As Moses heaved the Divine Law down the mountain, the stones must have worn his palms—hard rock chewing into his fingers and pulling at the joints.
In his ten Decalogue films, Krzysztof Kieślowski puts these monumental tablets in our hands. Watching them is less about what’s written on them and more about their overwhelming density, as if the meaning of the commands is to be found (at least partly) in their feeling, at the nexus of ideal and body. The Decalogue provides ten zones of morally-saturated experience, with insight into how the commands anchor our ethical sensibilities even as our bodies and souls strain against their weight. The episodes do not argue, entertain, or instruct as much as they illuminate, rendering visible how these timeless ideals press into everyday life.
Kieślowski might have taken the philosophical route, full of ideas and argument. Or, he might have gone dramatic, utilizing the commands as cheap catalysts for more exciting plots (Action! Intrigue! Killing! Adultery!). The didactic path was also open, reminding the kids that there are ten good lessons to be learned. Mercifully, Kieślowski dismissed them all. Instead, he gifted us stories and characters we can recognize, largely because all of these people—from the adulterers to the murderers to the lost and frightened children—resemble ourselves.
The gorgeous, brilliantly executed restoration of these films, just released on Blu-Ray by the Criterion Collection, amplifies and re-asserts what many of us already know: Kieślowski was one of the most earnest and talented spiritual pilgrims ever to work in the cinema.
The struggle to care for his sick and dying father, a tuberculosis victim, defined Kieślowski’s early life. Perhaps his artistic obsessions with fate, existential choice, miracle, and predestination emerged from this anxious and peripatetic childhood. After graduating from the famed Łódź film school, he focused on documentaries, searching for a “reality” on the screen that the Communist government had neglected or suppressed. As Solidarity—that miraculous, and legendary workers’ movement that brought down Communism in Poland and formed the first cracks in the Berlin Wall—gained ground, Kieślowski emerged as a quiet, sympathetic, and pivotal figure, shrewdly working for change within the official media machine. He told stories of everyday Polish life in bold, unflinching terms, while avoiding a propagandistic or moralistic tone. Amid this political turmoil, Kieślowski met a young activist lawyer, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who agreed to allow Kieślowski to film a few of his cases. They eventually noticed that every time a camera stood in the back of the courtroom the judge was lenient or dismissed the case. Before long, lawyers from all over, fighting for the rights of political dissidents, were begging to be a part of Kieślowski’s projects. His courtroom cameras ran often, sometimes without any film in them at all.
As much as the political effect of Kieślowski’s films pleased him, he began to question his faith in the documentary form, particularly its limited ability to portray the whole of reality, as he conceived it. He moved to fiction projects, untethering his expressive powers and freeing himself to explore the non-material—the realm of ideals, terrors, dreams, intuitions, inexplicable grace, unfathomable evil—and all its attendant questions. These themes first emerged, often pessimistically, in the early features, most notably in Camera Buff (1979) and Blind Chance (1981). Kieślowski and Piesiewicz then began collaborating on scripts, beginning with No End (1984), and continuing through every feature film afterwards: The Decalogue (1988), The Double Life of Veronique (1991), and the critically-acclaimed trilogy Three Colors: Blue (1993), White (1993), and Red (1994).
In retrospect, The Decalogue was the watershed of Kieślowski’s career. Before those films, his work tended to be dark (e.g., providence turns downright brutal in Blind Chance and No End). After Decalogue, his work creates space for grace, reconciliation, and restoration. Within this monumental series of films, we see Kieślowski negotiating in that very human, liminal space between despair and hope.
So, in 1988—just before the Berlin wall came down and before their international successes could be imagined—Kieślowski and Piesiewicz had a brilliant idea: a single Warsaw apartment complex as a spiritual microcosm, holding ten immense existential dilemmas, each with a set of characters (who occasionally inter-relate), and a commandment principle embedded at the core.
At about an hour each, the films follow the Roman Catholic numbering, with the first episode combining the first two Protestant commandments (“You shall have no other gods before Me,” and “You shall not make unto yourselves a graven image”). Thus, episode II addresses the Lord’s name, III the Sabbath day, and so on, until episodes IX and X, which are dedicated to covetousness (“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” or “thy neighbor’s goods”). The films are thematically linked to the decrees, sometimes loosely, sometimes more tightly. For instance, the episode for the command “Thou shalt not kill” (episode V) does, indeed, feature a murder, but then, remarkably, turns its full attention to the murderer’s execution. Episode II, more obliquely, focuses on issues of identity, family, and fidelity as a means of exploring the significance of a “name,” rather than the name of God per se.
Kieślowski knew that the commandments were simple enough for children to understand and difficult enough to crack the human soul, so easy answers and moral recommendations would not do. He does not minimize human depravity or lose all hope for grace. He does not skirt religious doubt, nor does he champion skepticism. The weight and power of a commandment never wanes, however complicated its role within the broken world. In Kieślowski’s films, ethical questions are never easy, but always essential.
Fear not: in good measure, consistent rays of hope mingle with the anguished darkness of the times. Grace often arrives, but rarely in any conventional or expected way. From unanticipated kindness, turns of heart, and even “miracles” in a few early episodes, to the joyful brotherhood and hilarious comedy of Decalogue X, Kieślowski suggests that that judgment also mingles with gifts: friends, family, spiritual purpose, encouragement, forgiveness, and unexpected turns of fortune to help us bear the load. Grace is not always predictable or timely, but neither is it wholly indifferent or absent.
“There must be other things beyond what we can see,” he once remarked (in the documentary I’m So-So), and his characters often directly consider the question of Divine existence and action. Kieślowski never directly shows us this other reality, and deliberately avoids any banal “other-worldly” effects—shimmering dissolves or “magical” visions. Yet, we cannot come away from The Decalogue wholly confident in our materialism, our disbelief, or our self-centeredness; the pressure on our conscience and the stirrings in our experience are just too strong.
One character, Kieślowski simply dubbed “the young man,” appears in nearly every episode as a haunting, spiritual observer. He opens the series silently and powerfully, staring directly at us as if to say, “follow me, but watch your step;” like a mute Virgil he leads us, not into Hell, but an equally spiritual domain, an ordinary apartment complex where any of us could live. With each appearance he changes form: a compassionate observer (the weeping vagabond in I), a figure of judgment (the Charon-like boatman in IV), a sympathetic, joyful spirit (the passing, smiling businessman in VI), and a heroic savior (IX). Unsurprisingly, Kieślowski gives no direct interpretation of this character, and his specific religious commitments remained vague throughout his life. However, he did believe in an absolute moral “reference point,” and the “young man’s” knowing, iconic looks directly target us, suggesting an other-worldly conviction that speaks to our collective conscience.
In The Decalogue, the different episodes show a mixed aesthetic and narrative approach, a tipping of the hat to his past documentaries, and his first adventurous push forward into a more formalistic, experimental cinema. His willingness to try every possible artistic avenue in pursuit of his aims is reflected in his plan (nearly achieved) to use a different cinematographer for each episode. Three of those artists—Sławomir Idziak, Edward Kłosiński and Piotr Sobiciński—would work with him for the rest of his career. In The Decalogue, the brute presentation of the handheld camera, so common in his documentaries and early features, finds expanded power through the addition of expressive lighting, shallow-focus photography, and a generally abstract approach to the visual image (so common in his later features).
This abstract impulse surfaces in various ways. Kieślowski’s influences, such as Robert Bresson, Francois Truffaut, and Andrei Tarkovsky make themselves known in the delicate way Kieślowski allows time to exude its own pressure. Unlike typical Western editing styles, which cut for easy, direct impact and succinct narrative structure, Kieślowski is not afraid to run the camera longer, let the silences linger, and move the drama by psychological inertia. By defying our expectations, he abstracts time and space itself; we think we know what we are seeing, until we are forced to see again, and see again a little more, witnessing a type of transformation.
In this same vein, unusual editing styles continually place the viewer in an expanded realm, where time and space stretch beyond the narrative and suggest the metaphysical. To give one example, Dorota (in Decalogue II) is shown in several successive scenes in which no words are spoken, but her spiritual angst is clearly seen. She paces around her apartment, she smokes, she listens to music, she lies in bed (in close-up) unable to sleep. Then, in a seamless elision of time and space, the camera reveals she is not in her bed at all, but lying upon a gynecologist’s examination table, considering an abortion. Two distinct locations prove to be just pillars in one vast spiritual arena.
Indeed, in The Decalogue we witness this spiritual vision gaining strength. While Kieślowski always firmly rejected the designation “moralist,” he once accepted, with a shrug, the title “metaphysician.” Thus, the abstract image, in all its visual possibility, transformational effect, and revelational power, lends itself to the spiritual themes Kieślowski strained to express. There lingers a strong sense in these films that time and space are actually eternal space and time, a supra-Euclidean domain that the sociologist Mircea Eliade famously traced in religious rituals and icons.
Throughout, extreme close-ups, such as those of a swirling glass of tea (Decalogue I) and dripping water on a metal hospital bed (Decalogue II), emerge as arresting dynamic forms. Sometimes, it is not completely clear what the object we behold might be, but the vibrant visual forms call to us and we imagine. Kieślowski’s patient timing and careful placement of these images has the capacity to draw the audience out of a rational, problem-solving mode and into wonder, as well as contemplation.
The abstract shots (or sequences) also synchronize with crucial spiritual themes in the plot. The result is an impact that is powerful, but not easily described. This intuitional power bears the marks of Kant’s category of the sublime in art, calling up an abundance of mixed feelings, holding imposing mystery and undeniable attraction in tension. Of course, there are no talismanic, spiritual determinisms here, but the clear metaphysical context, and the sumptuous visuals Kieślowski so painstakingly crafts, invite the viewer to consider “the things beyond what we can see.”
After years of making metaphysically-charged films, Kieślowski announced his retirement in 1996 to spend time with his wife and daughter, whom he felt he had neglected during his career. A relatively short time later, a heart attack claimed his life. This bitterly ironic ending remains as difficult and spiritually piercing as one of his own plots. We cannot help but ask, why?
But that act of questioning, it seems, is the key to his films as well. For Kieślowski, his career was not marked by a transition between “true” documentaries and “fictional” films, but a very straight artistic trajectory, through immanent, physical truth, directly toward spiritual truth, with lots of messiness, vexation, and negotiation along the way. Did he question faith? Of course. But he also doggedly questioned unbelief. Though he never claimed to have a corner on any truth, he always maintained that the material world and our limited perceptions of it are only part of the story.
Kieślowski’s admirers have long awaited a restored Decalogue, one that didn’t look like a drained and battered video on life support. Its genesis as a Polish television series makes its very survival something of a feat, but this new Blu-Ray restoration is more like a miracle to behold. The colors and the contrasts, so very critical to so many of the episodes, breathe new life into the films.
In the end, the collection is an astonishing accomplishment; some episodes are stronger than others, as one might expect, but there is a steady, courageous vision throughout. In each case, the commandments have weight and strength; they are the words upon which our souls are grounded. It is clear, in the beholding of them, that the letter will kill, but the Spirit may still give us life.
Though Kieślowski was not a theologian or even, necessarily, a believer, his films show us, on an intuitive level, that the apostle Paul was correct: “The law is spiritual” (Rom. 7:14). The commandments cut, and anchor, the modern soul as surely as the stone tablets pressed deep into Moses’ body, when he bore them down the mountain to a wandering, dispirited people.
 Kieślowski on Kieślowski, ed. Danusia Stok (Faber and Faber, 1993) 149.
 Annette Insdorf, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski (Hyperion, 1999), 184.