Restorations Reviews

(11) Dekalog (Blu-ray release)

Dekalog I: I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have other gods before me.

The first episode of the series opens on Barciś’s mysterious stranger. In this setting, he is a homeless man seated by a frozen lake with a dying fire before him. He looks directly at the camera with piercing blue eyes and wipes away a single tear. With this, Kieślowski sets the tone for the first story.

decalogue-1The story revolves around Krzysztof (Henryk Baranowski) and Paweł (Wojciech Klata), a father and son living in a small apartment. It is clear from the beginning that the two get along quite well and share a passion for knowledge and learning. Paweł urges his father to give him complex math problems which he can solve with his computer. The two place a high value on the knowledge that technology can provide. Krzysztof, who works as a professor, would even imply the possibility of technology having a consciousness in a lecture later in the episode.

The major theme throughout Dekalog I is the idea of faith versus science. Paweł passes by a large church on his way to school when he sees a dead dog that he recognizes as a local stray. This event pushes Paweł to something of an existential crisis, leading him to question his father about the nature of death. Krzysztof describes death as a scientific process in which life simply ends. Paweł’s aunt (Maja Komorowska) juxtaposes his father, as she provides the child with religious guidance. When he asks her about God, she explains that God is easy to understand if you simply believe in him. While with his aunt, she shows Paweł photos of the Pope. Paweł’s asks “Is he a good man? Intelligent?” indicating that his view of morality and what makes a good person is directly tied to knowledge.

Kieślowski has never been one to shy away from the unexplainable, and he utilizes that device in Dekalog I. When Paweł and Krzysztof arrive home one evening, they see that one of their computers has turned on on its own, and shows the text “I am ready.” Krzysztof dismisses the event at the time and simply turns the computer off. This is a major turning point in the story, though the characters do not yet realize it. Their next act is to calculate the amount of weight that should be supported by the lake near their home, as Paweł is hoping to test out a new pair of ice skates. Krzysztof is very cautious, using his computer to test the calculation twice (determining that a man three times Paweł’s size could skate safely) and testing the ice himself to ensure its stability. It is while he’s doing this that he encounters the stranger, still sitting by his fire. It is unclear whether the man is an omen, a helpless observer, or something else, but Krzysztof is obviously affected by seeing him as he turns to go back home.

Later, as Krzysztof sits at his desk working, a jar of blue ink inexplicably cracks and floods all over his papers. This proves to be an extremely effective piece of symbolism. As Krzysztof speaks to his sister after realizing that his son is missing and learning that the ice on the lake has broken, he assigns the breaking of the ink jar some significance, as if assuming it to be a premonition. He goes out searching for Paweł, but it becomes more and more clear that his son was indeed out skating when the ice broke. A particularly heartbreaking scene unfolds when rescue crews begin to pull the frozen bodies of several children out of the lake. The crowds of onlookers kneel, as Krzysztof stands in disbelief, with his sister’s hands on his shoulders.

The final sequences of the episode truly broach the ethical question of placing science ahead of faith. First, sitting in his apartment, Krzysztof notices the computer turn on, and again it shows the words “I am ready.” After this event, he goes to the church where several candles are lit on a table. Krzysztof shoves the table over, causing wax to drip on a picture of the Virgin Mary in the form of a tear. The symbolism here is clear, as the religious icon weeps for the lost child on behalf of the audience. Krzysztof then brings a block of frozen holy water to his forehead as Kieślowski takes us back to a scene from early in the episode where an image of Paweł and some other children can be seen on a television. The episode closes on a close up of Paweł’s face on the screen.

The first episode of the series is among the most emotionally jarring. Kieślowski certainly doesn’t shy away from addressing topics such as mortality out of the gate. The death of an innocent, and by all accounts very kind, child is devastating for the viewer. This is amongst the most pessimistic installments of Dekalog, but also amongst the few that are arguably the most effective and memorable.

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