Moral Complexity in Kieslowski’s the Decalogue (1989)
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Published: Fri, 15 Dec 2017
Although the moral stories that constitute Polish director Krzyszto Kieślowski’s The Decalogue (1989) were inspired by the Ten Commandments (as per the films’ umbrella title), the way they relate to God’s Law as revealed to Moses is by no means straightforward or clear-cut; nor is the rich symbolism which Kieslowski weaves throughout the films. As this paper shall demonstrate, the ideas and themes in The Decalogue are complex and often ambiguous, especially with respect to two primary and recurring symbols: the huge apartment complex where the various characters reside and occasionally cross paths and an unnamed, mysterious male figure who hovers on the periphery of the action, silent and observing. Kieślowski uses these two symbols to illustrate and develop the metaphysic that lies at the heart of the film.
“The films [that constitute The Decalogue] should be influenced by the individual commandments to the same degree that the commandments influence our daily lives”, Kieślowski notes in the introduction to the published script of The Decalogue (quoted in Cunneen, 1997). Joseph Cunneen suggests that this influence is subtle and indirect. It is significant that the films do not have separate titles that contain text of the commandments; as a result, the viewer is “often unsure of the relationship between a film and a particular commandment; to the director, if the numbers of some episodes were reversed — for example 6 and 9 — it would make no difference” (Cunneen, 1997). Kieślowski thus encourages intellectual guesswork on the part of his audience. “I merely announce, for example, Decalogue 1. The spectator looks at the film and . . . begins to think about the commandment(s)”. (Kieślowski, as quoted in Cunneen, 1997). For example, in Decalogue VI there seem to be no reference to any one particular commandment, though it does contain references to stealing (the peeping-tom protagonist steals a telescope to spy on a female neighbor) and killing (the same character slashes his wrists near the end of the film).
This “thoroughly un-didactic” approach enables Kieślowski and his co-screenwriter, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, to develop their themes with subtlety and restraint (Porton, 50). In The Decalogue, as in life, nothing is cut and dried. “Each episode can be likened to a moral parable that suggests . . . how we can live ethically in a world where the false comfort of either a belief in God or dialectical materialism is unavailable”, states Porton (Porton, 48). Jonathan Rosenbaum would seem to agree that the film’s power is suggestive rather than didactic: “The finely sculpted scripts of these films become suggestions of how we might think about these people, not directives about how we should judge them” (Rosenbaum, 159).
He goes on to say that the decision to produce a series of films that correspond to the Ten Commandments in name and number is essentially “a packaging idea, successfully designed to give Kieślowski an international reputation and made in part for export” (Rosenbaum, 155). By the director’s own admission, he and Piesiewicz avoided any overt political references to the Poland of the mid-1980s in order that the films could be marketed in other countries (Stok, 145). Yet none of this detracts from The Decalogue’s intellectual, moral and aesthetic stature.
Kieślowski is a serious artist whose ultimate concern is integrity – that of his characters and also of himself, as a filmmaker. He does not teach morality (in the sense of “thou shalt not”) but rather contemplates and probes life’s so-called “grey areas”. According to him, “integrity is an extremely complicated combination and we can never ultimately say ‘I was honest’ or ‘I wasn’t honest’. In all our actions . . . we find ourselves in a position from which there’s really no way out – and even if there is, it’s not a better way out [but only] the lesser evil. This [choosing which way out to take], of course, defines integrity” (Stok, 146 & 149).
The notion, then, that a set of ten rules is all we need is simplistic to the point of absurdity. The decisions we all must make in our lives are often difficult and painful; they are also dependent on a host of different factors which have to be weighed and taken into account. Where morality is concerned, perspectives have to be altered and sometimes replaced with new ones. Mario Sesti suggests that the complexity of the ideas at play in The Decalogue is symbolized, in part, by the high-rise apartment complex which is the central setting for all the episodes. “Throughout the work a system of hints, correspondences and allusions imperceptibly laces together the tangled plights of the characters who live in the [same] apartment block. Everyone either knows or ignores one another, but everyone is aware (however reluctantly) that they belong to the same narrative” (Sesti, 183).
Portman remarks that Kieślowski’s signature theme in virtually all his films (not just The Decalogue) is “the ineffability of human experience through chance encounters – or near-encounters – of protagonists whose paths would never ordinarily intersect” (Portman, 2001). Locating most of the action in and around the huge apartment building where the various characters live, and where their paths occasionally cross, allows Kieślowski to stage such chance encounters and near-encounters while “(weaving the) single episodes into an overall tapestry” (Sesti, 183).
The director notes that the idea of choosing characters at random and observing how they act and interrelate is well-served by the apartment building setting: “We had the idea that the camera should pick somebody out, . . . then follow him or her throughout the rest of the film”, he says, adding that since the apartment building has “thousands of similar windows framed in the establishing shot”, it was an ideal setting for his purposes (Stock, 146).
Cunneen explains that the apartment building helps “unify the series” since we see the same few buildings again and again (that is, from episode to episode), adding that “in such a context it becomes natural for a character we see on the stairs in one episode to become a major figure in a later one” (Cunneen, 2001). By extension, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the apartment building symbolizes the unity – and interrelatedness – of experience.
Despite the interrelatedness, Michael Wilmington argues that all the characters in the series think of themselves as essentially “isolated” (Wilmington, 2001). Occasionally, to some minor degree, the setting shifts away from the Warsaw suburb and into the city, and even the countryside, yet the director has a nostalgic idea of a return the monotonous high-rise blocks (Wilmington, 2001). The symbolism of the notion to portray such areas of Warsaw is that only in those tall grey buildings can the audience get familiar with many different emotions of the inhabitants: love, hate, friendliness, politeness, curiosity and more. There is constant interaction between the neighbors, making Kieślowski’s series very realistic and simple to understand for his viewers.
The apartment building is, in effect, an objective correlative to this very malaise. The “deliberately gray or brackish colors” of the building “capture an edifice that signifies both the State and the monotony of life in ‘People’s Poland’” (Porton, 2001). In a similar vein, Agnieszka Tennant makes reference to the “mass-produced, colorless buildings”, “cheerless wintry outdoors”, “cold flats” and “impersonal stairwells, elevators and offices” that constitute the film’s mise-en-scène (Tenant, 2001).
Another function of the apartment-building setting is that it allows for an open narrative structure – a structure which “invites the viewer to interpret the actions of [the] protagonists, to follow their struggles with destiny in an abundance of chance encounters” (Haltof, 79), while serving as a convenient symbol for voyeurism and shifting perspectives (that is to say, the viewer’s as well as the director’s gaze). Cunneen is correct to stress that Kieślowski’s camera is “fond of windows, mirrors, or any objects that offer possibilities of reflections” (Cunneen, 2001). This tendency opens new perspectives on the protagonists of the film series. They are viewed from behind the glass, lens or mirror which highlights that their actions could not be what they seem and have more dimensions to them.
In Kieślowski’s films, glass “serves to self-consciously foreground the act of looking”, according to Annette Insdorf (Cunneen, 2001, quoting Insdorf in the latter’s Double Lives, p. 91). In Decalogue V, Piotr, the lawyer of Jacek the killer, is “framed in a mirror” before we actually see him. As well, “the driver [victim] is presented as glass reflects the apartment complex” and “Jacek is introduced in the street, reflected in a mirror as well” (Insdorf quoted in Cunneen, 2001). Sesti refers to Kieślowski’s themes of “uncertainty” and “bewilderment”, noting that “the most typical image in The Decalogue is a shadowy interior, a character at the window, or a gaze without rancor, happiness or hope” (Sesti, 187). A case in point is Decalogue VI, which begins with Olaf, the peeping tom character, spying on Magda, the older woman who is his neighbor, but ends in reverse, with Magda spying on him. Kieślowski concedes that this “change in perspective” is essential to the episode’s structure (Stok, 169). Other examples of the gaze may be found in Decalogue I when the boy Pawel watches a pigeon on his windowsill in the beginning. Later, after Pawel drowns, his aunt watches slow-motion memorial footage of him on a TV screen in a shop window. In Decalogue V the gaze is noticed during the murder of the cab driver when the killer Jacek hesitates for a brief moment when the victim “looks up at him and Jacek sees his suffering”; he responds by covering the man’s head (Hogan, 2008). Curiously, Kieślowski here seems to be equating the gaze with death.
Another significant and symbolic link between the episodes is the presence of the mysterious, silent young man whom the audience sees only occasionally. He is absent from episodes 7 and 10. This omnipresent figure “with searingly watchful eyes and an Old Testament intensity” (Cunneen, 2001) usually shows up “just before [a] character makes a difficult ethical decision, or just before something unexpected happens” (Tennant, 2001).
He can be observed in Decalogue I sitting at a campfire; in Decalogue V, as a road inspector and also as a painter in prison; in Decalogue VI, as a man in a white suit; in Decalogue VIII, as a student listening to the lecture of one of the two main characters; and in Decalogue IX, as a cyclist who watches the protagonist try to kill himself. This mysterious man can be identified with a guardian angel or the “walking consciousness”. He is present at the times of crucial decisions by the protagonists, but he never judges. On the contrary the “angel” is trying to push the troubled heroes to a better moral choice, as with Jacek in Dekalogue V he shakes his head to silently protest the murder or in Dekalogue IX saving Roman from succeeding in his suicidal attempt.
The figure is still puzzling because he seems to have very little to no influence on the action and therefore cannot be considered a character in the proper sense. Tenant believes he “symbolizes God’s presence among us, Christian conscience, or at least — for a secular audience – fate” (Tenant, 2001), while Haltof sees him as an “Angel of Fate” who “adds an almost metaphysical dimension” to the films (Haltof, 81). As Sesti explains, although the figure “never interferes with the action, [he is] perfectly aware of it to the point of foreseeing its conclusion”. He never utters a word but rather “looks directly into the camera, and his disquieting silence seems to comment on the story”. Sesti agrees that this “kind of chorus figure” acts as a unifying link for the episodes but points out that “we do not identify with him, for his presence suggests the inflexibility of fate and the vulnerability of every individual. . . . [His gaze is] the gaze of some divine figure, distressed by his uselessness and by the impossibility of redeeming the world” (Sesti, 184).
The ambiguity and symbolic richness of the “angel” figure and of the apartment complex testifies to Kieślowski’s mastery as a filmmaker. The Decalogue does not lend itself to a reductionist reading; quite the opposite. A “vast fresco of private emotions and subtle interactions” (Wilmington, 2000) on the one hand, it is also a work that is rich in themes and ideas. As Wilmington observes, these themes are in fact common to all of Kieślowski’s films: “Choice is fate. Pain underlies beauty. Isolation is an illusion. Disparate are we. Sin is inescapable. Soul is flesh. Film is life. The Decalogue, [Kieślowski’s] prime act of cinematic voyeurism, draws those threads together” (Wilmington, 2000). By turning to such methods as a common setting of high-rises in Warsaw and a small trace of a mystic messenger from God, Kieślowski is able to unite and add coherence to ten short films from his Dekalogue series. The films are complex and deep. They require thorough analysis and knowledge of the Biblical context. The author is making it easier to understand for his audience by bringing in common threads to each episode and opening the conclusions for different interpretations and room for opinions.
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