Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Faith, Doubt, and Chiasmus in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue I

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Faith, Doubt, and Chiasmus in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue I

Article excerpt

"I don't believe in God, but I have a good relationship with him."

Krzysztof Kieslowski1

"I don't go to church, I don't use the word 'God,' but that does not mean he does not exist."

Zofia (Decalogue VIII)2


Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue I (I am the Lord thy God: Thou shalt not have other gods before me) is by far the darkest of the ten short films in which, for each film, one of the ten commandments appears to be, in some degree, the organizing thematic principle. Nevertheless, this first film in the series, dark as it is, is in many ways typical of the remaining films, and so is preparatory of Kieslowski's exploratory procedure throughout the series. That is to say, The Decalogue is not a didactic work; as Kieslowski takes pains to point out, the individual episodes are not homilies. They are, instead, hypothetical scenarios, or, as Kieslowski puts it, they present "circumstances which are fictitious but which could occur in every- day life,"3 circumstances in which particular commandments emerge, sometimes centrally, sometimes obliquely, sometimes even as they are evaded or violated, as relevant guiding principles of action for the characters of a given film. The films expose just how difficult it is to live according to the commandments-how fortu- itous and unique circumstances test their authority; how characters, as they try to do the right thing, adjust, bend, or even compromise these rules of conduct in re- sponse to the vagaries, inconsistencies and unpredictability of concrete experi- ence, which rule-making will always fail to anticipate; how, subsequently, the at- tempt to obey one commandment sometimes will implicate other commandments. As Paul Coates puts it, "it is hardly surprising that several episodes seem swung in a cat's cradle of more than one commandment."4

Thus, didacticism simply cannot survive this casuistic sensitivity-this awareness, that is, of the difficulty of adjusting precept, legal or moral, to con- crete disclosures of unpredictable and messy circumstance.5 Accordingly, as Coates observes, Kieslowski aims at "rescinding any incipient, almost pat didacti- cism."6 The homily for Kieslowski unduly simplifies the problem of distinguish- ing right from wrong. This, of course, is not the same as saying that right and wrong are relative or unknowable. As Kieslowski says of what he and Piesiewicz wished to say,

[p]riests draw upon [the ten commandments] every day and we weren't here to preach. We didn't want to adopt the tone of those who praise or condemn, handing out a reward here for doing Good and a punishment for doing Evil. Rather, we wished to say: We know no more than you [about what is the right or wrong thing to do in this particular situation]. But maybe it is worth investigating the unknown, if only because the very feel- ing of not knowing is a painful one.7

Elsewhere, he says as much, but perhaps a little more: "I believe in Right and Wrong, although it is difficult to talk about black and white in the times in which we live. But I think one is definitely better than the other and I do believe that people want to choose right-it is just that sometimes they are unable to do so."8

This is the precisely the conceptual territory of Decalogue I. The story concerns a father, Krzysztof (Henryk Baranowski), a professor and a scientist, whose precocious son Pawel (Wojciech Klata) drowns days before Christmas af- ter he falls, while skating, through the ice on the pond near their apartment, even though the father's painstaking mathematical calculations indicate to his satisfac- tion that breaking through the ice is an impossibility. This story unfolds within the context of the polite but irreconcilable struggle that crystallizes in the film be- tween Krzysztof and his sister, Irena (Maja Komorowska), over how to educate Pawel. On the one hand, Krzysztof is a religious skeptic, committed as he is to the scientific method and to the sovereignty and self-sufficiency of the human intel- lect-to, that is, one kind of god. …

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