[Review by Antony Stubbs]
[Writer: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz | Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski | Aired: 05/25/1990]
“We can never get close to the truth except through lying.” – Abbas Kiarostami
Who are we?
Which is to say: what makes us who we are? Are we identified merely by our names? Are we known by our deeds? Do we exist insofar as our social roles, our ‘functions’? Are we identified by our differences from others, or perhaps our similarities? Or are our lives informed and shaped by our memories?
Kieslowski takes this last thought and runs with it in “IV”. When teenage student Anka (the Dekalog protagonist most guilty of 80s hair) discovers a letter in her father’s effects as he prepares to leave on what appears to be a frequent flight, she is naturally intrigued by its contents.
It bears the statement “To be opened after my death” in his handwriting, which only works to further persuade Anka in liberating it from under his nose. She then begins a torturous process of oscillating between opening the letter and revealing all, or letting this sleeping dog lie.
But wait, let’s backtrack. The episode begins with a palpable sense of intrigue: before any sense of context is established, the style of the opener is that of classic mystery – high strings and a slow fade-in reveal (a key word, there) Anka peering through window blinds, redolent of film noir. The subject of her gaze is her father, Michal, sparking up a cigarette near an opposing window. Her look is similar to that of Tomek in “VI” [1×06], daring and voyeuristic. His is the opposite, towards the outside world, rather than the interior. Anka seems ill-at-ease, and backs away.
Come what we can assume is the following morning, Anka is in mischievous mode. She decides to play a prank on Michal by soaking him with water, undeterred by her discovery of the letter. He reciprocates by soaking her in the bath, and steals a glimpse of her body before leaving.
Its pivotal that Kieslowski should choose these incongruous scenes for the opening of the episode. In the former, the atmosphere is heavy and tinged with melancholy. The latter is playful and exuberant, with a nod towards sexual frisson. With these scenes employed in such close proximity, the suggestion is already transmitted that both parties possess a physical interest in the other, and despite Anka’s young womanhood, she hasn’t matured beyond certain acts of juvenilia. Given that Michal is also an active participant in these games, one wonders if both sides strive on a subconscious level to keep Anka childlike.
This notion of Anka’s youthful stasis is reinforced by later glimpses of her bedroom. A mobile (surely the most dissonant item in a teenager’s sanctuary) hangs from the ceiling, and the walls feature a massive German kayaking poster, which not only remind me of the mountaineering pictures in Dorota’s flat in “II” [1×02], but also of Xander’s maps best seen in Buffy‘s “Restless” [4×22]: all three cases suggest an adventurer spirit, yet none are seen to stray far from their respective homes in the course of their individual stories.
In what is one of the most thought-provoking and emotionally-exhausting episodes of the series, “IV” puts the relationship of Anka and Michal firmly under the microscope, with the letter hanging ominously over their heads like the Sword of Damocles.
With Michal’s departure, Anka is left to stew; like Pawel in “I” [1×01], curiosity is her shepherd. Her activities in his absence speak volumes: at the optician’s she pieces together the word ‘father’ in lieu of genuine visual clarity, and has her boyfriend visit despite her sheer disinterest in him. He’s evidently only over when Michal is absent, and makes a poor substitute. All the while her feelings and thoughts are drawn to the letter, its writing swimming in and out of her vision, no doubt a comment on the potential ambiguity of his position as paterfamilias.
Vitally, she leaves the flat entirely when she decides to open the letter. If home is where the heart is, might the contents prove a violation of such if revealed there? Here, Artur Barcis makes possibly my favourite appearance on the show, and certainly one of the most dynamic. He makes a Herculean effort to cross the lake in his canoe, trying to reach Anka before she snips the envelope open. He doesn’t quite make it, but makes eye contact with her just at the moment she is prepared to open its contents: another letter from her mother, addressed directly to her.
As with Krzysztof in “I” [1×01], she reciprocates his ocular appeal, but naturally only ascertains a vague message: beware of opening Pandora’s Box. His appearance would seem almost comical here, were it not for the importance of his intervention that we have gathered from preceding episodes. She stops herself, replaces the letter and heads home. If the episode is principally concerned with the Commandment to honour thy father and thy mother, then at this moment in time she has betrayed the former (his writing on the first envelope) but honoured the latter (her writing on the second).
At school, Anka’s drama teacher encourages her to find the ‘hidden meaning’ in her role as she acts out, of course, a love scene. He chides her for her indifference towards her student co-star, claiming the final, passionate line for himself (speculation: does Anka respond better to the older man because he’s an older man? Or is it also the familiarity of Michal that piques her interest?). Anka learns an interesting lesson from this: rather than trying to physically embrace and relate emotionally to a fiction in the interests of expressing realism to an audience, she comes to the solution that applying a fiction to her own reality might open up the floodgates to genuine understanding, and doesn’t hesitate to do so when Michal arrives home.
We learn in the final act of the episode that Anka has lied about opening the second letter, and the verbatim quotation she delivers upon his arrival is entirely fabricated, reciting her own imitation. What’s important, however, is that he entirely believes the notion that he might not be her father (enough to warrant a slap, his first-ever physical reproach), and she surrenders to the possibility that her storytelling might not be far from the truth. For this dramatic angle to toy with the audience as much as it does Michal, it’s vital that she is never depicted reading the second letter: it is her isolation and later revelation in tandem that makes our conspiratorial perception manifest.
Thus begins one of the queasiest and most troubling interactions ever put on television. Having long been a fan of Kieslowski, I’m used to how effortlessly he expresses intimate connections between brilliantly-realised people. So when he invites us into an environment where emotions are thick with a toxic quality, I can’t help but find myself wiped out by the attachment. From here on out, even their interactions with other people seem to convey a kind of psychic rapport between them.
This is especially evident in the scene in which Anka visits her boyfriend’s mother. Upon arrival, the scene is interrupted by a brief shot of Michal sitting in the dark, sighing heavily, having just destroyed a glass door. As Anka talks, she explains her desire to marry. She’s not asking for approval, as she’s not really approving of it herself – the decision is undoubtedly a defence mechanism to avoid having any further confrontation with Michal.
So how appropriate is the following scene, in which both Anka and Michal happen to board the same lift? Despite Anka’s seeming decision to flee, they hug, their familial intimacy broken by the doctor from “II” [1×02]. Perhaps it’s necessitated by the two-hander setup of the episode, but I love instances in which another Dekalog protagonist temporarily fills the Artur Barcis role.
Having already tackled an ethical drama of his own, the doctor has broken free of his self-imposed shell by investing himself in the lives of Dorota and Andrzej, thereby repairing their jaundiced relationship. The doctor says little, of course, but his presence reminds us of the value of storge, or healthy familial relationships. The doctor lost his nearest and dearest, and it haunted him for decades. Interactions like these suggest hope in an ostensibly hopeless scenario.
The couple’s subsequent interactions open hitherto locked doors – I don’t think anyone out there watching is relishing this kind of family conversation. Anka confesses that she has always had an attachment to Michal that went beyond conventional borders, levelling a number of charges of unhappiness and dissatisfaction at his door. She claims she felt unfaithful losing her virginity. She searches for anyone, but always returns to him, her idol, her ideal. She recalls moments of suspended adolescence, such as when she wasn’t allowed to wear a bra in the bath, and when he took her to the mountains to “cure” her first period. It doesn’t get any easier for Michal (or us!) to hear, as she confesses to having an abortion the year before, and recollects the thrill she used to get from his caress as a child.
Thus far, Anka has been steering the ship. But upon reading Anka’s fake letter, he opens his closet, and his own skeletons march out. He admits to having certain reciprocal feelings, but would never have made the first move. He is the full adult after all, the responsible party. When she strips before him, he hesitates just a beat too long, before partially redressing her (I’m reminded here of Janusz’ efforts to stave off temptation in “III” [1×03], gripping his Bible and singing hymns with faux-gusto). Earlier, Michal’s friend asserted that Anka resembles her mother, “in every way”: does Anka constantly remind Michal of the woman he lost, presumably around the same age?
To mollify the unease of the scenario, Michal sings the lullaby he used to sing to her as a child. This action not only reinforces the idea of Michal unable to accept Anka as a woman, but of his efforts to forcibly map the past onto the present. Thus concludes one of the longest, darkest nights of the soul in cinema history.
The harsh glare of the following morning couldn’t be further way from the perpetual near-anthracitic night before. Unfortunately for Anka, the new morning brings fresh terror: as she wanders dazedly around the flat, she finds Michal absent. She’s quicker to panic than Krzysztof in “I” [1×01], and calls out to Michal when she spots him seemingly leaving before hurrying downstairs. To her relief, he is only going to buy milk, another example of the figurative mother in the Dekalog.
Their exchange is almost comically interrupted by Artur Barcis’ character, making near-immediate synergy with Anka’s kayaking poster, and of course silently expressing his ethical fulcrum role, as Anka confesses her deceit – no slap this time.
Though the evening was dark, uncomfortable and emotionally anvil-heavy, the couple emerge from the ordeal into new light. Anka’s ‘little game’ allowed them both to wrestle with the elephant in the room once and for all, and fundamentally neither party fully acted upon their baser instincts, crossing the line into a sexual relationship. The subsequent revelation allows for hope, and for frank and open renewal. Now is the opportunity for healing, and the renegotiation of their dynamic to make the future more bearable, even bright. I’m once again reminded of “III” [1×03]: Janusz and Ewa very nearly overstep the line, and both eventually seem to benefit from their night together. Thanks to their respective interaction, Ewa abandoned her suicidal impulses: might Anka be dissuaded from a potential future abortion?
Upon their return to the flat, the two arrive at a mutual decision: burn the letter. It is arguably the most cowardly act, yet simultaneously the most human. In doing so, the relationship she dishonoured with her father is reforged, whilst her mother’s is disobeyed. But who do we live for? The living, or the dead? It is perfectly understandable for human beings to cling onto memories and connections to lost relatives and friends. But ultimately we have to live on, accept new challenges, embrace our present in order to have a future, or we’re one foot in the grave already. To quote Irena in “I” [1×01]: “One is alive, and it’s a present. A gift”.
“IV” has an interesting attitude toward change. In most fictional works, change is often employed as a means of resolving, settling or circumnavigating conflict. We are taught that “change is good”, a phrase ubiquitous as any fortune cookie philosophy. But sometimes change can be harsh and distressing, and the relationship change suggested by Anka’s roleplaying (not to mention the long scenes) should make you feel deeply uneasy. So the eventual change implemented actually finds the pair tackling their anxiety head-on, reverting back to their familial and societal roles with perhaps more strength and conviction than before. Though (or perhaps because) Kieslowski often puts his characters through the wringer, there’s little doubt that he truly cares about people.
A final, personal thought: I lost a close relative not long before I was born. I wasn’t informed until I was (I believe) twelve, and the revelation has factored into many of my decision-making processes ever since. I can’t state for certain if that was the right time for me to find out or if there even is a ‘right’ time. To quote Michal: “I planned to give you the letter… when you were ten. At ten it turned out that you were too small. So I planned to give it to you at fifteen. At fifteen it turned out you were too big”. But without drawing too fine a point on it, for better or worse, it informs who I am today. After all, we are who we are.
And nothing will change that.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Michal heads for the “Nothing to Declare” channel at the airport. Are you sure?
+ Anka’s hideous glasses.
+ How the glass shatters when Michal kicks the door closed, enclosing him further in the frame. It’s probably easily done with a hairline fracture, but I’m impressed nonetheless.
+ Anka and Michal head to the building’s basement for old effects, a near-literal digging deep.
+ Seeing Anka smoking immediately suggests adulthood, simply because we don’t see her with a cigarette before the confrontation, whereas Michal smokes in the opening scene. Kieslowski, you sly dog!
+ Michal’s friend’s enthusiasm for his hair restorer.
+ Michal impulsively lowering Anka’s top when she cries on her bed, foreshadowing his efforts to cover her up when she offers herself to him. This episode really puts body language and physicality under the microscope.
– If it wasn’t for other sources and Jan Tesarz’ credit, I would have never realised that the taxi driver who drops Anka off at Jarek’s house is the same taxi driver who soon meets his end in “V” [1×05]. Perhaps people who pay more attention to cars than I do should make the association easily, but I think there’s a neat connection here made needlessly vague.