Krzysztof Kieslowski neither claimed to be a Christian, nor was he Jewish; he called himself an agnostic. He was a rationalist and materialist; he was the product toward which the Polish Communism in which he lived strove. As such he was not overtly theological in his approach to life and ethics, yet he co-wrote and directed what might be the most introspective set of films on the Ten Commandments that has yet been aired.
At the risk of being cast off as a heretic, let me suggest that it is just possible that his set of ten one-hour films is as powerful as it is in part because the director did not feel obligated to them. Rodney Clapp quotes Kieslowski as explaining, “Our idea was very simple. The Decalogue is one of the ethical foundations of today’s society. Everyone is more or less familiar with the Ten Commandments, and agrees with them, but no one really observes them” (PRISM, July 2000, p6).
Taking that as the premise for a series of films, consider what a Christian filmmaker would have done with it. Would the Christian not feel it his duty to defend God’s Word, to urge its binding nature on all humanity, to chastise us all for not keeping God’s commands? In short, would he not present a sermon on film? Of course we would.
But not Kieslowski; and frankly, that frees him to move into realms that a Christian would rarely dare, and even more rarely consider.
For one thing, he feels free to not spell out the film’s relationship to the specific commandment. We are required to put a little thought into the connections. For example, in Dekalog 1, (I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other Gods before Me) a father and his son, Pawel (pronounce that as Pavel), share a common infatuation with their computer. To help Pawel become a better student, the father sets him word problems that Pawel then writes mini programs to solve: “If Momma leaves Warsaw on a train going 40km/hr . . .,” and so on.
Then Pawel opens his Christmas present early. A new pair of ice skates. Being early in the year, there is some doubt as to whether the ice on the pond is yet thick enough to skate safely. Together they work out on their computer, based on recent temperatures, how thick the ice should be and how much weight it will hold. But later, after Pawel is asleep, his father has doubts and goes out onto the ice himself to test it. Reassured, he gives Pawel permission to skate.
When he later learns that Pawel fell through the ice and drowned, we are hit with the question: Did the father sin? We assume that he must have broken that first commandment, but it is not immediately clear how. Did he trust his computer rather than praying? But he didn’t trust his computer enough to risk his son; he went and jumped on the pond himself to be sure. Did he love his son more than he loved God? Indubitably, but did God take his son away for that reason?
I think that the question can be answered, but not without a good deal of pondering. This pondering tends to result, not only in the simple answer to how the father broke the first commandment, but in a blinding realization of how easy it is to break that first commandment and that we have probably never for a moment ceased to break it. As Kieslowski said, everyone “agrees with them, but no one really observes them.” Without the freedom to leave this question open, the impact on our conscience could never be as great as Kieslowski’s films have made it.
Second, he feels free to put the viewer in the dock, not for breaking the commandment, but for not even agreeing with it. Or, perhaps, it is the commandment itself that is on trial, and the viewer is the judge. They both come to the same thing in the end.
In Dekalog 2 (Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain) we meet a doctor and the wife of one of his patients. As the story slowly develops, we learn that the woman’s husband is on the verge of death, and she begs for a word from the doctor to let her know whether he will live or not. Of course he can’t tell for sure but promises to do all he can. Nevertheless, the woman persists.
At last she explains that she is pregnant by another man, and if her husband is likely to recover she will have an abortion. However, if her husband will die, then she wants to have the baby. The doctor is thus torn, to let a grown man die so that a child may have life, or to save the man and, in effect, sign the baby’s death warrant. He hedges as long as he can, considering that Poland does not allow late term abortions, hoping to have a clear answer concerning her husband’s prognosis.
At last he comes to a very difficult decision, and assures her that her husband will die, sounding as he says it as if he has decided to make sure he dies. “Swear it,” she says. He does. She keeps the baby. Her husband recovers.
This is exactly what I had been hoping the doctor would do from the moment I understood the dilemma. It seemed such an easy answer to the unfair position into which the woman had placed him. But then as the doctor says, “I swear it,” I see a look in his eyes as if he were already experiencing the fires of Hell for violating his conscience and swearing falsely. But he has willingly taken this suffering on for the sake of the baby and perhaps more for the sake of the mother. He is suffering for them. But he has also broken the second commandment. We are tempted to negotiate out of that little commandment; to save a life must be more important than the mere saying of a few words? Really? Dare we?
As the second film ends I am uncontrollably shaking from the weight of a question I do not want to ask: Do I believe God? I rooted for the doctor to lie. He did. Was I right? Was he right? Is the second commandment wrong? Or am I so absolutely foreign to God that His ways still seem foolishness to me?
In each of the ten films the weight of sin is driven home, but each time in a very different way. The viewer time and again finds herself in the dock struggling to answer the questions: Do I believe God? Then why don’t I obey? But the films never make the mistake of acting as if this would be an easy matter of deciding to obey. Decisions are portrayed as being very difficult, the more so for the uncertainty and the dimness of our view. Indeed, quite often one is left with the disheartening feeling that perfect obedience is impossible. Agnostic he may be, but Kieslowski was not an Arminian agnostic; he was of the Reformed variety.
Perhaps the greatest difference between Dekalog and a hypothetical version of the films made by Christians is that the cinematography and artistry are absolutely second to none. The simplicity of the settings and the lack of any adornment for the characters lend themselves to a stark laying bare of the souls, both those on screen and those viewing. The camera work, the use of shadows and the tenement-scape rival or surpass even Hitchcock (Rear Window and Rope being brilliant examples of all three).
But in the end it is the treatment of the Ten Commandments that holds our attention and continues to bother our minds. Was there something irreverent about Kieslowski’s treatment of them? We would like to think so; it might ease the conscience that he has inflamed. But really his treatment shows a greater awareness of the all encompassing nature of these ten words of God than most sermons I have heard regarding them. Kieslowski portrays a Decalogue that truly is sufficient for all questions of ethics and conduct.