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With his latest films based on the Decalogue, the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski seems to have pulled off two difficult feats in one stroke. Not only has the ten-part series established him as a world-class talent, but it has also aroused a new interest in the Ten Commandments.
Certainly, the critics who first saw the cycle at the Venice festival last year were as eager to praise as they were frantic to discover the relevant commandments (an Italian communist was caught by Kieslowski himself reduced to ringing the Vatican at three o’clock in the morning from a public phone booth).
Since then, success has followed success: A Short Film About Killing (Decalogue Five) voted Best European Film of 1988; Part Six, A Short Film About Love, described as “perfection” by one reviewer, and the whole cycle given wide publicity and a primetime BBC2 Sunday slot after its launch on 6 May in Britain.
With twenty years in film behind him, Kieslowski is mildly bemused by this response. In a wry moment, loyally chain-smoking Polish cigarettes, he will put it down to snobbery, the “fad for things from the East” which has swept through Western Europe in recent months. But this is the deliberate modesty of someone who still considers himself a ‘provincial’ film-maker and for whom, at the age of 49, fame has come relatively late in life. It is also a little unfair to accuse critics of modish pretence, since many know his previous work and have acclaimed it accordingly. They have simply recognised the fact that the Decalogue is a series of stunning, compelling and extremely wellmade films from a director at the height of his creative powers.
Undoubtedly it is surprising that anyone should have taken on the Ten Commandments at all, bearing in mind their awesome dimensions, least of all Kieslowski himself, a self-confessed agnostic. Ethical dilemmas have always intrigued him, it is true, but his reputation had been based solidly on films of a strong political bent.
What could be more different than the Decalogue, these tightly honed homages to ordinary people struggling with everyday moral choices, with their exclusive focus on the personal? How could it be that a supremely Polish director has made ten films in the mid-1980s which deliberately ignore the realities of the time and concentrate their energy on a wide range of dramas, but all lying well outside the political domain?
Fact before fiction
His evolution has been gradual, partially reflecting the needs of the public, but also developing an internal creative momentum of its own. He started life in documentaries, believing with many of his contemporaries who graduated from the Lodz Film School in the late 1960s, that the genre could ‘describe the world’. Films like Lodz – The Town (1969), The Factory (1970), Standards of Safety and Hygiene in a Copper Mine (1972) and Workers ’71 (1972) are fascinated with the details of life concealed behind a wall of official propaganda.
He later became dissatisfied with the limitations of documentary, finding that “the closer the camera gets to its human object, the more that human object seems to disappear before the camera.” He transferred his interests into the realm of features. Films such as Camera Buff (1979), the comic story of a worker turned amateur video-cameraman who starts to see the problems of filmmaking when he clashes with the official version of reality, placed him squarely in the ‘Moral Anxiety’ school of directors of the time. These were films very much concerned with the moral compromises demanded by the System, as well as the discrepancy between the official version and reality itself.
By the early 80s, however, Kieslowski’s interests can be seen moving away from films whose characters tend to represent defined social groups and whose scope seems narrowly political.
Blind Chance, for instance, made mostly in 1981 but set in the immediate pre-Solidarity months, still confronts the world of politics, but with an additional twist – Fate. A young medical student decides to take time off from his studies to think about his life after the death of his father. He sprints to catch a train as it leaves a station and, at this point, the narrative splits three ways, each taking him into a different social milieu. One road takes him into the Party, another into the opposition, the third leaves him politically neutral, seeking a ‘quiet life’. The film is a tribute to the importance Kieslowski attaches to the element of hazard in people’s lives, and would no doubt have raised a few eyebrows in Poland had it not been banned for several years.
With his next film, he evolves further. No End (1984) is set at the height of martial law, yet while the tone is typical of the gloom, despondency and sense of terrible defeat prevalent at the time, Kieslowski ignored the superficial symbols of 1982: tanks, riot police, etc. It is a quiet film and for the first time a strong personal narrative and metaphysical element creep into his work.
A human-rights lawyer, who appears in the first scene to explain perfunctorily that he died three days ago, had been due to defend a Solidarity activist arrested for organising a strike after martial law. The case is taken over after his death by an older lawyer who is keen to plea-bargain a morally dubious deal with the authorities. The activist, under pressure from his family and buckling under the weight of the lawyer’s matter-of-fact philosophy, succumbs. However, placed alongside this moral tragedy is the terrible despair of the dead lawyer’s wife, who eventually decides to commit suicide. For her, the drama being played out in the political arena is overshadowed totally by the loss of her husband.
Krzysztof meets Krzysztof
No End was seen as a deeply religious film, and rightly so: much of the style and ‘feel’ of it is but a short step away from the Decalogue. Significantly, it was the first film co-scripted with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a lawyer by training and one of the prosecutors in the Popieluszko trial of 1984.
The two men met in 1982 while Kieslowski was trying with official permission to make a documentary about political trials. Piesiewicz was the first to notice that the cameras were unnerving the judges, causing them to suspend sentence, and started booking the documentary-maker for his clients. It was Piesiewicz, described affectionately by Kieslowski as “a man of extraordinary sensitivity who has a lot of time on his hands and therefore probably does too much thinking”, who later suggested taking on the Ten Commandments.
People ask me all the time why we decided to go ahead with it – obviously the Decalogue was a terrible idea!
“No End had a terrible reception in Poland,” Kieslowski remembers. “The authorities hated it, the opposition criticised the pessimism in the film, and the church objected to the suicide and the fact that the leading actress was filmed several times without a bra and once without her underwear. I bumped into Piesiewicz on the street by chance. We were both depressed. It was raining. I had lost a glove. Then he suddenly turned to me and said: “Someone should make a film about the Decalogue. You should do it.”
“People ask me all the time why we decided to go ahead with it – obviously it was a terrible idea! But the truth is I simply don’t know and neither does he. Maybe there was something tangible in the air. We were living in difficult times and everything in Poland was in a colossal mess. No one really knew what was right and wrong any more or why we even carried on living. We thought maybe it was worthwhile going back to the simplest, most basic, most elementary principles of how to lead one‘s life.”
The script, which he co-wrote with Piesiewicz in the cramped kitchen of his Warsaw appartment, took twelve months to complete. From the very beginning, they were appalled by the enormity of what they had taken on. There were no models they could turn to and the project was bound to arouse animosity in a Catholic country like Poland, where the Commandments were held with deep orthodox reverence.
They spent much time reading up as much as possible about the Old and New Testaments, as well as several commentaries on the Commandments themselves, before deciding to dispense with the information altogether. They were not setting out to be priests and wanted to avoid didacticism. In any case, for Kieslowski, who once said he would rather read a book than go to the cinema, other authors were perhaps more significant. Dostoevsky, Mann, Kafka and Camus are the four names he is reluctantly prepared to list when asked the awful question as to his influences.
10 out of 10
Gradually, a concept began to emerge: 10 films which they would offer to Polish television as a series. They ignored political parables, since Kieslowski was “bored” with politics by then and recognised that the public was disillusioned and had collapsed into a general state of apathy.
Developing his earlier interest in hazard, he decided that the camera should seem to pick its subjects at random. The original concept was to show a stadium in which the camera would alight on one face out of thousands, but he and Piesiewicz eventually opted for a Warsaw housing estate, the epitome of everything urban and contemporary. The characters would be ordinary people, some of whom would appear fleetingly even in the films in which they were not the leading protagonists, in order to create a kind of unity and pathos.
The films are also held together as a unity by a mysterious young man who appears at crucial moments. He has been dubbed the ‘silent witness’ and appears symbolically in the first frames of Decalogue One, warming his hands by a fire near the small lake where the young son of the scientist drowns, and actually looking straight into the camera for a few seconds. His expression is uncanny, a combination of disapproval and disappointment. He was only written into the original screenplay at a late stage and his presence in all but two of the cycle has prompted speculation as to who he is supposed to represent: an Angel of Fate, God, Kieslowski himself?
“No, it is not me – l don’t really know who he is. For a long time, I felt there was something missing in the scripts. Then one day I happened to be watching the film of a colleague along with an old Polish writer. We all thought the film was pretty mediocre, but the writer said he liked it and particularly liked the scene in a cemetery where a man dressed in black appeared. No one else had seen that man. The director told him he didn’t exist. ‘But I saw him,’ said the writer. One week later, he had died. I suddenly understood what was missing in the films – an element of mystery, something elusive and inexplicable.”
There are many such moments: omens, mirrored situations, repeated gestures, the twists and turns of the plots which constantly shift expectations and sympathies, demanding recognition of the tricks fate plays in life. The characters are placed deliberately in extreme situations, but Kieslowski avoids both moralising about their dilemmas and banality. While a dispassionate observer (he has been accused in the past of a certain coldness and himself once admitted that “all my films are made as if under glass”), in Decalogue he reserves sympathy for everyone. He agrees that his position is essentially that of the humanist.
“I know it is very unfashionable these days, but I do believe in humanity. I believe in Right and Wrong, although it is difficult to talk about black or white in the times in which we live. But I think one is definitely better than the other and I do believe that people want to choose Right – it is just that sometimes they are unable to do so.”
This conflict, or tension, is at the heart of his modern-day stories. Although the Commandments are only the springboard from which he focuses themes of love, death, redemption and solitude, they are nevertheless relevant. It is important to know which film is based on which commandment, and generally they follow the sequence as given in Chapter 20 of Exodus. Some, however, may be more confusing than others.
The films in the Decalogue don’t exactly have a ‘happy ending’, but they do end well.
Decalogue Two, for example, is from the Commandment ‘thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.’ Although it does touch on the issue of abortion, the film is largely about the surgeon in the hospital who is reluctant to ‘play God’ and not only predict the death of his patient but also decide the fate of an unborn child.
There has also been much head-scratching over Decalogue Six, the series version of A Short Film About Love, but it is, according to the director, loosely based on ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’. Thus Decalogue Nine, which seems a more obvious candidate for the adultery theme, becomes ‘thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife.’
There is a fair quota of deaths and a tangible sense of hopelessness in the films, which many have remarked upon. But despite labelling himself a “professional pessimist”, Kieslowski refuses to accept that the films are in any way bleak. “The films don’t exactly have a ‘happy ending’, but they do end well,” he says. Even A Short Film About Killing? “Yes, even that one. I think that the lawyer who is shown weeping at the end of the film has learnt something. He has understood that it is necessary to find some kind of ‘way’.” What this ‘way’ might be is never made explicit.
True to his agnosticism, Kieslowski is reluctant to speculate about the existence of a higher deity, but will admit that several characters speak lines with which he would be happy to concur. One example is the scene in the first film between the young boy and his Catholic aunt (a scene, incidentally, not in the original screenplay), when he asks her who God is. She embraces him and asks him what he feels. “Love,” he says. “Exactly,” she replies. “That is where He is.” Another is when the professor of ethics in Decalogue Eight is asked who it is who judges human actions. She answers: “He, who is. He, who is in all of us. I don’t go to church and never use the word ‘God’. But you can live with belief without using the word.”
Remarkably, the actual filming took less than twelve months, but the cycle was not shot in numerical sequence. A Short Film About Killing came first because a deal had been struck for two of the series to be turned into feature-length versions and this was the one Kieslowski said he most wanted to direct. After that, the series was shot according to the availability of cameramen and locations. On some occasions, this could involve takes for three films on the same day if the same location on the housing estate was used in more than one film.
Only one serious interruption occurred: everyone on set, including the stuntmen, was so disturbed by the execution scene in Decalogue Five that Kieslowski decided to stop filming and resumed only the next day. “It was only eleven o’clock in the morning, but everyone had gone weak at the knees, including myself. Although we all knew it was not for real, the sight was simply unbearable.”
Taking into consideration the fact that ten different cameramen were used, the films are also remarkable for their stylistic unity. Apparently, this was accidental. Always ready to dispel any notion of the omnipotent director, Kieslowski insists that he gave his photographers absolute freedom to do as they liked. It was cameraman Slawomir Idziak’s idea, for example, to use the filters in A Short Film About Killing – in all, an astonishing 600 were required.
Many have commented on the consistent play of light and dark in the series, but on this point the director is prepared only to have a little joke at his cameramen’s expense: “I really did tell them they could do what they liked. If they wanted to use one kind of lighting, I said okay. If they wanted to use the rails, I said fine. In fact, the whole thing became a sort of competition. And what happens? All the films look the same.”
If he gave the cast and cameramen a certain amount of freedom, arguing that style and tone were obvious from the screenplays, the same cannot be said of the editing. There has been some pretty brutal pruning between the conception and final product, much of which created the economy and precision for which the films have been so highly praised.
Several scripted sequences were drastically rearranged or simply cut. Decalogue One, for example, contains a long scene in which Krzysztof, the scientist, asks his computer why his son had to die: the final version shows the screen with only the words ‘I am ready’ – a terrible irony bearing in mind Krzysztof’s unpreparedness for death. Kieslowski himself is critical of young directors who are so attached to their work that they cannot bear to cut anything at all. He, in stark contrast, even purged the silent witness from Decalogue Seven because the pictures shot were “no good”.
A double life
One paradox is that the Decalogue is quite likely to strike more of a chord with Western viewers than in Poland. The ratings there were not bad – twelve million watched the first, which rose to fifteen million for the last – although, ironically, an opinion poll commissioned not long after revealed that seventy per cent of Poles did not know what the Decalogue was, and twenty per cent thought it was something to do with the Olympics.
Part of the reason for this general indifference, one suspects, is psychological. By the time the series was shown on Polish television early this year, the population had other things to concentrate its mind on, most of them economic or political. Many no doubt considered the Ten Commandments a luxury they could perhaps ill afford.
It is not important where you put your camera, but why you put it where you do. It is a particularly elegant theory because I know I am probably never going to work in Poland again.
The other commodity the country cannot afford, alas, is films: the cinema industry is virtually bankrupt and the government is withdrawing its subsidies to the various studios. Kieslowski is reluctant to trail around with a begging bowl while there are two hundred directors desperate for money and work. Fortunately, he is one of the lucky few who can trade their talent and reputation in exchange for foreign funding. His next project is being financed by a French production company and is a love story, in which he hopes to cast American actress Andie McDowell in a leading role. Co-written with Piesiewicz, it allegedly has a “good ending”, even a “happy ending”. This, in Kieslowski-speak, means one of the heroines dies and the other lives on.
It would seem as if he has come to the end of the road as far as Poland is concerned. Although still living in Warsaw and working to help reorganise the cinema industry, he openly admits to not understanding what the public want from him there. The Decalogue could therefore well be the last film he will make in Poland altogether.
He is not being forced to work abroad: it is his personal choice and reflects his creative interests. He is now more interested in the West, where he says people may be more lonely than in the East, but has developed nevertheless a convenient argument to justify this decision: “It is not important where you put your camera, but why you put it where you do. It is a particularly elegant theory because I know I am probably never going to work in Poland again.”
Sight and Sound, Summer 2022
Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.Find out more and get a copy