One of the 20th century’s greatest achievements in visual storytelling.
Krzystof Kieslowski’s wildly ambitious The Decalogue may be inspired by the Ten Commandments, but it isn’t a project rooted in religious fundamentalism. Over the course of ten hours, Kieslowski uses the commandments as a creative springboard for an exploration of the entire human experience. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the film is about almost everything: love, lust, death, hate, murder, science, religion, faith, doubt… you name it. And yet, despite its enormous thematic scope, the series is defined by a remarkable sense of intimacy. It’s a series of quiet, slow-burning, perfectly-sketched moments that build to emotionally overwhelming (sometimes shocking, sometimes touching, often heartbreaking) revelations.
How does Kieslowski incorporate the commandments, exactly? It’s hard to reveal many specifics without offering too many spoilers (in many cases, the thematic substance of an episode reveals itself in the form of a surprising plot development), but let’s start with the first episode and commandment. For “thou shalt have no other gods before Me,” Kieslowski zooms in on the story of a father and his young son. Both the man and the child are science enthusiasts, and find particular joy in using computers to find answers to complicated questions. One day, the boy wants to go ice skating, but isn’t sure whether the ice is sturdy enough to support him. So, he and his father run some calculations. The computer claims that the ice should be strong enough to hold someone three times the boy’s weight. The boy goes skating. The computer is proven wrong.
It may sound like the something made with the smug condescension of a church play, but it doesn’t play that way at all. Kieslowski was one of the world’s most consistently empathetic filmmakers, and he cares deeply about all of his characters (even some of the fairly reprehensible ones we meet later on). The series takes place in a world in which characters are frequently punished harshly for their actions, but Kieslowski never revels in that punishment and rarely suggests that it’s deserved. Instead, he looks closely as the characters attempt to find some form of understanding. Sometimes they reach epiphanies. Sometimes they reach despair. Such is life.
Almost all of the action takes place in and around a drab-looking apartment complex, which allows for occasional moments of overlap (for instance, one of the main characters from Episode II stepping into an elevator during a scene in Episode IV). However, each individual segment has its own unique look (a result of nine different cinematographers being hired to work on the project) and tone, with some segments aiming for a much more immediate dramatic intensity than others (contrast the enigmatic detachment of Episode III with the white-knuckle tension of Episode V). Zbigniew Priesner’s music is sparely-employed (long stretches of the series are quiet dialogue scenes that take place in quiet rooms… in that regard and others, it’s Bergmanesque), but carries enormous emotional weight when it appears and always seems perfectly-suited to the subtly different tone of the episode it accompanies.
The actors are a blend of seasoned professionals and amateur newcomers, but you’d be hard-pressed to figure out which actor belongs in which category: Kieslowski ensures that every person he casts is perfectly-suited to the part they’ve been given. These people are so sensitively and specifically drawn that they stay with you much longer than most fictional characters. You’ll never forget the tormented young mother (Maja Barelkowska) making a desperate bid for custody of her six-year-old daughter, or the father and daughter (Janusz Gajos and Adrianna Biedrzynska) forced to navigate complicated revelations and accompanying emotions, or the tormented young murderer (Miroslaw Baka) forced to confront the consequences of his actions. These are masterful short stories that add up to the cinematic equivalent of a great religious text: long, rich, dark, horrifying, comforting, potentially life-changing.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release of The Decalogue is unquestionably the definitive home video release of this great work. This is a huge improvement on the previous DVD release in terms of video quality, as each episode looks sharp and clean. There’s a fair amount of natural grain present in each installment, and both depth and detail are fairly impressive for an ’80s television production. It’s worth noting that eight of the ten episodes are presented in the standard 1.33:1 format, but episodes five and six (which were expanded as feature films) are presented in 1.70:1. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is on the soft side at times, but dialogue is generally well-captured and the music sounds rich and full. Sound design tends to be very understated, but what’s there is captured effectively.
All ten episodes are included on two Blu-ray discs, while the the two extended versions of the fifth and sixth episodes – A Short Story About Killing and A Short Story About Love – are included on a third disc. The fourth and final disc includes the generous supplemental features: three archival interviews with Kieslowski (running about 45 minutes combined), new interviews with co-writer Krzysztof Piesiwicz (25 minutes), film scholar Annette Insdorf (28 minutes), editor Ewa Smal (15 minutes), reporter Hanna Krall (15 minutes), and cinematographers Wieslaw Zdort (15 minutes), Slawomir Idziak (3 minutes) and Witold Adamek (12 minutes). There’s also a 21-minute piece featuring interviews with thirteen different actors featured in the series, plus a thick booklet featuring pieces by film scholar Paul Coates and excerpts from Kieslowski on Kieslowski.
The Decalogue is one of the year’s great Blu-ray collections: a superb presentation of an enormous artistic achievement. This is a must-own for every cinephile.