Krzysztof Kieslowski was a Polish filmmaker who is held in enormously high regard across Europe. I first came across his work in the Three-Colours Trilogy; his trio of French films reflecting on Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, in surprising, thoughtful and enormously memorable ways. His takes on those foundational values of the French Republic were far from obvious; whimsical more than polemical; and delivered through layers of oblique symbolism as much as via revealing dialogue. I have subsequently purchased his Dekalog series, which looks equally intriguing. His premise here is not to riff on an aspect of political philosophy, or a series of ideas; but to deliver ten short films, each inspired by one of the Ten Commandments: The Dekalog. With such a brilliant filmmaker, delving into such a valuable subject, the thought of watching (and reviewing!) the results was irresistible. So far I have seen only the first one, unsurprisingly entitled; Dekalog I.
Which Commandment is being responded to is not immediately obvious in Dekalog 1; however, it soon becomes apparent that Kieslowski began at the beginning. His inspiration for this film is:
"You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Ex20:3-6)
In Jewish and Christian thought, this commandment is a defining point. Life is to be orientated not around what is within creation, but is to be centred on the creator. While creation is to be enjoyed, used and protected; when anything within that realm becomes central, defining, or ultimate; then the sin of idolatry has taken place. In some context this idolatry can be literal prostration before a carving; in ours probably a more metaphorical bowing down before such god-substitutes as wealth, knowledge, pleasure or money is in view.
But such theological points are not Kieslowski's point of departure. (**Spoiler alert**!) Rather, we meet a family consisting of father and son, (absent Mother), and much loved aunt. The Father is an academic, the son a child prodigy with a hungry mind. Questions of faith and death linger consistently in the background of this family's life. The Father is agnostic in stance, but atheistic and materialist in his actual mode of living and thinking. His sister, on the other hand, is a devout Catholic. The son, with his restless, inventive mind, asks questions, and seeks answers. When he is saddened by the death of a dog, and asks 'what is death?' and 'what is left?', he finds his father's answers to be dry and functional, lacking in mystery or wonder. "The heart stops beating", and "Memories are left", seem inadequate a response to the loss.
The core cast of the film are excellent. Henryk Baranowski as the father Krzysztof, is very convincing. He has a hefty and progressively emotional role to play which he delivers with a quiet power. Wojciech Klata plays Paweł, Krzysztof's 12 year old son, and is superb. As a child actor, he is somehow able to convey inquisitive childish joy, impudence, and wonder to adults with a disarming honesty. Child-actors don't always get this right. Maja Komorowska, plays his aunt; in another emotionally demanding role. Somehow she manages to inform the audience that Pawel's Aunt Irena has a tragic back-story, without it ever being explicitly revealed. Clinging to her faith through tears, there is a remarkable vulnerability to Irena that Komorowska pictures perfectly.
These questions of life, death and meaning come to a climax in the film (**spoiler alert**!), as death comes into the family and the surviving characters must respond to it from their worldview. Most significantly though, is the way, in which death enters the home. Without giving the whle plot away, rigorous scientific calculations are made by father and son, which demonstrate that an activity should be perfectly safe; but science lets them down. Rather, science is shown to have its limits, in terms of achieving total control over life, and sovereignty over our circumstances. The project to explain everything, gain mastery over all questions and all outcomes, and the elimination of mystery and questions of faith is held up as a failure. Kieslowski's film here resonates profoundly with what Oxford Professor of Science and Religion, Alister McGrath says: "When science is done properly it has limits and that is the best way of preserving its identity, its integrity. I.. protest strongly against those scientists who exaggerate the explanatory capacity of science".
As such the film seems to be veering away from the thrust of the first commandment and on towards questions on suffering. It seems more concerned with theodicy than obedience to divine law. However, the underlying tension in the commandment between the creator and the created, remains central to the motivations of the two main adult characters throughout. As is typical of Kieslowski's films the proposed answers to these dilemma's are only hinted at. Firstly there is the dark shadow of family bereavement. (**spoiler alert**) Krzystof has only one child, his sister is childless (we assume); and the death of Pawel means that this family will not see another generation. Are we meant to think that the biblical curse on the generations has been invoked here? We are not told. But the mysteries go far deeper than that. In the climactic scene, in grief and anguish, Krystof tips over an altar in the Catholic chapel, sending candles scattering everywhere. His anger and confusion seem to be directed towards blaming God for not existing. The candle wax though drips down the face of Mary on the icon, and heaven appears to weep with earth in the face of death. Stunningly, Kryzystof reaches into a chalice to anoint himself with 'holy' water; but the water is frozen solid. This is an intensely stark, bold and powerful picture; and one that is open to several interpretations. One on hand, in Catholic faith the place in which the material and the spiritual meet are in the sacraments. Yet in this sacrament, the physical freezing process over-rules the act of anointing. Maybe, his materialistic mindset, continues to block off his access to the divine? Yet, on the other hand, there is a circularity in the use of ice here too. Ice had been the cause of Pawel's awful death; yet Krystof's only option is to relieve his aching, pounding head with ice from the chalice. Is Kieslowski telling us that while God permits suffering, we have no option but to go to Him for its' relief? It's certainly possible that this is what he wants us to think, as the scene is enacted before the face of the painted Madonna with her tears of wax. Either way, the spiritual eclipses the material in the face of loss; and the first commandment is vindicated.
This is a stunning, thoughtful film. Creatively shot, beautifully told, and brilliantly acted. While Kieslowski's ambition is to ask questions and promote thinking, rather than provide answers, he is asking very deep and searching questions. This film packs an emotional as well as intellectual punch; even while it probes deep spiritual waters. I am intrigued as to what the rest of the series holds.