01-04-2006 - Traces, n.4


Bleak but Not Hopeless

by John Touhey

Decalogue One
Krzysztof Kieslowski, Director
Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Screenwriter
Facets Multi-Media
NR / 53 min.

I am the Lord thy God… thou shalt have no other gods before me.

In the late 1980s, director Krzysztof Kieslowski made a series of ten films for Polish television, in collaboration with screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Each film was to be a reflection on one of the Ten Commandments–an exploration of their meaning for modern man and how they are lived or ignored.
The first film in the series, Decalogue One, is the story of a computer science professor (named Krzysztof like his creators) and his precocious son. The boy, Pawel, is full of questions about life and its meaning. Coming home from school one evening, he happens upon a dead dog. That night, the upset Pawel asks his father what death means. “Man is a machine,” Krzysztof answers. “The heart is like a pump and the brain is like a computer. They get exhausted and then stop working.” And that’s it. The boy is not content to leave it at that, however. When Pawel presses his father further, and he still cannot give a satisfactory answer, Krzysztof confesses that he does not know if people have souls or not. To him, the question is unanswerable and therefore unimportant.
Krzysztof is an agnostic. Questions about God, Mystery, or meaning are of no interest to him. He believes in science, in the power of measurement and calculation. Any question that cannot be answered by a mathematical formula is irrelevant. If Krzysztof has any faith, it is in the progress of technology. He believes that computers will soon achieve sentience and resolve all human problems. Yet Kieslowski and Piesiewicz are careful to show us that Krzysztof is no cold-blooded monster. When his sister requests permission to enroll Pawel in religion classes, Krzysztof agrees without argument. He is a good man and a loving father.
Young Pawel gets some ice skates for Christmas. He is eager to try them, yet the winter cold is only just setting in. The pond outside their housing complex has only recently frozen over. Is the ice thick enough to support Pawel without breaking? Krzysztof collects data and makes some calculations on his computer, determining that it is indeed safe. Just to be sure, he goes out onto the pond and tests the ice himself before giving the boy permission to skate. What happens next is terribly predictable, yet comes as a shock even if you have seen the film several times.
Kieslowski started his filmmaking career in documentaries. You can see this in his fiction films, with their insightful observation of human behavior. Kieslowski goes beyond mere observation, however. He always gets beneath the skin of his characters, touching the mystery within the person. This is what makes Kieslowski’s cinema an ultimately affirming experience, even when he’s dealing with the darkest subjects, like the death of a child. Decalogue One is a bleak film, but not a hopeless one.
“Where is God?” Pawel asks his aunt at one point. She answers by leaning over and embracing him. It is a neat illustration of the reasonableness of faith. There are realities that cannot be explained by mathematics or logic, but that can nevertheless be experienced and affirmed. The commandment to put nothing else before God means keeping this relationship with reality wide open, not cutting if off prematurely. Krzysztof learns too late the tragic consequences of his presumptuous attitude. Yet even here there is a possibility of redemption. The ending, which takes place in a church that is still under construction, is ambiguous about Krzysztof’s ultimate fate.
After completing the Decalogue series, Kieslowski would go on to direct just four more films before announcing his retirement at the height of his critical acclaim. In 1996, at the age of 54, he died of heart failure. Krzysztof Kieslowski made many extraordinary films, but Decalogue One may well be his masterpiece.
The Decalogue series is available on DVD from Facets Multi-Media.