[Review by Antony Stubbs]
[Writer: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz | Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski | Aired: 07/06/1990]
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” – Mark 8:36
Our journey ends in brothers’ meeting, as Dekalog comes to an end not with a bang nor a whimper, but laughter, and after nine episodes of heavy, densely-layered drama, why not a comedic exploration of “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods”?
Kieslowski fans will already be well-aware that this is not his only foray into comedy, as evidenced by Three Colours: White. As such, this episode can be seen as something of a litmus test for the later film: both works feature the inspired casting of Jerzy Stuhr and Zbigniew Zamachowski as brothers, the pair are small fry in a system far more savvy and expansive than they, and perhaps most importantly, they both investigate the financial implications of a newly liberated Poland.
This is fortuitous timing. As I mentioned in my review of “I” [1×01], “X” aired shortly before Poland became the first country to become independent following its detachment from the Warsaw Pact, freeing itself from the oppressive yoke of Soviet control. Having frequently had his early work as a documentarian suppressed or censored by the authorities (and Blind Chance was withheld until two years prior), “X” seems to emerge as a manifestation of the hopeful glimmers that carried us to the finish line in nearly every previous episode.
However, the characteristically truculent director wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows just yet, for he was always searching for the blade in the grass. We begin, of course, with a death.
No good deed goes unpunished, they say, and as if by chance(!), the happiness generated by Zofia and Elzbieta’s mutual epiphany in “VIII” [1×08] found itself swiftly followed by the death of Root, the older lady’s casual acquaintance. It is only appropriate that we never really got to know the man, as Zofia didn’t either (beyond him showing off his latest stamps), and as soon it transpires, nor did his own sons. Little could Root have expected the chain of events that stem from these newest acquisitions (Polarfahrt stamps from 1931), little scraps of paper which come to beg questions of ownership and material possessions in a brave new world.
This is humour of a particular black and cruel bent, as in a manner similar to Donny in The Big Lebowski, Root gets a decidedly unceremonious send-off. Upon his passing, his youngest son Artur is whipping the crowds into a frenzy with his vitriolic vocals as part of City Death, a punk band tearing it up onstage. Though the lyrics are aimlessly aggressive to the point of hilarity, advocating murder, theft and self-gratification (all the things that have driven previous Warsaw tenants down very dark roads), it’s the very absence of sincerity that cuts straight through the ostensible antagonism and ironically unites the crowd in the form of reckless abandon that comes with any good night out. The element of greed he espouses, however, will soon prove key to Artur and his brother Jerzy’s downfall.
At the funeral, neither brother is exactly overwhelmed with emotion, as Artur is too preoccupied with listening to music on his personal stereo, but at least Jerzy has the decency to tell him to knock it off. Nonetheless, it’s all a front, as we cut immediately to him cropping the padlock on their father’s front door. At this stage, this is essentially a formality, though one might be inclined to think that the boys (because despite their age, that’s really what they are) are hoping to find artefacts that will provide emotional connections to the man they never really new.
No such luck on that front, as their efforts to sift through their father’s effects soon emerge as treasure hunting. The conditions of Root’s accommodation only exacerbate the notion that the sons treat his passing as a business opportunity: why else would a tiny, grim little flat sport nailed-up windows, an alarm and padlocks? Enter Mr. Bromski.
In classic comedy fashion, physicality tips the audience off before the characters, as Bromski’s amusingly shifty eyes immediately indicate another character on the take, who not-too-subtly implies to Jerzy that some of the leftover possessions might be valuable. This immediately instils a notion of paranoia that will underscore the rest of the episode, as Jerzy quickly surmises that plenty of Varsovians will expect money from the departed for unsubstantiated ‘borrowings’.
Even before the stamp-collecting underworld is established, Root’s death quickly becomes the metaphorical passing of the old communist Poland: you begin to wonder how many greedy shysters and con artists were lurking under the bridge, waiting for an opportunity to exploit the emergence of the free markets. Root no longer exists beyond a body; given how quickly everyone (including his sons) forgets about him as a human being, his existence becomes summarily defined merely by his remnants, and everyone with even tangential knowledge of the man-as-a-man is waiting for their slice of the pie.
Though Jerzy and Artur quickly ascertain that a few of these possessions might indeed be worth something, they are completely unaware of the true value of the stamps, as proved when Jerzy gladly passes them on to his son, who subsequently trades them to an older kid for a pile of worthless ones. Jerzy’s home life is economically expressed; though we see very little of his immediates, it becomes very apparent that his wife is the one who wears the trousers (yelling at him to take his shoes off when he gets home) and that Jerzy tries to traverse the emotional gulf between him and his son by material extension. Even so, prior to his realisation of the stamps’ true worth, this is the most decent behavioural trait in a pocket world of greed and profiteering.
Given Artur Barcis’ absence from the episode, I like to think of Jerzy’s follow-up to this quiet gesture as the ‘Barcis moment’ of the episode. Though they are no saints beforehand, his attitude here becomes the fulcrum upon which he drives himself and Artur towards itchy avarice in a effort to reobtain the stamps, sell them on and hit the jackpot. I speculated in the last review that perhaps Barcis left the series early having borne witness to an abundance of human sin. But maybe he is in a way tied to the social system that had hitherto bound the country for the last three decades? Looking at it in a positive way, that means that the country’s newfound optimism was no longer in need of his guidance. From a negative angle, perhaps the new capitalist order represents a spiritual death? I’m just thinking out loud; in any case, Jerzy and Artur are operating rudderless.
Whilst it’s hardly the most riotously funny hour of television, the tone of this particular episode is both amiable and familiar; I say amiable because it’s a long-established truism that when given the appropriate angle, there’s rarely anything as funny as the suffering of Ordinary Joes. As they embark upon their navigation of the Warsaw underworld, Jerzy and Artur prove hilariously out of their depth, and suffer a series of setbacks as they try to capitalise on their gains. Because they don’t suffer too much (what’s money?), it’s as easy for us to laugh at their bungling misfortune as it is with, given that the ‘incompetant chancers’ trope is as old as comedy itself. Which brings me onto the familiarity.
Whilst I’m often on the hunt for the new, the fresh, the innovative, it can sometimes be just as rewarding to walk along the road well-travelled, provided it is engaging and expertly presented, of course. As such, it’s here that the episode switches gear seamlessly into the sort of escalating paranoia and sweaty tension one might associate with film noir. As such, this is easily Kieslowski’s most ‘American’ work, and is very clearly cut from similar thematic cloth to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, yet maintains its knowing sense of humour and still feels utterly inseparable from the rest of the Dekalog. That’s quite the achievement.
The pair’s interactions with the stamp shop owner perfectly illustrate their ineptitude. Whilst there’s some fun to be had in Artur’s little sting operation (recording the man’s shady dealings), we also know ahead of the characters that they’re amateurs at this game, and take him at his word for the worth of the stamps and the importance of the much-desired Austrian rose Mercury.
With this, the brothers step up the security at their father’s flat after Artur spots a light on from outside. It’s only Jerzy, but this simple case of mistaken identity and suspicion reveal a great deal about the characters, their situation and open up a new psychological dimension. Because the brothers never actually benefit from their newfound financial opportunity, they are simply left with the itchiness that comes with sitting atop an abstract prize with vultures ever-circling. The fact that Artur’s worried entry reveals his brother immediately sets up their later reciprocal betrayal, and their on-off disorganised tenancies of the property coupled with the bars, alarm and guard dog conspire to make them prisoners as much as watchmen.
And of course, because of their amateurishness, they don’t even realise that the underworld has already started pulling strings, making it all the easier for Jerzy to be persuaded into a kidney donation for bogus reasons (I’m tickled by the notion that wannabe anarchist Artur claims he’d love to take the credit for helping out a poor, sickly girl!), and for Artur to be led away from the flat to visit him. Whilst his visit comes from a place of decency (well, besides sleeping with a besotted nurse), this is quickly exploited by the black marketeers who naturally exhibit none. I adore the abstractness of the intervening scene: pitch blackness is pierced by the flame of a blowtorch as the bars are cut, their dog is patted and the stamps are stolen. Shooting only in extreme close-ups, the audience are expected to formulate their own understanding without having context established for them, which is immensely rewarding: there’s a grim, venal quality to the burglary, then a kind of oddly comforting realisation that it must be one of the syndicate, which reminds us that whilst Jerzy and Artur are somewhat unscrupulous, they’re not criminals.
Following the operation-heist, the brothers’ marginal comprehension of the network leads their suspicions in one direction: towards each other. The distance between them at the start of the episode, repaired via the monetary opportunity, has opened up once more, as both try to implicate the other to the police (hilariously, the investigator into their crime goes directly from one allegation to the other). The full fruition of their insecurity and paranoia manifests itself in mutual distrust, which undermines nearly all their efforts to bond throughout the episode following their father’s death (I say nearly because I think there’s some sincerity in Artur’s claim of “I’m glad we met” and their tactility prior to them learning of the stamps’ value).
Finally, the pieces of the puzzle come together as they (unaware of each other’s presence) witness Bromski meeting the older kid and the shopkeeper, complete with the same breed of guard dog. This sly realisation of the scope of the network also throws invites us to throw our own light on the allegiances of the man at the funeral who came to appraise the collection, and perhaps even the nurse who so efficiently distracted Artur at the hospital. There’s nothing concrete about those insinuations, but the episode brilliantly draws you into that conjectural sphere.
Eventually reuniting at the flat, and confessing their doubts about one another, Artur and Jerzy come to a genuine fraternal bond that goes beyond material value. In “VII” [1×07] I referred to breastfeeding and proximity as sort of programming that is set up to biologically endear relatives together, one that we all recognise (and one that is exploited by the shopkeeper: “my sixteen-year-old daughter is ill”, indeed). Perhaps it’s only right that strangers take the stamps: what are a father’s possessions to two uncaring sons?
In the end, greed triumphs, only not to Jerzy and Artur. The network make a killing, and presumably get away with their act of theft and deception. For them, crime does indeed pay. Yet good still prevails, as the brothers reconvene in laughter, understanding and love. I think somebody up there likes them.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The seldom-used but highly-effective military drumming and percussion score.
+ Artur’s Communist hat.
+ Do the brothers imbibe vodka to commemorate their father’s passing or did they just fancy a drink?
+ Root kept magazine clippings of Artur. Aw!
+ The amusingly low-budget City Death van.
+ Artur breaking off a sapling to use as a makeshift weapon.
+ Root’s unfathomably esoteric notebook.
+ Jerzy’s fear of his own guard dog!
+ The uneasy ‘voyeur cam’ in the park.
+ Jerzy’s slimy grin as he implicates his brother to the police.