Dekalog was made for Polish TV as a series of ten films, each just under an hour in length, inspired by one of the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue), set in contemporary Warsaw in and around the same apartment block. Dekalog V and VI also exist in re-edited versions just under an hour and a half each for cinema release, under the titles A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love respectively.
As well as being set in and around the same apartment block, the films are linked in other ways. Major characters in one part make walk-ons in another. An ethical dilemma mentioned by one of Zofia’s students in VIII is the very one that drives the plot of II. And in all but two of the films there appears a mysterious young man (Artur Barcis), who appears, looking on, at important moments.
Dekalog is quite simply one of the great cinematic achievements of the last two decades (Director Stanley Kubrick described ‘Dekalog’ as the only masterpiece he could name in his lifetime). Kieslowski had made many previous features (two of which, Camera Buff and No End, received British cinema releases to respectable but not earth-shattering effect), but from the moment A Short Film About Killing premiered his reputation jumped several notches. A Short Film About Love consolidated that, but for anyone outside Poland, the premiere of all ten of the TV films at the 1989 Venice Film Festival sealed it. This is all the more remarkable in that the films were shot in 16mm for television on a budget so low that it allowed for only two takes. We should acknowledge the contributions of his regular contributors, notably regular co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz and composer Zbigniew Preisner. Many of Poland’s finest actors make their mark too. Kieslowski used nine different cinematographers and allowed them considerable input, so it’s ironic how with one notable exception the films have a uniform look. That exception is Slawomir Idziak’s work on V, making extensive use of filters to create a bilious green-brown colour scheme. (Idziak photographed The Double Life Of Véronique and Three Colours: Blue for Kieslowski, and has worked in the West for John Sayles and most recently for Ridley Scott on Black Hawk Down (!!)
However, no one should take anything way from Kieslowski’s achievement. Each film is very concise, cramming what would take many other directors a whole feature into 50-odd minutes, and repaying multiple viewings. Kieslowski directs with complete assurance and command of tone, from intense drama to relaxed black comedy.
I: Thou Shalt Not Have Other Gods Before Me
A university professor (Henryk Baranowski) has bought a computer and is teaching his son (Wojciech Klata) in its use. However, their trust in its infallibility has tragic consequences.
II: Thou Shalt Not Take The Name Of The Lord Thy God In Vain
Dorota (Krystyna Janda) visits her dying husband in hospital. She is pregnant by another man. She asks the doctor (Aleksander Bardini) if her husband will live or die: if he dies, she will keep the baby, and if he lives she will have an abortion. But can the doctor play God with the life of the unborn child?
III: Keep The Sabbath Day Holy
It’s Christmas Eve. Janusz (Daniel Olbrychski), a married man, is waylaid by an ex-lover, Ewa (Maria Pakulnis), who enlists him to search for her errant boyfriend… and manages to keep him out until Christmas morning.
IV: Honour Thy Father And Thy Mother
Eighteen-year-old Anka (Adrianna Biedrynska) finds a letter in her father’s room from her dead mother, which reveals that her father, Michal (Janusz Gajos) is not in fact Anka’s biological father. A complex new relationship forms between Anka and Michal as they struggle to make sense of this revelation.
V: Thou Shalt Not Kill
Jacek (Miroslaw Baka) brutally kills a taxi driver (Jan Tesarz). Despite his lawyer Piotr’s (Krzysztof Globisz) best efforts, he is executed for his crime. Both killings are shown in graphic detail – though toned down in this TV version from the longer cinema release A Short Film About Killing. This film reopened the debate about the death penalty in Poland, and had a part in stopping it.
VI: Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery
Obsessed with Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska), who lives across the way, Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) spies on her, and takes a job as a milkman so he can be close to her. However, a meeting proves dangerous. This version is differently edited to the cinema release A Short Film About Love, and has a different ending.
VII: Thou Shalt Not Steal
Six-year-old Ania is being brought up by Ewa (Anna Polony). However, Ewa is in fact Ania’s grandmother; her real mother is her ‘older sister’ Majka (Maja Barelkowska). Tired by the deception and anxious that Ania should love her as a mother; Majka takes Ania away and will only return if Ewa will acknowledge their true relationship.
VIII: Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness
Zofia (Maria Koscialkowska) is an ethics professor at the University of Warsaw. Elzbieta (Teresa Marczewska) is visiting from New York and reveals herself as the young girl that Zofia refused to hide from the Nazis during the Occupation. Zofia is forced to confront her past…
IX: Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour’s Wife
Roman (Piotr Machalica) was once promiscuous but is now impotent. He encourages his wife Hanka (Ewa Blaszczyk) to take a lover, only to become consumed by jealousy when he thinks she has taken his advice.
X: Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour’s Goods
Brothers Jerzy (Jerzy Stuhr) and Artur (Zbigniew Zamachowski), financially strapped, unexpectedly inherit a fortune when their father dies and leaves them the most valuable stamp collection in Poland. Considering this was made before the Velvet Revolution, this part is prescient in its picture of a Poland where anything can be bought or sold. In its blackly comic tone, it’s a forerunner of Three Colours: White, which also stars Zamachowski.