Thematically based on one of the Ten Commandments, each of the Dekalog’s episodes branch off into distinct narratives that explore wildly different philosophical topics. But like the looming tower complex that centralizes the series’s characters, these disparate subjects are entwined around a unified vision. The biblical root of the series may suggest didacticism on its face, but whatever morals are advanced by Krzysztof Kieślowski and co-screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz are decidedly ambivalent.
Take, for example, the second episode, which is built around the commandment “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy god in vain.” Eschewing a literal approach to the commandment, the episode instead concerns a doctor (Aleksander Bardini) forced to give a prognosis of a woman’s (Krystyna Janda) ailing husband. Complicating matters is that the woman, Dorota, is pregnant with another man’s child, and she’s decided to abort the child if her husband lives and keep it if he dies. By framing Dorota’s choice around her spouse’s outcome, Kieślowski shifts attention away from any moral reckoning either of her affair or the topic of abortion and homes in on the importance of the doctor’s diagnosis, obliquely tackling the episode’s chosen commandment by stressing the consequences of one’s words.
Similarly complicating twists dot the series. The seventh episode, based on “Thou shalt not steal,” begins with a kidnapping that’s gradually revealed to be a young single mother’s (Maja Barelkowska) attempt to take her child back from the grandmother, Ewa (Anna Polony), who wishes to raise the girl as her own daughter in order to avoid a scandal. In that scenario, Ewa is arguably the true thief, but the child is so accustomed to the lie of her parentage that one can see how her real mother is doing the harm to her. Episode eight sees a Polish woman, Zofia (Maria Koscialkowska), confronted by the young Jew, Elżbieta (Teresa Marczewska), she failed to hide from the Nazis during the war, but only because, as Zofia later confesses, she was already housing Resistance fighters and couldn’t take the added risk. Arguably, the only episode that approaches its given theme in a straightforward manner is the first, in which a professor, Krzysztof (Henryk Baranowski), trusts in the cold, unbending logic of computers more than natural intuition and faith, and to disastrous consequences. Yet even this episode doesn’t lapse into one-sided moralism, instead viewing blind faith of any stripe as ruinous.
The Dekalog’s episodes are uniquely aestheticized, befitting their own distinct thematic fixations; Kieślowski even went so far as to employ a different director of cinematography for almost every episode. One of the all-time great wielders of color, the filmmaker uses subtle color tints to evoke specific moods. The icy blues that connote a cold winter in episode one, for example, are offset by the sickly, unnatural greens of the computer screens that fill the professor’s apartment. Episode three, set on Christmas, finds clever ways to incorporate festive reds, using car taillights and flashing police warnings to shade the frame. Episode six, given its extensive fixation on voyeurism, is appropriately cloaked in shadow, and much of its shots are composed at a distance, peering through barriers like windows and doorframes to add to the sense that the characters are under constant surveillance.
Kieślowski’s formalism and thematic ambition are all the more impressive given the budgetary limitations of television. The softness of the film stock lends naturalism to otherwise carefully ordered compositions, and the use of Warsaw’s streets keeps the episodes rooted in the world, not just abstract philosophy. Most importantly, the characters never come off as mere mouthpieces for Kieślowski’s visions. No matter how cerebral the plots get, the characters respond to each moral challenge emotionally, and their longing, sadness, and occasional mordant humor makes the series relatable.
As such, the episodes give the impression that they could extend past their runtime, and indeed Kieślowski expanded two of them, the fifth and sixth, into, respectively, A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love, both released in 1988. Nonetheless, for all the thematic complexity and lack of narrative resolution in the series, the episodes all make economic use of their near-hour-long running times. The necessary concision of the project prevents extraneous developments that might have become repetitive, preventing, say, the eighth episode from lapsing into the belabored preaching that befalls many Holocaust guilt narratives.
Throughout the Dekalog, the episodes overlap. This most commonly takes the form of characters from one episode popping up in another. Occasionally, however, more meaningful subjects recur, as when the abortion dilemma in the second episode is revived as a hypothetical situation in a classroom debate in the eighth. But the true bridging element of the series is Artur Barciś, who plays a different character with the same role in each episode. Always at the periphery of the story, Barciś’s figures are silent observers who suggest that if a god is still keeping tabs on who is and isn’t obeying his laws, he long ago ceased to intervene one way or the other.