So what can we take away from this series? It is so narratively fractured and yet thematically unified that it can be difficult to assign an exact importance or quality to the full work. It has the creative and technical qualities of a great film but the serialized structure of a TV show, and so to what work can Dekalog be compared? The best lens through which this work can be viewed or measure is in the context of its creator’s oeuvre.
Certainly, Dekalog could be considered a turning point for Kieślowski. Early in his career he had focused largely on short documentary filmmaking, but as he progressed into fictional storytelling, he became more expressive and began to confront the types of moral gray areas that Dekalog searches for. However, it is in the ten-part series that he truly found his voice. Part of this awakening can be attributed to collaboration. Many of the people who worked on Dekalog were collaborating with Kieślowski for the first time, but would continue to work with him for the remainder of his life and career. Everyone from actors to cinematographers to composer Zbigniew Preisner to writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz returned to work with Kieślowski again on his final four projects.
Given the nature of the series, there is not a singular message to be pulled from it. The attribution of each episode to one of the Ten Commandments is the greatest moral guide that can be pointed to in discussing the series as a whole, but raises ethical questions. Kieślowski didn’t seem to be explicitly warning viewers of the dangers of breaking a commandment. Instead, he speculated on the meaning of these long held principles, and what their value is in modern society. He allowed good people to be punished, like in Dekalog I. He created a world where violating a commandment and facing God’s wrath could be used to one’s advantage as the doctor does in Dekalog II. He even makes the viewer question whether punishment is justified for the worst of crimes, as in Dekalog V.
Through the use of different cinematographers, Kieślowski takes the viewer into the worlds of each of his characters. Though they are all set in Warsaw and in the same apartment building, each story occupies the consciousness of its protagonist. Preisner’s score is beautiful and haunting, but he departs from the pattern where necessary. He allows the tone of the music to flow with the tone of each individual episode, further immersing the viewer into the souls of the characters.
The impact that Dekalog had on audiences and filmmakers is immeasurable. Certainly, the series altered the direction of Polish cinema and propelled Kieślowski’s career to a whole other level. A masterpiece in its own right, the series also served as something of a practice ground for the incredible works that the director had ahead of him. Despite the nearly 10 hour run time, Dekalog does not drag for a moment. It is an enchanting film experience with layers of brilliance. It is a true masterpiece.
“I believe the life of every person is worthy of scrutiny, containing its own secrets and dramas.”