Krzysztof Kieślowski’s magnum opus for Polish Television is a transcendent ‘cycle’ of moral tales, each based on one of the Ten Commandments. But sometimes it’s difficult to get the connection — these brilliant mini-movies are pretty tricky.

The Criterion Collection 837
1988 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame; 1:70 widescreen / 583 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date September 27, 2016 / 99.95
Starring Aleksander Bardini, Janusz Gajos, Krystyna Janda, Bugoslaw Linda, Daniel Olbrychski many others.
Witold Adamek, Jacek Blawut, Slavomir Idziak, Andrzej Jaroszewicz, Edward Klosinski, Dariusz Kuc, Krzysztof Pakulski, Piotr Sobocinski, Wieslaw Zdort
Film Editor Ewa Smal
Original Music Zbigniew Preisner
Written by Krzysztof Kieślowski, Krzysztof Plesiewicz
Produced by Ryszard Chutkowski
Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Back in the early 1990s I believe my first access to Polish director Krzystof Kieślowski was a laserdisc of his film The Double Life of Veronique. I also remember a big reaction in 1996 when he died — people recently bowled over by his Three Colors trilogy groaned audibly at the news. Most everybody else asked, ‘Who’s that?’

Kieślowski’s Dekalog took its sweet time getting to America, but its reputation preceded it. The ten-hour miniseries, originally produced for Polish Television, was one of the most desirable hard-to-see titles of the decade. Dekalog could only be seen in infrequent museum showings, because sitting through ten hours of dramas in two five-hour stints was not practical for normal exhibition.

Critical response to Dekalog has only been a little more enthusiastic than the reaction of Kieślowski’s cinematic peers. The most impressive quote is from Stanley Kubrick. In his book Eyes Wide Open, Frederick Raphael reported that, while discussing Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick said the Dekalog was the best thing he’d seen in years … and he wished he had made it himself.

Kieślowski’s mini-series is unlike anything Stanley Kubrick ever made. Or anyone else, for that matter. Facets Video released a Region 1 DVD set sixteen years ago, but the quality wasn’t very good; I didn’t realize that the shows had originally been filmed on 35mm.

Dekalog is (are?) ten modest one-hour dramatic shows, each of which uses an intimate human drama or crisis to illustrate one of the Ten Commandments. Illustrate is not the right word; I purposely watched the shows without reading anything about them beforehand, and in some cases found it hard to guess which Commandment went with which episode. (I know, a good Christian would have them memorized.) Inside the shows, the references are fairly well hidden. No Commandments are mentioned in the onscreen titles. But Polish viewers were probably informed which Commandment was being dramatized because everything I have read about Dekalog discusses them openly.

Although some of the characters acknowledge the role of God in their personal problems, the shows are definitely not about religion per se. Neither is there a wrap-up moral at the end of each episode. The subjects touched on are familiar ones: infidelity, jealousy, capital punishment, abortion, voyeurism, even incest. The focus in each case is on the individuals involved, not the issue, which is usually left an open question.

The shows examine interpersonal problems that evoke moral and ethical dilemmas. For basic honesty, these problems are light-years beyond those posed in American Movies of the Week, or, for that matter, most Academy Award-winning Hollywood films. Some set up highly dramatic situations and others are resolved without the participants breaking a sweat… on the outside.

If someone offers to tell the plot of a Dekalog episode, cover your ears and run. Savant scrupulously avoided reading plot summaries, and I am very glad for it. This is why story synopses do not appear here.

Only a couple of the shows betray anything remotely resembling a standard drama format. Some don’t even begin or end at predictable points. The people in each episode immediately grab our attention, and as we try to understand their problems, concern for them builds quickly. The level of acting here is phenomenal. Even the children on view are extremely well chosen. Since everyone is an unfamiliar human face (at least to we here in the States), the feeling of becoming intimately involved with real people is unusually strong. The reaction is not, “Gee, those actors are really good,” but instead, “I know these people.” Which is presumably the aim of drama in the first place. At least seven out of ten episodes transported this reviewer all the way to that goal.

Two of the episodes were finished in alternate longer cuts, as standalone features. Dekalog 5 and 6 became A Short Film about Killing and A Short Film about Love. If the timeline on the IMDB is correct, they were released theatrically before the miniseries was shown on Polish television. Actually, Kieślowski prefers to call the format of Dekalog a cycle, not a miniseries, because the shows are free-standing and have no dramatic through-line.

All of the stories take place in and around a particularly drab Warsaw housing complex. Although characters from one episode can occasionally be glimpsed in another, each show is self-contained. When a familiar face wanders into a later scene (usually at the elevators), we practically jump out of our chairs… and realize how much we care about them. One knows that a drama is working when ‘characters in someone’s script’ take on living properties. And then there is that one mysterious person who is never a main character but keeps reappearing in the strangest… well, that’s too much said already.

The key may be in Dekalog 8, where the situation of Dekalog 2 is suddenly recapped, as a real event that everyone in Warsaw has apparently read about. In evaluating the story, a professor urges students to see it through the eyes of the participants, as they are individuals, not just ‘types’ — the doctor, the wife, the husband, the lover. The strength of Dekalog is that it does just this; its people are so vividly particularized. This is not standard art house reality. Characters don’t stand around in artful compositions, the director expressing themes with visuals more powerful than the actors. This isn’t Minnelli or Antonioni or even Bergman (who compared to Kieślowski comes off as thickly mannered).

Dekalog is not cinéma vérité. The episodes are very definitely Written and Directed. Little tangential observances are constantly happening, that comment on the story being told. A few are crude, such as an impotent man using the gas pump at a service station. But most pass before you realize their full pertinence. For example, at one point an intense classroom discussion on human decency is interrupted when a doddering, mentally impaired person wanders in. He is brusquely hustled back outside, so the class can go back to its ‘sensitive’ work. Writers Kieślowski and Piesiewicz also use symbols, but only when the characters notice them too. When one woman sees a man carrying a (ah-ah, no spoilers), just like she had seen at an earlier moment of crisis, she herself is struck by the apparent ‘meaning’ of the moment. And isn’t that the unusually familiar man from the previous episodes, where he also walked through at the strangest times? Although ordinary exposition sneaks in from time to time, we most often discover the backgrounds of the characters through interpersonal clues and hints. This works perfectly, as it is the same method by which we judge and understand the people we meet and observe in our daily lives.

Kieślowski and Piesiewicz ‘s style steers an adept course between art cinema and soap opera. Some of the episodes are quite different-looking. A story occurring at Christmastime is bright and slick. Another is drab and grainy. Another chapter is color-filtered in ugly yellows and greens, to strange effect, almost like Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves.

Since the stories are more interested in presenting human problems than in wrapping them up in neat resolutions, viewers needing everything spelled out for them might be disappointed. That doesn’t mean empty endings where people contemplate blank walls for minutes on end. These are all very accessible dramas. And, finally, because Dekalog is from Poland and not PC-conscious Hollywood, there will be people who reject some of the tales because their ‘messages’ can be interpreted as conservative or old-fashioned. None of the characters carries the burden of representing anything but their own consciousness … none are perfect, and none conform to ‘appropriate’ stereotypes.

The world of Dekalog is Warsaw, where people are getting along as best they can, living in simple apartments, dealing with their lives in less than lavish surroundings. It is refreshing to see stories with characters not completely bound up by typical American concerns about ambition, status, success. Hollywood has a hard time when trying to tell stories that place the personal traumas of people above their economic status. The poor are usually treated with condescension. Rich people’s problems seem minor compared to their lavish on-screen lifestyles, which many viewers resent. How does one get worked up over the problems of movie celebrities, no matter what’s happening to them? They’ll just be on ET tomorrow, talking about how tough it is to be a superstar.

So maybe the issue that makes Dekalog so honest is money. This show comes off as so simple and basic… there’s nothing to hype into a network promo, no nudity, no violence, no cheap thrills. There’s nothing to sell as we know how to sell it.

Since Dekalog is so humbly unique, so different from anything Savant has seen before, it isn’t the kind of show to recommend to everyone. It’s too personal for me to predict how any particular person is going to react. All I know for sure is that each hour of viewing in our house was followed by at least ten minutes of intense discussion, of both the shows and the issues raised therein. For Savant and family, these shows were a revelation.

As I reported up top, The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Dekalog was quite a surprise. Judging by the old Image / Facets disc sets, I thought that the entire Polish miniseries had been filmed in 16mm. This box contains new 4K digital transfers of all twelve of the films, and the quality is luminous. We can finally fully appreciate the range of visual stylization used by Kieślowski in some of the episodes. The jaundiced, emotionally skewed look of A Short Film about Killing finally looks correct, rather than coming off as a mistake.

Two Blu-ray discs carry the ten regular episodes, and one disc holds the two theatrical feature cuts made for Dekalog 5 and Dekalog 6. The fourth disc is all extras. They give our understanding of this near-legendary show a major boost. We hear excellent commentary from the experts, plus get to see the original actors discussing their own amazement over Krzystof Kieślowski’s talent.

We first get a four-minute TV promo with the director speaking from the set of a later film, This is followed by twenty minutes of excerpts from A Short Film about Dekalog, by Eileen Anipare and Jason Wood. And Kieślowski is heard in 23 minutes of audio excerpts from a 1990 interview conducted by Derek Malcolm.

The half-hour visual essay by Annette Insdorf is an excellent introduction to the ‘formal and thematic patterns of Dekalog‘. Her basic thesis is that Kieslowki’s aim is to constantly suggest the presence of the metaphysical; that there’s always something beyond the physical reality of life events.

The extras also contain a wealth of key-source interviews with Kieślowski’s collaborators and actors. Co-writrer Krzysztof Piesiewicz speaks for 25 minutes, and many actors appear in grouped interviews and individual interviews as long as twenty minutes each. Some were taped in 2003 and many more are new.

The final interview is a special new piece with journalist Hanna Krall, a creative confidant of Kieślowski. We learn about her own work, much of which is based on sad stories from WW2. She makes the distinction that she reported facts and true events, unlike Kieślowski’s fictional flights of philosophy.

Critic Paul Coates contributes a sixteen-page essay to Criterion’s fat insert book, which also contains full credits for the films, plus pieces written by Krzysztof Kieślowski about the two feature films derived from his ‘cycle.’ Criterion’s disc producer is Abbey Lustgarten.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Dekalog Blu-ray
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent (Polish)
Additional Features: A Short Film about Killing, A Short Film about Love; 171 minutes, color.
Supplements: Selection of archival interviews with director Krzysztof Kieślowski, taken from a 1987 television piece on the production of Dekalog: Two, excerpts from the 1995 documentary A Short Film About Dekalog, and a 1990 audio recording from the National Film Theatre in London; New program on the formal and thematic patterns of Dekalog by film studies professor Annette Insdorf; New and archival interviews with Dekalog cast and crew, including co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, thirteen actors, three cinematographers, editor Ewa Smal, and Kieślowski confidante Hanna Krall; Trailers. Plus a 72-page book featuring an essay and capsules on the films by cinema scholar Paul Coates, along with excerpts from Kieślowski on Kieślowski.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature and Polish-speaking extras only.
Packaging: 4 Blu-ray discs in card and plastic disk holder with insert booklet in heavy card box.
Reviewed: October 16, 2016

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