Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Decalogue: Famous Polish television series based on The Ten Commandments


The Decalogue (or “Dekalog”) is a famous series for Polish television (Telewizja Polska (TVP)) that aired first in 1989, and is now available on DVD (4 dvd’s) from Miramax and Facet. Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski and co-written with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, it comprises ten 55-minute long dramas set in and around a Communist era apartment building in Soviet-looking Warsaw, Poland, in a cityscape covered with fresh snow. Each drama is based on one of the Ten Commandments, but does not give in to any overt discussions of philosophy. Instead, the characters, who often appear in multiple episodes, set up moral dilemmas, sometimes of surprising complexity and depending on a lot of unfortunate coincidence. Roger Ebert provides a commentary introduction on the DVD. He recommends watching only one of the dramas a day and having a soliloquy about it. The music is simple, quiet and serious, and is composed by Zbigniew Preisner. A nameless character makes a cameo appearance in each episode.

Each episode is simply named “Dekalog X” where X is the number. The series was supposedly filmed for a total budget of $100000.

One: Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Here a 1980s style PC is the “god” as a boy makes calculations on it (in Polish, but the screen reminds one of the old TRS-80) about the thickness of ice on the pond outside the apartment building, while his father gives lectures on the physics of ice and the computational formulas. They depend on their calculations and go out on to the ice, with a tragedy. Is the computer a false god? (Maybe social networking is!)

Two: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. A young woman, with a husband dying of cancer, asks his doctor to predict with certainty whether he will die, so that she can make a decision about terminating a pregnancy with another man.

Three: Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep it Holy. This is a complicated story with a cuckolded man and an adulterous husband, who leaves his family duties on Christmas leave to help his girl look for a mysterious man who may have been murdered and mutilated.

Four: "Honor thy Father and Mother". A young woman discovers that her father may not be so, and has to face the idea that the man could have "other" interest in her.

Five: "Thou Shalt Not Kill". A sociopathic drifter garrots a cab-driver, and then is hung himself despite the fervor of a young lawyer. This generated "A Short Film About Killing.":

Six: "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery." A woman responds to a peeping Tom, who finds himself nearly fatally challenged by the experience. This generated the feature, "A Short Film About Love."

Seven: "Thou Shalt Not Steal". A woman "steals" her real child who had been raised as a "sister."

Eight: "The Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor" A Holocaust survivor meets an ethics professor who did not help her.

Nine: "Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Wife". An impotent man finds that his wife has another lover, but was the fear that a wife would not be loyal the cause of his impotence to begin with?

Ten: "Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Goods." Two brothers inherit a stamp collection that they want to complete, and meet a man who demands a kidney (rather than money) for a relative to complete the set. The conversation on the park bench about the "blood test" is quite startling.

The last DVD interviews the director, where he discusses his intentions. He mentions "Medium Cool" (the notorious film about the riots in Chicago in 1968) which he says may have made some demonstrators targets for police prosecution later. He says he does not have a political agenda which he is trying to impose, but he says others have accused him of that. This was particularly true of the fifth film about capital punishment. He says he wants to inspire people to think for themselves. But he gets irritated about being repeatedly asked why he makes films, and what he values, and how he views God.

In August 2007 I had reviewed a satirical film, called “The Ten”, based on the Ten Commandments, here.

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