DEKALOG (Kieslowski, 1988)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 27, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long
Considering its hallowed art-house reputation, first-time viewers of Krzysztof Kieslowski's “Dekalog” (1988) might be surprised to discover how much of its content is the stuff of daytime soap operas: secret affairs, medical crises and miracles, questions of dubious parentage, and shocking final twists aplenty. Though this ten-part television series (and its two feature-length film versions) is set almost entirely at the same undistinguished working-class Warsaw housing complex, the stories of its inhabitants are hardly quotidian portraits. Each thin slice of life is served with a heaping portion of monumental metaphysical melodrama, with life and death often as the immediate stakes, and love standing equidistant between both poits. Kieslowski claimed that several Polish critics complained about the series' lack of realism – perhaps he was too polite to point that a similar approach worked well enough for Dostoevsky.
The complaints were swiftly drowned out by a global chorus of critical hosannas, setting the relatively obscure Kieslowski on the path to international art-house stardom, a reputation he would definitively secure with “The Double Life of Veronique” (1991) and the “Three Colors” Trilogy (1993-1994) before his death in 1996 following a heart attack at the age of 54. “Dekalog” took some time before making its way to audiences around the world, but for a series intended primarily for Polish television, its reach and impact were nothing short of remarkable.
According to Kieslowski, the project originated when his friend, a lawyer and writer named Krzysztof Piesiewicz, suggested he make a film about The Ten Commandments and their relevance (if any) to late-Communist Poland. After toying with the idea for a while, they decided to shoot ten hour-long films, each co-scripted by Kieslowski and Piesiewicz, with the original premise turning out be a very, very loose guide (and perhaps an impediment to critical interpretation) as they further explored the characters, stories, and settings. Each episode is identified only by a number (One, Two, etc.), though episodes Five and Six would be expanded into the theatrical features “A Short Film About Killing” and “A Short Film About Love.”
Most episodes feature the gray, weathered stone towers of the housing complex looming in the background, sometimes blotting out the reluctant sun, and focus on two or three of the community's inhabitants. In “Dekalog: One” a father raises his precocious son to revere science while the boy's aunt schools him in spiritual matters with events leaving both adults to question the certainty underpinning their world views. In “Dekalog: Three” a man's unstable former lover connives to force him to spend Christmas Eve with her instead of with his family. “Dekalog: Nine” relates the struggles of a married couple to come to terms with the husband's recent diagnosis of incurable impotence.
Those relatively tame summaries fail to do justice to some of the series' more lurid plot elements: a brief moment of humiliation prompts an immediate suicide attempt; a woman pregnant by another man needs to know if her cancer-stricken husband will survive so she can decide whether or not to have an abortion; and if you're looking for incest, Kieslowski's got that covered too. Maybe there's something in the water supply at this not-so-humble little complex.
“Five” and “Six” have generally drawn the most attention, in no small part because each was also released as a longer theatrical feature (with about an extra half hour of footage each). “Five” details a brutal, senseless murder, or perhaps two equally brutal, senseless murders depending on your feelings about capital punishment. “Six” relates the story of a teenage boy who spies on his older, sexy neighbor and the queasy transition from criminal stalking to (perhaps) an actual relationship.
“Five” is a masterpiece, with the prolonged murder scene (even more excruciatingly drawn out in the feature version) difficult to shake off, but the moment in this ambitious series that stands out the most for me is one of the more uncharacteristically quiet ones. “Dekalog: Eight” begins with an older woman out jogging, greeting a neighbor with pleasant banalities, then cleaning up the plain apartment where she lives alone. She hops in her car, parks in a nondescript spot, and then walks into a nondescript building. As she strides calmly down a corridor, first one and then several younger people stand up to greet her with obvious respect, and a crisp “Good morning, professor!” fills in the final crucial piece of the puzzle. Bit by bit, Kieslowski layers details onto this character, radically transforming our perception of her in the space of a few simple scenes, from blank slate to everyday homebody to prestigious professor of ethics.
Modest moments like this, more than its numerous melodramatic eruptions, explain the enduring appeal of the ambitious “Dekalog.” Characters from earlier (or later) episodes crop up in the background or even occasionally in the foreground of other stories, and they may be even more compelling when we only catch a brief glimpse of them than when we focus on them for a full hour – what have they been up to since last we met? Locations such as a cramped, rickety elevator play important roles in multiple episodes as well, and a series of repeated motifs link the various actions and characters: spilled liquids, phone calls just barely missed, soulful closeups, an unidentified “watchful” character who crops up in eight of the episodes, and mirrors aplenty. Zbigniew Preisner's evocative, eclectic score also unifies the series, quietly underscoring multiple tones. (Ed. Note: Yes, that was written by someone who wants to say something about the music, which is obviously very important to the series, but doesn't actually know much about music.)
The episodes are almost relentlessly morbid with rare light-hearted moments serving primarily to emphasize the tragedy that inevitably follows. With the drab architecture, miserable weather, and the array of downcast glances and slumped shoulders, the exhausted viewer plowing through the end of “Dekalog: Nine” might anticipate a final installment featurng nothing but a series of slow-motion shots of the complex's inhabitants jumping out of their windows and splattering in unison in the courtyard until their desaturated geysers of blood completely envelop the camera lens.
That's what makes “Dekalog: Ten” such a surprise and probably my favorite installment, as Kieslowski and Piesiewicz punctuate the gloom with a sharply comic note. An older stamp collector seen briefly in “Eight” passes away (that's not the funny part) and leaves his collection to his two adult sons, the younger of whom is a punk rocker who implores his audience to “Kill! Kill! Kill and fornicate! Beat your mother and your father!” That's one of the funny parts. The hapless brothers quickly learn that take-no-prisoners capitalism is very much alive in Communist Poland in the form of a rabid Warsaw stamp collecting community that intends to get its hands on the greatest collection in the country at any cost. The boys think they have have some clever plans of their own, but are faced with the inescapable truth that philately will get you nowhere.
“Five” plunged us into the depths of late-Bresson pessimism and “Ten” emerges in the land of Kaurismakian dry irony. Would “Dekalog: Eleven” have been a musical?
The episodes are presented in their original broadcast aspect ratios, either 1.33:1 or 1.70:1. The two feature films (and their TV versions) are presented in 1.70:1 ratios. Kieslowski worked with nine different cinematographers on the series, producing a variety of visual styles, some episodes with more camera movement than others, and some with particularly heavy use of color filters. “Five” (and its feature-version) employs an odd technique with the edges of the frame darkened in a circular cut-out pattern in several scenes.
“Dekalog” was released on Blu-ray in Europe in 2015 on a set which has received some criticism for its technical qualities. I don't own that release, but I find it difficult to believe similar complaints will be raised against this remarkable four-disc set from Criterion. Actually, I'm sure someone will have a complaint about something (color timing, likely) as is the case when a film is converted from PAL to NTSC. With the varying visual styles across thirteen hours of total material, it's difficult to assess how true to the original source (ten TV episodes, two feature films) this 1080p image is, but what's easier to say is that it looks great. Criterion also informs us that the transfers were “approved by the respective cinematographers when possible” and this new restoration by TVP was conducted “in 4K resolution from the original 35 mm camera negatives.”
When I say it looks great, I mean that it doesn't look too great. Though the visual styles are complex, “Dekalog” isn't meant to be the sensual treat that much Kieslowski's “Three Colors” trilogy is. Along with the colored filters, much of the footage looks drab, overcast, and appropriately gloomy, and all in exquisite high-def detail.
The films receive linear PCM Mono audio mixes. The restored lossless audio sounds flawless, of course, and is most appreciated in bringing out the subtleties in Preisner's pervasive score. Optional English subtitles support the Polish audio.
Discs One and Two contain five “Dekalog” episodes apiece, and nothing else. One note: Each time you select an episode, you'll get another pop-up menu with a blurb summarizing the plot, almost always with information that doesn't become apparent until well into each episode. If you worry about that sort of thing, don't read the pop-up blurbs.
Disc Three includes the two feature films produced from this series, “A Short Film About Killing” (86 min.) and “A Short Film About Love” (88 min.) along with five minutes worth of trailers.
Disc Four is devoted exclusively to extra features and there's plenty to talk about.
First up is a collection of Kieslowski-centered extras, starting with a brief (3 min.) interview of the director conducted on the set of “Dekalog.” More substantive is “A Short Film About 'Dekalog'” (20 min.) which consists of excerpts from a January 1995 interview with Kieslowski conducted by film students Eileen Anipare and Jason Wood of the University of North London. Kieslowski discusses the film's modest budget (allegedly $100,000 for the entire series, but that's tough to believe) while explaining some of the reasoning behind the series as well as the series' reception in Poland. Great stuff here. Finally, we get audio excerpts (23 min.) from Kieslowski's 1990 appearance at the National Film Theatre in London, interview conducted by critic Derek Malcolm.
Critic Annette Insdorf, author of “Double Lives, Double Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski,” holds court (28 min.) on the intricacies of the sprawling “Dekalog” series, beginning with the contention that Kieslowski was one of the masters of using the physical to explore the metaphysical. I was particularly interested in her comparison of the published “Dekalog” screenplays to the actual films – Kieslowski consistently cut out information to render events more ambiguous than how they were written.
The next cluster is a series of “Cast and Crew” interviews. Three of them were conducted back in 2003, including interviews with writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz (25 min.), cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (“Five/A Short Film About Killing” - 3 min.) and a montage of interviews with Thirteen Actors from the series (21 min.) The final three were recorded in 2016 by Criterion, and include interviews with heroic editor Ewa Smal (15 min.), and cinematographers Wieslaw Zdort (“One” - 15 min.) and Witold Adamek (“Six” - 12 min.) Of them all, I found Smal's interview by far the most interesting. Piesiewicz was surprisingly reluctant to provide much insight.
Finally, the disc includes an interview with Hanna Krall (2016, 16 min.), a Polish journalist and “creative confidante” of Kieslowski's. She notes that she and Kieslowski shared a belief that '80s Poland was a “dull world” and that both feared the dullness would seep into their work.
Sandwiched in between the fold-out case that includes the fours discs is a thick square-bound insert booklet (72 pages) which begins with a lengthy analytical overview of the series by film studies professor Paul Coates and includes shorter essays about each episode also by Coates. We also get lengthy excerpts from published 1991-1992 interviews with Kieslowski and shorter essays by Kieslowski about the two feature films of “Dekalog.”
Twelve and a half hours of films plus three hours of extras. It's almost like Criterion felt they had to wait until the binge-watching era was in full swing before releasing Kieslowski's sprawling opus. Though “Dekalog” has been released on DVD previously, this Blu-ray upgrade is easily the definitive version of one of the most influential film and/or television projects of the last thirty years. So binge away.