Precious Bodily Fluids

The Decalogue, IV-V

The Decalogue IV

Despite the more obvious fact that this episode of Kieslowski’s Decalogue is themed around the commandment “You shall honor your father and your mother,” I will refrain from inserting the commandments next to the episode headings as I did in the first post. As Kieslowski scholar Joseph Kickasola observes, Kieslowski himself doesn’t correspond the episodes with particular commandments, rather working more through the main point behind the entire Decalogue: “the deep ground from which evil emerges” (Kickasola, The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski: The Liminal Image, p. 201). A note on Kickasola – his analysis of Kieslowski’s films are both critically rigorous and accessible, avoiding the seemingly universal tendency of academics to drown themselves and their readers in pretentious incomprehensibility. Rare it is to read a film scholar who writes humbly and authoritatively.

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Decalogue IV revolves around a father (Michal) and his daughter (Anna), and the confusion that results at the suggestion that they might not be so related. Anna comes across a sealed note left by her long-dead mother with the inscription, “To be opened after my death.” She flirts for awhile with the idea of opening it, then apparently gives in. She confronts her “father” with the allegation that he is not her real father, but that her mother thought he would be a good stand-in for Anna. He responds to her anger with sorrow and depression, stating that he always had a feeling it was true but had no way of knowing. She, too, says that she felt it from an early age and had more than merely a daughter’s love for him. When she presses him, he too admits wishing for “the impossible,” that they might have a different relationship than that of a father and daughter. When she makes an advance on him, he refuses, treating her instead as the daughter she has essentially been to him. The next morning, Anna mistakenly believes that Michal has left her, so she runs after him, screaming, “Dad!” When she catches up, he says he was only going to buy some milk. She confesses that she never opened the letter, and they agree to go home together and burn it. After doing so, the charred remains of the note contain fragments implying that which they had both wondered, but the film closes with a renewed relationship and uncertainty about their biological relation.

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Kickasola’s categories of immediacy, abstraction, and transcendence give helpful tools for understanding Kieslowski’s works. He defines immediacy “as the capacity of cinematic images to directly communicate, exceeding linguistic categories, yielding expressive and emotionally powerful impact” (p. 43). Kickasola goes on to say that immediacy “encompasses cinema’s ability to capture qualities of reality that are beyond articulation” (p. 45). Abstraction is “a visual strategy found in the cinema that deemphasizes the everyday representational approach to image and its referent(s) in favor of formal concerns” (p. 44). It “invites us to consider objects in a different way, apart from our everyday approach to the world. We are invited to reckon with form before content” (p. 49). Finally, transcendence connotes “a cinematic style expressing the immaterial and aiming to provoke metaphysical consideration in the audience. One should not confuse this term with the Transcendent (capital T), which is actually the immaterial object of transcendence (lowercase t)” (p. 44). Kickasola goes on: “Where words fail us, [Kieslowski’s] art helps to span the linguistic gap to the transcendent meaning” (p. 56). Full justice won’t be done to Kickasola’s argument here (and these categories are only the premises of the argument). Suffice it to say, these categories are working in the realms of the aesthetic, metaphysical, epistemological, and phenomenological. They give a starting point for understanding Kieslowski’s cinematic language, which is particularly non-verbal, in the vein of Antonioni but more abstract and pointing toward a much more metaphysical/transcendent series of meanings and ideas. Abstract imagery in Kieslowski pushes the viewer to his/her noetic edges and sometimes beyond. Kieslowski never pretends to have pierced the realm of metaphysical answers, however, remaining in the realm of liminality – the space between. Kieslowski’s images, along with his ideas and meanings, push his viewers to the brink of knowledge, reality, understanding, and meaning itself. This seems particularly true in the case of The Decalogue, in which Kieslowski attempts to tap into both ends of human existence: the primal and the transcendent, the earthy and the metaphysical, the one and the Other.

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The categories above seem best utilized not when they are directly applied to Kieslowski’s films, or moments in the films, but rather when they are recalled during those moments of intense abstraction. The images and concepts presented in Kieslowski’s films are not geared toward an elite group. They appeal to the immediate cognitive and emotional effect on human beings in general, and the categories explained above seem best reserved for those who want verbal explanations for them. All that to say, the following won’t interact explicitly with these concepts.

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One of the strikingly helpful clarifications that Kickasola gives applies to the beginning of Decalogue IV, when Anna wakes up her father. At this point, the audience does not know the relation between the man and the woman, and their interaction is strangely ambiguous. She wakes him up, and he remains in bed. She pours water on him and as he reacts, she cries out happily, “It’s Easter Monday!” Kickasola writes that the old Easter Monday tradition in Christianity is to symbolize the celebration of the resurrection of Christ through jokes and pranks. He writes, “In some countries, on Easter Monday morning, men wake their wives with a spray of the perfumed Easter water as they whisper, ‘May you never wither.’ On Easter Tuesday, the favor would be returned, often by the bucketful” (p. 194). Anna’s dousing of her father introduces at an early stage an extra-filial element in their relationship. When Michal retaliates by soaking Anna, a moment takes place that further confuses the viewer. Not until later does the viewer hear Anna address Michal as “Dad.”

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Other themes prevalent in Kieslowski’s works are suggested in the episode. One is that of the doubled character. Anna forges an entire letter supposedly written by her mother. At one point, she is told by a family friend that she is the “double” of her mother. The troubled chemistry with Michal suggests the possibility of her replacing her mother as Michal’s lover. Visual doubling through reflections further confirm the them, made particularly explicit in Kieslowski’s later film The Double Life of Veronique.

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There is also the them of sight. Anna undergoes an eye exam between the time when Michal leaves town and returns. During the exam, the optometrist points to letters on the chart for Anna to read that spell out the English word “Father.” When Anna is determined to need glasses, the correlation with her paternal vision improves along with her ocular vision. The next time she sees Michal and confronts him about his status as her father, she wears glasses. The camera itself moves in and out of focus, oftentimes focusing the foreground while blurring the background and vice versa, suggesting that accurate vision and flawed vision coexist in the same frame of view.

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Pregnancy recurs in this episode, recalling the second episode of The Decalogue. Michal’s telephone eavesdropping reveals Anna’s pregnancy scare, and later she tells him of an abortion she had at an earlier date. She informs Michal that she didn’t tell him because if she had, he would have simply told her to get an abortion, finding it the easy solution. Michal is devastated at this revelation, realizing that such a response is just as tragic and impossible as the idea that he be more than a “father” to Anna.

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In each episode of The Decalogue there recurs a silent, nameless, but watching character. He seems disturbingly omnipresent and omniscient, casting a knowing view on the different characters throughout the series that communicates full knowledge and a divine disappointment with their actions. Kickasola presents a solid argument in favor of naming this character Theophanes, reminiscent of the divine appearances throughout the Old Testament. The One who makes these appearances is never given an explicit name, but he is equated with the Divine and serves different purposes: sometimes a warning, sometimes a judgment, and sometimes a blessing. In this episode, Kickasola notes that Theophanes’ presence is more dramatic than anywhere else in the series. As Anna sits on the bank of a lake, Theophanes moves toward her in a canoe. She battles whether to open her mother’s letter, holding a pair of scissors. She decides to open it, only to discover a second envelope. Theophanes emerges from the water and lifts the canoe above his head, walking past her. She decides not to open the letter, and we are given a view of Theophanes from behind. Kickasola notes that a psychoanalytic reading is more valid in this episode than in any other and points out that as Anna leans toward opening the letter, the canoe approaches her in a phallic manner. Once she decides against it, the canoe moves away from her in a shape and position resembling a white papal costume and hat. Whether these views symbolize lover and father is open to question, but certainly Theophanes’ ominous approach contrasts with his benign departure (p. 196).

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The Decalogue V

This episode follows three different characters through their convergences and respective downfalls. It opens with a young attorney (Piotr) as he is questioned by a panel during his final exam over the issue of capital punishment. We are then introduced to Waldemar, a rather despicable cab driver with a sadistic sense of humor and a perverted disposition. Finally there is the main character, a young man named Jacek who is so inhumanly cruel and evil that the viewer can’t help but be deeply repulsed. His random acts of senseless violence range from lewdly spitting in a cup before leaving a cafe to pushing a friendly man into a row of sunken urinals and pushing a rock from an overpass onto a highway, causing what sounds like a major pileup. Eventually, Jacek follows through with a premeditated plan to hail a taxi, go to a remote area, and brutally strange the cab driver (Waldemar). After the murder, the scene cuts to the end of the trial in which Piotr has represented Jacek, who is condemned to death. Prior to a coldy filmed execution scene, displaying death by hanging in unflinching apathy, Jacek reveals to Piotr that his younger sister’s accidental death years earlier probably led to his despondent downturn. It goes without saying, then, that this episode corresponds with the commandment “You shall not murder.”

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Despite the pure evil of two of the main characters, Kickasola points out that Kieslowski paints them both as evil in order to distance them both from the viewer. This is not the emphasis; rather, the point is the starkness of their deaths. Incidentally, no matter how cruel these characters are, their deaths stand out above their menacing acts as the most ugly scenes in the film. It should be added, too, that the Ten Commandments do not contain a prohibition against hurting or harming others per se. This has been noted as a criticism in the past. However, in the same way that the Ten Commandments were considered the summation of the entire Law of God in the Old Testament, so each of the commandments was considered the summation of any number of legal and moral principles that underlie them. Thus, the commandment “You shall not murder” contains within it the principles of doing any harm to another human being. It’s easy to see in this episode how mundane acts of human evil are in a sense “small murders.” When we see Jacek’s violence toward the man in the restroom, we feel Jacek’s murderous contempt for a fellow human and the sense of a small death in the humiliation of an innocent person. But even while Kieslowski wants us to feel the horror of ending human life, the film is not a tract against capital punishment. His cinema has never restricted itself to propagandist concerns, instead pointing to the implications behind such issues.

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It turns out that Kieslowski, not wanting to limit himself to a single cinematographer throughout The Decalogue, chose a different cameraman for each episode. (Kickasola notes that this paid off later, as Kieslowski chose from among the lot for his later films.) This episode is appropriately dark, through the work of cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, who “ordered over 600 custom-made, green filters for the ‘crueller [sic], duller, emptier’ look of the film,” which, Idziak said elsewhere, “should evoke the thought of urine” (p. 202). The reference to excrement is not only apropos to the aforementioned scene within the film, but to the nature of the film itself. This connotes another sense of the liminal – that which is not “part” of us but neither “not” part of us. It is the ugly, the horrible, the abject; these terms also describe murder itself and correspond to it on a psychoanalytic level. (This point, it should be acknowledged, is separate from Kickasola.) The idea is given further credence by the staging of the execution scene prior to Jacek’s hanging. Placed a few inches beneath the door in the floor is a plastic reservoir, implying the release of bodily fluids at or following the moment of death. Jacek’s spitting in his coffee cup and drinking from a stranger’s discarded bottle all point to the grotesqueness of fluids, whether entering or exiting the body. A scene featuring Piotr sitting at a table during his exam contains an abstract image of a transparent cup of hot water with a teabag placed inside. Not only does the image connect with previous episodes of The Decalogue, but it identifies Piotr with desirable rather than grotesque liquids. His tea and the setting in which we see it contrasts with the disgusting manner in which Jacek eats and drinks and then leaves his table. Further, Kickasola notes that the tea’s abstract placement in the filmic frame implies a metaphysical gravity: Piotr stands for law, justice, order, and contemplation of “weighty issues, of infinite and ultimate value” (p. 203).

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There are, Kickasola observes, curious figures present at Jacek’s execution scene: physician, lawyer, and priest, along with the prison guards. Up to the end, Jacek’s insistence that he and his actions are one and the same remains a lingering question of the other characters. The trial judge earlier tells Piotr that he is too sensitive for his profession. His later breakdown in the film’s final scene illustrates his inability to separate himself from his job. The prison worker who works the rope crank during the hanging crazily yells with what seems like sadistic excitement as Jacek prepares to drop to his death. The executioner, the physician, and the priest, on the other hand, seem rather comfortably detached from their callings. The executioner stoically lights a cigarette in his mouth, then transfers it to Jacek’s, apparently unaware of the irony. The priest offers last rites in a textbook example of a religious figure merely “going through the motions.” Finally, the physician steps in post mortem to confirm Jacek’s death, callously turning his hanging body before lifting up his shirt to apply the stethoscope.

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The execution scene cuts to a single-shot final scene, beginning with a long shot across a beautiful field at the end of which we see an odd light. The beauty we see here juxtaposes both with the scene before it and the frame that follows it when the camera pans left to capture Piotr, sobbing and screaming from his car, “I abhor it!” So far the episodes in The Decalogue have always contained at least an element of hope, which seems to be what the light in the field implies. Earlier, Jacek describes the death of his younger sister as having taken place in a field, perhaps now symbolic of Jacek’s earlier and better life. The steadfast light shining on the opposite side of the field is a distant beauty, but beauty nonetheless. It contrasts with the darkness of the rest of the film and is invisible to the characters but visible to the viewers. Though Kieslowski allows those within the film to despair, he suggests to the audience that despair isn’t the only option.

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This entry was published on December 4, 2008 at 5:46 pm. It’s filed under 1980s Cinema, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Polish Film and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

4 thoughts on “The Decalogue, IV-V

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