When Roger Ebert taught Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog (The Decalogue, 1989) at the University of Chicago, he had difficulties pairing the Ten Commandments with the ten films. According to Ebert, “there was no 1-1-correlation” (1). In the American DVD release of the film, however, each film is explicitly paired with a commandment. Dekalog, jeden (The Decalogue 1) is paired with the commandment “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.” This pairing is perhaps the least controversial. The film, which Ebert describes as the “saddest” in the cycle, tells the story of an atheist computer scientist Krzysztof (Henryk Baranowski), his son Pawel (Wojciech Klata) and their misplaced faith in the knowledge of humanity. Even Ebert suggests that the film fundamentally concerns the computer as a “false god”.
Originally, Kieślowski and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz “wanted to begin each film in a way which suggested that the main character had been picked by the camera as if at random” (2). The Decalogue 1 retains this framing device better than other entries in the film. Pawel is introduced after a pan up the apartment complex linking all the characters in Dekalog. The camera follows a pigeon flying up the building. When the pigeon picks a window, the camera follows it, introducing us to Pawel. His story is quickly introduced as one fundamentally concerned with man’s knowledge. The film’s first words are numbers as Krzysztof and Pawel count their push-ups. The first discussion concerns a math problem. Pawel shares his father’s faith in computers, even suggesting that while his computer could only tell him the time in a distant country, and thus that his mother was asleep, his father’s strong computer might know what his mother was dreaming about.
The Decalogue 1 is often remembered as a story about the folly of placing one’s faith in computers. Krzysztof uses a computer to determine that a local river can withstand the weight of a person three times as heavy as Pawel, and thus agrees to give him his Christmas gift, new skates, early. The results are tragic. Interestingly, however, Krzysztof’s faith is not merely in the computer, it is in empirical science in general. Though he checks the computer twice before giving Pawel the skates, Krzysztof does not merely trust the computer as they perform an experiment to determine the temperature. Then, Krzysztof walks onto the ice and tests it. He jumps on it, hits it with a stick and slides across it. Faith in humanity’s empirical knowledge is tested just as forcefully as faith in the computer in The Decalogue 1. This faith remains even after the appearance of contrary evidence. When Krzysztof is told that the ice broke, he responds that “the ice couldn’t break” and tells his interlocutor to calm down.
This questioning of faith is explicitly dealt with in the film’s narrative. Both the mise en scène and dialogue of The Decalogue 1 feature more direct links with religion than other entries in the Biblically-structured Dekalog. Two of the film’s key scenes take place either in front of or within a church that features a large cross in its walls: the Church of the Ascension of the Lord. Moreover, while Kieślowski and Piesiewicz primarily sought to use contemporary stories to highlight the commandments’ continuing relevance – leaving philosophical and theological discussions to the side to show their relevance to real moral decision-making (prompting Ebert to suggest that the characters do not even discuss the commandments or ethical views) – The Decalogue 1 actually includes several discussions explicitly contrasting empirical and spiritual approaches to life. After Pawel sees a dead dog in front of the aforementioned church, he asks his father about the nature of death. Krzysztof responds with an answer that is medical in nature. Pawel continues: “I mean, what is death?”, to which he receives another medical response. When he asks about the existence of the soul, he is told that the only things that survive us are achievements and memories. By contrast, when Pawel’s aunt Irena (Maja Komorowska) shows him a picture and Pawel asks, “Do you think he knows the meaning of life?”, his aunt responds positively as the camera shows us that it is a picture of Pope John-Paul II. This contrast of views is made explicitly during a phone call. After Krzysztof agrees to let Pawel attend religious classes, Irina asks if Krzysztof will take him the following day. Krzysztof sighs and looks ahead. The film then cuts to a medium shot of the computer, which distracts Krzysztof and leads him to end the conversation. In an unexplained occurrence echoing Krzysztof’s earlier lecture suggesting a properly programmed computer could have a personality, it reads, “I am ready”.
The everyday implications of these moral decisions are made clear in the film’s most haunting scene, one that is notably devoid of sound. Music was important in Kieślowski’s fiction films. While the director claimed that he only knew how to use music for atmosphere, he credited composer Zbigniew Preisner, with whom he collaborated on all his films including and following Bez konca (No End, 1985), with an ability to bring “content” to the film that was not present in the images alone (3). While Kieślowski sometimes questioned the ability for the camera to add content (4), he had no such qualms about music. The power of music had an important narrative role in his later works, particularly La Double vie de Véronique (The Double Life of Veronique, 1991) and Bleu (Three Colours: Blue, 1993). Given this fact, the lack of music in the most important scene in The Decalogue 1 makes it all the more striking.
From 34:00 into the film, when Krzysztof tells Pawel that he checked the ice and it is safe to skate, to 45:30, when Krzysztof is told about the implications of this news, there is no non-diegetic sound (except perhaps for a bell at 34:54). Nearly a fifth of the film’s running time is not interrupted by music or sound effects. The story, however, is told largely by the soundtrack. Telephone calls from neighbours, ambulance sirens, a couple’s screams as they run down the stairs, and dog yelps create a sense of chaos and impending doom while Krzysztof walks stoically though the streets to confirm his knowledge that his son is at an English lesson. In Bleu, the film’s protagonist is a composer’s wife who attempts to live in the present, liberated from the past. At various points in the film, however, she is taken out of time. The screen goes black and parts of her husband’s unfinished last composition play on the screen. She is forced to confront her past. In The Decalogue 1, the present is a nightmare. The lack of music still forces one to stay in the present, but neither the characters nor the audience can fully appreciate such a stark encounter with the present moment. When the music returns, it underscores the epiphany, moving us towards the future where lengthy discussions on different worldviews no longer seem adequate. After the music, there is no further dialogue. Krzysztof cries in a stairwell, wrecks the church in the second crucial, explicitly papal scene, and returns home to his computer, on which the film’s final words appear: “I am ready”.
- “Roger Ebert on The Decalogue”, 2001, The Decalogue: Special Edition, DVD, Featurette, Facets Video, 2003.
- Danusia Stok (ed.), Kieślowski on Kieślowski, Faber and Faber, London and Boston, 1993, p. 146.
- Stok (ed.), p. 179.
- According to Edward Kłosiński, who filmed Blanc (Three Colours: White, 1994) and Dekalog, dwa (The Decalogue 2), Kieslowski did not believe “That the camera conveys ideas…. [Instead, t]he acting is what influences style.” See “White: Edward Kłosiński”, Three Colors, Blu-Ray, Booklet, Criterion Collection, New York, p. 68.
Dekalog, jeden/The Decalogue 1 (1989 Poland 53 mins)
Prod Co: Telewizja Polska/Zespole Filmowym “Tor” Prod: Ryszard Chutkovski Dir: Krzsysztof Kieślowski Scr: Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Krzsysztof Kieślowski Phot: Wieslaw Zdort Ed: Ewa Smal Prod Des: Halina Dobrowolska Mus: Zbigniew Preisner
Cast: Henryk Baranowski, Wojciech Klata, Maja Komorowska, Artur Barcis, Maria Gladkowska, Ewa Kania