Monday, October 8, 2007
It has been twenty years since Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Krzysztof Kieslowski began seriously putting together their ambitious and monumental 10 part DECALOGUE series for Polish television in late 1988. Each episode, directed by the late Kieslowski, was based loosely on one of the Ten Commandments and they all represent cinema at its finest and most complex. To celebrate its upcoming twentieth anniversary, I am revisiting every episode and will be posting some personal thoughts on each as I re-watch them. For more scholarly, well written and thought out approaches to the great Kieslowski's work may I recommend both KIESLOWSKI ON KIESLOWSI from Faber and Faber, and Annette Insdorf's magnificent DOUBLE LIVES, SECOND CHANCES from Hyperion.
All of these personal posts are dedicated to Krzysztof Kieslowski and Irene Jacob.
DECALOGUE 1 is one of my personal favorites of all of Kieslowski's works. It tells the relatively simple story of a son and a father and their reliance on a home computer. It is in the dead of a harsh Polish winter and the father, who has renounced God, believes the computer to carry all of life's answers, including measuring the density of the ice where his son skates. After assuring his son one day that the ice is safe to navigate, an odd unexplainable thaw happens and the boy drowns.
I'm not sure what it is that I respond to so much with this first part of DECALOGUE. I suppose it could be a lot of things: my own personal faith and beliefs, my distrust of technology, or perhaps I just connect to the sense of paternal betrayal that is inherent in it. While we most certainly feel for the father in this episode, we also recognize him as a bit of a fool who places all of his faith in the wrong place and it literally causes his son to lose his life.
I have often wondered what first time viewers thought of this opening for DECALOGUE. Sparked by the beautiful and sad score by Zbigniew Preisner and the icy cinematography by Wieslaw Zdort (which is so cold it feels like it could crack your TV screen down the middle), Kieslowski's DECALOGUE 1 is one of the most heartbreaking things he ever committed to celluloid. Despite its brilliance, it is harder to think of a more ominous and demanding opening for a ten part series.
Anyone who has ever questioned Kieslowski's artistry should watch DECALOGUE 1, as his mastery of the medium is resoundingly apparent. From the opening shot of a barren frozen lake and the image of a lonely stranger (who pops up in several episodes never explained), Kieslowski's images freeze themselves onto the viewers brain and he never lets up. His cinema is literally the way many of the early creators probably envisioned it but could never quite get to. Stanley Kubrick himself called DECALOGUE the great masterpiece of our time, and I am not sure how far off the great master was when he said that.
Perhaps the first DECALOGUE's most startling moment comes when a simple ink blot seems to strangely foreshadow the young sons death. It is a virtuoso moment for Kieslowski as a filmmaker and the only reference point I can think of for it is a similarly striking moment in Nicolas Roeg's DON'T LOOK NOW, a film that also included the tragic drowning of a child.
Outside of immediately announcing Kieslowski at the top of his game after two decades of projects that grew more interesting with each new work, DECALOGUE 1 also set the tone of the series with a group of phenomenally gifted Polish actors doing some of the best work of their lives. Heartbreaking in his conviction that technology has all of life's answers is Henryk Baranowski as the father Krzysztof (one has to take note of his name here). This was astonishingly enough one of the first and only roles for the obviously talented Baranowski, who plays this part with an undercurrent of raw emotion and finally a heartbreaking doubt. Equally compelling is young Wojciech Klata as the son Pawel, who is questioning everything but not getting any clear answers, because finally there aren't any.
As I already mentioned, the behind the scenes work is also top of the line with special note going again to the photography of Zdort and the music of Preisner. Presiner especially would continue to play a massively important role right through the rest of the great director's career. His work on DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE and the THREE COLORS films is already legendary among many film fans and it will only grow in stature.
DECALOGUE was a ghost to me for quite a while. Like many Americans I fell in love with Kieslowski's cinema when I saw THREE COLORS: BLUE in 1993 during its initial American theatrical showing. The Chicago screening I saw was packed and everyone in the room seemed to have the same slightly dazed,awed and completely blown away look as they were leaving the theater. I then started to backtrack, first with a VHS copy of DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE and finally some of his earlier films. DECALOGUE was near impossible to find in this period here in the States and my first viewing came in the mid nineties courtesy of a blurry grey market VHS that was probably the worst way to see it, but Kieslowski's artistry and intelligence made even the worst VHS copy glisten.
It was a joyous thing to finally get Facets first DVD release of it in the late nineties and even a bigger one when the remastered special edition of it came out several years ago. Whatever version you can track down, THE DECALOGUE is a must see for film fans everywhere. I have watched the whole thing through at least half a dozen times over and am still discovering new moments in each viewing that cement Kieslowski as perhaps the major filmmaker of the past thirty years.
I will be sharing more thoughts on the remaining nine episodes of DECALOGUE through the rest of the year. If you haven't experienced it before, give it a look...or if it has been a while, maybe a re-visit is in order to celebrate its upcoming twentieth.