what has preceded it, episode ten is surprisingly light, both in colour and narrative tone, a palate-cleansing finale to an intense series of modern-day parables. Two estranged brothers are reunited upon the death of their father. It turns out that he had, over the years, accumulated a priceless collection of stamps and upon his death various parties knock on his door wanting a piece of it. It is the only episode of Dekalog that approaches comedy, or even light-heartedness, and it means that a series notable for its despair is ended optimistically, with a laugh.
And what of the mysterious stranger (played by Artur Barcis) who appears in nine of the episodes, simply credited as ‘Young Man?’ Some regard him as some sort of guardian or benevolent watchman. But how can this be so, when in episode one he has the opportunity to prevent a tragedy but remains passive? He huddles in the snow at the edge of the lake, staring straight into the camera with his piercing blue eyes, wisps of smoke drifting across the frame. For all we know, he could be a god, or an agent of one, sitting in silent appraisal of humanity, never intervening, even in the most desperate circumstances.
Kieślowski’s cinematic television series is a colour-coded conundrum and the Young Man just one of the many boxes to which the viewer must find the key. Maybe he is the key to all of them. To date, Dekalog has been overshadowed by the director’s later Three Colours trilogy, mainly because that series of films has been much more widely distributed. Two episodes of Dekalog were adapted into feature-length films, A Short Film About Killing (1988) and A Short Film About Love (1988), but they do not replicate the epic scope of the original series. Enhanced by Zbigniew Preisner’s haunting score, it stands alone as a masterpiece of televisual film-making.