Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dus Kahaniyan, Polish style: Kieslowski's Dekalog

[Putting up some of my recent columns; this one was for the Sunday Business Standard]

Many DVD-enthusiasts I know have begun wading in the vast ocean that goes by the generic name “World Cinema”, and one of the first things they discover is the Three Colours trilogy, made by the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski (whose films
are as simple and direct as his first name is daunting). But of late, I've noticed a growing interest among friends in an earlier Kieslowski work: the 10-part Dekalog (The Decalogue), which was made as a series of television episodes in the late 1980s. The reason for this interest, apparently, is director Vishal Bharadwaj, who has repeatedly referred to Dekalog as being a huge influence on his career as a film-buff and filmmaker.

Visually and thematically speaking, there is little to link Bharadwaj’s recent films (the energetic Kaminey in particular) with Kieslowski’s work, but that’s one of the charming things about movie influences – they don’t have to be blindingly obvious, with clearly connecting dots and “Aha!” moments. (Is anyone else fed up of the repeated channeling of Tarantino and Guy Ritchie whenever Bhardwaj’s latest is discussed?) It’s a reminder that entirely disparate films and filmmaking styles can call out to each other across space and time.

Kieslowski is, along with Satyajit Ray and Eric Rohmer, among the gentlest directors I know, and his best work is marked by a similarly intense, careful engagement with people’s lives and personal dilemmas. His movies aren’t cinematic in the flashier sense of the word – the camerawork is mostly at the service of narrative and dialogue, the editing is practically invisible – but they have a quiet, hypnotic quality that draws a viewer in; his use of close-ups is outstanding, and I can’t think of an instance of poor casting in any of his films. Each of the 10 films in Dekalog is around an hour long, set in a middle-class apartment block in Warsaw, and each of them is a modern-day reworking of one of the Ten Commandments. Thus, “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me” becomes a story about a staunchly rationalist professor whose over-reliance on the data provided by his computer leads to tragedy. “Thou
shalt not kill” becomes a study of a young murderer facing the death penalty (in an episode that would later be expanded into a longer feature titled A Short Film About Killing). And “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” is turned into a story about a conversation between a Holocaust survivor and the professor who had once refused to give her shelter. But you don't have to keep a specific commandment in mind while watching the film it corresponds to – this isn't a game of "connect the dots".

Kieslowski was agnostic himself, but he was very interested in the relationship between people and their faith, as well as the concepts of sin and punishment. The stories in Dekalog aren't morality tales with an obvious “message” or lesson; there is nothing one-dimensional about the situations they depict, many of which fall well outside the ambit of the Bible's Commandments. In one episode, for instance, a woman considers aborting the child she has conceived out of wedlock, but only if a doctor can assure her that her ill husband has a good chance of survival. What adds another shade to this story is that the doctor’s response is coloured by a tragic incident from his own past. As this painful story unfolds, it becomes obvious that the director is more interested in human beings than in stone tablets.

Dekalog can be slow going at times, especially for viewers who get impatient with movies driven more by content than form, or built mainly around dialogue. For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend attempting to see all the films over a short period of time; a better idea would be to spread the experience over a fortnight or a month. And as a companion piece to Dekalog 1, I also recommend David Volach’s outstanding film My Father, My Lord, which I wrote about here. Both movies are about a father-son relationship that ends in tragedy and both are critiques of rigidity of thought - but they approach the subject from opposite ends of the spectrum and complement each other perfectly.


  1. Check out "double life of veronique" also, if u haven't already done so. I love that one too

  2. Yes, I love Double Life of Veronique - probably my favourite among his films along with Blue.

  3. "A Short film about love" was also very interesting, those apartments, in so many ways remind me of various buildings in Mumbai

  4. Have you seen movies by Rahim Bahrani like Chop shop or Man Push Cart ? What do you think of them ?

  5. Decalogue featured in Ebert's Sight and Sound top 10 in the 2002 poll.
    Will watch it sometime soon.

    By the way, another TV-film I've heard a lot about recently is Fassbinder's 15 hour Berlin Alexanderplatz. What do you think of it?

  6. Indophile: that occurred to me too - there's something claustrophobic about the setting. And all those worn, lined faces!

    Anon: no, haven't seen them. Are they similar to Dekalog in some way?

    shrikanth: haven't seen it - one of the big guilts of my career as a movie-watcher. I was even thinking about it when I was walking around the real Alexanderplatz earlier this year.

  7. Anything by Kieslowski merits a watch! I can still vividly remember many scenes from Blue despite a single watch.
    And so what if people channel Guy Ritchie and Tarantino ... Mentioning them is a tribute to their unique styles. Or is your peeve that it's too obvious? Or do you disagree with the reference at all?

  8. I vividly remember the apartment building. It was socialist drab at its best, & a brilliant sutradhar to the 10 stories (loved your post tile, btw).

    I was very lucky to have seen Berlin Alexanderplatz at the Calcutta Max Mueller Bhavan in 1990, over 7 consecutive days.

    My favorite TV miniseries:

    - BA
    - Fanny & Alexander
    - Dekalog
    - Scenes From A Marriage
    - Traffik
    - Tamas (though I haven't seen it since it aired on DD in the mid-80's)

  9. Kartik: no major peeve, just a bit annoyed that everyone goes on mentioning only those two names in the context of Kaminey. And yes, it is too obvious.

    Tipu: socialist drab is just the right description.

  10. Kieslowski is very interesting :)

  11. Telepathy, Jabberwock! I just borrowed the first DVD of the Dekalog (sp?) from our college library on Thursday (since they don't allow more than two DVD's at a time and I had also borrowed a Kurosawa; will get the other two DVD's on Monday). Basically, I've reached the D's and I'm going through the entire collection from A-Z and picking out anything that remotely interests me; 'Kieslowski' rang a distant bell somewhere in the cobwebs of my memory.

    Loved the first film the most - the one about the mathematician and his son, probably because of a personal interest in man's relationship with this thing called God. I thought the acting by the kid was fantastic. The dad was good too. The second one about the woman and her ex was unique in terms of story, and very gentle as you put it (Wong Kar-Wai another gentle filmmaker?), even though it might not appear so. I felt this distance in the third one about the woman thinking about aborting her out-of-wedlock baby (maybe Kieslowski intended that, dunno, so as to give us the audience both sides of the view of this ethical decision, much like Rohmer's "Claire's Knee").

    Can't wait for Monday!

  12. Your use of the word 'gentle' for Kieslowski's style of film-making got me thinking. Initially I couldn't see that way - I kept thinking of Juliette Binoche scraping her knuckles against a wall in 'Blue' - but when you look at his ouvre, what becomes evident is his enormous sympathy for even his most flawed characters. So maybe he is gentle in the sense that he never seems to create a character out of spite, like Wilder or Godard, or treat them with less respect than they probably deseve, like Hitchcock.

    While on the topic, 2 more names that one could add to your roster of 'gentle' directors - Jean Renoir (possibly the gentlest of them all) and Steven Speilberg.

  13. ...his enormous sympathy for even his most flawed characters

    a fan apart: yes, that's close to what I mean - the humanism (for lack of another word) that one also sees in Ray's best work.

  14. Hi Jai, U have talked about editing (invisible editing here)in this post as well as others. What does editing mean to you? How much do you think it is directed by the script itself? How much of creative part of editing is by the director & how much is it the director? Maybe it can be a good topic for a post, if you haven't already posted.