Dekalog 1×01: I

[Review by Antony Stubbs]

[Writer: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz | Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski | Aired: 12/10/1989]


“Scepticism is the beginning of Faith.” – Oscar Wilde

Many film directors are somewhat contemptuous of television as a medium and are accordingly loathe to operate within its confines, or perhaps merely use it as a career springboard to attain recognition in order to reach the Silver Screen.

In 1989, and perhaps even now, it was especially unusual for an established film director, an unmistakable auteur, no less, to voluntarily use the medium of the television series for his next project. In his first and only venture into this world, Krzysztof Kieslowski struck gold, crafting a series of ten short films that defied comparison, adhered to his personal artistic sensibilities and allowed him to explore questions that were dear to him.

The reliably truculent director once stated, “A few years ago, the French newspaper Libération asked various directors why they made films. I answered at the time: because I don’t know how to do anything else”. This evasive modesty masks a greater reality: he made films because the questions weighing on his mind had to find some form of expression, and his consummate skill and ambiguity in addressing these questions resulted in some of the finest works in cinema history, and indeed a remarkable television series.

Amongst the questions he found himself confounded by related to the Ten Commandments. Raised Catholic but later conflicted by his academic scepticism and the enervating atmosphere of his native Poland under the Communist regime, Kieslowski claimed to nevertheless maintain a “personal and private” relationship with God, a stance shared with the doctor in “II” [1×02].

Apparently, Kieslowski originally wanted the ten screenplays to be allotted to separate directors, before realising they carried such personal attachment that he resolved to direct all of them himself, with a different cinematographer for each instalment (with the sole exception of Piotr Sobocinski, who is utilised for both “III” [1×03] and “IX” [1×09]), including previous and future collaborators (Slawomir Idziak and Edward Klosinski respectively).

This was a shrewd move, as it allows each episode to present a fresh visual approach whilst retaining a core thematic sensibility. I myself am surprised that he ever even considered offering up the Dekalog screenplays to anyone else, as they are unabashedly Kieslowskian, and I wonder if any of his contemporaries could have invested them with his intellectual and emotional richness.

So what specifically perplexed Kieslowski about the Ten Commandments? As far as I can tell, the core problem was in their contemporary application. Though he felt the Commandments were fundamentally right, he also argued that various circumstances of modern life throw a spanner into the works that perhaps the Bible couldn’t have prepared us for.

The various characters we meet, deliberately ordinary folks in times of emotional crisis, largely operate as director surrogates, trying to arrive at a truth that will resolve their heartache. To this end, the episodes provide catharsis for Kieslowski, and given the emotional attachment he provides, for the audience as well.

“For 6,000 years, these rules have been unquestionably right. And yet we break them every day. People feel that something is wrong in life. There is some kind of atmosphere that makes people now turn to other values. They want to contemplate the basic questions of life, and that is probably the real reason for wanting to tell these stories.” – Krzysztof Kieslowski

So the obstacle for the director comes in the form of treating each Commandment as rigidly fundamental. I find an acute relation to these stories and this approach, speaking as a non-believer who accepts the possibly of divine intervention and that the core values of Christianity are agreeable. I believe that I share a connection with Kieslowski insofar as questioning inflexible directives in a vacillating world.

Happily, as a deft and subtle filmmaker, Kieslowski never treats each Commandment as an absolute. He works within the shades of grey, and never once claims to have ‘answered’, rewritten or bolstered any of the ancient text, rather exploring them by means of artistic expression. At the same time, he continues with existing directorial motifs (chance, resurrection, ambiguity, grief, isolation, etc) that would also inform his subsequent works.

Consider the religious groups and individuals who acknowledge contemporary conundrums (usually in light of recent disasters) by appointing themselves as educators in their community meetings and literature, reiterating scripture in a manner that their immediate audience would find understandable and invariably ‘correct’. Kieslowski, by contrast, would undoubtedly reject such a pedestal.

The series has been met with no small amount of praise. Stanley Kubrick claimed Dekalog was the only masterpiece made in his lifetime. Robert Fulford wrote that “it may be the best dramatic work ever done specifically for television, and the most impressive religious art produced in any field during recent decades”. A recent review by Joshua Klein asserted that “Kieslowski achieves that rare feat: a seamlessly unified diverse anthology that gets closer than almost any film to what it means to be human”. It wasn’t just industry figures who were impressed: The Vatican included it on the ‘Values’ component of their 45 Great Films list in 1995. But don’t just take their word for it, let me take you on a journey…

“I” serves as a perfect introduction to the series. Notably, the Commandment in question is not presented onscreen. This is absolutely crucial; though “I” is the most self-contained of all the episodes, and adheres to its Commandment with more conviction than the rest, Kieslowski doesn’t want us to think of the Dekalog as didactic lectures, nor does he try to claim that a single episode complies to a single Commandment and should therefore be viewed in a vacuum.

Nevertheless, the general consensus is that “I” concerns the Commandment “I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me”. Before we delve into the plot and its relation to the directive, let’s first take a look at the opening scene.

“I” starts with characteristic stillness and a propulsive and cryptic visual style before arriving at its core scenario. A stretch of water leading from a partially-frozen lake is our very first image, and water itself will become a recurring motif throughout the series.

As the camera cranes up, we encounter a solemn-looking man (Artur Barcis) sitting nearby. The man is aware of our presence, and as the show unfolds, he seems tragically aware of all of his surroundings. A lot of discussion has been made of his relevancy to the series: is he God? An angel? Does he represent us, as an audience? Kieslowski is naturally cagey on the subject. There is no concrete answer, so one is compelled to return his look and identify his character as ‘pure gaze’: a being who is present merely to observe the personal, emotional and ethical positions of his peers, a silent witness in the truest sense of the word.

The editing divorces us from his direct stare for a brief scene, in which a woman walks slowly towards a TV monitor with tears in her eyes. Her movements bring her closer to the camera, extending an intimacy that will soon become typical of the visual style of the episode. We aren’t afforded the sound of the television as a beautifully melancholic score overrides it, so context has to be temporarily self-constructed.

A boy becomes the focus of the broadcast, and this sequence will return to close the episode. Presumably the woman has a connection to the boy or at least the subject of the programme, which strikes a deep emotional chord. We immediately cut from the broadcast to return to the man who breaks his gaze with the audience, to wipe away a tear.

This is followed by an extremely low angle of an imposing concrete edifice, a grim block of flats which we will call home for the next ten episodes. Pigeons then scatter, providing the first diegetic sound of the episode, thereby disrupting the indeterminate ‘pocket’ we have hitherto occupied, and then begins to establish the milieu.

Let’s address the opening in detail. Though a sense of timescale is only alluded to by the editing, the scene suggests that the man and woman are moved to tears by the same event. As the episode unfolds, we establish that the woman moved by the TV report is Irena, aunt to the boy in the broadcast, Pawel, who eventually drowns in the course of the story.

With the power of hindsight, and assuming the man’s appearance on the ice (and his subsequent disappearance following the show’s pivotal ethical moment, such is his wont throughout the series) precedes all subsequent events, the implication is such that he is not only pure gaze but perhaps prescient, making him not only an observer but doubly powerless by being aware of future tragedies yet incapable of intervention. This theory is especially reinforced in “VI” [1×06], when he offers a slight smile to Tomek, which quickly fades, and “IX” [1×09], in which he watches Roman launch himself down an incomplete road.

If he does represent the audience, then we too are merely spectators, and unable to intervene in anything that unfolds, even if we have already arrived at an ethical stance on the situation. If, however, he is indeed sibylline, then he can only hope that his mere presence will somehow confer a warning onto the recipient of his survey. Given that he is capable of making a physical impact on the world, the implication might then be that he is forbidden from acting directly, rather than being literally incapable. Because this is Kieslowski, one can only surmise. In any case, he is hurt but undeterred, and will remain with us for nearly all of our stay in Warsaw.

Throughout the rest of “I”, in which the man makes his most frequent appearance, his other manifestations similarly occur at crucial moments. His next is juxtaposed between shots of Pawel leaving his home with his father Krzysztof, walking past a schoolfriend soldiering on through the harsh weather past a church (another character who curiously has his attention but remains mute for that moment), the frame marking him as tiny against the structure, and then a frozen dog which a tearful Pawel makes physical contact with in the interests of understanding.

Later, after a conversation between Pawel and Irena in which she shows him photos of the Pope, Pawel asks “Is he kind? Clever? Do you think he understands the meaning of life?”, denoting not only his own precocity but his notion that intelligence will arrive at universal understanding, a by-product of his father’s deductive atheist thinking.

Next he appears between Krzysztof’s metasemantics lecture and an experiment in which the father and son leave a milk bottle outside to see if it’s cold enough to freeze. Interestingly, although we see that they routinely turn to the computer for specific calculations (which holds its subjects in an unnatural green aura), at this stage they will still only arrive at concrete deduction by practical experiment (nonetheless, when Pawel suggests they leave it to see what happens next, Krzysztof states confidently he already knows: “When it thaws, it will melt. In the sun or whatever”).

This beautifully segues into his final appearance, when Krzysztof tries out the ice’s resistance for himself and encounters him next to his roaring fire. This quiet moment of recognition proves vital: the gaze has become reciprocal, though Krzysztof naturally cannot make sense of the exchange. His subsequent disappearance speaks volumes: thanks to Krzysztof’s stubborn worldview, he has failed to transmit a message. The consequences are dire, and the man will not be party to them any longer.

The building itself is also worthy of mention, as this is our introduction to it, and it makes something of a quiet character in and of itself. This grey, foreboding tenement looms high on the horizon throughout the Dekalog, all brutalist angles and tiny windows. The interiors aren’t much more pleasant, providing its occupants with little in the way of space or comfort. Indeed, several camera movements in the series highlight the difficulty of moving around in such confines and several shots (especially in “IX” [1×09]) box the characters in further with awkward places for doors and furniture that serve to narrow the frame.

Kieslowski was keen to avoiding stressing the location as a Polish construction (perhaps a consequence of the censorship of his early documentaries), arguing the stories could just as easily take place in New York or Tokyo, but I think its important to at least acknowledge the exact point and place at which Dekalog transpires.

Dekalog was made only a year or so after the abolition of state censorship and state control was relinquished over film production, and “X” [1×10] was aired weeks before the end of Communism in Poland. Though the majority of Poland’s grim housing blocks still exist, these surrounding events offer the glimpse of hope that Dekalog‘s many weary window-gazers were looking for. This point is worth briefly returning to in “X” [1×10].

What is important to bear in mind is that this building serves as a reminder that all of the stories and violations of the Commandments are directly centralised in this one space, and though the block literally brings people together spatially, the frequent loneliness experienced by the characters isn’t aided by the building’s design which serves to isolate them all (fellow Pole Roman Polanski held a similar viewpoint in the first half of his career). Apparently Kieslowski chose the “most beautiful” block of flats he could find for the show: “it looks pretty awful, so you can imagine what the others are like”.

By means of compensation, the episode bridges the gap with a number of close-ups of the characters, which I feel highlight Kieslowski’s sympathy with ordinary people – he looks through the windows of the drab locale and finds wonderful, loving or at least sympathetic people there, and invites us in too.

The best examples of this are in Pawel’s heart-to-hearts with his guardians; when he tries to make sense of the dead dog and when Irena tries to explain God in layman’s terms. The latter is especially moving because several cuts incrementally bring the two closer together, so that when she makes that impromptu hug, I almost feel part of it.

The three principals in “I” to me indicate the clearest personal touch in the Dekalog, in that I feel they all represent Kieslowski in a particular manner. Their connections through the episode indicate a criss-crossing of opinion or attitude in Kieslowski, as befits a director who is quick to state he doesn’t have all the answers. If he is anything like me, he must have spent far too many hours of his life working out an argument in his head, with facets of his consciousness taking different sides, perhaps never arriving at a satisfactory resolution.

Krzysztof represents the rational part of Kieslowski, the lapsed Catholic, the academic. Krzysztof’s world is one of calculable certainties. This is expressed nowhere better than at the university, where his linguistics lecture illustrates his confidence in breaking things down by reasoned enquiry. He also elaborates by claiming that an ‘apparatus’ possessed of all world knowledge might also be capable of selecting preferences, and therefore capable of choice.

His suggestion (from a figurative pulpit) has the audience rapt, including his son, and finds a form of acknowledgement when he finds his computer switched on at home, to which he asks, “Colleague, what do you want?”, clearly treating it as something of an equal, perhaps potentially superior. Kieslowski never made a sci-fi film, and I think that his humanism and the outcome of Krzysztof’s confidence in machine intelligence suggest that the director never considered the ‘robot superhuman’ an acceptable notion.

Still, for the most part, Krzysztof’s theories prove correct. The chess game he and, moreover, Pawel take part in is won by strategy. They map out a prediction, and it proves accurate. The look on the bested champion’s face seems to suggest both disappointment and pleasant surprise.

This sense of utter reliability affords Krzysztof a modicum of power. His vision thus parallels the computer, thinking in binary (yes/no, is/isn’t) or the strategy of chess – he needs concrete prediction, the sort of prediction that seems to come naturally to the recurring man by the ice, the same ice that claims Pawel’s life after his calculations claim the event impossible.

Whilst his overarching trust in calculation eventually not only results in disaster but paves its way, Krzysztof isn’t boxed into a corner. He clearly loves his son and tries his best to ensure his safety. His mistake, then, is to utilise a fallible tool in an attempt to verify that safety, one outside of nature and therefore unaffected by its whims – I feel we’re encouraged to look at it switching ‘itself’ on as Kieslowskian chance, and tellingly, Krzysztof doesn’t seem to learn from it.

Irena represents the believer side of Kieslowski, who holds scripture to heart. She is afforded a lot less screen time than Krzysztof, which I think tells us a lot about the extent to which Kieslowski has compartmentalised his faith, though it is never considered ‘gone’. It would be easy for a lesser writer or director to write Irena unsympathetically, as either wilfully ignorant of the world beyond The Word or dismissive of Pawel’s development and curiosity. Thankfully, she is much more well-rounded.

The marvellously touching scene in which they chat about God finds Pawel in partial disbelief that his father and aunt are even related, such is the contrast. But neither party is fully disdainful of the attitude of the other. Krzysztof doesn’t entertain the notion of a soul when Pawel asks him about the meaning of death, explaining it in purely mechanical terms. But come the phone call with Irena in which she explains that she is has arranged for Pawel to attend religious classes, he doesn’t put up any resistance. This indicates that Irena is perhaps a little more open-minded, and is comfortable in a world in which the divine and the scientific sit side-by-side. That sense of power I mentioned regarding Krzysztof? Irena expects none such from God.

Note her pleasure in seeing Pawel use the computer to lock the doors and switch the taps on, before he shows her his program that works out what his mother is doing at that moment. Her first and only question is to see if the computer knows her dreams. It doesn’t, of course, but she assures Pawel that she dreams of him, and imparts a little happiness.

Pawel, then, is Kieslowski’s memory of himself as a young boy, perhaps somewhat idealised. He is inquisitive, bright, intuitive and eager to please. The structure of the episode is designed to illustrate Pawel’s journey. Open to all his surroundings and adult guidance, he finds himself trying to adhere to both pillars of wisdom in his life, hoping that he can arrive at ‘meaning’ via both their viewpoints.

Ultimately, his devotion or idolatry pertains more to his father, and accordingly his approach to life (consider the kiss he plants after they win the chess game) – once his curious nature leads him to the skates he was expecting for Christmas, his fate is sealed.

Throughout our last few encounters with Pawel, he discovers his dad’s theories prove accurate, and becomes similarly guilty of blind faith in mechanics. Krzysztof’s willingness to let him use his Christmas present early suggests he is impressed with his sleuthing (deductive investigation) and, tragically, the shared over-confidence in calculation – note that he gets Pawel to call the weather board, unintentionally making him complicit in his ‘positive’ forecast.

This mirror shakes Krzysztof to the core by not only robbing him of his son, it also exposes his perspective as fundamentally imperfect, and no doubt forces him to contemplate why he couldn’t have been taken instead. I would also argue that the university scene marks Pawel as a true young Kieslowski by the POV shots that indicate a makeshift viewfinder.

Curiously, there is no explanation for Pawel’s mother’s absence, and yet this informational veto allows Kieslowski to say more about it by not saying anything at all – if she is absent thanks to a divorce or a domestic squabble, this might colour our feelings towards Krzysztof, or in a more practical sense, perhaps, effectively counterpoint Pawel’s path so that he never attains quite so strong a bond with his father. We can only speculate, and so with this lack of solid information perhaps we learn alongside Krzysztof to avoid making precepts.

It’s also interesting to note that in place of a mother figure, milk features as a reminder of the maternal, and will reoccur throughout the Dekalog. It emerges here three times: it’s sour when Krzysztof pours it into his tea, Pawel is given an “awful” ration at school as part of an educational scheme (putting it at ‘fault’ in both events), and when Krzysztof and Pawel leave the empty bottle outside to test the temperature. Pawel asks if she’ll call before Christmas, foreshadowing “III” [1×03] and propagating his desire for his present.

In evaluating “I”, especially in relation to its function as the introduction to the series, I feel it is particularly important to stress what it is not, and that would be Christian propaganda. Whilst arguably the most direct episode in terms of implying the Commandment and the characters’ loss in light of its defiance, Krzysztof’s punishment, if you will, comes from an abstract reading of that Commandment.

As each episode deals indirectly with their corresponding rule, if follows that “I” isn’t simply about a cause-effect sanction, and that the show would undoubtedly grow stale fast if each transgression was met with Old Testament-style retribution. Nor do I feel that if Pawel’s journey was presented as moving towards the spiritual faith world (braving the lake through religious conviction) I still feel Kieslowski would still have ‘shown’ him falling through the ice.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.

“If you are the Son of God”, he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone”.

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: Do not put the Lord your God to the test”. – Matthew 4:5-7

So as far as I’m concerned, the lesson to be learned from “I” is not that it is wrong to value anything above God, but to place blind trust in anything. The challenge that Kieslowski faced in this episode regarding the modern application of the Commandment comes in the form of a suitable replacement for faith, and in the late ’80s and especially now, the computer would seem to be a logical substitute. Technology is extremely useful to our lives, and can provide and process scores of information. What it can’t or shouldn’t do is reduce our lives to their mechanics, treating established data as predetermination. With an absence of genuine faith, Krzysztof uses his accoladed device to play God, and Pawel pays the price for this arrogance. The folly here is one of idolatry: Krzysztof deifies the machine.

Krzysztof’s decision to allow Pawel on the ice not only arrives halfway through the episode, it also functions as the ethical fulcrum that divides the story into two distinct halves. Sadly, the moment at which Pawel seems most happy (gleeful at finding his skates and looking forward to using them) is also the last time we see him. Thanks to deft direction and Krzysztof’s disinclination to a world beyond the facts, the tragic ending arrives despite a number of portents and bad omens:

Seeing the man by ice gave him momentary pause for thought, but he remains undeterred. On his way home he passes by the church with its congregation of followers – next time he goes there it will be following catastrophe.

The next day, the scene opens with a God’s eye view of his immediate neighbourhood. Hard at work, Krzysztof suddenly finds a darkness encroaching through his papers. He pauses; it looks otherwordly, but it turns out it’s just an ink spill. His look says it all: he’s not upset, just surprised. This shouldn’t have happened, but it did.

Before he has time to wash his hands, a girl appears at the door asking if Pawel is in. Once again, nothing seems terribly out of the ordinary. Then, from the same God’s eye view, a fire engine moves past the block, and the phone rings. It’s the mother of a local boy, Marek, presumably one of Pawel’s friends. Again, it hasn’t quite registered, and still doesn’t when he passes a neighbouring couple hurtling down the stairs.

Krzysztof is then shot from the same angle as Pawel when we first saw him leave the block; following in his footsteps. The penny doesn’t quite drop until he finds Pawel’s English teacher, who had to dismiss her charges thanks to sickness. Chance is perhaps the most recurring Kieslowskian theme, and here it is employed to illustrate a point about the folly of assumption – if the English class had gone ahead, Pawel wouldn’t have gone to the lake.

His mind racing, Krzysztof stands in the darkness of the corridor before heading out again. As he does so, he passes a despairing mother and Pawel’s schoolfriend. He refutes the claim that the ice could have broke, but whether this illustrates his rationale tumbling down or him saying what he wants the mother to hear is entirely subjective. When he calls Irena, he finally begins to make indirect correlations, stating that he spilled the ink, thereby recognising it as an ill omen.

Nevertheless, he’s not done with technology yet, as he takes a CB out to try and find Pawel, to no avail. With night approaching, a small light appears to shine on a couple nearby, part of a gathering crowd. Krzysztof makes the association – it comes from an unattended fire, the same one that he saw the man warm himself by previously. When a young boy appears, Jacek, the couple are ecstatic to find him alive, and Krzysztof is encouraged to chase after them, to see if Jacek knows where Pawel is.

This whole sequence is shot in hand-held, increasing the urgency. In stark contrast to the number of close-ups in the episode, here the camera allows Krzysztof to run off in the final shot, making him suddenly appear mightily insignificant. Lamentably, he only arrives at a concrete conclusion as to Pawel’s fate when it is expressed in words by Jacek, such is the importance of solid information to Krzysztof.

I feel that everything I’ve mentioned here is vital for understanding Krzysztof as a character, because we as an audience carry a burden similar to the man by the ice – we know the format, and the topical framework of the programme, so though we want him to figure it out sooner and get to the lake ASAP, his stubborn intractability doesn’t permit him to make that conclusion so quickly. Even when the body is retrieved (a marvellously touching scene of quiet dignity), he remains standing whilst the community sinks to their knees in condolence. Nothing makes sense anymore.

In the aftermath of Krzysztof and Irena’s loss, he finds himself suddenly illuminated by a familiar sickly green glow – the computer, the “colleague”, the tool by which he unwittingly sent his son to his death, powers up again. As he registers its inexplicable awareness, it makes a single claim: “I am ready”.

We finally see the interior of the church as Krzysztof enters, a sense of vengeance in his eyes. His immediate reaction is one of anger as he collapses the altar, causing candle wax to approximate tears on the painting of the Black Madonna. Clearly, Krzysztof needs someone to blame. But while destroying an altar may seem an odd way for someone to reconnect with God, his decision to direct the blame here suggests that Krzysztof has reaccepted his Catholicism.

If, however, we are to believe Kieslowski maintains a critical stance towards this Commandment, then it suggests that Krzysztof will avoid holding onto blind faith like a liferaft, rather than simply claiming God > science, swapping one devotion for another. Indeed, Irena hardly ends the episode any happier for being a believer from the start. I also feel a much lesser director would have Krzysztof smash his computer apart instead.

At the close of this sequence, we get what I feel is Kieslowski’s masterstroke: having calmed down somewhat after his violent outburst, Krzysztof stands at the baptismal font, and puts his hand inside to cross himself with the holy water. What he discovers is that the water has frozen too, but he removes a disc of ice and tries to bless himself with it anyway. So this becomes a very bittersweet moment: the gesture subtly reaffirms his faith and quashes his previous sense of convictions, but the coldness also provides a physical idea of what Pawel must have gone through in the last few minutes of his life. What can I say but: quietly devastating.

The episode bookends with a return to the image of the broadcast recorded at Pawel’s school, now within context, of course. The memory remains.

Ultimately I feel another question is prompted by the denouement. How many of us, believers and atheists alike, have prayed or asked for external help in their darkest hour? In these instances, emotional impulse overrides any rationale typically employed as a shield in the harsh light of day. Kieslowski shows Krzysztof accepting God begrudgingly, and only by reactionary means – might this newfound faith afford him little succour in the light of this personal tragedy? And might he eventually abandon God again when or if he emerges from the grieving process?

This oblique sense of closure will become something of a hallmark for the show… welcome to Dekalog.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ The immediate cut from Pawel touching the guinea pig’s sharp teeth to the abrasive sound of kids scraping on the ice. This editing decision makes for a small jarring reaction, not unlike the sound of pigeons scattering that opens up the show proper.
+ Pawel implusively kisses Krzysztof after they win the chess game, and Krzysztof has him kiss his bald patch after he finds the skates. These little moments of tenderness exemplify their bond and make the drama hit home a little more.
+ Krzysztof applying a little cologne before heading out. We never get confirmation of his wife’s wherebouts or the circumstances of their marriage, but this little throwaway moment suggests he might have a date.
+ The image of the skates above Pawel’s bed: you want to feel happy for him treasuring his present, but they’ll soon be instruments of tragedy.
+ When panic sets in, Krzysztof freezes on the stairs and starts counting to calm himself down. While this is a very common reaction for people under stress, it seems especially pertinent to Krzysztof as someone who holds rationale and logic above all else.
+ The weird scrutiny from the guy in the lift. We don’t see the lift in use again until “IV” [1×04], where it’s filmed in the same way and used for a subtle chance encounter.
+ We never clearly see Pawel being pulled out of the lake; the dredging is filmed from a distance and his death is only implied by reactions in the next shot. Cinema.
+ Krzysztof doesn’t turn around when Irena holds him from behind, he just knows it’s her.

– It took me several viewings to notice it, but after Krzysztof washes his hands and looks in the mirror, the top of a cameraman’s head is briefly visible. For such an exacting and precise director, it’s surprising a goof like this made it into the final cut.



30 thoughts on “Dekalog 1×01: I”

  1. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on February 19, 2015.]

    I was hesitant to watch this, because (1) it’s not in English, (2) it seemed too aesthetic for my tastes, and (3) I’m not big on anthologies in general.

    But then the characters started talking about Miss Piggy chasing Kermit on skis, and I was able to settle in pretty comfortably.

    Terrific review. Even if I’d heard of Dekalog beforehand, I would never have pegged it as being a Critically Touched series, but you really have a knack for dissection and detail. It might not be my kind of series (though time will tell), but your reviews may make my experience all the more enjoyable.


  2. [Note: Jay posted this comment on February 20, 2015.]

    Just got through watching it. I had presumed at the outset that it might be one of those very methodically-paced Eastern European films as I’d seen before, and yet I didn’t seem to notice any slack so to speak in it, it kept going as it was going.

    In addition to being impressed by that, I was pleased at how human all the interactions felt and the characters appeared. There were moments in and out of the apartment that… well, “voyeuristic” isn’t the right word, but it felt as if the interactions between Pawel and Krzystof were just something I was observing isolated from any notion of scripting or acting. And with the subject matter at hand and the dichotomies presented, it would seem to be so easy to make Krzystof into a caricature of the rational man, yet when he speaks of what’s left behind after a person dies, the details aren’t the accomplishments or what the individual did that benefited the world, but idiosyncratic things like missing teeth, gait, smile, manner of speaking.

    I think that there’s also a playing around with the idea of process and result, beyond the chess strategy, which is the most obvious instance. The meteorological institution is called, we get temperatures, and feed them into the computer, and yet I think that it’s highly significant that Krzystof enters them, gets the results, and the reenters them to confirm. There’s something of doubt in there, all the more so as he goes out to walk on the ice to tap it with his stick. It appears sound enough, yet he’s doing so well after dusk, well into the colder night. Thus the rational man makes his experiment at a time suited to the desired results, but not the likely time Pawel is going to be out there himself when conditions will be different.

    I think the culmination of the process/results dynamic is the final sets of scenes where the fire department is laying out ladders, digging through the ice, putting in boats, and dredging. In addition to the human attention on Jacek and who is and isn’t missing from the crowd, there’s a very clear directorial attention on the idea that we should understand how they are going to search for the body in the water, but the act of actually finding it is nevertheless something that we’re wholly unable to come to terms with.

    If I’m playing around with my background in Bible studies, I’m tempted to make a few more connections as well. In the confirming the calculations and also wandering out to tap the ice himself, I’m reminded a bit of the Exodus story of Moses striking the rock to bring forth the water. As it’s written, the Israelites were dying of thirst and Moses, after consulting with God, is told to go out and speak/pray to a rock and water will come forth. Instead, he strikes it, not even once but twice, and for this demonstration of his lack of faith, the Promised Land is withheld from him. I look on various acts by Krzystof as a translation of that: Rather than seeking water from the rock, we’re looking for the water to be as solid as a rock, and further, the calculations are confirmed twice, the ice tapped multiple times, but all under the wrong conditions. It’s a different lack of faith and expression of doubt that Krzystof is experiencing, and one that punishes him for putting too much weight in his convictions in spite of the testing.

    If I’m extending that a bit, then names become important. Kryzstof, plainly, Christopher in English, and then Pawel becomes Paul, noted convert who was struck down and changed by his revelation. Interesting then that the believer for the story is Irena, a name not with Judeo-Christian ties, but Greek, meaning peace, and one of the Horae. I’m sure there’s something there too, but I’m just having fun rambling by now.


  3. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on February 20, 2015.]

    The story is indeed from Numbers, but it’s a sort of followup from a similar bit from Exodus when God tells Moses to strike a rock in order to bring forth water. During the incident in Numbers, Moses was supposed to speak to the rock, but he accidentally chooses the wrong rock, and when it doesn’t respond, he recalls the earlier incident from Exodus and hits it – thus barring him from the Promised Land.

    Perhaps there’s something to be said for the way Krzysztof relies on his past experience with the ice to form his judgments this time around, with dire consequences.

    Also, I was surprised to hear that you already finished the series, but then I remembered that you knew this was being reviewed beforehand.


  4. [Note: Jay posted this comment on February 20, 2015.]

    Well, I was half-right then. Sometimes similar stories repeat, what with the structure of how it’s written and I misremember which book or chapter it’s in. Glad you’re on top of it. I still think the reference is there.

    And by “it,” I only meant the episode itself. I’ll probably keep up as guttersnipe turns in his reviews and not run off ahead.


  5. [Note: guttersnipe posted this comment on February 20, 2015.]

    Bloody hell, I wasn’t expecting comments already, let alone five!

    Really pleased it worked the magic on you. As I’ve just been typing up on the Forum: though it is an anthology, there are numerous details, occurrences and characters that correspond to other episodes. Not so much here, but rest assured I’ll be elaborating on later instances.

    And thanks indeed, I really did want to make this work, and once I was over that tricky first paragraph, it was pretty much hurdle-free.


  6. [Note: guttersnipe posted this comment on February 20, 2015.]

    Great feedback. I agree that the interactions help to make the series more accessible, and though I don’t make a big song-and-dance about acting, the Dekalog actors are almost uniformly terrific. In any case, they’re always filmed with a clear desire to investigate and share in their experiences, even if that extends to their daily mundanities.

    Really pleased that you’ve been able to make other Biblical references; I reckon that parable is probably just as relevant as the Matthew piece I used. I doubt I’ll be quoting scripture much throughout my reviews, as I’m mainly interested in the relationship between the episode and the Commandments, but if you can make a parallel like that, that’s pretty fantastic.


  7. [Note: guttersnipe posted this comment on February 20, 2015.]

    I wouldn’t recommend anyone blaze through the series, it’d be kinda like whipping through all of Antonioni’s ‘alienation trilogy’ in a day: relentlessly brilliant but too emotionally bruising.


  8. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on February 20, 2015.]

    Oh, I’m not really the “blazing through” type. And yeah, this doesn’t quite look like a show I’ll be watching too swiftly. (At what rate do you plan to publish your reviews?)

    I simply have an inherent eagerness to see the whole series, because I’ve seen every singly thing reviewed on this site (minus the focuses of Jay’s two Blog posts) and I don’t plan to stop now.


  9. [Note: guttersnipe posted this comment on February 20, 2015.]

    Good question. I drew up drafts of “II” and “III” for Mike’s perusal and if I felt so inclined, I could doctor them a bit and publish them pretty soon. Ultimately though, I’d like the reviews to be released with some regularity, so I wouldn’t want to machine-gun out the rest of the reviews just to maintain that pace. So what can I say: not as quickly as your most recent West Wing reviews but a bit faster than Jay’s Twin Peaks reviews.


  10. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on February 27, 2015.]

    Finished watching this episode just now. It sort of lacked the emotional punch I expected it to have, likely because Pawel’s death was telegraphed so clearly from the very start. Still, it helps that the acting was magnificent and the script unpretentious.

    Is there something significant about the computer’s messages being in English despite the inputs being in Polish? I imagine it’s connected to Krzysztof’s lecture on translating portmanteaus into other languages. Possibly it’s about the two incongruous devotions– faith and science– that he’s unable to make a choice between? But that’s a stretch.

    Also, that kid is cute!


  11. [Note: guttersnipe posted this comment on February 28, 2015.]

    Hey, glad you’re onboard!

    I agree that Pawel’s death probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone; you could maybe gather it from the opening scene by simply querying: “why is Irena (and seemingly Artur Barcis’ character) crying at the broadcast?”. But part of the reason why the drama works for me is how effectively the scenes astride the decision (the ethical fulcrum) work.

    Right up to the point in which Pawel sleeps with his skates above his bed, everything has gone right for him and his father. He’s having fun at school, enjoying the ice, bonding with both his parental figures and understanding their points of view (thereby coming to terms with the dead dog), impressing Irena with the computer-activated taps and locks, winning a game of chess against a master, working out the ice’s resistance and finding his skates. On the surface (sorry), things look up for the young lad.

    Come nightfall, Krzysztof makes no sense of his interaction with the man on the ice. From then on it’s all black omens, starting with the next day’s fire engine and the ink spill. Krzysztof is virtually assailed with abstract signals until he finally receives some concrete report as to Pawel’s fate, and it’s only then that he also recognises the fallibility of his scientific predictions.

    So for me, the brilliance of the two halves is in the deftness of the 180: as viewers and sceptics, we watch the first half hoping that everything’s going to turn out alright, because all of Krzysztof’s predictions prove true and Pawel benefits from his curiosity and logistical enquiries. Once he ‘disappears’, we’re left to watch Krzysztof’s helpless whirlpool, as he moves from pillar to post, seemingly incapable of accepting that he not only might have been wrong about the ice, but also about making predictions that jeopardise human life.

    I think this is also where a lot of emotional investment comes in (heart before head if you will), as as someone like my dad (not known for his sensitivity) would watch the second half in complete detachment, probably giving advice to the TV: “Why doesn’t he just go straight to the lake? The kid’s obviously drowned”.

    That’s an interesting view about the computer language, I hadn’t really considered that it might correspond to his metasemantics lecture. I don’t think I’d really given it any thought at all, other than he’d maybe had to import computers through necessity and input certain Polish terminology to make them easier for himself and Pawel to use.


  12. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on February 28, 2015.]

    I think there might be an analogy with Polish = religion (“What does she dream about?”) and English = science (“I do not know!”), but that could be a serious stretch.

    By the way, I was fully expecting the computers to immediately date the piece, but they didn’t in the slightest. Recently I reread the John Varley story “Press Enter [],” which gets its title because the narrator has to have it explained to him that the blinking square at the end of the text is called a “cursor.” It’s not a bad story– well, minus the kind of squicky relationship between a fifty-something Vietnam vet and the walking “dragon lady” Asian stereotype that makes the heart of the story… it’s not a very good story, actually. But the vibe of mid-80’s “could computers take over the world!?!?” paranoia is really chilling, and a lot of the imagery is really memorable.

    That was a complete digression. Anyway, the minimalism of the computer screens actually made the work seem less dated than if Pawel was using an iMac. It’s weirdly anachronistic, in that a computer that antique shouldn’t be able to wirelessly turn on a faucet, but I guess that makes it timeless. That’s good, because the episode deals so heavily with technology, and the worst thing a work of fiction about technology can be dated. (It’s why I’m cautiously optimistic about starting Black Mirror— I don’t know if the issues will hold up in ten years given how fast technology updates.)


  13. [Note: guttersnipe posted this comment on March 2, 2015.]

    I reckon there might be some truth in that: the input is conceptual, so it has to be asked in an alien tongue, but the computer only ‘understands’ hard data so can only respond with a default, native response.


  14. [Note: guttersnipe posted this comment on April 17, 2015.]

    Despite seeing it a few times, I never actually realised who the two main actors were: Zbigniew Zamachowski (Artur in “X” and Karol Karol in The Three Colours trilogy) and Wojciech Klata (Pawel) as the young priest who falls into the lake.


  15. [Note: Zarnium posted this comment on April 29, 2015.]

    As an atheist, this one disappointed me a bit. There aren’t very many well-written, realistic atheist characters in TV and film, but Krzysztof is far and away the best one I’ve ever seen. He’s not bitter and angry at the world, he’s not rabidly anti-religious, and he doesn’t treat religious people like ignorant dolts. He’s just a well-adjusted, normal guy who happens to not believe in the supernatural because he doesn’t find any of the arguments convincing.

    Despite this, his character is still used to service a tired and inaccurate trope: that nonbelievers are just one tragedy away from turning to God, because when the chips are down, they discover that they can’t cope without him, or that their “rational” ways have lead them down the path to destruction. I’ve seen it all before, and for once, I’d like to see a good atheist character who doesn’t turn to religion in the end, especially one as otherwise flawless as Krzysztof.

    I suppose I can’t blame Kieslowski for being honest and showing us his own internal struggle, but as a viewer, I still have a hard time seeing this stereotype being perpetuated so blatantly.


  16. [Note: unkinhead posted this comment on April 29, 2015.]

    I have not seen the episode, so this statement is bound to be ignorant based on no knowledge, regardless this post caught my eye so. Anyways perhaps it is a tragedy in that he didn’t hold his ground on beliefs when the going got tough or perhaps its a criticism of a more malicious and ultimately empty way in which some nonbelievers are converted through fear and desperation rather than logic. That Being said, being more of a Deist I usually never feel personally targeted as a group from films, so perhaps I’m not as aware of the stereotypes.


  17. [Note: Zarnium posted this comment on April 29, 2015.]

    The episode does not blatantly depict Krzysztof’s conversion as a tragedy, if that’s what you want to know. But regardless of the episode’s intended lesson, my problem is with the actual events themselves.

    I suppose I don’t actually come across the “atheist turns religious because of a crisis” trope very often in mainstream media, but it’s something that a lot of the more combative Christians believe is true. That non-Christians will either fold when the going gets rough, or they’ll refuse to convert out of pride but secretly be miserable. It’s a very patronizing and smug attitude that I don’t like at all.

    The problem I have with Dekalog’s “I” is that it follows this idea so closely while also having an unusually realistic atheist character. Someone like Krzysztof wouldn’t do what he does in the episode. Or maybe there are people like him who would, but having him convert at the end is the obvious and stereotypical narrative choice. Why can’t the people who wouldn’t convert get some representation for once?

    In the end, I guess I’m just disappointed that I found a character who’s fundamental beliefs more like mine than any other I’ve ever seen, only for him to throw them away at the end. If Krzysztof wasn’t such an anomaly I probably wouldn’t care as much.


  18. [Note: unkinhead posted this comment on April 30, 2015.]

    First of all, WOW the first episode was awesome. Second of all, WOW this review is awesome. Seriously, your writing makes me jealous and is tempting me to take an English class or something, very eloquent and well analyzed, bravo.

    Yeah it was actually pretty mind-blowing if I do say so myself. I don’t have much to add given that you covered everything so well. I actually didn’t know which commandment the episode was following previous to watching, I assumed it was the false gods/idols one but wasn’t sure, so now that I know I’m glad I had the right perspective and I wasn’t completely off.

    Now this is the only part I had to get through on YouTube with the terrible subtitles, it was fine for the most part because I am a pretty fast reader so it wasn’t a problem except for certain scenes in which the english subtitle vanished before the other subtitles went away, so a little bit of information was lost on me as Krzysztof was coming to his “slow-realization”. But you filled in the gaps rather nicely here.

    The atmospheric tone, and music is incredible, I love it. The cinematography is stunning, and some of the shots were really quite wowing, the opening shot, the ink spill, and the birds flying away from the flats come to mind. I loved the portent of the ink spill, I love how it is both obviously portentous and subtle at the same time…Marvelous film making really.

    Also, talk about interesting subject matter! Really a fascinating study of a man’s reluctant acceptance of god, blind faith/idolization. It represents a truth to the commandments that isn’t traditional but is actually rather intelligent and understandable, it shows a adherence and belief in them as “good” in a complex and realistic way rather than being didactic. You know the commandments, or anything religious really are either religiously preached blindly, or blindly assaulted on by atheists, as is the nature of arguments on such sensitive topics. It was very interesting to see an actual intelligent commentary on it.

    As far as Krzysztof becoming a believer at the end so to speak, I found it a very realistic path, or at least, a profound one. Perhaps your inherent similarity and liking of Krzysztof has clouded the theme and narrative of the film. I don’t think that’s a very unlikely path, and it should be understood that it was clearly reluctant. I don’t think it’s clear, or is really supposed to be clear, if that’s something Krzysztof will abide by as Guttersnipe said. After the grieving period is through will he resort back to trusting machines as his god?

    I think it’s these questions that are so compelling about this first episode. I don’t think it was preachy at all and should be a great watch for all sensibilities. I think you’re disappointment lies in what you wanted or expected, but the fact is that the film is abiding by it’s own structure and unfortunately never cares for what the audience wants.

    Anyways, this was absolutely awesome…I wish there was a blu-ray of this…sigh.

    Can’t wait to watch more!


  19. [Note: guttersnipe posted this comment on April 30, 2015.]

    Hmmm, I think I see what you’re saying, but this type of reaction was precisely why I claimed in my review that the Krzysztof was punished not for holding an atheist attitude in principle, but treating science and mathematics as infallible. It’s not only the schism of atheism and belief that separates Krzysztof and Irena, it’s the extent and application of their personal conviction. This is why I quoted Matthew as an example of Irena’s stance towards understanding the ‘rules’ that govern our environment.

    Though you could very broadly describe the structure as: person defies Commandment > tragedy occurs > person finds God, I think you could just as easily switch the attitudes and still result in Pawel’s death to exemplify the arrogance of assumption. I think this episode had to at least be pretty direct in illustrating the consequences of defying scripture as it is required to introduce the premise of the series, but I think every episode essentially uses the Commandments as a springboard to examine human behaviour.

    Also, I think in my last paragraph I highlighted the notion of faith as a security blanket: if you wanted to be somewhat uncharitable, you could simply claim Krzysztof swaps delusion for delusion. I’m sceptical that his third-act revelation will restore much in the way of happiness, it might just offer him temporary respite from trauma: the still-sombre flute score over his blessing pretty much confirms that much for me. The only real fact in the matter is that Pawel died, and it was Krzysztof’s fault. Incidentally, I consider myself a pretty hardcore atheist, and I’ve prayed once since I wrote this very review. I was scared.

    Plus, I would only be inclined towards the presentation of faith as the one true path if Kieslowski was a more forceful director, showing Krzysztof comforted by a priest or smashing his computer apart like I suggested. The episode bookends with the footage of Pawel to show that no matter how Krzysztof reacts to it, his son is dead.


  20. [Note: Zarnium posted this comment on April 30, 2015.]

    Hmmm, I think I see what you’re saying, but this type of reaction was precisely why I claimed in my review that the Krzysztof was punished not for holding an atheist attitude in principle, but treating science and mathematics as infallible.

    Maybe. But the opposite of “reducing your life to mathematical calculations” is not “turning to religion.” It’s “using some common sense.” If the episode were only about how Krzysztof relies on his computer too much, then it really didn’t need a religious backdrop at all. Actually, the episode probably could’ve been kept entirely the same, but simply ended with the scene of Krzysztof returning home to find his computer switched on, and it would’ve had a greater effect. It wouldn’t have been so blatantly about religion vs. science and more about the dangers of treating science and mathematics as infallible, as you say. We don’t need Krzysztof to actually convert in order for us to make up our own minds about whether or not his philosophy is at fault. The final scene is just too on the nose for me; it’s unnecessary and goes too far to make a point.

    To put it simply, I feel like this episode presents a false dichotomy between total reliance on science and reliance on religion, even though it really doesn’t need to. And in doing so, it stumbles into some unpleasant and tired cliches that I find to be maddening, even though they could have easily been avoided.


  21. [Note: guttersnipe posted this comment on May 1, 2015.]

    Indeed, they’re not direct opposites, but Krzysztof doesn’t operate in an atheist vacuum. Irena tells Pawel that they grew up in a Catholic household. A church sporting a massive cross dominates the horizon near their flat. Pawel asks him about death days before he dies, and wonders if he believes in souls (“Me? Frankly, I don’t know”). Irena informs him that she’s arranged religious classes for Pawel, and he seems fine with that (I’d like to clarify once again that I appreciate that neither Krzysztof nor Irena are pushy or dismissive of the other’s views). He makes some sort of sense of Artur Barcis’ character (every Dekalog character who makes eye contact with him interprets his survey as an abstract warning). Then there’s the string of omens, which he eventually correlates to his situation (telling Irena on the phone about the ink spill, which doesn’t mean anything to her). And finally, Pawel is killed by his Christmas present.

    The only reason he left his faith behind is because of his empiricism: he couldn’t prove God’s existence, so it wasn’t worthy of his time. Thusly, he only accepts that he has fallen from grace or been forsaken because he suddenly interprets the religious factors in his life as cautionary (there’s still no actual evidence of God’s intervention at all) and returns to the fold solely by reactionary means, a threat response. Catholicism doesn’t come to him out of the blue; if anything he’s still using his methods of reasoning to construct a deontological system informed by existing religious totems in his world.

    For me, his conversion represents a very human reaction to pain; indeed, if I break it down to brass tacks, I reckon just about every faith is a means of alleviating the fear of mortality, and the religion we adopt is most likely to be the one we were raised in or one that has some sort of community in our locale, which ties into my security blanket theory. For example, I don’t think it’s at all unprecedented that every believer I know is either a Christian or Muslim, because those faiths have a presence here and people raise their kids to continue those beliefs (which Richard Dawkins asserts as a form of child abuse). Perhaps Jainism is the correct religion, but no-one around my neck of the woods will ever discover it off their own back because there’s nothing concrete (by which I mean groups and temples) to reinforce it.

    My brother is a Muslim, and only joined the faith because of having an indoctrinated friend at the time of an accident. He doesn’t pray, go to a mosque or have any intention of going to Mecca: I seriously doubt it has much effect on his current life at all, but it probably helped him in some fashion at the time, and you’re welcome to interpret that as a form of self-deception. I think Kieslowski may be suggesting a similar thing: Krzysztof only enters the church because there might be some comfort in apologising to a figurative Sky Bully. In any case, I think Kieslowski’s humanism is more in play than any comment on religion, because I read his solemnity as a defiance to any Christians who might read the denouement as some form of victory. Hell, you could even interpret it as an atheist victory if you want by claiming that religion is just a sanctuary for the weak, as Krzysztof’s emotions undermine his rationale and steer him into fantasyland.


  22. [Note: guttersnipe posted this comment on May 1, 2015.]

    This discussion has actually reminded me that I have a friend who’s quite staunchly atheist; I wonder if she’d be annoyed or disappointment by Krzysztof’s journey?


  23. [Note: Zarnium posted this comment on May 4, 2015.]

    Oh, and just to cover my tracks for both past and future readers; my problem with this episode is not that it has a character turning to God, but that having this specific character do so has some unfortunate implications. And I’m not really offended either, it’s just that it prevents me from fully embracing the episode.


  24. [Note: Zarnium posted this comment on November 12, 2015.]

    I said this on the forums awhile back, but I thought I should come back and say it here, too: after a lot of thought, I’ve changed my mind about how I judge this episode. While I’m not a fan of the “atheist suffers a tragedy, turns religious” trope, if there’s any work that deserves to use it, it’s Dekalog. One my rules of thumb when evaluating the representation of different demographics in a work of fiction is that the greater context should be taken into account and not just a surface level reading; in this case, Kieslowski clearly had a legitimate purpose in mind that was likely very personal to him, and this was the way he saw fit to put it into film. This isn’t Out of the Silent Planet, where the atheists are only there to be horrid devils who make the Christians look good and noble by comparison.


  25. [Note: guttersnipe posted this comment on November 12, 2015.]

    I do see why the outcome rankled somewhat (I still haven’t shown it to my friend who got frequently frustrated with her Christian housemates in her student days, but I suspect she too might find that part disappointing), but for me the denouement hits three particular key targets: a) it conveys Kieslowski’s lapsed Catholicism and his subsequent anxiety about deliberately ignoring religious signals (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the protagonist shares a Christian name with both writers), b) I can acutely relate to abstract feelings of persecution and sometimes wonder if it’s because I also abandoned my Christian upbringing (it’s a been a rough year), and c) it sets the template for the Dekalog storytelling motif of addressing a particular Commandment but using that scenario for a concurrent ethical situation. As I mentioned before, I certainly don’t think the Christian angle ‘wins’ in this scenario, it’s more like life boxes Krzysztof into a corner and he tries to make sense of his ‘punishment’ in the only way that a devastated man inundated with motifs of faith can.


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