blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Sum Up | Dekalog (1989-90, Krzysztof Kieslowski)

When talking about Dekalog, three things are going to come up. Religion in film (I’m listening to The Blessed Islands to get in the mood), Mannequin (you know, “Switcher!”), and Dekalog.

Since Dekalog is ten modern tales of the Ten Commandments–the director, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and his cowriter, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, mix various commandments in each episode. I’m hesitant to read too much about Kieslowski and Dekalog because it seems like if I was so interested in his story, I would’ve read it years ago, when I first heard about the film and thought I should see it. Dekalog is out on video–VHS, now DVD–in the United States from Facets. Facets is a Chicago film non-profit joint–and also video store–I heard at length growing up in the Chicago area.

I don’t think I ever went to the store. Maybe once. But probably not.

Facets released Dekalog in 1999–I remember my fellow video store clerks salivating over it, but I don’t know if any of us actually watched it. I know I didn’t. Before the VHS release, I think it played at the Music Box Theatre; I knew about it enough to know the VHS release was a big deal. Roger Ebert loved Dekalog. So, apparently, did Stanley Kubrick.

I don’t get it. I’ve seen all ten episodes. I don’t get it.

I have no idea how to talk about Dekalog; I wrote about each individual episode separately. I rolled my eyes at the returning character throughout the films–this guy who sometimes shows up to watch the characters as they go about doing something they shouldn’t, whether committing adultery or liking their computers too much. But he’s not in every episode. So some commandment breaking is worth witnessing and some isn’t.

In the second episode, the lead of the first shows up for a second. Then, later on in the series, one episode mentions the events in another. How do the new episodes characters know about it? Because everyone knows everything, it’s a “small” huge city. A lot of the episodes take place in the same housing complex, but Kieslowski doesn’t do anything with it.

So what makes Dekalog so significant? Film critics spent the nineties blathering about Kieslowski, who’s been forgotten since Miramax can’t try to get any more Best Foreign Picture Oscars (Kieslowski passed away back in the mid-nineties). In the great information transfer from film snobbery to Internet film enthusiasm, Kieslowski and Dekalog mostly got left behind. It’s not like Facets is Criterion, after all. They aren’t the brand of usually accessible, but still somewhat elite, films.

Criterion’s about a wide audience. Facets doesn’t seem to care. Or at least it didn’t when I was a teenager. But it doesn’t matter; Dekalog has always been presented towards a wider audience. Ebert championed it, after all.

Dekalog raises a significant question about film. Is being about religiousness enough for something to be “good” or “significant.” Kieslowski’s not good at it–the exploration of the Commandments and so on. The writers are sensational and often let that sensationalism get in the way of the reality of the story. The first episode has a home automation computer–running BASIC–more advanced than anything you can get now. Kieslowski just wants to crap on technology and figures his audience doesn’t include anyone knowledgable about computers, which might not have been a lot of people in 1989 Poland, but still. It’s goofy.

However, I’m not religious. I haven’t seen The Ten Commandments since a Thanksgiving long ago. Is it even Thanksgiving? See? Not religious. Should me not being religious affect how I perceive Dekalog? No. It’s about people. It’s made by people, it’s about people. It’s about dumb people, it’s about obvious people, it’s about unbelievable people.

Is it ever about real people? Kieslowski puts his actors through such narrative hoops, it rarely feels honest. The manipulation is incredible. Here’s where if I wanted to spend the time, I could look up other reviews of Dekalog and talk about them. But this post is already on its second draft and one of the best things about Dekalog is me being done watching it.

I picked Dekalog for The Stop Button’s tenth anniversary short film emphasis (sharing that spotlight with Jacques Tati’s short films, the silent shorts of Buster Keaton and episodes of the British anthology show, “Journey to the Unknown”) because I’d meant to see it since 1999. I’d never even gotten around to seeing Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy, even though I made a joke about it in my post on Red. The Brian Cox one. The second Brian Cox one.

Stop Button’s tenth anniversary feature emphasis involved watching a list of Movielens suggestions; on one of those preliminary suggestion lists was Kieslowski’s Red. It reminded me about Dekalog, so when I was working out a weekly short film schedule, Decalogue made it.

For short subjects–whether it’s a short film, a cartoon, an episode of an anthology television show–I use a three “star” system–“Not Recommended,” “Recommended,” “Highly Recommended.” On the site, I recommend one episode of Dekalog and highly recommend two others. So I don’t recommend seventy percent of Dekalog. Dekalog runs 572 minutes or nine and a half hours. I do almost want to marathon it just to torture myself, like as a live blogging thing but there are at least four hours in there I really never want to see again.

For a while, I thought about doing a silly trailer with clips from each episode cut together like Miramax was going to release a dubbed version. I had done similar video essays, which is what Criterion calls them–I call them “Stop Button Modells,” which no one gets–as a new feature for the tenth anniversary of the site. Then, during Eight, which is easily the best episode, I decided I wouldn’t do it without clips from all the episodes and I wouldn’t use clips from Eight because the acting is too good to put alongside the bad acting in other episodes. Eight deserves respect. Does the rest of Dekalog deserve ridicule?

Probably not more than forty-five minutes of it. Maybe fifty. Well, fifty plus almost every moment in Ten.

Movielens has a single listing for Dekalog. Not ten different parts, just one. One nine and a half hour movie. I did some fake math–the math is real but the reasoning behind how I do the math is baloney–and determined, with mathematic malarky, I would give Dekalog one and a half stars. For purposes of recording on Movielens, which I actually adjust to two and a half stars (as Movielens has five possible stars and “The Stop Button” goes to four).

Still awake? Still waiting for that Mannequin reference? How I wish there was a way to code a police officer emoji chasing a dog emoji across the screen right now. šŸ¶ šŸ‘®

Well, here’s the Mannequin reference. I give Mannequin a star and a half. I give Mad Max 4 a star and a half. I give Starship Troopers 3 a star and a half. And, if I was going to give it anything, I’d give Dekalog a star and a half. Not really recommended, but special circumstances. When I was looking at the films I do give a star and a half, they tend to be the ones I’m most contrarian about–Oldboy, L.A. Confidential, Nightmare Alley–so Dekalog fits right in. Even though I never intended to give it a star rating.

And Dekalog shouldn’t have a star rating. It’s way too complex for a real one. Not because it’s about the Ten Commandments or because Kieslowski can get so pretentious while unable to compose for television aspect ratio, but because it’s too long. Dekalog is too long, has too many actors, to be discussed traditionally.

Hence this post having a lot of Mannequin references. In emoji. šŸŽˆšŸ•

After nine and a half hours, I feel like Dekalog should have taught me something. It did make me realize film and film criticism have become lapsed Catholics (to the age of reason perhaps). But that topic’s worth real scholarship and I’m ready to be done with Dekalog.

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