Krzysztof’s Kommandments

KIESLOWSKI WEEK AT FICTION DAILY

After finishing the Dekalog (Ten Commandments, or Decalogue) by Krzysztof Kieslowski, it seemed time for a closer look at the films of this Polish director.

Among those 10 chilling short films, made for Polish television in the late 1980s, one of them alone could easily claim a week’s worth of FD entries. A Short Film About Killing, made to illustrate the commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill” is beyond any filmmaking, whatever the cost, location or political system.

His oeuvre also includes the widely admired Trois Couleurs (Three Colors), a trilogy on the colors of the French flag — Blue, Blanc, Rouge. Later this week we’ll take a look at those films. Kieslowski worked for a long time in his homeland, and after the Eastern Bloc opened, came to Paris to work.

The Dekalog was filmed for Polish television and aired in 1988. It’s hard to place these times politically, since they were certainly not the same as the hopeful days of 1968, when it seemed the old regime would tumble. Yet the late 1980s in Poland were a time of hope. How can we forget Solidarity and Lech Walesa, whose shipyard activism finally succeeded in challenging Communism in a way no one else had.

So there was a ray of light perhaps in those days, and Kieslowski slipped through.

For many years he had worked in Polish film, mostly in documentaries but also with short films. His early documentaries were Workers 71 and Station. The first was heavily censored and the second was also a source of trouble, since some of its footage was used in a court base. Bez konza (No End) was also an early film. This idea of konca, or end, comes up quite a lot in his work.

The Dekalog is also when he begins working with long-time collaborators, the screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz and the composer Zbigniew Preisner. Their work comes to full blossom in the trilogy.

The Dekalog is unlike anything before. Each takes a winding route to its point … whatever the commandment is. The route is so unexpected and human, that the final message is an emotional one, a message you feel. Kieslowski so easily could have made these commandments exercises in Communist doctrine, or even lessons on right behavior. Instead, he uses them to show the complexity of human life.

A few words about Dekalog V, which became in a slightly longer version, “A Short Film About Killing.” The intensity of this film combines with artful composition, a deliberate pace and authentic characters to give us a chilling reminder of why no one in fact should kill.

A young thug takes the life of a cab driver and for this crime, he is sentenced to death. No detail is spared in showing us what it means to kill … both as the young punk kills the man without provocation, and as he is also killed, by strangers, in an act that degrades them all.

You can imagine where a soulful, haunted romantic man like Kieslowski will take such a concept. Indeed, the film was so intense, the script so honest, that the actors only rehearsed it once before filming. Kieslowski later related that it was unbearable for them.

It is a moving indictment of self-righteousness.

The other film that stands out for me is Dekalog VIII, Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness. It is a moving story of a Jewish woman who survives the Holocaust, but wants to understand why a family chose not to give her shelter.

The Dekalog
is available on Netflix.

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