I’ve been watching the Polish TV miniseries The Decalogue, directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. It’s really extraordinary, the ultimate category-buster as far as TV miniseries go.
As the name suggests, there are 10 films or episodes, each based (somewhat loosely) on one of the 10 Commandments and each about the lives and moral struggles of various Poles living in the same tower housing complex sometime in the mid to late ’80s. In what I’ve seen so far the struggles have to do with the most vivid moral difficulties such people are likely to run into in everyday life: death, fractured and fragmentary human relations resulting from various sexual entanglements, and still-living memories of the War. A young woman abducts the illegitimate child she had given up. A single father trains his son to live by reason and his son dies in a pointless accident. A Holocaust survivor confronts an ethics professor who failed to help her. An aging doctor who lost his wife, child and father in a German air raid learns that a woman will abort her lover’s child unless he advises her that her husband’s death is certain.
The presentation is natural and understated, the people diverse, complex and lifelike, and the puzzles and conflicts genuine and immensely interesting. Each segment has a different cinematographer, which adds visual interest, and the domestic and neighborhood settings, together with the fact the series was originally done for TV, means nothing is lost watching them on DVD. I suppose I could complain that the earlier scenes in some of segments tend to be incomprehensible, but I like the series too much to complain, maybe I’d follow better if I were a Pole, and anyway the device fits the narrative scheme of presenting a puzzle (why is the ex-mistress acting like such a lunatic? why didn’t the ethics professor help the child?) that is then resolved. A minor pleasure (it’s my blog and I can talk about anything I want) is figuring out the Polish words for this and that: sandwich is evidently “canapke,” Christmas Eve “Vigilia,” and so on. Every now and then a character uses an English word or phrase, which always seems worth noting. What is it about that word or phrase that makes it worth using? It’s rarely evident.
A less idiosyncratic question, I suppose, is what the audience is for this sort of stuff. My wife and I liked it very much, but then we like films about normal people and their issues and characters. We liked the Apu trilogy, for example, which an outraged French chemist described to us (not without some basis) as watching the grass grow. The series was produced with the patronage of the West Germans (according to Wikipedia), so it didn’t have to be self-supporting, but it’s not likely something this good and basically accessible could come about without a solid audience for that kind of thing. I wonder how many Poles watched it and what they thought of it? Did any of the characters get a fan club?