Five years before his Three Colors trilogy followed three different stories with different characters, themes, tones, and visual compositions, with lives often intersecting in seemingly meaningless ways, Polish cinema giant Krzysztof Kieślowski had an even more ambitious cinematic project in Dekalog. The ten hour film, initially aired on Polish television, consists of ten films about different people in the same apartment complex in 1980s Warsaw. Each film, like in the later Three Colors trilogy, is unconnected to the others, save for momentary appearances by characters from other parts that rarely have any impact on the plot, and, rather than each being representative of a part of the French motto, each film in Dekalog concerns one of the Ten Commandments. Each film is a full story, usually about the struggles a character faces following their failure to follow one of the Commandments, and each feels distinct as they have different visual styles (a result of using nine different cinematographers) and distinct tonal presentations, as well as varying stories and characters. When viewed together, they become something more than any one film could be on its own. The result is a mosaic of life. The struggles every person faces are reflected in the struggles of others. People who seem unimportant become monumental and people who seemed monumental begin to fade. Life begins and life ends. And somewhere in all of that, it becomes the story, not of one person or of one group, or even one community, but the story of the entire world and all of humanity, with an encapsulation of all that makes us human.
Through stories about various struggles faced by the inhabitants of a Polish tenement (but could easily be faced by people in many parts of the world), we come to feel as if we are part of the community ourselves. From a father whose dependence on technology causes him to lose a child, to a woman who has a pregnancy that resulted from an affair while her husband seemed to be dying, to a man suffering from impotence and the issues it causes in his marriage, to children finding a wealth of treasures after the passing of their father, among other stories, each may be something grander and more cinematic than what happens in most people’s lives, but none are so far away from what we have experienced or seen our peers go through. This closeness to the types of events that unfold make them seem to truly be something that could be happening to our neighbors and the viewer begins to feel like a close friend being told the whole story, placed in the middle of the town gossip.
The two films that stray the farthest from the mundane, but are in some ways the most gripping, are likely the fifth and sixth films, which were both later expanded into feature-length films as a result of a contract in the production, allowing both more time to breathe and become more engrossing while also selling them to the international market. Yet neither are so far removed from possibility as to disrupt the sense of belonging found in the whole collection. The fifth part is about a young man who brutally murders a taxi driver before being sentenced to death and hanged. The sixth follows another misguided young man who spies on his female neighbor and manipulates her life, eventually declaring his love for her. These people, as those in many other episodes, are not good people and the choices they make are often horrendous, but Kieślowski refrains from passing judgement. Though most stories have unhappy endings here and the films could revel in characters getting what they deserve, they make sure to question the societal responses to their behaviors, which in themselves may lead to further suffering and hardship. Parts of Dekalog have been called Christian propaganda by some, partly due to the connection to the Ten Commandments and characters being punished for breaking them as well as the prevalent Christian imagery and inclusion on the Vatican film list, but that interpretation seems to miss the point that even those who try to live their lives by those morals are still complicit in ensuring suffering. It admonishes all of us and absolves few, making the suffering every person faces feel more personal and understandable and depicting even the most despicable people as worthy of some level of empathy.
There are few throughlines between all the stories apart from their general location and the presence of Artur Barciś, an actor who appears in eight films during pivotal scenes but never interacts. Many theorize that he represents divinity, and there is also the recurring appearances of milk. Occasionally two episodes will be linked by having a cameo from the lead of a previous or future episode, leading to a realization that everyone is important here, even if we don’t know it yet, as each episode reveals that any person could later become the lead and the viewer tries to file away every appearance just in case there is a surprise later.
The real connection between them all is the viewer. For every effort made to differentiate each film from the last, we know this is all one story, that lives overlap, and that every person is important. Too often we live our lives unaware of the difficulties in the lives of everyone outside of our close circle of friends and family, ignorant of the complexities of every interaction we have with people we will never see again. With its immense runtime and cast of characters and all of the different ways they go about their lives, Dekalog forces the viewer to reckon with the trials and triumphs and unknown histories of every person in their actual life. We mostly live unremarkable lives but that’s the most remarkable thing about them. Every day, billions of people face their own problems in their own ways and they mostly go unknown, but we are all here for now, in the same place, experiencing life together. Each of our stories is only part of a whole and we may make mistakes and we may fight against it but, as Dekalog shows us, we are all important and we all contribute to this immense, incalculable jumble of life in ways we could never imagine. We are all divine and that is what makes us most human.