The tube gets serious

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?

3 thoughts on “The tube gets serious”

  1. Kieslowski films
    I am a very big fan of Kieslowski and really enjoy all of his work. Its too bad that Kieslowski died at a young age because he was in the early stages of planning a trilogy on Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. Which would have been great. Heaven was made by the German Director (Twyker) though and with him helming the film it produced poor results. I think Kieslowski’s films on the french Flag Red white and Blue are also wonderfull. Watching each Kieslowski film appear was a great joy and his ability to group pictures whether in the miniseries or red-white and blue. His ability to sustain a high quality of work throughout is exceptional. He will be missed

  2. Kieslowski’s Decalogue
    Do you have an opinion as to the identify, or significance, of the silent stranger who appears in, I think, all but two of the espisodes?


    • The eye of God?
      I suppose his all-seeing presence puts the struggles into a common setting that implicitly gives them a higher significance. They nonetheless remain exactly as they are as struggles because he never says or does anything or even makes his presence known.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.


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