The Decalogue

The Decalogue

On the Threshold of Plato’s Cave

In this pre-publication excerpt from his new book     on enigmatic master director Krzysztof Kieślowski,     Dr. Joe Kickasola gives an overview of the Decalogue and an     in-depth reading of Decalogue     II. A Metaphilm exclusive.

Joseph G. Kickasola

Excerpted by permission from chapter four of The Films of Krzysztof Kieślowski: The Liminal Image by Joseph G. Kickasola (Continuum Books 2004). Note that there are extensive spoilers for film II below.

lim’i’nal: adjective
1 : of or relating to a sensory threshold
2 : situated at a sensory threshold: barely perceptible

“All interpretations may be fair game when approaching Kieślowski’s films, but he does not permit avoidance of the issue. Metaphysics, real or imagined, matter. Kieślowski’s point seems to be that our desire for meaning makes us human and is worthy of exploration.”

—from the preface

These ten films, released in 1988, function as a watershed moment in Kieślowski’s career. Many demonstrate the formal emphasis that will fully characterize his work after 1988. Some films hearken back to the more subdued, documentary-influenced style of his early features. Kieślowski set out to use ten different cinematographers for the ten films (in the end, he had to settle for nine, utilizing Piotr Sobociński twice, in III and IX). The experiment would prove very rewarding: each of the cinematographers he would use for his later films worked with him on the Decalogue.

Now showing in this arena

In an interview with Danusia Stok, Kieślowski tells the story of a passing conversation with Krzysztof Piesiewicz outside in the cold, pouring rain. “Someone should make a film about the Ten Commandments. . . . You should do it,” Piesiewicz suggested. Kieślowski didn’t think much of the idea at first; then, walking around Warsaw, Kieślowski was overwhelmed by the impression that he was “watching people who didn’t know why they were living.”[1] At that point, he began to think Piesiewicz might be right.

Regardless of one’s theological commitments, the commandments demarcate ten universal arenas of moral choice. These are the loci of our most important decisions as humans, and Kieślowski shows how rich and complicated these arenas are. No theological dogma is trumpeted here, but it is not a stretch to say that Kieślowski shows respect for the Judeo-Christian tradition, even if only by acknowledging that the commandments continue to haunt us.

Respect is not equal to adherence, however. Several times Kieślowski seems to be indicating how difficult the commandments are to keep, or even understand, amid the complexities of contemporary life. All of the episodes might be seen as stories in Plato’s cave. Occasionally, the characters get to turn and see the ideal, even if only in the periphery. Most of the time, however, they encounter shadows of the truth, lots of lies, and the mundane sounds of their surroundings.


In the current literature on Kieślowski, there is a surprising amount of debate on the numbering of the episodes and their thematic alignment with the biblical Decalogue. Those finding the relationship awkward are typically working from the Protestant numbering of the commandments, not the Roman Catholic,[2] and it seems very clear to me that Kieślowski is using the Catholic system. Some assert that no direct parallel can be drawn between any of the episodes and any one commandment, but rather that all the episodes touch on themes of several.[3] Kieślowski did deliberately avoid titling the films to broaden their application, recognizing the inherent connections and overlap between the commands themselves.

The biblical Decalogue itself is bookended by ultimacies. On the front end, God shall be the only thing worthy of worship, and breaking any of the commandments, in a broad sense, is worshipping something else (one’s self, at the very least). On the other end, the root of covetousness is discontentedness, and each of the commandments flows from some form of discontent. So, whenever a commandment is broken, one always breaks at least two, often three. This aside, I believe the themes of the individual episodes are quite clearly related to foundational concepts inherent in their sequentially parallel commands.

Kieślowski bookends his series in a rather deliberate fashion as well. The first film, by far the darkest, initiates the series as “the curse of the law.”[4] Just as Paul cited the redemption of Christ as the fulfillment of the law, and salvation from its curse,[5] so Kieślowski ends his series with a comedy and image of reconciliation: a lighthearted story of grace between two brothers (a Jerzy and Artur to remedy Jacob and Esau).

Thematic mapping

The following chart of the Ten Commandments I borrow from my father, an Old Testament and ancient language scholar. Joseph N. Kickasola articulates the object of each commandment, that ideal which the commandment was instituted to preserve. Kieślowski does not necessarily pursue each of these ideals directly, so I have added the themes that Kieślowski derived from each ideal in a third column.

(Roman Catholic Enumeration)


Kieślowskian Theme

I: I am the Lord thy God . . . thou shalt not have other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image . . . Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.

The sanctity of God and worship

Idolization of science

II: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

The sanctity of speech

Names as fundamental to identity and moral choice; the importance of one’s word in human life.

III: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

The sanctity of time

Time designations (holidays, day/night, etc.) as repositories of meaning.

IV: Honor thy father and thy mother.

The sanctity of authority

Familial and social relationships as regulators of identity

V: Thou shalt not kill.

The sanctity of life

Murder and punishment

VI: Thou shalt not commit adultery.

The sanctity of love

The nature and relation of love and passion

VII: Thou shalt not steal.

The sanctity of dominion

Possession as human need and temptation

VIII: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

The sanctity of truth

The difficulties of truth amid desperate evil

IX: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.

The sanctity of contentment

Sex, jealousy, and faithfulness

X: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.

The sanctity of contentment[6]

Greed and relationships


As a thread of continuity between the scripts, Kieślowski and Piesiewicz designed a character originally intended to be present in every scene (but appearing fleetingly in episode VII and not at all in X)[7]. Annette Insdorf calls him “The Angel,” partly inspired by his affinity with Wim Wenders’ characters.[8] I opt for a more formal theological term: Theophanes. In part, this a nod to Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, which features a character of the same name, moving in spirit-like fashion and appearing to know much more than most mortals are ever given. Etymologically, Theophanes means “Appearances of God,” and this term has been used for various enigmatic characters in the Bible who seem to mark divine presence of some kind.[9]

I do not mean to overdeify the character or invest him with too much significance, but he does appear to be a reference point for the biblical themes embodied in the films. Likewise, he bears traits of God: his secret knowledge (one perceives that he knows something by his iconic stare), his omnipresence in the lives of these neighbors who barely interact with each other, his apparent affection for certain characters (VI), and the consternation of conscience and judgment he exudes (IV and V). One might say he is the Dei oculi, the “seeing” dimension of God’s connection with the world, a manifestation of the idea found in the Old Testament, 2 Chronicles 16:9: “For the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose hearts are completely His.”

Theophanes may not be the only dimension of the Creator-creature interface, but he serves as a strong reminder of God’s relentless, searching gaze. Indeed, throughout the Decalogue there are numerous instances where God’s eye may be inferred (e.g., the vaulted angles above the cars in III and the wide shots of the countryside during the murder in V). Theophanes completes the divine omnipresent field of view, complementing the Transcendent angle with an immanent perspective.

Often his look is indecipherable, like Mozhukhin in Kuleshov’s famous experiment, and we invest him with meaning in the same way.[10] I call him Theophanes, not because he is God, but because he references him like an icon, materially bearing his presence and eternal gaze in the broken, desolate community, and reminding us that the commandments have always been perceived (by the faithful) to have a living, transcendent dimension. Although Kieślowski and Piesiewicz simply call him “the young man” in the script, the actor playing him (Artur Barciś) apparently thought of him as Christ. According to Christopher Garbowski, Kieślowski told Barciś to play him “as if you were five centimeters off the ground.”[11] Kieślowski said of him “He’s not very pleased with us,” and in the screenplay wrote: “It is the same man who sat around the fire in the first story, who stood in the hospital corridor in the second story, and who will continue to appear, forever.”[12] He is the eternal witness.

The apartment complex functions as the battle-scarred immanent ground. Within this context of community, a strained cohabitation that Kieślowski will probe for true human connections, the themes of home and family persist in every episode. A child is lost in I, gained in II. A family is tested and threatened in III, while the very definition of family is questioned in IV. V demonstrates the devastation of losing a family member, whereas VI demonstrates the effects of not having a family. VII involves the intrafamilial struggle over a child, and VIII involves a young girl in need of parental protection. IX exhibits the delicacy of bond between spouses, and X exhibits the delicacy, and necessity, of bonds between siblings. The home is where we receive our first sense of identity and learn how to relate to others. In this fragile, personal arena Kieślowski confronts us with the heaviest issues in human experience.

* * *

Decalogue II

Synopsis: Dorota (Krystyna Janda) finds herself in an ethical tangle, the complexity of which slowly reveals itself throughout the film. She seeks out her neighbor, an old doctor (Aleksander Bardini), currently treating her cancer-plagued husband, Andrzej (Olgierd Łukaszewicz). She begs him to make a declaration on Andrzej’s fate, which he adamantly refuses to do. She eventually reveals that she is carrying another man’s child, unbeknownst to Andrzej, and this may be her last chance to bear a child. If Andrzej lives, she will abort; if not, she will keep the baby. The doctor is unwilling to make a judgment, and his own personal losses during World War II clearly haunt him in this matter. He gives Andrzej little hope for survival, and his condition appears to be desperately bleak. Dorota breaks off the relationship with her lover, but continues to press the doctor for a decision. He suddenly asserts that Andrzej will die. Miraculously, Andrzej recovers and happily announces to the doctor that he and Dorota are having a child. The doctor clearly understands the complexities behind this announcement, but remarks that he understands what it means to have a child.

There is a certain deadness that permeates the entire Decalogue, and the opening of this film is no different. Kieślowski’s construction of the dramatic tension is most remarkable in these first few minutes, and, because there is little dialogue, descriptive summary is necessary to bring out what is happening stylistically.

A clandestine approach to exposition is not unique to Kieślowski, of course, but the ambiguity of character and future revelations typify his aesthetic, a sort of abstraction. Some, like Hitchcock, hide details for the purpose of generating suspense; others, like Martin Scorsese, for generating dramatic tension. Both ends are served here, of course, but I believe Kieślowski’s work carries the additional virtue of making us think about these images in broader, more universal, and cosmic ways. Kieślowski is always generating a metalevel of meaning through experience with the image, and I do not believe the nature of the metalevel is simply reflexive (i.e., comments on the film itself), but rather signals a reach toward the Transcendent possibility. This film demonstrates this reach more succinctly than any film in Kieślowski’s oeuvre.

Fatigue and hope

In a hopeful image of renewal, the groundskeeper clears away dead brush, but the day is still terribly gray (like the lighting for the rest of the film), and he comes across a dead animal (the second in as many episodes). This death image is axiologically turned, however: the rabbit was clearly food for someone, at a time when people needed food in Poland. There lingers the abiding feeling that, after the crushing crackdown on Solidarity, life has grown terribly stale in Poland. Very small glimmers of hope exist; the doctor, for instance, listens to Radio Free Europe as he attempts to revive his dying cactus and feeds his bird.

The lack of running hot water indicates government neglect, as do the signs of decay in the doctor’s hospital workplace (peeling paint, leaking ceilings, etc.). Even so, the doctor calmly boils his water for his bath, with no visible sign of complaint, like unto the noble, persistent doctors in Hospital. He appears tired, and that fatigue culminates in the bathroom, where he nearly faints. The nature of this spell is never explained, and one gets the impression he may be suffering from more than physical fatigue. Once again Kieślowski gives us a close-up on a hand, grasping for more than physical support. The disassociated, abstract feeling the shot yields empowers it with metaphorical force, and the clear view of the man’s wristwatch only heightens its effect; the doctor represents old, hardened Poland, weary with fatigue, afraid to hope. (One cannot help but think of Bardini’s previous role as Labrador in No End, another old man surrounded by clocks.) We will discover much later the personal nature of the doctor’s burdens, but for now, we only know that he suffers, and Kieślowski seems to be asking whether that is not enough for our sympathies.

The doctor’s continuing (somewhat reluctant) conversation with his housekeeper, Barbara, will slowly reveal the source of this spiritual stasis. In bits and pieces, he remembers his lost family, including a charming detail about his father’s lost tooth, synchronous with the teething of his infant child. These sorts of unique stories (the stories that are left out of many Hollywood films) permeate Kieślowski’s films, striking us as both unusual and wholly believable. They are the curious memories of the lost— mundane, immanent things that reveal their deep symbolic value for us all (sentiments echoed in both Blind Chance and Decalogue I).

Introducing Dorota

We first see Dorota with her back toward us. We have no initial clue that she will be a main character any more than the groundskeeper in the beginning of the film. Her cigarette, a palpable index of her internal distress, falls to the ground. Kieślowski fixates upon her foot grinding it into the floor. This proverbial cigarette will gain prominence in a later scene when Dorota, almost masochistically, drops the ashes in her hand (echoing the fiery hand in Blind Chance) and puts the cigarette out in a box of matches (a blazing climax that Kieślowski captures in slow motion and extreme close-up).

The tug and pull of the unspoken build in intensity, climaxing with the doctor catching her at his door. Words are then spoken, and the bitterness between these strangers bleeds out; they have clearly not spoken much before, but the doctor remembers that she ran over his dog two years before. This acidic connection between the two characters is jarring, reeking of the pessimism regarding humanity that abounds in Kieślowski’s previous two films. This film, however, will attempt to find a way out through suffering. Although Dorota never comes to love the old man, it becomes very clear that a compassion for her situation grows in him, synchronous with his own recollection of personal loss.

Dorota directs her bitterness at the doctor’s God-like quality, as he is the only one in Dorota’s purview with any power in the situation. When Kieślowski references God, it is often through immanental means: a human character as liminal ground. Just as Irena encouraged Paweł to find God’s love in her embrace, Dorota projects God’s apparent callousness onto the doctor. He is terribly resistant to any further personal investment in life, whether his memories of past loved ones, his own life, or the lives of his patients (he remarks that he cannot remember his patient’s names).

Abstract defiance

Stylistically, the seeds of abstraction sown in earlier films grow rapidly here, culminating in the astonishing resurrection sequence (where the transcendental aim of the style is most pronounced). The modes of abstraction typical of Kieślowski[*] all appear here, from slow motion to close-ups to the withholding of expository information (discussed previously) to, most prominently, the long meditation and the denial of an establishing shot.

Dorota’s hand often destroys things. She crumples a letter (from her lover?). She’s constantly crushing cigarettes, and she slowly tips a glass off the table (Kieślowski treats us to a dramatic, close-up, slow-motion rendering of its destruction). These gestures are often shot in the abstract mode, carrying resonance of both the temporal destruction permeating her life and the encroachment of evil into her metaphysical sphere. The most pointed example exists in Dorota’s mangling of the plant, a counterpoint to Barbara’s efforts to revitalize the doctor’s dying cactus. Coolly and deliberately we see Dorota pull one leaf after another from the stem, working her way down, and finally crumpling the empty stem. Long after she leaves the frame, rather than cutting away, Kieślowski lingers on the plant, watching its warped stem gradually rise, refusing to die.

To simply describe this image in a literary fashion and interpret it symbolically is to limit its power. Clearly, there is a life-death image here, and the plant’s attempted return to its original shape strikes us, on a semiotic level, as a defiance of death (foreshadowing Andrzej’s resurrection to come). There is nothing quite like seeing it unfold, however, and Kieślowski’s patient, close-up camera pushes us into that experiential realm. It is not a picture of anguish (in the semiotic sense) but nearly an instance of anguish, which is, itself, rarely a verbal matter. This is yet another liminal space, between sign and experience, and bridging the gap is living, abstract form, extracted from the lifeflow by the camera.

Sacrificial lambs

Whereas many Hollywood directors emphasize clarity of plot, dialogue, and characterization, Kieślowski often sacrifices those elements for the sake of pace and resonance. On the other hand, he preserves other long moments of experience (that appear quite incidental to the plot and yield no imperative information for story comprehension). Kieślowski also seemed amenable to certain forms of the jump-cut, particularly the conjoining of two shots of a single character in two different diegetic times. One would be hard-pressed to argue that this functions in the same way abstraction does, that is, as an expression of cosmic time and space, but it does illustrate Kieślowski’s dismissive attitude toward classic narrative cutting and the preservation of consistent time-space relations. Kieślowski’s approach to diegetic time and space is much more internal, fluid, and, ultimately, metaphysical and cosmic than many directors.

The frequent denial of the establishing shot forces the audience to reconsider the narrowness of its diegetic space.[**] Kieślowski gives us several strong examples of this in this film, including the scene where the despairing Dorota first comes to visit Andrzej, and a mysterious, God-like, off-screen voice encourages her to leave the jar of berries she has brought (“He might eat it later,” the now-revealed roommate says). In a later surprising scene, a terrified Dorota sees a sheeted corpse being wheeled from her husband’s room, only to find Andrzej there and his roommate gone. The other key example of this “dislocational” strategy exists in the scene in the gynecological office. The rhetoric of such a sequence amounts to an emphasis on the internal (i.e., beginning the scene with a close-up of Dorota’s face) and a revelation of the surroundings as complementary to that internal expression (in this case, the revelation that she is in a doctor’s office, considering an abortion). The strategy also forces the audience to reconceive its view of the space—to expand it and receive the suggestion of wider, more cosmic times and spaces (consonant with the eternal issues involved). For Kieślowski, the world is always wider, and time is far more fluid than the temporal constraints permit. It is precisely the time-space dimension of human meaning that he attempts to trace, not in a delineating fashion (as if meaning had boundaries), but as a metaphysical explorer.

The metaphysical context of the abstract strategy is clear. Dorota’s confession to the doctor is followed by numerous, probing questions. She asks him if he can understand the possibility of loving two persons at once, an anticipation of the doppelgänger theme to come in later Kieślowski films. Dorota talks through her dilemma in personal, emotional terms. The doctor responds to her in probability statistics and figures, then brackets those predictions with his own experience of the “outliers,” the medically inexplicable cases, like an older, wiser Krzysztof of Decalogue I.

Her remark, “One shouldn’t wish for everything . . . that’s pride,” brings us back to the axiological root of these films: the Ten Commandments. Multiple sins are represented here, but Dorota’s comment leads us to the principle that the tenth commandment, covetousness (a by-product of pride, springing from the sense one deserves what one does not have), permeates all the commandments. This statement leads to a more theologically direct question: “Do you believe in God?” The doctor’s response that his “private God” is only big enough for himself points to his constant confrontation with the problem of evil and his inability to extend God beyond himself. It is clear that he cannot extend Him to his own family, whose tragic death continues to sear his soul. Dorota needs a bigger God than that, however.

Two messengers, two readings

Her internal tension reaches a peak as she nears the time of her rendezvous with her lover. She speaks to his erstwhile emissary, a man who we think is her lover but turns out to be simply conveying instructions, much as a spy would in international espionage. The clandestine, politically resonant nature of this situation would ring loud and clear to Polish viewers, and clearly Dorota’s response is equally suspicious. Her coffee goes cold, just as Krzysztof’s milk went sour in Decalogue I. That which is good, the sacramental drink between two communing friends, is spoiled here. It is synecdochal of the condition of the world—the fallen world, the good creation gone rotten, in need of redemption.

The time surrounding Dorota’s critical turn also marks the entrance of Theophanes, working as a hospital orderly. As the doctor confirms, via microscope, “progression,” in Andrzej’s case, Theophanes looks on with interest. There is a terrible ambiguity here that Kieślowski may have intended. Coates and Insdorf both suggest that the word (which is progress in the script, but seems to be progression in the film[13]), refers to Andrzej’s treatment, and therefore stands as a sign he might be recovering. In this case, the doctor clearly lies to Dorota about death being imminent, in order to save the child. Monika Maurer agrees, suggesting the slides tip him off to the idea that “recovery is already under way.”[14] I see nothing in the script or the filmed version to indicate that this interpretation is absolute. It could very likely be that the cancer is showing progression, as they are clearly looking at slide samples of the tumors, taken over a series of weeks. There is nothing in the doctor’s reaction, or that of the assistant, to suggest anything encouraging. The reluctance of the assistant to say what he thinks (“But you always taught us . . .”) could very well be in response to the doctor’s previous decree that physicians not make predictions at all.

A great deal hinges on how this tiny scene is to be interpreted. If my alternative is to be believed, the film depicts a bitter doctor, reluctant to make a judgment, forced to do so through the pressure of his own personal, moral universe. After the decision is made, a miracle occurs. If the first interpretation holds, we may still have a miracle (and the presence of Theophanes in the scene confirms this), but it may be a more “modern miracle,” providence laced with science. It would also problematize the ethics of the doctor. This complicated situation is revisited in VIII, as Zofia addresses the situation in her ethics class. The important thing, she says, is that the child survives. Perhaps that is the focus, and Kieślowski’s narrative ambiguities simply bring that fact into stark relief. In any case, the ethics are most gray, the situation most desperate, and the spiritual tension most palpable.

What’s in a name?

I do not see this film as an anti-abortion treatise on Kieślowski’s part (a political commitment Kieślowski would be hesitant to embrace, I imagine). However, it is very clear to me that the focus in this film is on life and death, and Kieślowski portrays the abortion issue as a life or death decision (or, at the very least, the termination of a potential life). The symmetry between the situation of Dorota and the doctor is undeniable: the doctor lost a spouse and his children, Dorota stands to lose both as well. The last lines of the film (“Do you know what it means to have a child?”—“I do.”) reinforce the place of the child in this life-death arena. For Kieślowski, the name of someone, his or her identity, is a core issue, and the commandment to not take the Lord’s name in vain is rooted in a grand principle: respect the identity of another. This child will be raised under a false name, perhaps, but III will show us that ambiguous identity can be redeemed, and familial love has the power to transcend the specter of dubious paternity. The return of Andrzej and a pregnant Dorota in V creates a contrast between their decision for life (however difficult) and a gruesome, impending death in that film.

In the next scene, Dorota’s cigarette smoulders in the ashtray, and she finally breaks things off with her lover. She announces her intention to have the abortion and end the relationship. His “I love you” never reaches her ears, lost over the close-up that Kieślowski gives us of Dorota’s hand, limply holding the telephone before she hangs it up.

The next scene prefigures the hopeful turn this story will take. The doctor’s cactus still appears weak, but it perseveres in its new pot. The close-up of the coffee reveals that it is hot, and its communal significance returns in the doctor’s final conversation with Barbara, where he completes the horrifying story of his family’s final hour. The sadness of this scene is only assuaged by the fact that the doctor is finally talking about and, perhaps, dealing with the loss of his family. We had seen him reinstate his family’s picture in a previous scene (turning it back into view).

Watch the watchers

The scene cuts with the horrifying possibility that Andrzej lies on that stretcher coming out of his room, only to reveal a weak but awkwardly sitting Andrzej in the room after Dorota anxiously enters. She brings herself to speak to him for the first time in the film, parallel with the doctor’s verbal breakthrough in the previous scene. Significantly, Theophanes looks on, first in abstract soft focus, then in a full close-up. His thoughtful reaction follows her words to him (“I love you very much”) and her touching of Andrzej’s face (also a new step for her). God sees this new development. The abstract close-ups of water droplets, falling around the room, bolster the transcendent surge in the scene even as they amplify the tortured, anguished time of sickness. The drops bring to mind a host of connotations, resembling the drips from an IV, to the slow leakage of blood. Andrzej is fighting, it is clear, but it appears he is losing.

Dorota fears the same, as her conversation with the doctor reveals in the next scene. When faced with the inevitable prospect of the abortion, the doctor finally commits himself to a verdict: “He’s dying.” She makes him swear to it, which he does, following with the unqualified pronouncement, “He hasn’t a chance.” He urges her not to follow through with the procedure, perhaps out of concern for the child, like the child lost to the bomb in the war, lost to the hole that stood in place of his home that dreadful night.

In typical Kieślowskian style, it is only now, nearly fifty minutes into the film, that we discover Dorota herself is a musician, proof that Kieślowski sought to emphasize the universal issues over the particulars. In a marvelously hopeful turn, the doctor ends his final conversation with Dorota by remarking that he’d like to come hear her play in the symphony. She does not comprehend the relevance of this statement and walks out, but the doctor clearly considered it before he said it. Music has often been called the international language, emotion made palpable and capable of transcending numerous social, cultural, and personal boundaries. It is his reach, beyond his own crisis, to another suffering human being. It is also the prelude to what is, in my estimation, one of Kieślowski’s greatest sequences.


It is difficult to adequately describe this sequence. Such labels as “poetic” and “lyrical” address the aesthetic character and ineffable reach of the artifact, but they lack the explanatory power for analysis.[***] I believe Kieślowski is functioning on a unique epistemological level here. Just as I would characterize music as meaningful beyond any typical semiotic categories (largely built on insufficient linguistic models), this sequence demonstrates immediacy through abstraction amid a metaphysically charged context. The result is a powerful Transcendent expression—a mystical utterance through image and sound. The similarity with music is further reinforced by its prominence in the scene, both in the diegesis (through the shots of Dorota playing violin) and the moving score on the soundtrack (a different piece of music entirely, masterfully written and executed by Zbigniew Preisner). The marriage between the musical and imagistic powers for immediacy here is both astonishing and unusual.

The sequence begins with a shot of Dorota staring out her apartment window, less shaky than she was as she peered from the hall window in the beginning of the film. She does not smoke, and her expression seems to indicate a beseeching, prayerful posture. Her gaze is directed upward, and she remains unmoving, immobile in the iconic, cosmic time. The camera begins a slow, deliberate descent. For what seems to be an eternity, we see the cold, abstract texture of the building’s concrete facade, a surface we first viewed intently in the crosslike formations of the balconies at the beginning of Decalogue I. One floor. Two floors. Three levels down, we come upon the face of the doctor, bathed in an infernal red glow, staring iconically right at the camera. The theological parallels emerge in this phrase from the ancient Apostle’s Creed, speaking of Christ, who “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell.” The next phrase will be represented as well: “The third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”

The camera swiftly pans right and makes a seamless passage through cosmic space to the hospital room, where Andrzej lies still. The music suddenly shifts mode as his eyes miraculously open (an echo of the opening eyes of Christ in the hologram Witek beholds in Blind Chance). The camera seamlessly moves again, spirit-like, to a close-up of the glass on the table. Dorota’s berries, which she brought him and left at the behest of the roommate, sit in the bottom of the glass, staining the water red. A single bee desperately fights for a way out of the liquid that threatens to engulf it. We wonder if it will survive the arduous struggle, as Kieślowski never wavers in his long, watchful shot. In an astonishing, life-affirming gesture, the bee emerges from the syrup to crawl along the glass rim, under Andrzej’s watchful gaze. The scene cuts to Dorota playing with the symphony, and her face suddenly registers a change, an intuition that something has shifted in the cosmos. The very slightest beginnings of a smile emerge, as though she were looking at the next image: an empty doorway, like the entrance to a tomb, into which walks Lazarus himself.

Child and choice

This resurrection stands in the Transcendent mode of other films.[15] Among the differing themes in the Transcendental style, the miraculous turn is among the most difficult to effectively execute without lapsing into a fairy tale–like ethos. In my judgment, Kieślowski succeeds admirably here. This film also follows what has been known to Christian mystics as “the dark night of the soul.” It is the mode of the Passion, completed by the resurrection, a sacramental mode in film, traced beautifully by Peter Fraser in Images of the Passion.[16]

Other Kieślowskian themes reappear and find redemption here. For example, the pictures of the mountains that decorate Dorota and Andrzej’s apartment echo the home versus exploration theme in The Scar and other early films. This theme fully expands here, however, to the temporal versus extratemporal discussion. In No End Antek struggles at his liminal death-life moment, with the choice to stay on earth or move on to the next world, where it is easier (opting for the latter). In this film, Andrzej confesses to the doctor that he felt as if someone were convincing him not to return but, unlike Antek, resists that choice.

The child we never see (counterpoint to Dorota’s equally hidden lover) carries an enormous burden in this film, and the meaning with which Kieślowski invests it is not simple or dogmatic. On the one hand, it is clear the abortion would be terminating something wondrous: “Such a beauty?” the gynecologist asks, and Dorota later tells her former lover, “This call is going to cost you a fortune,” a foreboding statement carrying meaning well beyond monetary significance. Yet, at the same time, the situation is something of a catch-22, and Dorota’s choice to abort the child may be, in her mind, something of a faith statement that her husband will recover, against all odds. It is this faith that she demands, but cannot extract, from the doctor, and she then seems to think the force of existential action is needed. However desperate this “faith step” may appear, she does not go through with the abortion, perhaps as part of a plan to raise the child on her own. After Andrzej’s resurrection, all are saved (Dorota, the child, Andrzej), but, of course, the lie persists.

Kieślowski seems to be elucidating the epistemological dynamic surrounding a name, implying that the choice to love a child as one’s own carries more importance than the status of one’s biological lineage. The final, devastating lines of the film reveal this:

Andrzej: Do you know what it means to have a child?

Doctor: (somber pause) I do.

There are, of course, many levels to this conversation, and the genius of the script is the aggregate dramatic weight of all these components. Several children, and their significance, are contained in that statement. The unborn child will persist as a hopeful image in Kieślowski’s later films as well, most vividly at the climax of Blue. In the end, reflecting on the commandment, we wonder what name this child will truly bear—to whom it will belong. :::

Joe Kickasola, The Films of Kieslowski

From chapter four of The Films of Krzysztof Kieślowski: The Liminal Image, © 2004 by Joseph G. Kickasola. This book will be available at the end of July, 2004. You can pre-order from Amazon through this link. Excerpted by permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 15 East 26th Street, New York, NY 10010, Krzysztof Kieslowski


[1] Kieślowski on Kieślowski, ed. Danusia Stok (London: Faber and Faber, 1993), 143.

[2] Catholics typically combine the assertions “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make unto yourselves an idol” into one commandment (Commandment 1), whereas Protestants count them as two (Commandments 1 and 2). Thus, the Catholic numbering is always one commandment ahead of the Protestant commandments in numbering, until the end, where the Catholics split the assertions “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” into two commandments (9 and 10) whereas the Protestants treat them both as Commandment 10. Joseph N. Kickasola, an Old Testament scholar, explains that the Bible totals but does not enumerate the commandments of the Decalogue (Exodus 34:28). He demonstrates that Protestants (other than Lutherans and Anglicans, who follow the Roman Catholic enumeration) follow the ancient Jewish tradition of Philo (a Jew of Alexandria, d. 50 a.d.) and Josephus (a Jew of Jerusalem, d. 100 a.d.). The Eastern Orthodox Church also perpetuates this enumeration, refusing the conflation of polytheism and idolatry (the Sanctities of God and of Worship) and affirming the union of the kinds of covetousness (the Sanctity of Contentment).

[3] Monika Maurer is just one of several popular critics taking this position. See Krzysztof Kieślowski (Harpenden, Herts, Great Britain: Pocket Essentials, 2000), 40.

[4] Galatians 3:10.

[5] Galatians 3:13.

[6] Repeated, in the Protestant conception of the commands.

[7] Kieślowski experienced technical difficulties including him in Decalogue VII, and chose not to show him amid the dark-humor atmosphere of X, a decision he later regretted (in Stok, Kieślowski on Kieślowski, 158).

[8] Annette Indsorf, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski (New York: Hyperion, 1999), 73.

[9] In Christian theology, a theophany is a sign or wonder of the appearance and presence of God, a manifestation of Him, but not His direct revelation, “for no one can see God and live” (Exodus 33:20). This is never his unveiled glory, but his veiled theophanic glory, as in speaking to Moses “face to face as a friend” (Exodus 33:11). Some other biblical theophanies include the “three men” who appear to Abraham (Genesis 18:10, 14), the “angel of the Lord” appearing to Manoah (Judges 13:18, 32), the flaming bush before Moses (Exodus 3:4), and the angel with whom Jacob wrestles (Genesis 32:30). These incidents are not to be confused with appearances of ordinary angels, as these specific texts allude to some variety of beholding of the divine, whereas other passages merely describe angels as messengers for the divine.

[10] For those not familiar with the experiment, the famous Russian actor Ivan Mozhukhin was filmed giving a neutral expression. Lev Kuleshov edited this image against a bowl of soup, a dead woman in a coffin, and a girl playing with a toy bear. Audiences often read the expression on the actor’s face as three different, subtle reactions to the scenes, reflecting hunger, sorrow, and joy, when, in fact, the expression never changed. This account may be found in most film history texts; Robert Sklar’s Film: An International History of the Medium (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1993), 151, and David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film History: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 132, are but two examples.

[11] Christopher Garbowski, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue Series: The Problem of the Protagonists and Their Self-Transcendence (Boulder, CO: Eastern European Monographs, 1996), 18. He is translating from a Polish interview with Barciś (“Grasz to, co masz w sobie. Z [ . . . ] rozmawia Tadeusz Sobolewski,” Kino 24.2 [1990]: 9).

[12] Found in the script for IV, scene 23. Krzysztof Kieślowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Decalogue: The Ten Commandments, trans. Phil Cavendish and Susannah Bluh (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), 111.

[*] Modes of abstraction in Kieślowski’s films are covered extensively in Chapter 2. Some of these scenes receive further treatment there. (The Films of Krzysztof Kieślowski: The Liminal Image by Joseph G. Kickasola. Continuum Books 2004).

[**] The concepts underlying this paragraph are detailed in Chapter 2.

[13] My thanks to Stefan Krauss for help with this translation.

[14] Insdorf, Double Lives, 80, Paul Coates, Lucid Dreams: The Films of Krzysztof Kieślowski (Trowbridge, Wiltshire, England: Flicks Books, 1999), 99, posit this as a likely interpretation. Maurer’s position is more dogmatic, Krzysztof Kieślowski, 44.

[***] I address the concept of this lack at length in Chapter 2.

[15] Some prominent examples are Carl Dreyer’s Ordet and Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her.

[16] Peter Fraser, Images of the Passion (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998).

Joseph G. Kickasola is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Baylor University. He lives in New York City.
posted by editor ::: July 03, 2004 ::: pheatures :::