If there is one filmmaker that speaks to me on a spiritual level – who is able to connect with my thoughts, frustrations, passions and speak to my deepest fears and regrets – it is Krzysztof Kieślowski, who with his premature death in 1996 left an insurmountable void in the cinematic landscape. Kieślowski’s movies were made in a system of censorship, in the harsh day-to-day realities of the Eastern Bloc. His greatest achievements such as the Three Colors Trilogy and The Double Life of Veronique were products of the imagination of a man who started out as a documentarian and grew to become interested in what can hardly be defined with the use of a camera. Things like fate, coincidence, inevitability became Kieślowski’s obsession over the last fifteen years of his life.
Today, I want to focus on what I consider to be the most emblematic piece of Kieślowski’s brief but intense filmography – namely, I wish to focus on the first episode of his Dekalog series which loosely revolved around the Ten Commandments. At only 53 minutes in length, and with a cast of characters limited to three, Dekalog I is still to this day one of the most beautiful and powerful displays of what I consider to be Kieślowski’s troubled spirituality.
Dekalog I is loosely based on the commandment Thou shalt have no other God but me, and is set, like the rest of the series, which first premiered on Polish television in the late 1980s, in a neighborhood in Warsaw, populated by, sometimes, recurring characters whose lives often interwind through the presence of a mystery man. In fact, Dekalog I opens with the strange, intense gaze of a mysterious figure (played by Artur Barciś) whose appearance is never truly addressed throughout the series, whose presence has sparked several debates as to who exactly he is meant to be, and the lack of a straight answer perfectly encapsulates the crux of Kieślowski’s spirituality. The stranger, seated on the edge of a small pond in the middle of a typically harsh winter, stares at us, and his stare, accompanied by Zbigniew Preisner’s evocative score with a piano and flute, hints at the mystery that lies ahead of us.
The story of this chapter revolves around the lives of a father (Henryk Baranowski) and son (Wojciech Klata), who in the absence of their wife and mother (it is suggested that she works abroad, possibly in the States) have to support each other with the help of the father’s sister and thus the boy’s aunt (Maja Komorowska). Their lives are simple, quite straightforward, but occasionally the father and son will play around with a newly installed computer. Its glowing green screen (these are 1980s after all) and powerful build occupy an important place in the tiny apartment, located at the center of the living room. We soon learn – like in most of Kieślowski’s work – through regular conversations that the father is incredibly fascinated by technology. He considers the computer to be an extremely reliable machine, capable of providing us with facts and figures, but also, perhaps, of transmitting to us thoughts and feelings. As a university professor, he teaches his students that the potential for computers is to become regular members of our society, able to dream and cultivate passions, just like the rest of us. His son proudly follows in his father’s footsteps and often poses mathematical problems to the computer, for the machine to reveal unquestionably accurate result.
However, unlike his father, the boy also questions events that go beyond the green screen of the computer. Things like death are a mystery to the 8-year-old Paweł, and he poses the same question to his father and aunt. The father – a calculated man, a man of reason, who believes in providing the boy with straight answers – replies that death is when the body stops functioning. It is the result of the heart not pumping blood, and the blood not reaching the brain. Death is a mechanical failure, little else. Paweł then says, “What remains after death?” To which father replies, “The memory of that person. What the person has done, their achievements.” Then, Kieślowski and his long-time writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz dig into the heart of the film with one final question from the little boy. “What about the soul? You never mentioned the soul.” The father looks at him, shakes his head, and says, “The soul doesn’t exist. It’s easier for some people to go on living when they believe in things like soul.”
On the other hand, Paweł’s aunt is a religious woman, who strongly believes in an overarching deity. She tells Paweł how his father used reason, calculations and well-defined notions to support himself in various difficult moments in his life. He couldn’t face uncertainty, he feared the unknown, the impossible, and as a result he pushed away everything that contained a potential question mark at the end.
After lunch, the boy asks her, “What do we live for?” And the aunt replies, “To live is to make life easier for others. To be present, be useful to others, because then life becomes brighter. It’s a gift.” Finally, she alludes to the presence of God. “To live like your father may seem more reasonable but it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. God exists.” She adds, “It’s very easy, when you believe.” When the boy finally asks her who God is, the aunt hugs Paweł and says that the love they feel for each other is, after all, God. That’s all there is to it.
Kieślowski, through the use of mundane situations and daily conversations, brings to the surface contrasting ideas. But, just like Stanley Kubrick pointed out in an essay he wrote on the Dekalog series (which he considered “the only masterpiece he could think of”), “Kieślowski and Piesiewicz have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them.” Kieślowski creates characters whose lives demand of them to question and deal with real-life challenges. Life is hard, for everybody, no exceptions made. And the characters that populate the Dekalog all share similar obstacles that must be resolved through the questioning of one’s own ethics. The father and aunt – two siblings that grew up in the same home – end up facing life with contrasting worldviews, but ultimately, through tragedy and sorrow, they are inevitably bound by the same conclusion that is brought by pain which is just another inescapable aspect of life. Pain in all of its forms.
One would think that, given the religious nature of the series, the Dekalog would have a moral compass – in other words, a way of judging characters for their actions throughout the film. But that’s precisely what Kieślowski refuses to do time and time again throughout his entire filmography. Kieślowski is not interested in judgement. His views are contrasting, troubled and two-faced just like the two siblings in Dekalog I, who have opposite ways of dealing with life’s hardships.
When I use the term troubled spirituality, I refer to Kieślowski’s openness to all kinds of ways of carrying oneself, of looking at the world and interpreting events. His characters are always molded in the reality that surrounds them, they never have the definite answer. They may think they do, like the father in Dekalog I, but then life chooses its own course. And that is what ultimately interested Kieślowski more than anything else: the choices we make versus the choices that life makes for us, and the situations we are faced with when we least expect it.
In the film Camera Buff, Kieślowski posed himself the question, what would happen if a regular guy in 1970s Poland came across his first camera and decided to document everything that happened around him? In The Double Life of Veronique, he asked himself, what would happen if two women from two different countries shared the same existential issues? In Three Colors: White, he asked himself, what would happen if a man decided to avenge his wife’s unfaithfulness?
This fascination with the endless possibilities brought on by life and the individual choices we make is what compelled Kieślowski to dedicate himself to filmmaking, which he considered to be, until the very end, a painful, sometimes borderline insufferable activity. Through it, he was able to explore and point out the things we tend to miss in our daily lives.
In Kieślowski’s world there is no right or wrong, because in life right and wrong are difficult to interpret. Movies are no different, movies are a product of life. The green computer screen illuminates the characters of Dekalog I like an ominous tool of control, but there is no critique of the technology itself. Kieślowski doesn’t engage in discussions revolving around man’s reliance on digital tools. He simply documents the father’s fascination, the boy’s sense of wonder and the aunt skepticism regarding the limited nature of such tools. When the boy shows her that the computer can, based on the different time zones, tell whether his mom is awake or not, the aunt further asks him, “Can it tell us what she is dreaming about?” The boy types up the question using the computer keyboard, but the machine comes up blank. The aunt smiles to herself, and says, “I know what your mother is dreaming about. She’s dreaming about you.”
When asked about God, Kieślowski replied, “We need a point of reference. We need something to refer to as the ultimate criterion. God – if he exists – is such a reference point.”
The troubled spirituality of Kieślowski consists in accepting all possibilities. The lack of judgement and his tendency to keep most endings open for interpretation is just another way of conveying to the audience that he’s as helpless as we are.
Kieślowski rarely identified himself with the art scene. Whenever possible he ran away from the civilized world and returned to small-town life or barricaded himself in his apartment in Paris. He was courageous and scared at the same time. Obsessed and terrified of inevitability, of chance and occurrences. These fears and preoccupations became a language that permeated his cinematic vision. Because Kieślowski’s cinema is a shelter for everybody; for those who have stumbled, those who struggle to get back on their feet, those who may already have given up on everything. It is for many, including myself, a powerful source of knowledge – the knowledge that there are no definite answers. There are only questions, and questions are what keep us going. Questions make the world go around. And if we accept this idea, if we learn to live with it, perhaps life will become easier. Although in life, like in Kieślowski’s cinema, nothing is easy. Nothing is given.