[Review by Antony Stubbs]
[Writer: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz | Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski | Aired: 06/22/1990]
“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke (attrib.)
In my review of “I” [1×01] I examined the idea that Kieslowski’s eternal inner conflicts were often represented by characters differentiating on a certain subject. “VIII” is cut from similar cloth, as Zofia and Elzbieta reflect varying attitudes towards the Commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness”, with characteristic personal involvement in the ethical situation at hand.
As Zofia is a university professor teaching lessons on ethics, it is only appropriate that Kieslowski should reinforce his self-involvement in the character by referencing the very ethical dilemma he explored in “II” [1×02]. Though he typically distanced himself from making his particular stance known in that story, he takes the opportunity to clarify Zofia’s position on the debate so as to move her character into a position whereby her attitude might be held under scrutiny when mirrored with the current dilemma.
Affording himself a little self-deprecation (“This is the third cancer story this year”), Kieslowski expresses Zofia’s perspective thusly: regardless of the eventual outcome of Dorota and Andrzej’s story, she argues that the child’s life is paramount, and as such the abortion issue shouldn’t have hinged on the result of his condition or the circumstances of the conception.
Elzbieta, who has just arrived in Poland from the United States (where she once worked with Zofia and translated some of her writings) is permitted to join this lecture, though it emerges that Zofia is far from ready for her eventual participation.
At the beginning of the scene, the camera pans across the packed student audience, their interest matching that of those who attended Krzysztof’s class in “I” [1×01]: the teacher has the floor, and as the most learned one present, is expected to be able to address each and every concern with rationale and professional analysis.
So why then, does Elzbieta’s scenario prove so problematic for Zofia to answer? She relates the real-life tale of a young Jewish girl in 1943 who was denied refuge by a Catholic family on their stated reasons of a refusal to lie. Had the family acceded to provide falsified papers to assert the child’s baptism, they could have guaranteed her safety from the SS. They later abandoned this agreement, citing their Catholic beliefs against giving false testimony, thereby dooming the girl. Elzbieta makes her opinion on this situation perfectly clear: “I can’t envisage any motivation justifying such a decision”.
The discussion is pre-empted by an image that warrants our attention as much as Zofia’s: as she peers out into the sea of faces, one individual stands out from the crowd. Fixing her eyes on the professor, Elzbieta toys with her gold necklace. Careful close-ups allow us to ascertain what icons adorn this piece of jewellery: a simple Christian cross, and a word in Hebrew.
Zofia’s eye twitches in recognition, and she seems to sweat and squirm as the tale unfolds, struggling to provide a reason for the family’s disinclination to help. Finally, she cuts the interrogation dead in its tracks by deferring the ‘answer’ to her collective, trusting their ability to analyse and interpret such a reaction. As true Kieslowski creations, the first two students to speak occupy wildly divergent pillars of perspective. All Zofia asks is that they all try to understand the position of the mother.
Before addressing the characters’ relevancy to the issue, I would like to point out how much I love Artur Barcis’ appearance in this episode. It’s quite easy to miss the importance of his arrival, such is the buoyancy by which the lecture scene is carried by the close-ups between the two women and the ethical dialogue. A panning shot reveals an empty space in the second row as Elzieta begins her account. It isn’t until she arrives at the crux of her story (the breaking of a promise) that he materialises in another panning shot and switches his rapt attention directly from her oratory to Zofia’s reaction. Following the brief discussion, he is absent as the class piles out. When you consider the brilliance of the lecture hall as a Dekalog backdrop, where better could his particular brand of intervention and survey be employed? As uses of supporting characters go, I think it’s nothing short of marvellous.
Zofia retreats to her flat, delaying the inevitable. Upon her nocturnal return, the handheld camera approximates her POV, reciprocated by Elzbieta, locked in similar anxiety. Now engaged in a more private confrontation, Zofia acknowledges her realisation that Elzbieta is the subject of the story, and confirms that she herself is the woman who denied the girl shelter all those years ago. Zofia is relieved to find Elzbieta alive, claiming that she wondered about her every time she saw someone toy with a necklace. Elzbieta elaborates on her subsequent account of survival and relocation to the US.
If the customary visual association of the contrasting icons on the necklace haven’t made it clear, they reflect Elzbieta’s response to her near-death experience. The cross exemplifies her faith in Christ, he who couldn’t have offered tangible salvation in 1943, but might subsequently offer comfort and the promise of life everlasting. The Hebrew word then, expresses Elzbieta’s inability or disinclination to forget her past and Jewish upbringing. Presumably, she is her family’s sole survivor (especially as the story is based on the experiences of Hanna Krall, mutual friend of Kieslowski and Piesiewicz), making her sketchy memories of her Jewish blood relatives encompass the entirety of her true familial connections.
Despite her earnest devotion to Christianity, Elzbieta is unable to forgive. What their encounter (and Zofia’s uncomfortable reaction) has raised is the very human need to confront those who have brought us harm, and to arrive at justification for perceived misdeeds. As this is Dekalog, such reasons are far from black-and-white. With the positions clarified but the conflict unresolved, Elzbieta is offered to take a drive.
With awkward silences weighing heavily, Zofia parks outside Noakowski Street: the scene of the crime. She allows Elzbieta to walk amongst the ghosts. Shrouded in darkness both psychological and literal, Elzbieta feels the burden of memory, and a rack focus shot reveals a tiny illuminating shrine. Small but significant, its candles blaze in the background as Elzbieta returns to the top of the street, and hides. Wracked with worry (not least to say guilt), Zofia is forced to take the same walk, fearing she has lost her charge all over again. With all the apprehension of a death row inmate walking towards the execution chamber, Zofia finds herself knocking on once-familiar doors as part of her fruitless search. Eventually, she returns to her car, where Elzbieta sits once more. All she wanted was for Zofia to experience even just a modicum of the fear she associates with the site, and I don’t think any of us judge her too harshly for that.
Revealing her attitude towards the place where she was denied sanctuary (“People don’t like witnesses of their humiliation, even bricks and mortar”), Zofia acknowledges that this malaise will not dissipate for either party with this return alone. She invites Elzbieta to her flat: no doubt the proximity to both a funereal location and a shrine of relevance to both parties cuts too close to the bone.
Both this encounter and earlier glimpses of the flat reveal a home as telling as that of any of the Dekalog tenants: cramped and gloomy with a minimum of comforts, Zofia maintains her son’s room for guests or to honour the memory of his childhood. When questioned about his whereabouts the following morning, Zofia responds that he is “far away from me”. It is indeed woeful that for all of Zofia’s youthful exploits in saving her fellow Varsovians, she couldn’t make her nearest-and-dearest stay. A picture frame simply refuses to stay level throughout the episode: something isn’t quite right.
This long dark night of the souls is fuelled by tackling the issue head-on. With nothing more to hide, Zofia explains that her husband was part of the underground resistance during the occupation. Adhering to clandestine information, they discovered that the Germans were tracking down Catholic families who agreed to provide shelter for Jewish children, thereby cornering members of the resistance. With the level of risk elevated to not only themselves but countless others in the movement, Zofia lied about the circumstances of their default so as to mollify both the child and the priest acting as a go-between. Not only that, but she and her husband may have even executed Elzbieta’s would-be protectors had they emerged as enemy agents. Ultimately, Zofia painfully decided that the potential (and probable) death of an individual was preferable to potential multiples.
When the information materialised as false, Zofia undoubtedly spent the subsequent forty years living with the guilt of her complicity in what she assumed was Elzbieta’s untimely demise. Elzbieta fiddles with her necklace throughout Zofia’s recollection, making it once again a key visual element of the hitherto elephant in the room. Finally, she comes to understand the older woman’s position. She desperately wanted to put Christian hypocrisy under the spotlight, querying how on earth good people instructed to care could abandon a child if the practice conflicted with mere words. Yet the sphere was far larger than a child could have expected to understand, encompassing more lives than just the two females now left to address the sins of the past.
With all the cards on the table, Zofia’s claim that “No ideal, nothing, is more important than the life of a child” prompts her to rest her hands on Elzbieta’s shoulders, which engenders the younger woman to meet those hands with her own. Such tactility not only breaks the tension between the two but recalls the sincerity of the handclasp from 1943, loving captured for the header of this review. They’ve come a long way.
The intervention of ‘Root’, a neighbouring philatelist, briefly breaks the drama of the scene, though not without purpose. In the first contemporary scene of the episode, Zofia had promised to see his latest acquisitions, rare 1931 Polarfahrt stamps. Zofia explains that he is as proud and devoted to his collection as most people are to their children, though as we shall see in the aftermath of Root’s death (“X” [1×10]), his stamps are arguably worth more, as the rueful absence of his own sons mirrors that of Zofia’s. She also clarifies that the people described in the lecture’s abortion case study live in the building too. It’s a small world.
With a smile, Elzbieta accepts Zofia’s offer to stay the night. The camera seems to periodically bring the two marginally closer, or perhaps that’s a Kuleshov effect. Zofia witnesses the impact of the events of 1943 on Elzbieta’s life when she spots her praying silently in her son’s room before bed. Is she praying for herself, for Zofia, asking forgiveness for holding her in contempt for so long, or thanking Him for the unexpected outcome of the day?
We are reminded of a statement Zofia made in the lecture hall: “What makes it interesting is that we know both prototypes. I think, however, that they are not people we know“. This, I feel, is at the heart of Kieslowski’s endeavour and might even be the ultimate statement of the Dekalog itself. The series was never conceived as merely a vehicle for reinforcing Christian ideals, if anything he desired to hold such values under the microscope whilst peopling the dilemmas with recognisable and understandable human beings, thereby questioning their validity when the Commandments are tested. Interestingly, this episode finds thematic bedfellows with “II” [1×02], “III” [1×03], “IV” [1×04] and “VII” [1×07] in arguing the value of white lies. In every case, we are invited to consider the circumstances, and most of all, look at the people instead of just the rules.
The following day, Zofia drives Elzbieta to meet the tailor who would have proved the young girl’s protector. Zofia is disinclined to enter herself, having met him once since the war (“I said “I’m sorry”. It’s all I could say. But it’s not enough”).
A vague familiarity can be read in the tailor’s face as she catches Elzbieta peering into his shop. He is immediately disconcerted by her simply stating her name, and refuses to walk down memory lane. Her every enquiry is met with deflection, as he maintains a professional refusal to discuss anything but his work. Once again, Elzbieta is forced to accept that not everyone processes painful memories via catharsis.
The tailor watches as Zofia and Elzbieta meet outside. Again, he’s perplexed by recognition, and we see further evidence of their newfound contact. If he realises the importance of this reunion, then he becomes the sole witness of the bookending images of the episode, imbuing two small human gestures with remarkable emotional heft. Who ultimately can fully comprehend the events that bring certain individuals together, despite (or perhaps because of) appalling circumstances? For a moment, us, and for that we have Kieslowski to thank.
A final note: it took me until actually writing this article before I made sense of two particular moments in this episode, and in characteristic Kieslowskian fashion I did so by finding a parallel between them. The first comes in the form of the mentally-challenged man who wanders into the lecture hall by accident, who receives a chastisement to match the warden’s attitude in “III” [1×03]. The second is in the later scene at Noakowski Street, where a tenant periodically calls out “nutcase!”. For the life I me I couldn’t make much of either event, yet taken in tandem they express a casual aggressiveness towards strangers, reinforcing a notion of ‘us and them’.
When you consider Zofia’s efforts in saving many of the Jewish population (and perhaps many more besides), this hostility comes as a shock. Yet what I feel Kieslowski is saying in this episode is that there are perpetually-displaced people everywhere, and Warsaw is no exception. Some of these may be forced to lead joyless nomadic existences, forever face-to-face with slamming doors. Nevertheless, the most humane of us must not allow this to impede our own efforts to extend olive branches, and come the end of “VIII”, Zofia finds closure while Elzbieta buries the hatchet. Might we not learn something from all this?
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Though I adore Zbigniew Preisner’s compositions, the near-total absence of score here allows the drama to play out unflinchingly. When his music does surface, it underscores certain scenes like the opening in 1943 and Elzbieta’s re-entry into Noakowski Street, reminding us of the associations we too make with certain places.
+ Zofia strides authoritatively through the university corridors as if they were home and some students hop off the windowsill to bow to her as she passes. How to convey respect cinematically in one easy move.
+ The uncertain glare from the dean to Elzbieta: does he suspect she will rock the boat with one of his brightest and best? Or does he even recognise her biological heritage and judge her on that alone? You make the call.
+ There are so many students in the lecture hall they’re even filling up the stairs.
+ Elzbieta’s pink scarf: probably the brightest item of clothing in the whole series, yet it doesn’t appear incongruous to the visual palette.
+ Hope and joy conveyed by good weather and birdsong upon the new dawn. Incidentally, I’ve never been quite sure about the ‘rubber man’ bit, but his comment on exercising for flexibility might be a direct comment on Kieslowski’s attitude to the material itself.
+ Elzbieta’s white flowers for Zofia, symbolic of remembrance and renewal.