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Film / The Decalogue

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"I am always reluctant to single out some particular feature of the work of a major filmmaker because it tends inevitably to simplify and reduce the work. But in this book of screenplays by Krzysztof Kieślowski and his co-author, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, it should not be out of place to observe that they have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what's really going on rather than being told. They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don't realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart."

The Decalogue (Polish: Dekalog) is a series of ten Made-for-TV movies by acclaimed director Krzysztof Kieślowski. Each movie represents one of the Ten Commandments of The Bible, dealing with different characters that are related only in the setting and making small appearances in some of the other chapters. There is also a strange man that appears in almost all the movies, usually as a bystander playing different roles.

  • Decalogue One (I am the Lord thy God... thou shalt not have other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image... Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.) - An atheist university professor trains his young son in the use of reason and the scientific method using a computer he bought. One day, the computer miscalculates the thickness of the ice on a lake where the boy usually goes skating.
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  • Decalogue Two (Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.) - An elderly doctor is approached by a woman who asks about her gravely ill husband's chances of survival. She is pregnant by someone else. If her husband dies, she wants to keep the child, but if he has a chance of living, she will have an abortion.
  • Decalogue Three (Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.) - On Christmas Eve, a taxi driver has to choose if he will help find his former mistress' missing husband or spend it with his family.
  • Decalogue Four (Honor thy father and thy mother.) - A young woman and her widower father start to feel attracted to each other when one day, she discovers a letter from her mother that says he might not be her father after all.
  • Decalogue Five (Thou shalt not kill.) - A malicious young man murders a rude taxi cab driver for no reason. He is caught and sentenced to death.
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  • Decalogue Six (Thou shalt not commit adultery.) - A naive young man spies on a woman and falls in love with her.
  • Decalogue Seven (Thou shalt not steal.) - A young woman abducts her own daughter, who has been raised by her parents as her sister.
  • Decalogue Eight (Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.) - A Holocaust survivor confronts a Catholic ethics professor who once refused to help her on the basis of not bearing false witness.
  • Decalogue Nine (Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife.) - A man who has become impotent suggests his wife that even though they love each other, she should find a new lover. And then she does.
  • Decalogue Ten (Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods.) - Two brothers inherit a valuable stamp collection from their deceased father and soon become consumed and obsessed with their windfall.

It’s very similar in tone to Kieślowski’s later Three Colors Trilogy, but this one has a more religious background associated for obvious reasons.

Stanley Kubrick declared this film the only one worth admiring in his lifetime.

This work has examples of the following tropes:

  • …And That Little Girl Was Me: In Decalogue Eight, having listened to Zofia present several ethical dilemmas to her students, Elżbieta asks if she can present her own ethical dilemma, which she says is based on a true story. In 1943, a Catholic woman promised a 6-year-old Jewish girl whose parents had been sent to the Warsaw ghetto that she could hide with another Catholic foster family, but the transfer required producing a forged baptism certificate for the girl in case the Nazis became suspicious. The Catholic woman balked at this, ostensibly because it constituted bearing false witness, and sent the girl away to an uncertain fate just before curfew. Zofia gradually realises that she is the Catholic woman in the story, and Elżbieta is the Jewish girl.
  • Asshole Victim: Waldemar, the murder victim in Decalogue Five, ogles little girls, scares a man's dogs, and runs from any client he doesn't want to take in his cab (including Dorota and Andrzej, crossing over from Decalogue Two). When Jacek tries to strangle him with a length of rope and then settles for bashing his brains in with a rock, it's hard to feel sorry for him.
  • Author Tract: Every movie deals with moral imperatives. Decalogue Five in particular has been interpreted by many as a film arguing decidedly against the death penalty, although Kieslowski himself clarified he wanted to depict the topic impartially.
  • Black Comedy: Decalogue Ten tells of two brothers trying to complete their deceased father's stamp collection, which is already worth hundreds of millions of zlotys (some of the individual series of stamps would fetch enough to buy a car or an apartment), purely to increase its value even further before selling it. All goes miserably as one of them is persuaded to donate a kidney to a complete stranger in exchange for the missing stamp, during the surgery for which the entire collection is stolen by a trio of con artists (including the one who claimed his daughter needed a kidney), yet they end up laughing together about the absurdity of their situation in the last scene.
  • Child Prodigy: Paweł in Decalogue One is about ten years old and highly intelligent for his age, starting his day by entering physics problems improvised by his father Krzysztof into their computer and participating in a simultaneous chess exhibition against grandmaster Agnieszka Brustman (in a cameo as herself) at which, thanks to his observations of Brustman's style of play against her other opponents, he and Krzysztof score an upset win. He is also developing an interest in philosophical and theological questions, such as the existence of God or the afterlife.
  • The Commandments: Each of the ten films is loosely inspired by the respective commandment, though usually with nods to some of the other commandments:
    • Dorota asks the doctor treating Andrzej in Decalogue Two to effectively play God to her unborn child, who was conceived during an adulterous affair.
    • Rather than spending Christmas Eve with his family, Janusz spends most of Decalogue Three with Ewa, with whom he once committed mutual adultery (and who accuses him of having sabotaged the affair with an "anonymous" phone call to her husband).
    • The object of the "theft" in Decalogue Seven is Majka's daughter Ania, who was "stolen" from Majka by her mother Ewa (whom Ania thinks is her real mother) and whom Majka tries to "steal" back, suggesting that neither Majka nor Ania are honouring their mother and father.
    • In Decalogue Nine, Mariusz doesn't just covet Roman's wife, he commits adultery with her.
    • The partners in crime in Decalogue Ten go from coveting the Janicki brothers' stamp collection to stealing it.
  • Continuity Nod: Characters from each story occasionally appear or are mentioned in another, usually for a second or two. Just to give a few examples:
    • In Decalogue Three, Janusz, wearing a Święty Mikołaj costume, briefly passes Krzysztof from Decalogue One on the steps outside his apartment building.
    • In Decalogue Four, Michal and Anka briefly share a lift with the doctor from Decalogue Two, and we catch a brief glimpse of Waldemar from Decalogue Five in his taxi.
    • Dorota and Andrzej from Decalogue Two try (unsuccessfully) to hail Waldemar's taxi in Decalogue Five.
    • Roman from Decalogue Nine makes a brief appearance in Decalogue Six.
    • As an ethics problem for her students in Decalogue Eight, Zofia relates the story of Dorota carrying another man's baby while her husband Andrzej is (supposedly) dying of cancer from Decalogue Two. She later tells Elżbieta that Dorota and Andrzej (and the unnamed doctor) live in her building.
    • Decalogue Ten focuses on Jerzy and Artur, the sons of Czesław "Root" Janicki, Zofia's philatelist fellow tenant in Decalogue Eight. Near the end of the film, Jerzy buys an assortment of stamps from Tomek from Decalogue Six.
  • Crapsack World: Decalogue Five starts with the murder of a cat and continues with two of the three main characters being rude to others non-stop until one of them kills the other for his car.
  • Daddy's Girl:
    • In Decalogue Four, Anka is very close to her father Michal, her mother having died when she was a newborn; however, this has reached the point that they have become jealous of each other's romantic partners, and when Anka finds a letter from her mother revealing that Michal isn't her real father, she considers acting on the romantic tension between them. Then she admits to Michal that she forged the letter, so they go back to living as father and daughter, but when they burn the real letter, just enough of it remains to suggest that Michal might not be Anka's father after all.
    • Majka in Decalogue Seven is much closer to her father, Stefan, than she is to her mother, Ewa. As Ewa always wanted a large family but could not have any additional children after complications arose during Majka's birth, she has always been cold toward her; by contrast, Stefan remains affectionate toward Majka, comforting her when Ewa refuses her permission to take her daughter Ania (who believes Majka is her sister, not her mother) to Canada with her.
  • Dead Man Writing: Anka's mother's letter in Decalogue Four that she left for her husband and daughter to open at a given time. They fear it might reveal that she's not actually his child, and eventually burn it because of how much they fear the consequences of that.
  • Death of a Child: Decalogue One climaxes with Krzysztof being betrayed by his faith in computer simulations as his young son Paweł falls through the ice on a frozen pond that the computer simulation claimed was more than thick enough to support him.
  • Deus Est Machina: In Decalogue One... probably. Krzysztof runs the calculations of whether or not the ice in a nearby pond will be thick enough for Paweł to skate on, and the computer claims that it can support three times Paweł's weight. The ice breaks anyway, and Paweł and several of his classmates are killed.
  • Driven to Suicide: Two examples, both of which are fortunately unsuccessful.
    • In Decalogue Six, Tomek tries slitting his wrists after being humiliated by Magda. The friend's mother with whom he is boarding finds him before he can bleed to death and rushes him to hospital.
    • In Decalogue Nine, Roman rides his bike off a bridge when he thinks Hanka has resumed her affair with Mariusz. Although he ends up in a full body cast, he survives.
  • Drives Like Crazy:
    • In Decalogue Three, Janusz' excuse to leave his wife and children on Christmas Eve is a false claim that his taxi has been stolen; he asks his wife to phone the police. When he and Ewa drive past two police cars and realise the police will assume they have stolen the taxi, he drives like a madman through the streets of Warsaw in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to outrun them. After being let off with a warning, Janusz decides to pick up where he left off, driving full speed toward an oncoming tram in a tunnel (driven by the recurring character played by Artur Barciś) and swerving at the last second.
    • Roman on his bike in Decalogue Nine. Especially when he tries to kill himself by driving into the lake.
  • Dr. Jerk: In Decalogue Nine, Roman's doctor friend who informs him of his impotence in the most unsympathetic way possible. Then when Roman asks what he should do about his wife, the doctor replies with one word: "Divorce."
  • Expansion Pack: Decalogue Five and Decalogue Six were expanded into A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love, respectively; about 25 minutes were added to each. This was part of the deal that got the miniseries made, as the feature films would be easier for international distribution, and the condition that they would be produced provided additional funds.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: Piotr, the murderer's lawyer in Decalogue Five, asks a superior if he could have done better. The answer is basically no. Jacek was destined to be executed as soon as he was brought to court.
  • Family of Choice: Discussed in Decalogue Four, since it's dubious whether or not Anka is actually her father's biological daughter. In the end, they burn her mother's letter that could have revealed the truth, and instead agree to live on as father and daughter.
  • Family Relationship Switcheroo: Ania from Decalogue Seven has been raised believing that Stefan and Ewa are her biological parents and Majka is her older sister. However, Majka is her real mother, having got pregnant at 16 after an affair with her Polishnote  teacher, Wojtek. Even when Majka confesses the truth to Ania, the latter is too used to calling her "Majka" to start calling her "Mommy". In the final scene, hearing Ania call Ewa "Mommy" when she and Stefan finally catch up with them in the train station persuades Majka that Ania will never see her as her mother, and she boards the next train on her own.
  • Foreshadowing: In Decalogue One, Krzysztof and Paweł conduct an experiment in which they put a bottle of water outside their window; the water freezes and expands, cracking the glass. Paweł suggests leaving it outside the following day, but Krzysztof notes that it will be warmed by the sun. The ice that is supposedly thick enough to skate on, according to both a computer simulation and Krzysztof himself walking onto the ice in the evening, melts the following day, causing Paweł to fall through and freeze to death.
  • Genre Shift: Decalogue Five is notoriously different than the rest of the episodes, being Darker and Edgier and more political in its message. Decalogue Ten is outright Black Comedy.
  • Girls Love Stuffed Animals: Ania from Decalogue Seven is a little girl and likes her biological father's teddy bears a lot.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion:
    • Played with in Decalogue Two. Dorota tells the doctor treating her husband, Andrzej, that she is three months pregnant with another man's child, so she is nearing the end of the time frame for a legal abortion under Polish law. If Andrzej is expected to survive, she will go through with it, but if he is expected to die, she will keep the baby. The doctor says Andrzej's cancer is metastasising at an accelerated rate, so she keeps the baby. And then Andrzej's cancer starts responding to treatment...
    • Averted in Decalogue Four. Anka tells Michal that one of her previous boyfriends got her pregnant, but she had the pregnancy terminated.
  • Idiot Ball: Jerzy and Artur in Decalogue Ten are too blinded by greed to think rationally. Why not just sell all the stamps right away and split the money? Why give a kidney to a total stranger? Why not put the stamps in a safety deposit box somewhere?
  • If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him!: The message of Decalogue Five. Piotr grapples with the ethics of the death penalty and passionately argues against sentencing Jacek to death for murder, but despite the (offscreen) eloquence of his plea, the judge tells him that Jacek was condemned to death before the trial even began.note 
  • I Have Your Wife: Granddaughter rather than wife, but in Decalogue Seven, Majka abducts her daughter Ania, who has been raised believing that Majka is her older sister and that Majka's parents, Stefan and Ewa, are her parents. Majka takes Ania to the home of her biological father, Wojtek, and calls Ewa from a pay phone to tell her that she has Ania, and one of the conditions for her return is that her birth certificate be amended to acknowledge Majka as her real mother. Ewa, who regards Ania as the second daughter she always wanted but could not have due to complications from Majka's birth, wavers and does not agree until after Majka has already hung up.
  • Jerkass: Jacek spends the first half of Decalogue Five engaging in all manner of petty acts of sociopathy, such as shooing away a flock of pigeons that an old woman wants to feed simply because she told him to leave and stop scaring them, shoving a man into the troughs at the bottom of a row of urinals, dropping a stone from an overpass onto a passing car, flicking the dregs from a cup of coffee at the café window and then spitting in his dirty cup before leaving... all of which is merely a setup for his biggest crime: murdering Waldemar to steal his car.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: At the beginning of Decalogue Nine, Roman is diagnosed with impotence. The film as a whole is a rare case of this trope being Played for Drama instead of comedy, as his self-esteem is shattered by the diagnosis, while his marriage suffers as he suggests that Hanka should seek sexual pleasure elsewhere and then realises that when she does, he feels worse.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: In Decalogue Four, when Anka confronts Michal with the supposed contents of her deceased mother's letter claiming that Michal is not her real father, he shows her a picture of her mother with two men and another woman, explaining that her father is one of the two men in the picture, but he has no idea which.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane:
    • The ice breaking in Decalogue One in spite of reliable calculations that proved that it wouldn't.
    • The mysterious man in white. He features in almost all of the films, usually in scenes in which the characters are going against one of the commandments (such as Krzysztof testing the thickness of the ice in Decalogue One, or Anka contemplating opening her mother's letter in Decalogue Four), and, as reported by his actor Artur Barciś, has been described as an angel by Kieslowski.
  • My Greatest Failure: In Decalogue Eight, although Elżbieta credits Zofia with saving the lives of multiple Polish Jews during World War II, the latter has always been deeply ashamed of having to back out of her promise to transfer Elżbieta herself to a Catholic foster family and leaving her to an uncertain fate, ostensibly because producing a forged baptism certificate would have constituted bearing false witness, but really because the foster family supposedly had links to the Gestapo (links that were later disproved, but not before the family were ostracised), which would have had disastrous consequences for the Polish Resistance cell operated by Zofia's husband.
  • Mythology Gag: The composer Van den Budenmayer (fictitious, but treated as a real person) mentioned in Decalogue Nine is mentioned again in The Double Life of Veronique and the Blue and Red movies of the Three Colors Trilogy.
  • Nerd Glasses: In Decalogue Four, drama student Anka visits the optometrist over concerns about a sudden decline in her eyesight, and when Michal returns from his trip, she greets him at the airport while wearing an unflattering pair of glasses with bright pink frames.
  • No Name Given: The doctor treating Andrzej in Decalogue Two is unnamed despite being one of the focal characters.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Averted in Decalogue One. Krzysztof doesn't believe in God, but he has no problem with the fact that his sister does.
  • The Peeping Tom: Tomek in Decalogue Six spends his evenings spying on Magda, who lives in the building opposite his, through a telescope, watching her undress and occasionally entertain boyfriends. When she catches him, she turns the tables on him by telling her boyfriend, who knocks Tomek to the ground with a single punch.
  • Retired Badass: According to Elżbieta in Decalogue Eight, Zofia made a name for herself in the Polish resistance against the Nazis and is responsible for multiple Polish Jews getting through the war alive.
  • The Rock Star: Artur in Decalogue Ten is the singer of a punk band called "City Death".
  • Santa Claus: Janusz disguises himself as such at the beginning of Decalogue Three.
  • Science Is Wrong: Krzysztof in Decalogue One uses his computer to calculate if the frozen lake will be able to hold Paweł. The ice breaks anyway.
  • Serious Business: A stamp collection is the center of the story of Decalogue Ten. The brothers want to complete it to make money, but shady people want them as well. The brothers joke about it themselves at the end.
  • Sexy Stewardess: Hanka, the wife in Decalogue Nine, is a stewardess for KLM, and she is sufficiently alluring to have captured the attention of physics undergraduate Mariusz even before her husband Roman is diagnosed as sexually impotent.
  • Sibling Team: Artur and Jerzy in Decalogue Ten try to complete and sell their deceased father's stamp collection and go through a lot for it.
  • Smart People Play Chess: In Decalogue One, Krzysztof (a linguistics professor) and Paweł (his scientifically-inclined son) participate as a team in a simultaneous chess exhibition against real life Polish grandmaster Agnieszka Brustman. They are the first players to defeat her.
  • Spotting the Thread: In Decalogue Three, Janusz starts to have doubts that Ewa's husband Edward is really missing when he goes into her bathroom; although he sees two toothbrushes, a shaving brush, and a safety razor, he dismantles the last of these and notices that the blade is rusty and too dull even to cut the skin on his hand. Ewa finally confesses that she and Edward divorced three years ago, and he has moved to Krakow, re-married, and had two children.
  • Stalker with a Crush: The entire plot of Decalogue Six revolves around this. Tomek watches Magda from his window everyday over the course of a year and falls in love with her in the process. The film depicts his attempts to make contact with her and confess his feelings.
  • Stalking Is Love: The premise of Decalogue Six. Magda initially is annoyed at Tomek and humiliates him. After he attempts suicide, she starts to feel for him.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: Before the events of Decalogue Seven, 16-year-old Majka had an affair with her teacher, Wojtek, that resulted in her getting pregnant. To avoid statutory rape charges, Wojtek was dismissed and moved to the countryside outside Warsaw.
  • Theme Tune: The ten episodes begin and end with a nice little piano melody. In Decalogue Ten, however, the tune immediately transforms into a punk rock song (with lyrics encouraging breaking all ten commandments), which appears again in the end.
  • Throwing the Distraction: In Decalogue Seven, Majka, while hiding behind a wall, throws a small wooden ball down the stairs, thus distracting an old woman watching over the entrance to the back of the stage.
  • Unrequited Love Switcheroo: Occurs in Decalogue Six. Tomek spies on Magda and falls in love with her, and she not only rejects his advances, but also attempts to show him that love doesn't exist. This leads to his suicide attempt. After that, Magda feels guilty and gradually comes to care for Tomek, but by the time he's healed, he tells her that he "no longer watches her."
  • Villain Protagonist: Jacek is the most prominent character in Decalogue Five. He murders a taxi driver just to get a car.
  • The Watcher: There's a man played by Artur Barciś that appears in almost all the episodes, under different appearances, watching the events. The only episode he doesn't appear in is Decalogue Ten (his appearance in Decalogue Seven is in the background, so you might as well not notice him).note 
  • Water Wake-up: Anka and Michal in Decalogue Four seem to wake each other up this way frequently.
  • Wife Husbandry: Subverted in Decalogue Four. Anka not only has some feelings for Michal, the man who raised her, but the feelings might be mutual. However, when she starts undressing in front of him, he refuses to go through with it.
  • You're Not My Father: Anka confronts Michal in Decalogue Four after finding a letter from her deceased mother claiming that he isn't really her father. Then at the end, it turns out she forged the letter and it was all a lie. Or was it?