The Decalogue 8
Spoilers occur about the ending, this review is intended for those who have already watched the film.
A Holocaust survivor named Elisabeth (Teresa Marczewska) confronts ethics professor Zofia (Maria Koscialkowska). Zofia once refused to save Elisabeth from the Nazi’s by declining to falsify her baptism papers, on the basis of this commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Zofia, a woman in her 60s, teaches ethics at the university. One day, Elisabeth from the United States arrives, who has translated her books into English, and asks permission to follow her lesson, Zofia accepts.
A young student tells a story about a doctor’s dilemma, a pregnant woman, who wants to know if her cancer-inflicted husband will live, in other words an account of what happened in Dekalog 2.
Zofia makes it clear, that nothing is more important than saving a child’s life. However, it turns out she failed to help a little Jewish girl during World War Two. It’s established that the girl in fact survived, and it was Elizabeth. For many years Zofia has had a guilty conscience. What actually happened back then is delved into, and what Zofia’s motives were.
A tailor and his wife, who were to be Elisabeth’s foster parents, have with time become closed off and reluctant to discuss what happened. When Elizabeth arrives, he is uncomfortable in her presence. Zofia has spoken to the tailor and his wife once since WW2 and said only the words “I’m sorry”. According to Zofia, the underground movement she was involved in almost assassinated the couple, because they were thought to be cooperating with the Gestapo. From Elisabeth’s perspective, the tailor risked his life to save her. Yet this is not necessarily the whole truth, as Zofia could be rewriting the past.
Analysis and interpretation:
Kieslowski was quoted as saying that it’s a film about justice and injustice. Zofia’s life is indelibly stamped by a guilty conscience. On the outside, everything looks in order, but even the moments that mattered along the road have been overshadowed by her past. There is an air of respect surrounding Zofia among her students, perhaps also a professional distance that doesn’t allow deeper emotions to reveal themselves in her teaching.
40 years on from the war, Elisabeth arrives, now a grown woman, and Zofia senses a chance of closure. However this matter of conscience was not something she could have predicted would happen as a young woman, logically sacrificing one person to save many makes more sense. There are no easy answers.
Since then she has tried to pay off of her debt by teaching others to live so they avoid such burdens. In a way, Zofia’s and Elisabeth’s roles are reversed; the older woman needs redemption, the younger Elisabeth can either give closure to the matter, or refuse to help her. Though you also suspect that redemption works both ways, Elisabeth is in need of closure as well.
The film also alludes to that the reality of war cannot be boxed into simple categories, there is a lot of post rationalization, but also the fact that nothing is more important than the life of a child. It is probable that Kieslowski is saying that it is okay, justifiable, and even necessary to lie sometimes to save precious, human lives.
The picture frame being put back in place several times at Zofia’s apartment is a metaphor I had trouble understanding. Perhaps represents Zofia wanting to maintain order on the surface?
Zofia jogging in the woods we witness twice, for no apparent reason, and could also be a sign of outward order, strength and health, yet subtlety revealing in her eyes, that her mind is not at peace.
Or maybe you could regard it differently, as Deciphering the Decalogue does: “Out of the 5 parts I watched, this is the first time I have seen bright lighting and the use of happier, more peaceful music. I believe this change represents the fact that there is still a possibility for good after sin.”
As Stephen Innes writes at the site damaris:”Early in the film, the touching hands represent innocence and trust, but after this innocence is broken there are images of hands pulling away and a resistance to touch. Towards the end of the film, as the opportunity to reconcile is made available, the image of hands coming together carries a powerful emotional impact. (…) Zofia and Elisabeth have discovered that the only way to bring about good is to love, which fills the void left by trying to always do the ‘right’ thing. Perhaps one can detect a small glimmer in the tailor’s eye as he witnesses this.”
As another reviewer points out at IMDB: “the funny thing is that in this one, the drama has already past, which is necessary for connecting to it the idea of the law”.
However, this could also be looked at as a weakness of the episode, that we don’t get to see the vital moments, yet it also adds a mystery to what happened during the war, that is gradually revealed.
Connected to the eighth imperative of the Ten Commandments: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. As with Decalogue 6, again we are dealing with childhood trauma.
Zofia losing sight of Elisabeth in the apartment area was an intriguing plot development, in that perhaps Zofia would receive some of her own medicine of feeling abandoned, as Elisabeth did as a child. Also the classroom scene was quite powerful.
There is a sense of community in this installment, we hear about the moral dilemma from Decalogue 2, and meet a stamp collector who is important in Decalogue 10.
The WW2 angle is an interesting one, that transcends the singular case, and encompasses an infinite number of other situations regarding lying, both past and present.
The episode showcases that lying and honesty are more complex terms than you’d think, that crucial decisions can haunt you for the rest of your life, and that closure is key to leading a happy life.
Next time, I’ll look at Episode 9. Any ideas, readers, what the picture frame and jogging symbolize? Other thoughts on episode 8?
Kieslowski on Kieslowski / Danusia Stok