The Decalogue (1988-89) – An Introduction

Everybody should see The Decalogue at least once in their lifetime. Directed by acclaimed Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, it consists of ten one-hour films, set in modern Poland, loosely based on the Ten Commandments. The tv-series in its entirety reflects the invisible threads and values that bind us together as human beings.

Film critic Roger Ebert tried to match up the films and the commandments: “There isn’t a one-to-one correlation; some films touch on more than one commandment, and others involve the whole ethical system suggested by the commandments. These are not simplistic illustrations of the rules, but stories that involve real people in the complexities of real problems” (…) “After seeing the series, Stanley Kubrick observed that Kieslowski and Piesiewicz ‘have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them.’ Quite so. There is not a moment when the characters talk about specific commandments or moral issues. Instead, they are absorbed in trying to deal with real-life ethical challenges.”

A good description of The Decalogue is it’s a larger examination of smaller unsolved issues we all carry around in ourselves. Most of the problems could have been avoided if the character’s had made different decisions. Kieslowski gives cinematic voice to ethical problems in a way perhaps that no other director has. The Decalogue series debates with itself, a discussion of fundamental life issues, which only ideologists and moralists have bow-tied solutions for, but which people in general can agree on are extremely complicated dilemmas.

What I like about Dekalog is that it resists the temptation of Kieslowski’s earlier work to be focused on Poland, instead the episodes have a universal appeal, and take place in a vacuum outside of national or political spheres. Challenges you to figure out how to be a moral person in a world with no easy answers. The characters are relatable, they interact in intimate home environments, we get to know them on a very personal level.

Dekalog is a Greek phrase, and stands for the ten words. The Ten Commandments can be traced back to the Old Testament, where we hear about the pact between God and the Jewish people on the Sinai Mountain. Moses received the commandments written on stone tablets. Within Christianity and Judaism, the Ten Commandments have been regarded as an expression of faith and morality. For example, Jesus points to the commandments, when a rich man asks him what he should do to achieve eternal life. Right up until the present day, the commandments are a guideline for being a good citizen, no matter which religion you follow.

Having said that, I think Kieslowski’s Dekalog series also reflects how breaking the rules can be a character builder, by testing the boundaries of what is right and wrong is how we develop as human beings. We can mirror ourselves with the universal issues. We have been in conflicts such as the 8th commandment, you must not testify against your fellow man. Who hasn’t been in these situations?

Decalogue I: I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me
Decalogue II: You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
Decalogue III: Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
Decalogue IV: Honor your father and your mother.
Decalogue V: You shall not murder.
Decalogue VI: You shall not commit adultery.
Decalogue VII: You shall not steal.
Decalogue VIII: You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
Decalogue IX: You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
Decalogue X: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house,
or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey,
or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Kieslowski: “I think that every person’s life is worth examining, and contains drama. People don’t talk about their life, it causes embarrassment. They don’t want to reopen old wounds, or are afraid of being old-fashioned or sentimental. Therefore we wanted to begin each film in a way which suggested that the main character had been captured on camera as if by accident. We had in mind a giant stadium, where among the hundred thousand faces we would focus on one particular person (…) with The Decalogue I probably concentrated more on what was happening on the inside than the outside. Earlier I dealt with the surrounding world, how circumstances and events affect people.”

The ambitious series was co-created by Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who had previously worked as a lawyer. The Dekalog takes the old principles and confronts them with the modern world. Kieslowski is asking, are these commandments still valid today, do they need an upgrade?

From documentary I’m So So (1998), Kieslowski is quoted: “Each film relates somehow to one of the Ten Commandments. When we wrote the series in 1983-84, we wanted to brush up those ten well-written sentences”

Kieslowski: “Piesiewicz and I didn’t think politics could change the world, not for the better. Furthermore we intuitively sensed that The Decalogue probably would have an audience abroad. That’s why we decided to keep politics out of it.”

The series was conceived when Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who had seen a 15th-century artwork illustrating the commandments in scenes from that time period, suggested the idea of a modern equivalent. Kieslowski was interested in the philosophical challenge and also wanted to use the series as a portrait of the hardships of Polish society, while deliberately avoiding the political issues he had depicted in earlier films. He originally meant to hire ten different directors, but decided to direct the films himself.

Kieslowski: “The best idea I had with The Decalogue was that each of the ten films should be made with ten different cameramen. I thought that the ten stories should be told a little bit differently. (…) Only one cameraman made two films (…) the oldest was about sixty-years-old, the youngest 28, who had recently finished film school.”

Typically for Kieslowski, the tone of most of the films is melancholic, except for the final one, which, like Three Colors: White (1994) is a black comedy, and features two of the same actors, Jerzy Stuhr and Zbigniew Zamachowski. The director has admitted that the producers wanted him to make an eleventh and final episode where all the characters meet, as they live in the same building, but by that time the director said he had had enough.

When he created The Decalogue, Kieslowski had never made a popular or successful film. The groundbreaking tv-series was a launchpad to a wider audience.

Who is the mysterious man at the lake? In important moments the blond man reveals himself, we are encouraged to see the world through his eyes. The silent witness to the story. Perhaps he is crying on behalf of the audience and the victims of the episodes. He turns up in the vicinity of the characters, is he there to protect them against temptation and danger? Or is he a way for Kieslowski to speak of conscience? The mysterious stranger’s intense staring at the people he meets is perhaps to make them think twice about what they are about to go through with.

Kieslowski: “There is this guy, who strolls around in all the films. I don’t know who he is, just some guy, who comes and looks on. Watches us, our lives. He is not completely happy about what he sees. He comes, looks, and goes again. He doesn’t turn up in chapter seven, because the recording didn’t work, and I cut him out. Neither is he in number ten, because in that chapter fun is made of trading of kidneys, and I thought, it probably wasn’t suitable to show a guy like him in that context. (…) He has no influence over what occurs, but he is a kind of signal or warning to those, he looks at, if they happen to notice him. (…) some called him the angel.”

In Dekalog 1, the blond man sits by the lake, in Dekalog 2 a medical orderly at the cancer clinic, in number 3 a streetcar conductor who narrowly avoids a collision with a car, in the 4th episode a canoer who reaches the shore, just as the woman opens a letter she shouldn’t. In Dekalog 5, a mysterious figure who reveals himself before and after an important event. In Dekalog 6, a man in a white rain coat, who walks between two houses, the first time when Tomak ecstatically returns after meeting the woman he has been observing, and also later when Tomak ha gained more insight. During Dekalog 8, he silently sits in as a student at the lecture, and finally in episode 9 he watches a man at a pivotal moment.

Several characters drink milk during the ten episodes. I’ve read the jingling of milk bottles and the consumption of its content could be a life-giving symbol. Perhaps the milk represents a symbol of motherhood, albeit transformed into art.

Next, I will look at the ten episodes one by one in detail, with a summary, interpretation, and verdit for each part.

What do you guys think? Was my introduction useful? Have you watched The Decalogue? Share your opinions in the comments below.

Kieslowski on Kieslowski / Danusia Stok

The Decalogue (1988) Roger Ebert

I’m So-So (1998)

Quotations are translated, so may differ slightly from the original English-speaking Kieslowski on Kieslowski

20 thoughts on “The Decalogue (1988-89) – An Introduction

  1. So…good. The Decalogue is one of those projects that I find difficult to describe other than it being one of the best things I've ever seen. It's so close to perfect, so moving, and so complete, that I can't but envy anyone's first watch of it.


  2. Excellent post Chris! I've been meaning to rewatch The Decalogue, as Kieslowski is one of my favorite filmmakers. I'll probably get started on it this weekend. Thanks for the nudge!


  3. @Josh: Thank You! I may also give the series a rewatch, so I can add in screenshots for my reviews of each episode.
    I would rank The Decalogue up there among Kieslowski's best.


  4. Your introduction was VERY useful, and I completely agree, everyone should watch The Decalogue (at least) once in their life. It is as fine an anthology of films as I've seen. I've always wanted to go back and break down each individual film. Can't wait to read your analysis!


  5. Having now seen it, It is truly a work for the ages. I hope to revisit it soon as I want Criterion to reissue it along with the two expanded film versions of episodes V & VI. I agree that everyone needs to see just once.


  6. @Steve Aldersley: The Decalogue is worth owning, worth rewatching. I was thinking recently which was my favorite Kieslowski work, and The Decalogue is near the top.


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