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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 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:

  • Author Tract: Every movie deals with moral imperatives. Decalogue Five in particular has been interpreted by many as a film arguing decidely against death sentence, 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 for money's worth. All goes miserably, yet they end up laughing together about the absurdity of their situation in the last scene.
  • The Commandments: As noted above, each of the ten films is loosely inspired by the respective commandment.
  • Continuity Nod: Characters from each story occasionally appear into another, usually for a second or two.
  • Crapsack World: Decalogue Five starts with the murder of a cat, continues with two of the three main characters being rude to others non-stop until one of them kills the other for his car.
  • Dead Man Writing: Anka’s mother’s letter 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.
  • Dr. Jerk: 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."
  • Driven to Suicide: Tomek in Decalogue Six, Roman in Decalogue Nine. Fortunately for them, they both fail.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Roman on his bike in Decalogue Nine. Especially when he tries to kill himself by driving into the lake.
  • 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.
  • Genre Shift. Decalogue Five is notoriously different than the rest of the episodes, being Darker and Edgier and more political in his message. Decalogue Ten is outright Black Comedy.
  • Girls Love Stuffed Animals: Ania is a little girl and likes her biological father's teddy bears a lot.
  • Idiot Ball: Jerzy and Artur in Decalogue Ten. 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?
  • Jerkass 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 and, as reported by his actor Artur Barciś, has been described as an angel by Kieslowski.
  • 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.
  • Not So Different: Just compare Waldermar’s murder by Jacek with the latter’s execution.
  • 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.
  • Retired Badass: According to Elzbieta, Zofia made a name for herself in the Polish resistance against the Nazis.
  • The Rock Star: Artur in Decalouge 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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: Majka, the teenage mother and Wojtek’s background in Decalogue Seven.
  • Theme Tune: The ten episodes begin and end with a nice little piano melody. In Decalogue Ten, however, the tune immediately transforms into a rock song, 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 that appears in almost all the episodes, under different appearances, watching the events. The only episode he doesn’t appear in is in Decalogue Ten (his appearance in Decalogue Seven is in the background, so you might as well not notice him).
  • Water Wake-up: Anka and Michal 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 confirms this to Michal. Then at the end, turns out it was a lie. Or was it?


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