Ten commandments. 10 episodes. 10 hours. When it first aired on Polish television in 1989, decades before long-form filmmaking would come to be regarded as the last bastion of auteurism, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Dekalog” was one of the most immense undertakings the cinema had ever seen. There had been longer works, and more lavishly financed ones — even when accounting for inflation, “Dekalog” would qualify as a micro-budget project — but the existential girth of Kieślowski’s magnum opus immediately made it feel like a monolith among molehills.
Even in the age of Netflix and “The Knick,” when directors are often responsible for delivering 600 minutes of footage at a time, Kieślowski’s epic still towers above the rest, and still seems somehow fuller than any of the similarly ambitious projects that have sprung up in its wake. It may not be the tallest building on the block, but — crammed with sex, death, love, murder, regret, reprisals, and enough moral fiber to earn the Vatican’s highest endorsement in spite of its many iniquities — it’s almost certainly the one most dense with life.
And yet, for a biblically-scaled film cycle so rich with irony that it seems to be chipping off the walls of the brutalist apartment complex where most of it takes place, perhaps the greatest irony of them all is that “Dekalog” is ultimately defined by its humility.
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“Humility” may not seem like the most natural word to associate with a man who tended to think in trilogies, a storyteller who wouldn’t get out of bed to make a movie that didn’t look to poke holes in the very fabric of the universe, but Kieślowski was only so good at asking the impossible questions because he never attempted to answer them.
He was obsessed with matters of everyday happenstance, drawn to the depth of petty details (see: the bee in “Dekalog 2,” or the fish in “Dekalog 10”). He was enchanted by chance, and utterly convinced that fate is the sum of the choices we make. His films argued that life cannot be solved, only accepted — if that became a solution in itself, then so be it. “Everyone has a story to tell,” someone observes in “Dekalog 8,” more than two thirds of the way through a film cycle which seems determined to prove that point as well as any work of fiction ever had. If, as Roger Ebert once wrote, “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” then “Dekalog” is one of the cinema’s greatest marvels of engineering.
There have been precious few filmmakers for whom bigger was truly better, but Kieślowski was one of them. Like a particle accelerator that needs a massive slab of real estate in order to find something the size of a single atom, Kieślowski’s 10-tiered epic uses a thousand tons of concrete and glass — and a cast of hundreds — in order to access something so small that it’s seldom been captured on film. In fact, it could be argued that Kieślowski was attempting to depict the feeling of smallness itself, using this untenably large project to help us locate ourselves on a cosmic scale.
It’s one thing to watch “For All Mankind” and recognize our place in a vast and indifferent universe, but quite another to see things on a granular level and grapple with the egocentricity of human existence, to dig into the narrow reality of our lives and appreciate how — for all of our laws and guidelines — we’re ultimately a planet of unsupervised children.
Inspired by the Ten Commandments but never the least bit didactic about their meaning, “Dekalog” is a far cry from the heavy-handed religious treaty suggested by its premise. In fact, while the subject of some episodes can be neatly assigned to a single line of Old Testament scripture, all of these stories — much like the man who directed them — are too dazzled by the sheer complexity of existence to pretend that life can fit within a rigid set of guidelines. The oppressive drabness of the housing development that shelves all of these characters on top of each other only serves to accentuate the strikingly ordinary nature of the dramas that unfold inside (and far beyond). Remember that self-immolating speech the fake Robert McKee delivers in “Adaptation?” You know: “Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind?” “Dekalog” proves his point.
Describing the dictum that he set for himself and his co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Kieślowski once suggested that the episodes “Should be influenced by the individual Commandments to the same degree that the Commandments influence our daily lives.” Which is to say, very loosely.