[Review by Antony Stubbs]
“Everyone has his reasons.” – Jean Renoir
When discussions about the greatest television series arise (as they are wont to do), rarely are anthology series considered part of the upper echelon. One typical reason for this quite simple: qualitative inconsistency. Another is that the template for the anthology suggests that the stories contained therein are bound more by theme, topic or location than any overall schema or grand vision, which sometimes results in a collection of loose scripts released under a single umbrella.
Krzysztofs Kieslowski and Piesiewicz had a more ambitious and unified plan in mind when they started work on Dekalog. From the outset, their précis for the series was steered by their desire to explore the Abrahamic Ten Commandments. By exploring each Commandment in a contemporary context, the stories are kept relatable and fresh and by deftly addressing them in an indirect fashion, the series also veers away from didacticism and sermonising. Housing them in the same Warsaw apartment block not only grounds the show in what eventually materialises as a familar locale, but bestows it with an subtle interrelation of dilemmas before we even consider some of the overlapping characters and plot continuities.
As such, this isn’t dip-in-and-out television, but rather a series in which every ostensibly standalone episode actually benefits and gains strength from its neighbours’ thematic relevancy. Indeed, the title itself and the absence of real episode titles helps to sell the idea that each installment is but a component of a wider tapestry. Clarifying that particular element of it is always slightly difficult to explain to the uninitiated (especially as “I” [1×01] is more self-contained than most), but I honestly doubt that anyone could get even a few episodes in before realising the importance of acknowledging their sly interrelation and support.
Regular forum users here at Critically Touched will be familiar with my espousal of the miniseries, and I wholeheartedly feel that Dekalog represents that artform at its absolute creative zenith, and waves the flag for what television can achieve when a concrete goal is carried out to the best of its creators’ abilities.
- Sometimes oppressively heavy.
- Repetition of adultery theme.
My complaints with Dekalog are naturally few and far between. The first of these will probably serve as the most significant obstacle towards encouraging newcomers, and that’s that the show is so very sombre and serious about its subjects. Nine of the episodes go by barely eliciting a smile let alone a laugh, and whilst this po-facedness is conducive to powerful drama, the lack of levity does somewhat disencourage me from revisiting the series terribly often, even though it’s invariably rewarding when I do so.
I remember reading a comment recently that described Dekalog as “relentlessly bleak”, and even I have casually referred to certain episodes as depressing. It is nevertheless perfectly realised to Kieslowski’s vision, so the tone is intentionally so, but there’s no way to sugarcoat its chilly austerity without outright lying. I personally had seen half a dozen Kieslowski films before Dekalog, so I should imagine the pacing and severity would be a larger issue for the man on the street.
Another concern is with the slight overuse of adultery as a plot catalyst. Whilst it is well-explored each time (in “II” [1×02], “III” [1×03], “VI” [1×06] and “IX” [1×09]) and clarifies the lack of concrete adherence of each Commandment to a single episode, there’s also a concern that it’s used as Dramatic Storytelling 101. I’d certainly baulk at describing Kieslowski as lazy, but adultery is as ubiquitous as, well, the daytime soap opera, and becomes a little too easy a dramatic leitmotif when employed so readily and frequently in such a small space.
- Television at its most cinematic.
- Brilliant thematic exploration of the Ten Commandments.
- Well-presented and understandable characters.
- Requires cerebral investment from the audience.
- The feels!
I come from a far more cinematic background than a televisual one, so to see a TV series employ such a strong and confident aesthetic approach is massively rewarding to me. The mere fact alone that “I” [1×01] is bookended by several entire minutes without dialogue says a great deal about the visual emphasis of the series, and frequently feels every bit as cinematic as Kieslowski’s preceding theatrical filmography. As I mentioned in the “I” [1×01] review, Kieslowski chose nine different cinematographers for the project, marrying up some seasoned collaborators with others cutting their teeth with him for the first time. Remarkably, the results feel simultaneously unified yet revitalising, which is no small feat, but perhaps an unsurprising one given Kieslowski’s ever-purposeful no-nonsense style.
Of particular note also is Zbigniew Preisner’s contribution to the series, who brings a series of lushly emotional scores to the table. As with the varied DOPs, he mixes things up with the mysterious and ominous score for “VII” [1×07] and the paranoid veil of darkness in “X” [1×10], but maintains a core sensibility for pieces that mainline directly to the heart. Bravo!
As my individual reviews attest, each story is invested with huge amounts of effort in relating not only relevancy to the Commandment(s), but in countering an audience’s attempts to second-guess Kieslowski and Piesiewicz’ plotting. Where “I” [1×01] applies the notion of idolatry to blind faith in technology, “VII” [1×07] expands the act of theft to include a ‘noble’ kidnapping. “IX” [1×09] presents covetousness from the perspective of the cuckold, whilst “III” [1×03] questions if one can still honour a holy day despite (or perhaps by) getting dangerously close to an ex-lover.
It’d be easy for Kieslowski and Piesiewicz to simply shift the Commandments into the modern era, craft an obvious tale of folly and stand back, confident that the script has successfully wagged its finger at its God-fearing audience. Yet they invariably muddy the waters by adding in an important variable or two that hinges on the acceptance or denial of the directive: You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t. This emphasis on relatability helps to transport the audience and make them question whether or not they would, could (or have done) the same thing in that situation, making the series terrifically involving.
No character in Dekalog is merely a cipher. Whilst the nature of the series means they are given less screentime than most television characters, by paring situations down to couples or triangles Kieslowski succeeds in getting his Varsovians to truly come alive in each episode and exist beyond merely functioning as a vessel for the Big Question (well, Majka in “VII” [1×07] struggles somewhat in this regard). You understand their hopes, their fears, their dilemmas, their reasons to stare out of their dismal apartment windows. Part-and-parcel of the show’s heaviness lies in how entire lives feel mapped out for us in media res, with acute cinematic economy and without a single flashback to shortcut that process. As such, the importance of each ethical fulcrum gains dramatic power when you realise how vital the characters’ decisions are towards addressing their respective pasts and futures.
One of the series’ real trump cards is in the audience’s cerebral investment in the various situations. Anyone out there watching is required to stimulate the ol’ grey matter in any of the episodes, as Kieslowski is seemingly allergic to spoonfeeding answers. Indeed, frequently the details of some of the characters’ relationships with one another are sketchy, but these deliberate gaps of information allow us to ponder certain whys and wherefores ourselves (where is Krzysztof’s wife? Do Jacek’s family think about the accident? Did Root call any of the vultures eyeing up his stamp collection friends?). It’s again the sheer economics that permit these personal enquiries; nothing about Dekalog exists outside of Dekalog. And considering that the connections between episodes are treated almost like asides, it’s up to you to keep an eye out for them and craft your own bridges.
All of which would only take the series so far if it wasn’t so affecting; even in the lower-marked episodes emotional content is immensely high. You know how I earlier described the series as depressing? When I’m not being so flippant I like to change that to melancholy, which is a different kettle of fish (feeling as it does like another emotional extreme as opposed to the thudding absence of one). Many a time I have found my mood completely turned around by Pawel’s death (“I” [1×01]), the burning of Anka’s letter (“IV” [1×04]), Tomek’s exuberant run with the milk cart (“VI” [1×06]), and so forth. Like when I genuinely wanted to help the family in The Seventh Continent, the connection is frequently overwhelming; no wonder Artur Barcis’ character doesn’t stick out the whole ten episodes. Even what were supposed to be quick screenshot grabs often turned into watches of certain entire scenes (the bee’s fight for survival in “II” [1×02], the fateful bicycle ride in “IX” [1×09], etc).
I remarked in the introduction to my first review that it is very possible that Artur Barcis’ character is representative of us. But if that is the case, then he exhibits less tolerance and receptiveness than we do as a spectator: if you were moved, troubled or affected by anything you and he witnessed in any of the episodes of this marvellous miniseries, then good. Barcis’ character is seemingly never altered by what he surveys; every episode he reverts back to his apparently powerless everyman role, regardless of his actual opinion on what he sees.
However, we are different insofar that we approach the whole work from the outside looking in. If art is transformative by nature, then the process by which we are involved in Dekalog is thus: Kieslowski as creator uses his work to express feelings and concerns that pained his heart and psyche. This hurt and confusion (I think it’s fair to say there’s a bit of Kieslowski in every Dekalog protagonist) manifests in storytelling of certain thematic bents. As viewers, we tap into those resulting creations, see where this man and these people are coming from and filter that into our everyday emotional and psychological states to arrive at our own meaning and interpretation.
So if anything, Dekalog is a massive stimulant for the head and the heart, and I think that makes it not only more accessible but perhaps also more useful than any religious text: if it is inspired by scripture, then it builds upon it too (there’s little wonder that it is as readily championed by the Catholic church as by the arthouse crowd). I hope that Dekalog moments find their way into your mind from time to time and, to quote Irena, life becomes brighter somehow.
Thank you for being part of the journey.