[Review by Antony Stubbs]
[Writer: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz | Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski | Aired: 05/18/1990]
“The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” – TS Eliot
One of the things that impresses me most about Dekalog is how the elliptical format of the show allows the audience to spend time questioning which directive is in play. When I first watched “III”, and without the benefit of knowing what episodes pertained to which Commandments, I simply read “III” as being about adultery, and therefore concerned the Commandment to avoid committing it.
Yet adultery is a common enough theme that it could be argued to apply to a number of episodes, such as “II” [1×02], “VI” [1×06] and “IX” [1×09]. Indeed, it seems to be the episode in which the possibility of an affair seems most likely to manifest within its timeframe, as such an act is part of the established scenario in the others. However, Kieslowski is characteristically sly regarding the précis for “III”, as it takes place on Christmas Eve, the second-most significant date in the Christian calendar, and gives rise to the theory that the most relevant Commandment is “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”.
We begin the journey with three characters doing exactly that: family man Janusz gets changed into a Santa Claus outfit in his car before arriving at hearth and home, naturally with presents for the cosy family unit he has created. With no small amount of significance, he bumps into a familiar face as he enters the good old apartment block: Krzysztof from “I” [1×01].
Janusz wishes him a Merry Christmas, but the agony is writ large on the recipient’s face. He simply replies, “I didn’t recognise you”, the bitterness of the rejoinder pronouncing that the meaning of the holiday is now lost to him. Whatever we may make of Krzysztof’s epiphany come the denouement of “I” [1×01], fundamentally he is a man who lost his only child, in which his ‘wisdom’ was instrumental, not to say the least of the tools by which it occurred: the ice skates that he permitted Pawel to try out before Christmas. Bearing the event in mind begs the audience to question whether or not Krzysztof also broke this episode’s Commandment, given the temporal significance.
For him, the occasion has become funereal, his fresh grieving exacerbated by his own arrogant folly in triggering his son’s accident. It is little wonder, then, why the camera lingers on him and approximates his POV as Janusz enters the building: for a moment, Krzysztof stares into his apartment where family are gathered and a resplendent Christmas tree catches the eye. For a period, Krzysztof indulges himself in some vicarious happiness as he bears witness to the sort of familial intimacy now lost to him.
This strikes a deep, personal chord, as on my darkest nights of the soul I’ve come to wonder if true contentment is ever really possible. Perhaps happiness exists only in pockets, and we can be forgiven for trying to steal these moments to combat harsh reality. As a non-believer, I can only hazard a guess as to what joy (if any) emerges from Krzysztof’s newfound faith, but I’m sure even those possessed of a most ardent belief would judge Krzysztof too harshly for attempting to slip through the bars of his autogenic prison. They may well judge Tomek in “VI” [1×06] for similar voyeurism, but his actions are ostensibly lascivious and certainly meddlesome, yet sympathetic nevertheless.
Incidentally, it’s only quite recently that I discovered a very similar scene in Kurosawa’s 1950 film Scandal in which Toshiro Mifune’s character rides his motorcycle with a precariously-positioned (not to mentioned fully-decorated) Christmas tree on the back. The local children gather round, chanting his name like a modern-day Pied Piper, but he claims instead he’s Santa Claus. This sequence dissolves into a night scene in which Takashi Shimura’s washed-up lawyer returns home drunk, and feels too guilty to enter when he witnesses his terminally-ill daughter enjoying carols at what would prove to be her last Christmas. I doubt Kieslowski used Scandal as a reference here, but it’s a neat parallel nonetheless.
I find it interesting that Artur Barcis’ mystery man is so downplayed in this episode, as he curiously eschews his typical position of attempting to intervene at the point of deviation in the ethical conundrum, instead relegated to the role of the tram driver who nearly crashes into Janusz and his old flame Ewa as they speed through the night on a fool’s errand. However, though he isn’t present to ‘advise’ Janusz not to abandon his family on Christmas Eve and reignite his affair with the desperate Ewa, his part is at the very least instrumental in endeavouring to reassess Ewa’s suicidal drive, as not even bearing witness to a legless corpse seems to dissuade her.
So, by marking the mystery man as somewhat dilatory in his intervention, I feel it is therefore important to consider character development for Krzysztof, in that he has become something of a vessel or mirror for the mystery man’s message, thereby functioning as a warning to Janusz about the importance (or sanctity, if you will) of family. Of course, his fierce independence and alpha male attitude afford him little attention to the factors conducive to ‘doing the right thing’. But despite the pressures of temptation, Kieslowski frames him in a position to justify his actions – at least to himself.
Janusz’ movements as he comes home that evening are intercut with those of his once-paramour. Ewa’s predicament starkly contrasts the charming and congenial atmosphere at Janusz’ house, where children gather as ‘Santa’ dishes out presents. She finds herself making a cursory visit to her elderly aunt in a retirement home, where her senility quickly becomes apparent. She asks if Ewa has done her homework, whilst in the same breath wonders why she didn’t bring her husband, Edward. Within the space of this small scene, Ewa goes from experiencing tactile tenderness to being reminded of her mournful situation, and soon makes her exit.
Whilst Ewa implements her own decision to arrive at the church for midnight mass (presumably the same church from “I” [1×01]), it is sheer Kieslowskian coincidence that Janusz turns around to spot her in the pews behind, as there is absolutely nothing to indicate her presence. Profane intervention, perhaps? She offers a brief smile, before exiting as briefly as she arrived.
Already the piece has established deceit as a core theme: Janusz pretends to be Santa Claus for the sake of his children’s happiness, but his disinterest at the church informs us that he really doesn’t take much of this to heart. Accordingly, he attempts to force meaning onto himself by singing heartily along with the hymn and gripping his Bible, as if faking devotion in a place of worship will convince him to steer clear of his old partner-in-crime. This would affirm a concern of Kieslowski’s that not only might the Commandments be outdated and irrelevant, but a significant religious holiday might be supplanted by a commercial opportunity, with costumes required to embrace the occasion.
Ewa too, is hardly present for spiritual uplift either, as she enters the church with one thing on her mind, and one thing only: Janusz. She has no interest in the event, its significance to the faithful, and especially not of her potential to destroy Janusz’ family (I absolutely love the fact that when temptation appears, she’s boxed into the frame by the cross!). She has also lied, of course, when she confirmed to her aunt that she’s done her homework, but you could scarcely imagine a whiter lie.
Her next act of deception is far greater, yet so informed by Kieslowski’s humanism that she is easily able to avoid the audience’s perception as simple homewrecker (imbued with less information, Janusz’ wife Zona undoubtedly feels otherwise). By quickly establishing her sense of despondency, Ewa can be forgiven and indeed indulged on her phone call to Janusz and subsequent claim that her husband is missing just to steal him away for a few hours on a wild goose chase, as it would make her isolation more bearable.
Krzysztof is therefore significant to both parties: he is present to warn Janusz about demolishing the family unit, and reflects Ewa’s position on the holiday as a painful reminder that some events aren’t meant to be faced alone. No easy answers, of course.
Janusz then perpetuates the cycle of deceit when he informs Zona that he has to go because his taxi has been stolen. He’s not a very good liar (“I don’t know. It seems someone is stealing the car”), and Zona, suffering in silence, seems to benefit from the same shrewd intuition as Hanka in “X” [1×10]. Naturally she doesn’t believe him, but is hesitant to address the real issue.
Their last exchange before Janusz sets out to ‘find the car’ and violate the Commandment is loaded with double meaning: “Maybe it’s not worth it.” “It’s our living.” As she suspiciously peers outside to watch Janusz leave, she witnesses another man coming in the opposite direction, dragging a Christmas tree behind him, wailing “Where is my home?”. Good question, for his appeal may well soon be mirrored by our protagonist, if he proceeds with his decision to desert his family at the time of year where it matters most.
Some reviewers have posited that he and the man who yells the exact same thing at the drunk tank later in the episode are one and the same person (it’s impossible to tell), but I like to think that Kieslowski is suggesting that familial malaise is so commonplace on the holidays that a number of people here, there and everywhere are burdened by the same sense of discomfiture.
Thus begins a mutual drive down Memory Lane, as Janusz becomes party to Ewa’s rudderless desperation, and where we arrive at a core flaw of the episode. Though the central mystery is intriguing, the character interplay is fascinating and the elephant-in-the-room fulcrum of will-he-won’t-he maintains interest, there comes an eventual realisation that a lot of the middle of the episode is taken up with pointless journeying to and from locations where Edward might conceivably be found.
The chase sequence that ensues once the police spot the ‘stolen’ car is especially superfluous, as there is precious little of consequence to it. Janusz steps on it, the police follow in hot pursuit, they’re forced to pull over in a tunnel, and are let go on the grounds of Christmas finding the officers in a charitable mood. Whilst there’s some food for thought in highlighting reckless and irresponsible behaviour in adults (I don’t think it’s unfair to cite an affair as a childish endeavour), it ultimately feels like a slightly mechanical effort to inject some octane into a meditative show. Other moments of adrenaline in the series, such as the unbearably tense murder in “V” [1×05] and the burglary in “X” [1×10], feel a lot more organic and purposeful.
Similarly, there isn’t a great deal to ascertain from the locations themselves, which takes some of the steam out of the mystery. Thankfully, these locations do present new information from which the characters’ interplay can bounce off of, such as when Ewa feels at first distraught by the sight of the legless corpse (I like to think that palpably bearing witness to a casualty puts her guilt about her deceit into sharp relief), then turns her anguish around to claim that she wishes it was Edward, or Janusz.
Thankfully, for all of the shortcomings in the script, Piotr Sobocinski goes above and beyond the call of duty in his cinematography. If the Dekalog was something of a litmus test for who was going to get the nod for Kieslowski’s subsequent works, then praise be to Sobocinski for making enough of a mark to warrant his re-recruitment for the sumptuous Three Colours Red.
The episode begins with abstraction, the out-of-focus lights of a highway supplanting more conventional shots of the monolithic apartment block. Frequently the ambient lighting serves to compliment or augment the camerawork, and I’m especially fond of the light reflections that invade the frame, literally placed over the characters by means of expressing internal turmoil. Though I don’t think the aforementioned car chase serves much purpose, I love the rushing lights that impose on Ewa and Janusz as they hurtle towards the tram, and when green and red shine on Ewa as she watches that patient’s futile escape from the home.
Some of the shots are downright painterly, such as the slow pan across Janusz’ windows as he pours champagne, the repeated high-angle shots of the traffic island (the rendezvous point), the reverse dolly through the hospital, the splendid rack focus from the telephone to the Christmas tree in Ewa’s flat and the particularly attention-grabbing close-up of the blue section of the police car’s lights. Speaking of lighting, certain scenes are bathed in a particular single colour, such as the red glow after the couple’s crash or the sickly green tinge outside the train station which reminds me of Krzysztof’s computer screen. A frequent schism in the editing of light and darkness exemplifies the attitudinal differences between the two.
Arguably the strongest and most key scene here is when the couple retreat to Ewa’s flat, and gets to the heart of nearly every episode of Dekalog: what might we learn from simply sitting down and talking to each other? It’s axiological to Dorota and the doctor breaking down each other’s barriers in “II” [1×02], it persuades Madga to reciprocate Tomek’s love in “VI” [1×06], it allows Anka and Michal to confess their innermost to one another in “IV” [1×04], it’s the absolute core of Zofia and Elzbieta’s meeting in “VIII” [1×08], and so on.
Ewa first enters the home alone, stating that if Edward has made it back already he would hardly appreciate Janusz entering. Crucially, she plays a little game by asserting that he should leave if she isn’t back in five minutes. In reality, she’s setting up further clues for a subsequent road trip and planting artefacts to suggest Edward’s presence: another toothbrush in the bathroom, a man’s jacket in the hallway. Judging by the shot of Janusz checking his watch, she deliberately takes her time, confirming his investment in her situation – there was never any danger of him really leaving after five minutes.
When he joins her in the apartment, he refuses to take his coat off, claiming he feels the cold, but in reality utilising the garment as a suit of armour; the same sort of protection from his own desires as when he sang the hymn like a mantra at mass. Eventually he breaks the tension, and recollects the affair as clearly as she does.
Ewa affirms that Edward would go on loving her as long as they parted ways for good, and claims it was her fault, but bitterness at his compartmentalisation soon manifests, forcing him to yank his hand from hers. She quickly attempts brusqueness like she did at the morgue: “take your hand, it stinks of petrol”. I feel another pang of familiarity here, as I’ve tried to revisit the past with ex-lovers before, and the realisation that one’s feelings aren’t reciprocated (or at least to the same degree) is wrenching. Indulging in possible worlds might not be terribly healthy, but it is undeniably human.
Following this confrontation, Janusz heads to the bathroom, where he checks the razor on the shelf. He’s right to be concerned; though he couldn’t possibly have predicted it, Tomek in “VI” [1×06] turns to razorblades when he attempts suicide following similar disappointment. Ewa takes the opportunity to chastise him whilst he’s out of view, blaming him for her unhappiness: “Did you think about what happened after we left the hotel? How I feel when television shows a love film… and he stares at me instead of watching the screen? I’ve not slept with him since, not once.”
She thereby positions him as the only one who could possibly ‘fix’ the problem, which heaps guilt on him as this ‘solution’ would only exact more damage on his family than he’s already inflicted this evening. The doctor in “II” [1×02] would sympathise with Janusz’ rock and hard place.
When he leaves, they convene in the dining room, and the camera affords a close-up shot of both of them in a single frame. For the most part, the cinematography has framed Ewa and Janusz separately, literally isolating the two and preventing tactile contact. So when they are thrust together in the same shot, the tension becomes overwhelming, and a traditional moment of celebration threatens to turn into a kiss. A split-second beforehand, the sound of the doorbell intervenes: Kieslowskian coincidence in full effect. A stalled near-kiss is as old as cinema itself, but we’ve invested so much time and heart in these characters by this point it’s difficult not to wish for romance to bloom, even if there are circumstances surrounding the event which render it a mistake. Love and logic were rarely e’er bedfellows. As Janusz moves to answer the door, the focus doesn’t rack until we’re privy to a slight smile from Ewa: they didn’t kiss, but he wanted to.
As the carollers begin to sing, Ewa closes in on Janusz, approximating a happy, cosy couple to the strangers. Their reactions speak volumes: her part in this lie projects an image of familial stability and devotion, his part in the lie exemplifies his desertion of his real family, and in the light of a near-tryst too.
When she ultimately confesses that Edward is gone, it puts her situation under such painful scrutiny that neither he nor the audience really blame her. There surely comes a point in everyone’s life in which a decision is made that forces the individual to wonder if things will ever be the same again; if hope is eradicated.
For Ewa, her part in the affair demolished her relationship with both men. Since their dalliance, Ewa has lived alone, and presumably her senile aunt is her only family tie. Janusz is her sole confidant. She informs him that she played a little game with fate (similar to those played by the eponymous protagonist of Amélie), in which she sees if she could make it to 7AM, “then everything will be fine”. Failing that, there was always suicide.
I think this is a common game for those at the end of their rope: when an individual’s course of action is so unclear that arbitrarily assigning random things with life-or-death importance at least alleviates the burden of that individual’s decision. I dare say the concept of fate or chance is easier to evince than any God.
Upon division, Janusz naturally heads home, where Zona quickly asks if he left because of Ewa. He attests to her concern, but belies her worry that he’ll be regularly leaving in the evenings. We haven’t been privy to Zona’s dark night of the soul, but presumably she thought the worst, and she would simply have to adjust to his philandering.
But there’s a sense of strength: Ewa has undoubtedly benefited from his presence, and he returned home after all. Though Janusz violated the Commandment (and very nearly cheated on the holiest of days), he was at least there to comfort someone in need. We can only guess what was racing through his mind when he first agreed to join Ewa, but ultimately his actions proved charitable. Whether or not the ends justify the means is up to you.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Maria Pakulnis seems especially beautiful with her face bordered by a large collar and woolly hat. Go figure.
+ Zona takes a drink the moment Janusz leaves to ‘find the car’.
+ The belligerent receptionist who claims he’s “on duty” after being woken up. Haha.
+ The carollers’ awful singing.
+ Ewa grabbing the wheel and forcing Janusz to steer into a Christmas tree.
+ Ewa and Janusz’ last moment together is a casual exchange of headlamps.
+ The Christmassy end credits music.
+ The drunk tank scene, which feels like a bit of petty revenge for the censorship imposed on Kieslowski’s early documentaries. The sadistic warden is a bit too much.