In the ‘90s, experiencing arthouse cinema involved a walk to the video store to select a VHS cassette from its small “foreign” section. At least, it did in Dunedin, the student-dominated but isolated city in New Zealand’s south island (literally the end of the world, you might say), where I went to university. Outside the annual film festival, which brought more obscure titles to the big screen, there were few places to discover anything beyond mainstream releases. But rare bites of arthouse were all the more vivid in their scarcity, manifesting out of a void of context like mysterious apparitions. I remember as if it were yesterday our scandalized delight around Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, when it screened at the festival. Just learning such a film existed, and that the limits of art were not where we’d previously presumed them to be, was revolutionary – and if this, then what else was waiting?
This was a pre-download and streaming era, before half of life was lived online. The wider world felt a whole less accessible, and a whole more exotic, and that included Europe, where I (like most of my peers) had never been. Among the handful of European auteurs we did know about, was Krzysztof Kieślowski. His films A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love had a cult following. If memory serves, he was my first gateway into the arthouse of Central and Eastern Europe (at any rate, I wasn’t to come across the likes of Věra Chytilová or Sergei Parajanov for years yet). We didn’t have any grounding in the slower and more oblique end of arthouse, but we didn’t need it for Kieślowski, and he spoke to something else – a teenage taste for that whiff of danger that turned transgression and alienation into a source of fascination. Tarantino’s indie spectacles of lawlessness Reservoir Dogs and True Romance were all the rage, as was the rootless amorality of Mike Leigh’s Naked, and books by William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, with their anti-establishment hellions. It wasn’t a stretch to embrace the extremity of A Short Film About Killing, with its disaffected drifter and his shocking crime, or A Short Film About Love, and its perverse, taboo obsession.
These two films were versions of two episodes of Dekalog, the 10-part series that Kieślowski made for Polish television in 1989, co-written with Krzysztof Piesiewicz. An extension of the features in our minds, we consumed it on VHS in the vein of cinema. After all, it wasn’t the kind of thing we could come across on television. Arthouse was something you had to go out to find, and in so doing felt you’d tricked the standard, passively served-up menu, and escaped New Zealand’s small-mind insularity, at least for a little.
A superficial attraction to provocation is all par for the course, at that age. But there was something else that attracted us to Kieślowski. Dekalog’s downbeat melancholy was devoid of post-modern irony, and it seemed sophisticatedly European in its depth of philosophical inquiry. In a nation as stoically pragmatic and anti-intellectual as New Zealand, a former pioneering outpost late to the game of professionalized thinking, the idea you could make a bleak and stylish film about an ethics professor was sexy in its alienness. Smoking in the hallways of communal apartment blocks while embroiled in illicit desires and existential angst – is that what they did in Warsaw? We weren’t sure, but we wanted a taste.
Dekalog was inspired by the Ten Commandments, but the non-judgmental universality of the series (Kieślowski was said to be agnostic) made it particularly appealing in our largely atheistic New Zealand. While each episode explores the moral dilemma of a different character in ‘80s Poland, they do not correlate exactly to the biblical principles in any one-to-one way. This seems curious at first, and many critics have bent over backwards to make them ‘fit’ in their readings, but this messiness is integral to its astute design. The very appeal of the episodes lies in their lack of rigid prescription. These are not sermons, or cautionary moral tales that espouse ‘correct’ modes of behaviour in a didactic or patronising manner. Instead, they elucidate the terrifying, irreducible mystery at the heart of being human, not telling us how to live, but asking how we can live well, offering no definitive solutions. At times contradictory frameworks of meaning, be they religious teachings, science, superstition, philosophical or legal codes, are grappled with and thrown into doubt by cataclysmic events, those defining life shocks that in a terrible moment can rupture private universes apart.
The Commandments are an inexact fit because as tools to help us cope they are never quite enough. In Dekalog, freak accidents and premature deaths occur, senseless acts of violence are committed, impossible choices must be made with no knowledge of yet absolute contingency upon fate, and hearts, sometimes treacherous or confounded, break. We can fail in our best intentions, in a world of paradox and wild exception, without a reliable blueprint. What’s more, these conundrums mirror each other in unexpected details and complex ways, making us realize that events by their very nature are always unique in their detail, and always case-by-case, even as general rules can set ballpark notions on what ‘should’ be done. Scenes from university lectures are peppered through the series, and examples of ‘ethical hell’ debated. This adds another nuanced layer of distinction: the creation of rules based on abstract problems will always be insufficient, because lived experience is irreducibly singular, and its emotional complexity untranslatable to language. Irresolution and unease characterize Dekalog because, in its universe, morality is itself a hazy, indeterminate entity.
“What’s the use of getting a sum right?” It’s a line from Dekalog’s first episode, which through a devastating tragedy presents us with a universe in which the false god of reason cannot account for that vast territory that lies outside it: dreams, love, spirituality – and uncontainable chaos. It’s every person’s worst nightmare: the death of someone close to us, as a result of our error. The 12-year-old Paweł questions the adults around him about the nature of death. His father Krzysztof appeals for explanations to a world governed by science (“the heart stops pumping blood”), saying the memory of what one has done is what persists. Accidents and exceptions foreshadow what is to come: ink leaks everywhere, and the computer, that new product of 1’s and 0’s, turns on by itself. For all its mathematical prowess, it is unequipped to answer what Paweł’s mother is dreaming about. Paweł’s aunt professes the existence of a God present in manifestations of love, and claims the meaning of life lies in the joy of being able to help others. But when Krzysztof’s calculation that the frozen lake can hold his son’s weight proves mistaken, no system seems fit to support his grief. The strength of his love only feeds his torment, as his belief that he can measure and understand the world and thereby control his fate is proved delusion.
The limits to meaning through joy in helping others is further illuminated in other episodes, as we’re confronted with those engaged in wanton harm. In the fifth episode, which grew into A Short Film About Killing, troubled youth Jacek takes his penchant for pointless malice to new extremes through the pre-meditated but seemingly inexplicable murder of a taxi driver, in a graphic act that brings home to us how even ghastly horror is actively willed. Or is it? Jacek is haunted by a traumatic past, and operates in a psychological space of reduced, dead-end options, in stark contrast to his idealistic lawyer Piotr, who, embarking on his first defence trial, feels power to command his own future. That’s until he loses, despite his best arguments against capital punishment, and Jacek is hung. The image of Piotr’s tear-streaked face, wracked by his own impotence, echoes moments in other episodes of ultimate helplessness. The smugly ‘moral’ citizen must still grapple with how to live with others – and with free will’s limits.
Dekalog is universal – but in its depiction of communist-era Poland, also place-specific. The communal apartment block many of its characters reside in is a sprawling grey bulk with hundreds of identical windows, typifying a bleak ‘communist East’ aesthetic fetishized (with little regard for actual geography or nuance) by the West. Filters enhance this impression, creating a Warsaw as visually murky as its moral terrain (Kieślowski taps the dark, uncertain mood of martial law Poland, when mistrust and cynicism pervaded public life). Now, a few decades later, Europe has become my home, and Warsaw is no longer unfamiliar – nor, in its rapid transformation as a member of the European Union and of that capitalist trend toward homogenization that has led to many major European cities feeling increasingly indistinguishable, does it any longer hold such mystique of otherness. Would we wish that it had remained frozen in time in 1989, regardless of people’s lived experience there, to feed our fascination for the exotic? No – yet in the continued popularity of a series like Dekalog, or the new rage for HBO’s Chernobyl, with its obsession for immaculate period detail, there is surely an element of nostalgic yearning for a time when there seemed to be an ideological outside, an unknown land of snow, cut-glass ashtrays, and a boundless capacity for spiritual suffering (so the cultural cliches of this ‘East’ we’d created in our minds would have it) for us to project our need for depth onto. The unanswerable, impenetrable nature of the questions at the heart of Dekalog are in the end its enduring strength: we see in it the dilemmas not as they are, but we are.