Krzysztof Kieslowski was a cinematic genius, at the level of a Godard or an Antonioni but receiving very little credit for his work. His films elevate the art form beyond discussions of “influence” or “innovation” into a realm of beauty and the sublime, testaments of the complete harmony of theme, visual, dialogue, and all the rest that transitioned seemingly flawlessly from Kieslowski’s mind into the medium of cinema. Since his films, in this case The Decalogue, cannot possibly be considered as they deserve in essay form, this post will simply touch on a few aspects of the first three episodes of this series.
I: Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
At the risk of oversimplifying the stated theme of this film, the story functions as a literal parable of the reliance upon technology over the supernatural; autonomy over theonomy. The computer to which the father and son rush as soon as they enter their home puts out a greenish aura over its slaves and their surroundings. Kieslowski’s close-ups on the computer screen offer the perspective of those who are enraptured with the information contained in the glowing box, immediately willing to bend their wills and actions to whatever it dictates. The explicit discussion of things divine, including the aunt’s desire to enroll her nephew in religious classes, juxtaposes starkly with the father’s scientific mindset, his unwavering certainty in his own calculations. His need to double-check the computer’s conclusion reflects his wavering faith even in the machine. Images of death, shattering, and cold all make this short film much more than the sum of its parts.
II: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
The second episode hearkens back to the first in numerous ways: the shattering, the cold, and the idolatry of the scientific. The woman’s need to know if her husband will live or die contrasts violently with the contingency of his death on whether she will abort her child. Rather than deciding herself, she puts the decision in the hands of an apathetic physician who refuses to say whether her husband will die or not, until she informs him of her alterior motive of wanting to know. The incessant burning-away of her cigarette is the burning-away of time before either her husband or child dies, or both, or neither. Symbols of time, overt and subtle, along with claustrophobic framing add to the suspenseful effect.
III: Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy.
Division seems to characterize the third episode, often balancing the split screen through light and darkness. The man’s merely nominal keeping of the Christmas holiday (dressing up as Santa and giving gifts to his children) is exposed for the hypocrisy that it is when he quickly abandons and lies to his family on Christmas Eve to “help” his former lover. Blurred and ambient light fills most of the frames that aren’t blindingly white from the snow. Evident pain in both of the characters, whether or not sincere on the surface, gives meaning and depth to their otherwise meaningless excursion. The possibility of death becomes more painful than abandonment or death itself.