The final sequence of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Love, the extended version of Dekalog: Six, revisits a moment shown earlier in the film, re-viewing it through fresh eyes—no longer those of the peeping Tomek observing the beautiful weaver Magda weeping in her kitchen and spilling a bottle of milk but those of Magda herself, seated beside Tomek’s bed after his suicide attempt. Unable to make contact with him, she magically enters his old dream of being with her, perhaps suggesting a belated response to young Paweł’s desire to know, in Dekalog: One, the content of his mother’s dreams. Magda crosses into Tomek’s dreams—which seem to have persisted as an afterimage precisely so she can do so—by adopting his old, spying position at the lens. As she does this, she sees Tomek materialize within the scene as a consoling presence, and herself reaching up to touch his cheek. It is as if seeing the self from behind, as in René Magritte’s famous painting of a man seeing the back of his head in a mirror, tinges self-identification with possibilities of self-alienation, metaphysical transformation. The image’s refiguring is also one of both Tomek and the “young man,” who is the 1988 series’ intermittent tutelary presence: that young man, called a devil by some and an angel by others, here appears as, or gives way to, a force capable of doing more than watching, as Tomek intervenes, touches, and is touched. The lens becomes, as it were, the fairy-tale mirror that fulfills fantastic desires, including the ones to be invisible, to see oneself as others see one, and to have eyes in the back of one’s head—those intertwined taproots of the conventional cinematic dream known as shot/countershot. The mirror installed at the center of fantasy is also, of course, a time-honored metaphor for the truth-telling enterprise (as when Hamlet holds one up to his mother, Gertrude). Thus, it also furthers the project of describing reality pursued by the documentarian whom Kieślowski at some level never ceased to be.
The way A Short Film About Love moves from realism to metaphysics may be emblematic of the shape of Kieślowski’s career. Graduating from Poland’s famous Łódź film school amid the turmoil of the late 1960s—which saw student protests and a government anti-Semitic campaign, then working-class protests over rising prices that culminated in the unseating of Party First Secretary Władysław Gomułka—Kieślowski, throughout the subsequent decade, would often define his project as one of describing the world. Along with various other artists associated with the seventies Young Culture movement, he argued that Polish reality required description before it could be changed. Observational (“fly-on-the-wall”) and interactive (“talking-head”) documentary filmmaking, which had come to the fore in the sixties, were particularly well suited to this task, and Kieślowski’s documentaries would all fall into one or the other of these categories; indeed, he would even, in 1980, call one of his most haunting films Talking Heads (he liked self-deprecating but accurate titles: cf. A Short Film About Killing). His later move away from documentary is often attributed to his growing fear of harming his subjects through their candid self-revelations, some of which he provoked. Unsurprisingly, therefore, he would resist television transmission of the documentary From a Night Porter’s Point of View (1977),whose interviewed subject voices his support for public hangings. Kieślowski’s quarrel, continued by fictional means in Dekalog: Five, was less with the protagonist than with the punitive worldview the porter exemplified. But if the move toward fiction seemed to end the project of description, an overlooked statement in Kieślowski on Kieślowski casts it rather as that project’s logical next step: “Only when you describe something can you start speculating about it.” This is most obviously the case in Blind Chance (1981), made as his move to fiction was consummated, though shelved at the time by the authorities, where one contemporary character’s experience of three contrasting political and apolitical lives prompts the question (critics posed it again and again) whether any is the “true” one. Fiction is the speculation that follows from description, its question being, What is it that lies within?
That commitment to speculation differentiated Kieślowski from his contemporaries in the Cinema of Moral Anxiety, a movement that followed in the wake of Krzysztof Zanussi’s Camouflage and Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble (both 1977)and measured the distance between officially proclaimed socialist ideals, including the verbal commitment to “consultation” made by Gomułka’s successor, Edward Gierek, and an often corrupt actuality. For all the term’s piquant potential usefulness as a summary of the prevailing mood of Dekalog, Kieślowski disliked it. His disposition was less the oppositional activism of the Moral Anxiety films than a Renoir-like realization that—within the Poland he knew, at least—“everyone has their reasons.” Speaking even of people who are “acting badly,” he remarked, “you have to understand why they’re like that. I believe it’s just as feasible an approach as the one of fighting.” Kieślowski’s anxiety—and such a mood does indeed pervade the series, with its wariness and precision—was more like that of the watcher whom the Dekalog scripts dub “the young man.” His 1988 statement to critic Bożena Janicka that “all my films are made as if through glass” may well illuminate the watcher’s apparent inability to intervene, something rooted perhaps in a feeling that the characters’ dilemmas required surgery more radical than the kind countenanced by Poland’s political activists: heart surgery on each individual.
Although Dekalog was a television project, its spinning off of two theatrical features made possible additional funding. A Short Film About Killing, the expanded version of Dekalog: Five, was released first, and won a Felix prize, European cinema’s Oscar. It, along with the subsequent airing of the series and the release of A Short Film About Love, would give Kieślowski the reputation of a consummate filmmaker who was also a moralist, wielding editorial scissors like a surgeon’s knife. Viewers of the series were intrigued by the question of the nature of the relationship between individual commandments and the stories, as very few of the films cross-reference a commandment with the explicitness with which Dekalog: Seven raises the idea of theft, and differences between Catholic and Protestant systems for numbering the Ten Commandments create other enigmas. The series even foresaw its own future mining for ethics class test cases, as in Dekalog: Eight just such a class discusses the story told in Dekalog: Two. Despite the hiring of a different cinematographer for almost every film, it achieves unity in a multiplicity of ways, including its setting in and around a single apartment block (widely viewed outside Poland as grim and oppressive but described by Kieślowski as one of the nicest around Warsaw); the recurrence, in minor roles, of figures central to earlier films (to name only two examples: the waiting for a taxi in Dekalog: Five by Dorota, Dekalog: Two’s protagonist, now accompanied by her fully recovered husband; the appearance in Dekalog: Ten, at a central post office well away from the apartment block, of Dekalog: Six’s postal worker Tomek); a frequent use of mirrors to introduce characters; a foregrounding of certain colors, most frequently blue and green (one or the other or both of these being particularly important for Dekalog: One, Five, and Nine); a concern with adult-child relationships; a focus on faces and on where they become masks; and, to an incalculable extent, the continual presence of the musical personality of Zbigniew Preisner, who scored all the films. In its abstraction, his music may suggest an essence of the metaphysical.
According to Kieślowski, the series originated in a suggestion from Krzysztof Piesiewicz, the coscenarist on his previous film, No End (1985), and a lawyer whose faith respected the Catholic Church in a way Kieślowski’s own was never able to do. Nevertheless, Kieślowski had once remarked that observing the Ten Commandments would change the tenor of Polish life. The disorientation he and Piesiewicz saw around them suggested a need for some universally acknowledged guidelines, or at least a penetrating set of looks toward where people thought they had last seen such a thing. That disorientation was not just a local Polish hopelessness in the aftermath of Solidarity’s snuffing out by the martial law imposed on December 13, 1981, however, as Kieślowski reported also encountering it while traveling elsewhere in the world at the time, and even in the mid-1990s would describe all his films, “from the first to the most recent ones,” as being “about individuals who can’t quite find their bearings.”
The series’ erasure of such contemporary Polish realia as politics, breadlines, and ration cards resulted in criticism on its domestic broadcast as being removed from life, though that partial removal was recognized elsewhere as a form of universalization, giving Kieślowski’s work new accessibility and breadth of applicability. But although quite a few Poles, or at least Polish critics, may have viewed it as not really documenting anything, Dekalog in fact extends his earlier documentary project in multiple ways, as description feeds into speculation. This goes beyond the retention of typical documentary modes of shooting and framing, such as the following of characters pointed out by filmmaker and academic Charles Eidsvik. More important is Kieślowski’s desire to register the nontransparent, the reality that his film school thesis, on documentary, had described as having its own dramaturgy.
Individual documentaries may indeed be scripted and structured to prove a point, but the form has an a priori openness to the unexpected, the uncontrolled, even the unreadable. Reality can transfix, however uncertain its meaning—or precisely because uncertainty nags like a riddle one feels it might be possible to solve. If the young man is the series’ most complete embodiment of the element of opacity in reality, its resistance to interpretation, Dekalog: Four, with its uncertainty over just what Anka may or may not have done with the letter around which it revolves, may be its fullest enactment. Kieślowski’s account of the young man’s genesis has the studio’s literary director, Witek Zalewski, worrying that the initial scripts were missing something—an absence remedied, paradoxically, by rendering it palpable, through this figure. He is the placeholder for an unknown, the reality to which fiction can respond by depositing speculation around it, as the sand grain provokes the oyster to deposit the pearl that obscures it. The result can be a form of the ambiguity prized by the great French film theorist and critic André Bazin, for whom photography disclosed “the natural image of a world that we neither know nor can know” and was “an hallucination that is also a fact.” Is the young man mourning Paweł at the series’ start, or simply brushing smoke from his eyes? His direct look at the camera, like that of an enigmatically silent documentary interviewee, drives a wedge into our own, spectatorial world, opening it up to realities visible, at most, through a glass darkly.
Dekalog: One (as with so many introductions, the last part to be scripted) sets the tone for the series’ suffusion with the suffering that impressed itself on Kieślowski through witnessing such things, as he cites in his manifesto-like 1981 article “Deeper Rather Than Broader,” as a woman observing liver spots on her hand at a bus stop, or an old lady eating up another’s leftovers in a milk bar. The desire to penetrate suffering more deeply, without exposing any individual, was a major motive for Kieślowski’s move to fiction. This concern with the limits of the permissible in documentary production was also a concern with the way different forms of distribution shifted those limits, with the differing effects of theatrical and television viewership, of broadcasting and “narrowcasting.” His move away from documentary, then, was also one away from television, and resembles that made by his character Filip in Camera Buff (1979), who exposes the negative of his commissioned TV documentary, lest broadcasting the truth about the unproductiveness of a local brickworks cost its workers their jobs. In line with Kieślowski’s view that television watching is solitary and filmgoing communal, Dekalog: One even links television viewing to being alone in the cold, as Irena stands outside the store window watching footage of her nephew Paweł, now dead, filmed by a news crew that once visited his school. TV offers cold comfort to Tomek’s landlady and certainly does not attract Tomek himself, who prefers a silent screen, that of Magda’s window. If Kieślowski saw Dekalog as unsuccessful as a TV project, because it did not present its viewers week after week with the same characters, this may be a sign of his lack of commitment to the kind of identification TV series usually promote. TV’s limits become apparent when A Short Film About Killing offers a lengthier, more graphic depiction of a murder than the one in Dekalog: Five. So hard is it to watch that Kieślowski seems to have felt it could properly be shown only in a cinema, with its (stabilizing?) sense of community.
These questions of boundaries, of how far both the director and his characters should go, in concept and action, pervade Kieślowski’s work, from the documentaries to Dekalog to its very end. Thus in Three Colors: Red (1994), the appalled Valentine notices, behind the mother to whom she is talking, the daughter in a far room listening in on her father’s phone sex, to which she herself has just been exposed by the eavesdropping of Judge Joseph Kern. Valentine recoils, biting her tongue before reality’s multiple layers, realizing that it may not be best to follow her first instinct and inform the mother of the different other listener, Kern. Valentine’s initial exploration of the rooms of Kern’s house follows a more primal movement across limits and toward the center of a labyrinth, through doorframe after doorframe, rather like Véronique’s approach to Alexandre’s room in The Double Life of Véronique (1991), which proceeds down a corridor like a birth canal. However close one may come, there is always another distance: the physical opening onto the metaphysical, as one steps back continually to discover some other overlooked thing, or forward—in the time-honored manner of montage—to focus on a crucial something hitherto little noted.
The way this effort to map limits builds upon film’s normal preoccupation with the parameters of a shot or scene becomes apparent in Dekalog: Eight’s class discussion of the complex anecdote underlying Dekalog: Two—Dorota, previously unable to conceive and fearing the consequences of her pregnancy’s testimony to an affair, feels she can bring it to term only if her husband dies of the cancer afflicting him, and therefore importunes his doctor to tell her whether this will happen—and a story of a child’s wartime abandonment. Ethics professor Zofia concludes the class discussion by stating, “We’ve taken this far enough.” Is this simply because the class has run out of time—it breaks up a moment later—or has the issue genuinely run its course? The question becomes pointed when Zofia later mentions the need to think things through to the end—as if they may not arrive there of their own accord.
The ellipses dotting the published screenplays (more extensively in the Polish originals than their English translations) may seem, documentary-like, to betoken little more than conversational hesitation, but they could also represent thought breaking down before the ungraspable. Thus, after the brief visit of a philatelist living in another apartment, Zofia’s translator, Elżbieta, says, “Interesting block”; Zofia’s response is “Like any other. Everyone has a story to tell, and so on.” “And so on” abbreviates the script’s “and so on and so on and so on . . .” Ten films cannot possibly tell all the stories the block contains, as its multiple windows remind one continually. Even one story may not necessarily be taken in all at once—so we see Magda viewing her own life from another angle at the end of A Short Film About Love. Similarly, the doctor in Dekalog: Two, a storyteller (and so in some sense a double of Kieślowski himself), rations out to the character Basia portions of the wartime experience whose end he may wish to delay. This is not just because the storyteller’s role requires a deployment of suspense but also because this story ends in death, which stamps the storyteller with the survivor’s desolation: wartime bombing destroyed the building containing his family, two of them children. Here, as arguably in more than half the segments (One, Two, Five, Seven, Eight, Nine), the death, loss, or absence of young children inserts the deepest of stings.
The words “and so on” demarcate the interface of ordinariness and metaphysics. Concern should not stop at the image but delve into and develop it—like Thomas in Antonioni’s Blow-Up—to see what else it may contain. No wonder Dekalog: Four ends with the perusal of an enigmatic yet very everyday photograph. No wonder the end of Three Colors: Red discovers new meaning in a fashion photograph of Valentine. No wonder Magda, seated beside another Thomas in A Short Film About Love, uncovers the stolen lens of Dekalog: Six to indicate that the truly short film cannot simply end or end as simply as it seems to, puts her eye to it, and seems to review old footage, to see as he surely saw himself in dreams: as meeting her, however fictively, where we all meet most truly, in our need.
Although many of the Dekalog films have three main characters, their primary focus is on the interaction of two of them. The reality that emerges is one of lone figures who come to relate excessively to one another, inevitably suffering disillusionment, anger, even despair. In such a relationship, where only one other is “significant,” the temptation to demand of that person, idolatrously, what only God can supply may be all but irresistible, particularly if unconscious. If this is most evident in the love relations at the heart of Dekalog: Four, Six, and Nine (at whose end Hanka says to her husband, Romek, “God, you’re there”), even strangers in certain of the films may be put in godlike positions, required to answer questions of life or death, as when Jacek in Dekalog: Five asks if a photograph can show whether someone is alive, or, in Dekalog: Two, Dorota demands that the doctor pronounce with certainty on the fate of her husband. It is as if the characters seek God unconsciously by outraging his commands, seeking to compel him to respond. All steps acquire a weightiness registered in the films’ deliberate progress, as if the film itself identifies with the look of the young man drawn toward the moments when characters start to cross lines, approach abysses. One case is Jacek Łazar and his appalling murder of a taxi driver in Dekalog: Five. A young lawyer seeks to do more than the watching young man and winch Jacek back up from the depths, as if his last name suggested the possibility of a return from his own existential death. Achieving this, however, would mean a victory of fantasy akin to the one empowering Magda’s vision of a consoling Tomek. One pursuing disillusionment and the other dream, the two features are just as much necessarily contrasting companions as Dekalog: Six and the film about love.
At the same time, reducing relations to degree zero creates a zone within which the everyday can gravitate toward the metaphysical. Each twosome balances community’s near disappearance with the possibility of its rebooting from this nucleus. Significantly, each film was originally to have plucked a face from a crowd, but the focus on an apartment block, whose windows may or may not conceal faces, permits a deeper examination of the elusive, arbitrary nature of community, as its members arrive at different times and with differing agendas and professions. If any particular community both does and does not deserve the name, it is not just because of the mutual hostility Kieślowski discerned in the Poland of the 1980s but also because community is both physically visible and metaphysically invisible. The young man’s presence demonstrates how the metaphysical, pushed to the edge of words and the world, as it was in People’s Poland, seeps back up through the weight of everything under which forces like the official atheistic authorities there seek to bury it. With nowhere else to go, it is pressed upward by the unrelieved downward pressure, like the Freudian repressed that always returns. Thus, if dignity was a quality systematically denied working individuals in the would-be totalitarian system of People’s Poland, a self-proclaimed workers’ state, the abstract, homeless condition of the concept allowed it to float over everyone, enveloping and clinging, mistlike, to those to whom it was denied. The sinners achieved a Solidarity that denied the authorities’ right to take that concept in vain, to banish it to a realm of mere abstraction.
In Kieślowski’s dialectic of consciousness and matter, Poles’ subjection to an increasingly oppressive, dysfunctional materiality ironically generated an immaterial place at which they met: the discourse of humble dreams. We hear this voiced by the protagonist of his 1976 feature The Calm, who could not even obtain the television and wife he wanted, and in the hopes for freedom and democracy expressed by the multiple interviewees of Talking Heads. Metaphysics and revolution percolate through each other as people grasp their status as ghosts in the machine, incompatible with it. If such everyday suffering affects first the working-class protagonists of Kieślowski’s earliest films, in Dekalog it extends to other social strata, such as doctors, rock stars, and university professors, indicating its pervasiveness in society. The metaphysical first penetrates his films in Camera Buff, where it suffuses the apparent banality of the home movie. Just as Krzysztof in Dekalog: One tells Paweł that a person’s afterlife lies in others’ memories of his or her gestures, so Filip’s filming in Camera Buff of the mother of his friend Piotr, seated at a window as her son drives his hearse down a hill, assumes a metaphysical aura when Piotr rewatches it after her death. Film, the material form of memory, becomes as it were the sole Houdini-approved means of contacting the dead. If Kieślowski subscribes at all to that prototypical category of the aesthetic, the beautiful (though the word’s privileging by Filip’s paternalistic boss suggests its treatment with suspicion), it is in the sense in which Piotr terms “beautiful” the documentary work of Filip and his film-mad coconspirator, Witek. Beauty is an activity, not a thing; and cinema, of course, the moving image, is “poetry in motion,” motion itself as poetry. That camera looking up at a window is the documentary forerunner of Dekalog’s scan of the block’s windows from the space between them. For all their apparent grim uniformity, they have the variegation of a society. Most outrageously, in a supposedly classless one, this means one of classes. Zofia tells Elżbieta there are apartments less attractive than hers, and the stamp collector who comes by (the otherwise invisible father of Dekalog: Ten) is clearly of a lower class. Is the rudimentary stamp collection with which the series ends a metaphor for the first building blocks of a new, imaginary block, one constructed Lego-like by adults who have regained the innocence of children? It may be only a metaphor for a new block, but just to come up with that metaphor is to have hope.
At the end of A Short Film About Love, the image deepens in hope when Tomek materializes within a shared dream. It is as if the long lens has been a probe taking a geological sample whose unseen layers one inspects. Deepening space may deepen awareness to the point of turning spectators into that other spectator, the young man. The transformation may follow from a fusion of the material and the metaphysical of the kind exemplified by the end of Dekalog: One. The image of the Madonna confronting the newly bereaved Krzysztof may be a close-up of a face, but it is simultaneously distanced from him by its frozen quality, its status as art, and its reminder of Paweł’s unseen mother, in another country—not to mention Krzysztof’s look downward and away from it. That interpenetration of the immediate and the beyond ramifies into the recurrence of animals in this film, and Paweł’s empathy with them: his fascination by pigeons at his window, his grief over the dead dog with the yellow eyes, his interest in a schoolmate’s hamster. Some reflections by C. S. Lewis are surely relevant: “How strange that God brings us into such intimate relations with creatures of whose real purpose and destiny we remain forever ignorant. We know to some degree what angels and men are for. But what is a flea for, or a wild dog?” It is as if Paweł’s intense closeness to the animal world—to that dead wild dog, and the fleas that doubtless burrowed through its fur—brings him closer to another world, into which he then falls so easily.
Each ramification of a superficially readable reality requires its rethinking, the momen-tary suspension of action denoted by the ellipses peppering the scripts’ conversations. That rethinking is the reediting Kieślowski constantly pursued, never relinquishing the documentarian’s passion for rearranging footage, as with the two versions of Dekalog: Five and Six. His desired seventeen different versions of The Double Life of Véronique may have been unattainable fruit, but U.S. market demands unexpectedly required the shooting of a new ending, granting the film a double life to match its heroine’s. As the ellipses preserve the inchoateness of everyday speech, they also turn the everyday around to reveal its metaphysical face. And so, after Zofia has answered Elżbieta’s question about her belief by describing the alternative to it as “here on earth, solitude . . . and there—” there is a pause, then words not in the script: “spróbuj pomyśleć do końca” (“try to think it through to the end”). To do this is to think the unthinkable: “If there is nothing . . . if there really is nothing . . . in that case—” The ellipsis after “nothing” denotes that inconceivable reality, which voids existence and hence somehow is not a reality, not susceptible to realization, to registration by any camera that sees only the material. To repeat the marker of ending is to deny ending. No End, indeed. The documentarian in spirit is well aware that reality is no story with beginning, middle, and end (even as reworked in Jean-Luc Godard’s “not necessarily in that order”). The characters’ partial recurrence in other films in Dekalog episodes and the forging of alternate versions are just two examples of the haunting at the heart of Kieślowski’s art.
Paul Coates is a professor emeritus of film studies at Western University, Ontario. Previously, he taught at Georgia, McGill, and Aberdeen, and his books include The Story of the Lost Reflection (1985), The Gorgon’s Gaze (1991), Lucid Dreams: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski (ed., 1999), Cinema and Colour (2010), and Screening the Face (2012).
Many thanks to Ewa Wampuszyc, whose invitation to speak at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Dekalog prompted an earlier and more prolix version of the above.