In the dispensation of the Old Covenant, God placed the Israelites under the Law as a means of disciplining and chastening a hard-hearted people. The Law under Christ and the dispensation of grace is reconfigured—not abolished, but fulfilled—as it was never an end unto itself, but was always pointing to the One to come. In a post-Christian West, where loss of any transcendent or metaphysical referent leaves humanity adrift, and yet we are always returning to metaphysics in new guises, some will inevitably pine for the strictness and objectivity of Law. Wandering in the wilderness once again, insensible to the loftiness of grace, there is a felt need for the clarity and strictness that the Law once provided. It’s with this sense that the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski presents his Dekalog.
Structured as ten 1-hour separate films that all concern characters in a single apartment building in Warsaw, and which originally aired on Polish TV, Dekalog is not a didactic or moralistic commentary on the divine Law. Instead it interrogates the nature of the commandments by looking at situations in the contemporary modern world, specifically the context of Poland in the 1980s, on a quotidian, human level.
Pervading the films is a subtle but definite sense of mystery, that just beyond the veil of everyday reality, in and through human interactions, are the workings of larger forces. This idea is concretely represented by a character who reappears in almost all of the films, speaks no lines of dialogue, and has an intense, piercing stare. The mystery man often appears at crucial moments in the lives of the characters, just as they are making a critical decision, or when some life-altering event is happening to them. He could be an angelic character, though he is not an active presence, or perhaps some representation of transcendence and the mysterious element of life that can’t be pinned down and points beyond itself.
This sense also emerges in the way that characters, objects, and themes intersect and rhyme between the films, though each narrative is self-contained and distinct. A recurring leitmotif throughout the series is that of the relationships between parents and children, particularly children who are vulnerable in some way. This is established strongly in the first two films, Dekalog: One and Dekalog: Two and continued in about half of the others. It is in this most primordial of human relationships, in the context of family, that contact with the transcendent is most likely to be felt and encountered in day-to-day life.
The poignant, momentary reappearance of characters from earlier films strikes chords of resonance by invoking the themes and character interactions from previous episodes, and casting light on the current one. In the most striking instance of one film invoking a previous one, the entire plot from Dekalog: Two—about a Catholic doctor advising a woman who is married to a man who is dying but is pregnant by another man, on whether the husband is likely to die, and thus whether she should keep her child—is brought up in a college ethics class in Dekalog: Eight as an ethical dilemma problem. Right after this, the professor of the class is revealed to have been the subject of her own ethics-class type problem many years earlier, creating a matrix of analogy between the two situations.
In Dekalog: Four, which can primarily be interpreted as being about “honoring father and mother”, the doctor himself from Dekalog: Two enters an elevator when a father and daughter just had a healing moment as they embraced, recalling the doctor’s own belief about the healing power of children. Subtler connections happen when two different characters, such as the woman in Dekalog: Three and the grandmother in Dekalog: Seven, share a common name: Ewa (Eve).
The interweaving of characters and themes results in a sum greater than its parts, a technique used to strong effect in films like Short Cuts and Magnolia, which also feature many disparate narratives and sets of characters all overlapping and intersecting in a single geographic area.
But the parts are often profound in their own right. Dekalog: Five and Dekalog: Six have alternate versions that were released as stand-alone films theatrically. I’ve recommended Dekalog: One to friends, even if they don’t intend to watch the rest, as a tight, compact, and potent meditation on science and religion, with the modern scientist appearing as new pagan idolater—one who “worships the creature rather than the creator”—and whose faith is consequently smashed to bits in devastating fashion. This segment stands out from the rest for its tight focus, emotional impact, and the almost parabolic nature of its narrative, while also functioning as a synecdoche for the entire series.
Not all of the segments have a one-to-one correspondence to the correlative commandment, like Dekalog: One does to the first commandment (though some of the others do). In a manner parallel to the way that themes and characters overlap and intersect, so do to the commandments themselves, as lying collides with adultery, and coveting is tied into honoring father and mother. Everything is connected, each thing points to another, and beyond each other to a greater metaphysical reality.
This is very much the way that the Law functions in Christian theology: as something that is, yes, a revelation of God, though not an end in itself, but rather which always points beyond itself. For the Israelites, that is as much as they could bear in their condition prior to the coming of Christ. After Christ, God reveals Himself in full, and man becomes able to commune directly with Him by faith and through the activity of the Holy Spirit in the Church, especially through the sacraments. The Law is not destroyed, but fulfilled and transcended by the grace of the Holy Trinity in the Church.
What if man regresses? Can we become collectively so spiritually anemic as to once again require the dispensation of Law, with its blunt exteriority and explicitness? With its physical requirements and punishments? For the Christian, there is no returning to this state. As the recipients of grace, we are bound by the law of Christ, which contains within itself the Mosaic covenant fulfilled and elevated. If we fall from the law of Christ, the way of repentance is perpetually available. For the world as a whole, on the sociological and political levels, God is not restricted in the ways He may decide to chasten and discipline it. He works through both the Church and worldly principalities to bring about his purposes. Contrary to popular neo-marcionite notions otherwise, the “God of the Old Testament” is the same as the God of the New. If the world needs harshness and fiery judgment to set it straight, that may be just what we get.
Kieslowski himself does not seem to be making such a strong religious statement as I’m extricating here. Some of the most explicitly Christian characters in the films, such as the aunt from One and the professor from Eight, present Christianity in some rather feeble “spiritual but not religious” ways. The aunt tells her nephew that God is what you feel when you hug another human; the professor says she prays but doesn’t like to use the word “God”. The doctor from Dekalog: Two might be partly motivated by his Catholicism to save a child from abortion on moral grounds (though if he is, he doesn’t let on that this is the case), but his explicit motivation is a more personal and sentimental knowledge of the good children can bring to a person’s life (and which one can acknowledge if they’re Catholic or not). Still, the evocative sense of the mysterious reality that intrudes into and emanates from human lives and their interactions, tied into the fixed metaphysical referent of the Law of God, can’t avoid being a, not only spiritual, but a religious form of art. If humanity ever hopes to ascend again to the heights of the spiritual, it will only be able to do so through the foundation of true religion.