Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski
Screenplay: Krzysztof Kieślowski, Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Starring: Krystyna Janda, Grazyna Szapolowska Grażyna Szapołowska, Jerzy Stuhr
Running Time: 572 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
“What shows are you watching right now? Westworld? Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life? Stranger Things? The Night Of?”
“Dekalog, the Polish show by Krzysztof Kieślowski. Came out in late 1989. It’s 10 standalone stories all set in the same housing complex in Warsaw, each loosely based on one of the Ten Commandments. Not in a preachy way though, more in a philosophical, ethical and moral way.”
No, I’m not trying to out-hipster the guy who seeks out the latest Nordic noir series before anyone else sees it, this conversation has actually been a fairly typical one for me over the past few weeks. Plus, anyone who has heard of Dekalog has probably also heard that it is generally regarded as one of the greatest television shows of all time, so it’s hardly obscure.
In one of the extras in this set, a journalist recounts how when Dekalog played at a film festival the critics had to rush out to try to remember what each of the Ten Commandments were. Each episode is simply numbered, it’s not as on-the-nose as say, the sin-themed murders of Seven, so after watching Dekalog: One, where a scientist’s son dies ice skating on a lake It’s something an experience to which I can certainly relate.
So, this was not worshipping other gods, then there’s thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal and the one about not coveting your neighbour’s wife or whatnot. I couldn’t remember them all, but I’m pretty sure ‘thou shalt not speed around Warsaw with your former mistress on Christmas Eve looking for her husband’ isn’t one of them. Unlike those early-90s film-festival-goers, I had the internet to help me out, but it’s not overly important to know which episode relates to which commandment. I stopped thinking about it a few episodes in.
Like any anthology series, some stories will stand out more than others. But Dekalog is so consistently well-made (despite next-to-nothing budgets than reportedly only afforded Kieślowski two takes maximum) that this may simply come down to which moral dilemmas interest you more.
As well as Dekalog: One, other standouts for me include a young mother and her daughter who were raised as sisters to avoid scandal, an examination of the death sentence, and a Jewish woman who confronts a professor who refused to hide her from the Nazis as a child.
Each episode is incredibly efficient. There’s not an ounce of fat in the near-10-hour runtime. It’s tightly written and edited, with more than enough room to breathe (there are numerous long stretches without dialogue, and the score is perfectly minimal).
Despite the seemingly grand philosophical and ethical themes, the stories are achingly human and relatable. Even if you can’t empathise with a particular character, you can probably sympathise, or vice versa. At the very least you can feel and understand their quandary. Dekalog: Two, for example involves a woman whose husband is critically ill, while she is pregnant with her lover’s child. Does she terminate the baby lest her husband survive, but risk losing both?
These are universal tales that show that there are no universal guidelines that will guide us faultlessly through life. They show us that the power to make the world better lies in each of us and the choices we make.
Dekalog and Other Television Works is out now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Arrow Films
Special edition contents
- 4K restoration of all 10 episodes, presented in their original broadcast aspect ratios
- Original Polish mono soundtrack (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-rays), with optional English subtitles
- Pedestrian Subway (1973, 29 mins), Kieślowski’s professional fiction debut, about a man trying to repair a failed marriage
- First Love (1974, 52 mins), a docudrama about a teenage couple coping with an unwanted pregnancy
- Personnel (1975, 67 mins), Kieślowski’s first feature-length fiction film, a partly autobiographical piece about a Warsaw theatre company
- The Calm (1976, 82 mins), one of Kieślowski’s most powerful early films, about a man rebuilding his life in mid-70s Poland after a short prison sentence
- Short Working Day (1981, 73 mins), Kieślowski’s study of a political strike, controversially told from the viewpoint of a Communist functionary trying to keep order
- Krzysztof Kieślowski: Still Alive (2007), an affectionate 82-minute portrait of the director by his former student Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz, including interviews with dozens of friends and colleagues
- Collector’s booklet featuring a lengthy essay on Dekalog and Kieślowski by Father Marek Lis, plus Kieślowski’s own intensely self-critical discussion of all the films in this set and Stanley Kubrick’s famous eulogy to Kieślowski and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz
- The Guardian Interview: Krzysztof Kieślowski (93 mins), an onstage conversation with Derek Malcolm at London’s National Film Theatre on 2 April 1990 to mark the British premiere of Dekalog
- Dekalog: An Appreciation (78 mins), in which critic Tony Rayns, a Kieślowski champion for many decades, pays tribute to his masterpiece
- KKTV (75 mins), Polish cinema expert Michael Brooke explores Kieślowski’s small-screen output in the context of his work as a whole