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Kieslowski lays down the law

By Peter Keough

MARCH 28, 2000:  When Krzysztof Kieslowski died, on March 13, 1996, one can imagine him as grouchy but content. He had finished the Three Color Trilogy, a series on the secular virtues of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and a complement to his The Decalogue, 10 one-hour television movies exploring the divine commandments. In his early 50s, Kieslowski had retired from filmmaking, expressing an unwillingness to repeat himself. Nonetheless, he wrote screenplays for a new trilogy -- on Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory -- and chances seemed good that he might return to the screen. Then he checked into a Warsaw hospital -- one he apparently knew was not up to the task -- for heart-bypass surgery and never checked out. That, I guess, is the difference between him and David Letterman.

Facets Video is just now releasing Kieslowski's The Decalogue, and this five-volume set is the cinematic highlight of our young and so far mediocre millennium. In retrospect, you could easily see Kieslowski's own fate as the basis of an episode. In each of the 10 short films, characters take chances, press destiny for a clarifying resolution, an ironic reconfiguration of an irresolvable moral dilemma, with the stakes in most cases life and death.

As they are in Decalogue 1, whose commandment is "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other Gods before me." Krzysztof (Henryk Baranowski), a linguist, has no gods at all, only faith in reason, empirical science, and his computer. His young son Pawel (Wojciech Klata), a math and chess prodigy, has doubts about the meaning of it all when he sees a dead dog by the neighborhood lake. So dad gives him an early Christmas present -- a pair of skates -- and calculates when the ice will be thick enough to bear Pawel. But the father's faith fails him, and his comfort in the end is ice frozen in a baptismal font, curiously in the shape of a camera lens.

This and many of the subsequent episodes can be seen as variations on the sacrifice of Isaac -- how much people are willing to sacrifice for ideals, vanity, love. Invariably, a child is at issue. In Decalogue 2 -- "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" -- an old doctor (Aleksander Bardini), his own family wiped out in the war, is accosted by Dorota (Krystyna Janda), an upstairs neighbor (all the stories take place in the same soullessly modernist Warsaw apartment block) and the wife of one of his patients. Will her husband die, she asks? The doctor learns later that Dorota is pregnant by another man and that if her husband lives, she must have an abortion. For the doctor to decide the husband's future is to determine the baby's fate.

This is the godlike power of physicians and filmmakers. In synopsis, the tales of The Decalogue take on the syllogistic cast of legal and ethical problems -- no surprise given that Kieslowski's long-time collaborator, co-screenwriter Krzysztof Piesciewicz, is a lawyer. But no synopsis could do justice to the shot of Dorota's husband's face as he stares at a drip falling from the peeling ceiling of his hospital room or studies a wasp as it struggles to escape a cup of tea. Such faces and images, many reprised in Kieslowski's subsequent The Double Life of Véronique, along with the uncanny soundtrack music of Zbigniew Preisner, invoke a mood and realm beyond the constraints of the laws and ideals in question.

One face in particular keeps recurring, that of the actor Artur Barcis. Aquiline, wordless, he pops up like Alfred Hitchcock in nearly every segment (an exception is Decalogue 7; technical problems, Kieslowski said, spoiled the footage), not so much a wry, reflexive nod of authorship as a moment of reflectiveness. Kieslowski has described him as the Angel of Death, and his probing stare catches each protagonist at a crucial moment, poised between revelation and destruction.

Another exception is Decalogue 10, which with 5 and 6 (the latter expanded into the feature length A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love), is one of the best. Certainly it's the funniest. An old stamp collector, who apparently sacrificed his life and family to his hobby, dies, leaving his belongings to his sons. Artur (Zbigniew Zamachowski, who would return as the hero of White) is the singer for a punk-rock band; the film opens with one of their songs, an anarchist diatribe against the Ten Commandments. The older and more respectable Jerzy (Jerzy Stuhr) is henpecked and unfree.

Their lives change when they learn that their old man's collection is worth millions. Instead of cashing it in and moving on, however, they become obsessed themselves, losing everything -- amplifier, band, family, even a kidney -- in the attempt to complete an unfinished series of 1951 "Austrian Mercury" stamps. In the end they start anew, buying the same trio of stamps at the post office (from the tragic voyeur who is the hero of Decalogue 6). "A series!" they crow.

Some obsessions die hard. Maybe the same words came to Kieslowski, resigned, spent, but suddenly inspired, when he met his own Angel of Death.


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