Restorations Reviews

(11) Dekalog (Blu-ray release)

Dekalog VIII: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

Dekalog VIII touches on a topic that has been addressed countless time on film: the Holocaust. However, Kieślowski doesn’t approach the topic in a familiar way. It centers around an ethics teacher, Zofia (Maria Koscialkowska), and Elżbieta (Teresa Marczewska), a professional acquaintance who is sitting in on Zofia’s class.

dekalog-viiiZofia polls the class, searching for ethical dilemmas that they can discuss. A girl in the class volunteers a story, and recounts the dilemma that Dorota and the doctor faced in Dekalog II. It seems that word of this story has gotten around town, as Zofia is familiar with it as well. However, the mood changes when Elżbieta makes a point to record Zofia’s conclusion when she states, “the child is alive today and I thought that was the most important thing.” This seems to register with Elżbieta, who proceeds to tell her own story about a young girl during the Holocaust who was brought to an apartment where an adult couple was supposed to find her a place to hide. However, the couple told the young girl that they could not help her.

As the story unfolds, Zofia looks on with familiarity and becomes visibly uncomfortable, starting to shake. She asks about specific details of the story, each of which Elżbieta confirms. While she is recounting the events, the camera pans through the class and stops on Barciś, this time dressed as a student. He watches as Elżbieta recounts the tale and then his gaze turns directly toward the camera (presumably looking at Zofia’s reactions) before turning back to the story teller. The class tries, but cannot come up with any ethical reason that the family should have declined to help the little girl. Zofia challenges them to look at it from that perspective for the next class. When she gets a chance to speak with Elżbieta alone, it is revealed that Elżbieta was the little girl in question, and Zofia was the woman who turned her away. Zofia is shocked to learn that she survived the war.

Zofia offers to take Elżbieta to dinner, and the two depart from the University. Zofia decides that the two will stop by the apartment where the events during the war took place. Elżbieta wanders around the courtyard of the apartment building and then hides so that Zofia can’t find her. As Zofia walks around looking for Elżbieta, she grows more and more upset. It becomes clear that reliving that time is very upsetting for her. This will become a major theme of the episode, as the viewer is meant to ponder what living through the Holocaust might be like, and how difficult it might be to confront such memories.

When they go back to Zofia’s apartment, the two begin to talk about that night. They drink tea, and Elżbieta pauses as she brings the cup to her lips, remembering when they drank tea together back on that night. Elżbieta describes what happened to her after Zofia turned her away, and then Zofia reveals the real reason why they had to decline to help. It turns out that her husband was part of the Resistance and they had gotten false information that the people bringing Elżbieta to them were undercover members of the Gestapo and were looking to arrest people harboring Jews. Zofia clearly feels guilty for turning Elżbieta away to save herself, but she knew that if the report had been true, it would’ve meant certain death for all of them. Zofia puts her hands on Elżbieta’s shoulders, and the younger woman begins to cry.

Later, as they speak more calmly, Zofia discloses that the the scenario that had been discussed in her class revolved around a couple that lived in her building. While they are talking, a friend of Zofia’s who lives in the building stops by to show off some new stamps in his collection. This man and his stamp collection will be key figures in Dekalog X. Realizing the colorful characters that occupy the building, Elżbieta comments “Interesting building,” to which Zofia replies, “Like any other. Everyone has a story to tell.” This awareness of the ongoing narrative of Dekalog is a clearly intentional choice by Kieślowski, as is the message that this apartment building is not special. Though there are incredible stories unfolding, Kieślowski believes himself to simply be commenting on human nature.

The final sequence of the episode takes place at a tailor’s shop. Zofia takes Elżbieta to visit the man who would’ve protected her had they not turned her away during the war. When Elżbieta tells him who she is, he refuses to talk to her. He offers to make her a dress, but seems intent on not discussing the events of the war. Kieślowski returns to this idea of the trauma that World War II and the Holocaust brought to Europe. The episode ends as Zofia and Elżbieta talk happily outside the tailor’s shop, and he looks out the window at them.

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