Review by Michael Jacobson
Henryk Baranowski, Wojciech Klata et al
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Audio: Dolby Stereo
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Studio: Facets Video
Features: See Review
Length: 584 Minutes
Release Date: August 19, 2003
Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, most noted for his
trilogy based on the colors of the French flag Blue, White, and Red (see
our reviews for each of those titles as well), undertook
a more challenging thematic work in the late 80s for television:
a series of ten one-hour films based on the ten commandments.
The resulting collection, The
Decalogue, is an amazing work…deceptively simple, yet rich in true
emotion, each speaking subtly with a moral voice without ever finding a soapbox
to climb on.
Each commandment is used as a jumping off point; these are
not Sunday school films. In fact,
you could watch each one without knowing the commandment correlation and enjoy
it based on its own merits. But
mentally linking each of the 10 films with the golden rule that inspired it
serves to add an extra dimension to each story.
Consider, for case in point, the first film:
a story about a father and his son, who are both into computers.
The child seems to be a prodigy at using the machine to calculate
anything and everything, and soon the two plug a series of facts and figures
into the computer to determine if a nearby lake is frozen solid enough for ice
skating. This leads to a tragedy,
and when considering the first commandment teaches not to worship false gods, we
wonder then if there is an undercurrent of warning.
Did disaster strike because two people placed their faith in a fallible
And so it goes with each story—tales of simple, everyday
people faced with one kind of moral crisis or another, linked together by three
things: the commandments, the fact
that they all occupy the same high rise (in fact, if you pay attention,
sometimes you’ll see characters from other films in the background), and a
solemn figure who appears in most of the films, who never speaks, but seems to
be observing with some sadness. Kieslowski
left it for us to decide who this
figure is supposed to be and what he represents, if anything. And best of all, the stories tend to finish with unexpected
twists, a la O. Henry’s short stories. You’re
never quite sure how or if the tales will resolve themselves, which makes the
viewings that much more rewarding.
I don’t want to outline each film, but I would like to
touch on my favorite ones, just to further the example of how this concept
works. Part Two features a woman
pressing a doctor for a prediction on the fate of her critically ill husband.
It turns out she’s pregnant by another man; if her husband is going to
live, she will have an abortion. If
not, she wants to keep the baby. Suddenly,
the elderly doctor seems thrust into an unpleasant role of having to play God
with not one, but two lives.
Number five, based on “thou shalt not kill”, takes a
different look at murder than you might expect. We witness a young man commit a brutal and heartless
killing…there’s no doubt that he’s guilty.
But then we follow him to the last moments of his life, as he is prepared
for his execution. It asks us to
ponder: is the death sentence a
case of eye for an eye justice, or is it a case of two wrongs trying to make a
And part seven demonstrates how Kieslowski often takes the
more challenging route…it would have been a relatively simple task to make a
film about stealing, but he chooses instead to tell the story of a sad family:
three generations of women. The
little girl thinks that her grandmother is really her mother, until her real
mother snatches her away and tells her the truth.
The real mother ponders whether it is wrong to steal what rightfully
belongs to you. The situation is
complex, but takes a beautiful moment to relax and breathe as the child falls
asleep in her real father’s workshop amongst a cache of various sized teddy
bears. It was a sweet, perfectly
captured moment that allowed the child’s world to be still while the adults’
worlds churned in turmoil.
To watch these films is to experience something
extraordinary. The depths
underneath the simple surfaces are remarkable, and serve to inspire much thought
and discussion afterwards. The
moral struggles are felt in the performances rather than discussed.
The scripts are subtle, yet brilliant, making their points quietly and
powerfully in ways unexpected.
Needless to say, because of the overall length, The
Decalogue hasn't enjoyed many theatrical screenings here in the United
States…sitting for ten hours is a bit much to ask, and even if you don’t,
exactly how do you divide up the time? At
least with this DVD, you can enjoy this unassuming masterpiece at your own
leisure, drinking in the films’ quiet beauty and moral explorations, and have
the time to ponder each one alone or with others, something these movies have
done and will continue to inspire to do.
I am grateful to Facets for returning this title to DVD…I am, however, as I was with the original Image release, less inspired by the video quality. I don’t want to lay too much blame at Facets' door here…it’s obvious from looking at the films that they have not been preserved well, and that the negatives are already showing signs of washout and fading and loss of stronger colors, not to mention a nominal share of noticeable nicks, scars and debris on the print. It’s far from unwatchable, but I have to call them like I see them. We’ve seen how good restored titles can look on disc, but unfortunately, this one looks at least ten years older than it is.
Not many complaints about this Dolby stereo track. I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it, as the films are in Polish with subtitles. Dialogue clarity is not an issue. There is not a lot of dynamic range inherent in the films, nor was there meant to be. They are mostly quiet and contemplative, with only occasional bits of loudness to pepper the audio.
This Special DVD Edition includes an introduction to The Decalogue by film critic Roger Ebert (I would have loved some commentary from him as well, but I'll take what's here), a visit to the set of The Decalogue, an extended interview with Kieslowski, an appreciation of Kieslowski by his colleagues, a booklet with full credits, Kieslowski's statement on The Decalogue and an interview with screenwriter Krysztof Piesiewicz...a decent package of supplements to go with the program.
The Decalogue is simple yet challenging, subtle yet potent, and both an important cinematic experience and a landmark in movie storytelling. The project is big, but carefully controlled and brought down to size by the direction of Kieslowski, and though I wish the DVD presentation had been a little better, these films are jewels enough in their own right to make the experience more than rewarding by themselves.