Daily | Krzysztof Kieslowski's DEKALOG
And the THREE COLORS trilogy is being revived in Austin as well. Updated through 10/1.
"Twenty years after it originally played US theaters, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s insanely ambitious Dekalog is back to toss a gasoline-soaked rag onto the constantly raging film versus TV debate," begins Mike D'Angelo at the AV Club. "Kieslowski (who died in 1996) was primarily a movie director, best known here for The Double Life of Véronique and his cosmopolitan Three Colors trilogy (Blue, White, and Red). Back in the late 80s, however, he and his regular screenwriting partner, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, created a miniseries consisting of 10 hour-long films, each of which riffs on one of the Ten Commandments. The result ranks among the greatest achievements in television history—but it also produced two feature films, expanded from two of the episodes. One of them, A Short Film About Killing, won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1988… So, is this masterwork film or TV or some line-straddling combination? Answer: When it’s this terrific, who really cares?"
"Dekalog certainly lives up to its reputation as a mind-altering masterpiece," declares Bilge Ebiri in the Voice. "You marvel at the precision of its filmmaking even as it spreads an atmosphere of moral unease. Each episode takes place, at least partly, in a massive Warsaw apartment complex. And while individual flats vary from luxurious to monk-like, the overall mood is bleak, verging on despair. Kieslowski would become something of an aesthete and a mannerist in later years…, but in Dekalog, maybe due to its TV origins, his camera is mostly still and close, though the films don't lack poetry. The tales start quietly but gather complexity, ambiguity, and emotional force as they proceed. They pose ethical conundrums and present simple, dramatic scenarios; by the end of each installment, we're faced not with answers, or even hints of answers, but with the irreducible, unresolvable messiness of life."
Writing for Slant, Jake Cole notes that "episodes are uniquely aestheticized, befitting their own distinct thematic fixations; Kieslowski even went so far as to employ a different director of cinematography for almost every episode. One of the all-time great wielders of color, the filmmaker uses subtle color tints to evoke specific moods. The icy blues that connote a cold winter in episode one, for example, are offset by the sickly, unnatural greens of the computer screens that fill the professor’s apartment. Episode three, set on Christmas, finds clever ways to incorporate festive reds, using car taillights and flashing police warnings to shade the frame. Episode six, given its extensive fixation on voyeurism, is appropriately cloaked in shadow, and much of its shots are composed at a distance, peering through barriers like windows and doorframes to add to the sense that the characters are under constant surveillance."
"The key to the tenderness of Kieslowski’s film is how he reveals, suggests, nudges interior states to the surface through concrete gestures that resist interpretation," writes Ray Pride in Newcity Film. "Introducing the published screenplay in 1991, Stanley Kubrick, in the only blurb he ever provided, wrote, 'I am always reluctant to single out some particular feature of the work of a major filmmaker because it tends inevitably to simplify and reduce the work.'" But Kieslowski and Piesiewicz, Kubrick argued, "have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them."
"Over time he struck me as alternately witty, colorful, relaxed, charming, closed off and intense." Patrick McGavin introduces a conversation with Kieslowski "culled from a series of interviews with the filmmaker dating from September 1989 to November 1994, done either individually by Zbigniew Banas, myself or the two of us in collaboration. They were done in Cannes, Toronto and Chicago."
RogerEbert.com has also posted Ebert's 2000 review: "There is a young man who appears in eight of [the episodes], a solemn onlooker who never says anything but sometimes makes sad eye contact. I thought perhaps he represented Christ, but Kieslowski, in an essay about the series, says, 'I don’t know who he is; just a guy who comes and watches us, our lives. He’s not very pleased with us.' Directors are notorious for not pinning down the meanings of their images. I like the theory of Annette Insdorf, in her valuable book about Kieslowski, Double Lives, Second Chances; she compares the watcher to the angels in Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, who are 'pure gaze'—able to 'record human folly and suffering but unable to alter the course of the lives they witness.'"
"You may think of the characters in all of these movies as godless, but that, perhaps, is a term for the devout to use as they wish," writes Andrew Crump at the Playlist. "The truth is that these characters are hopeless, which is a good deal more disquieting."
Starting tomorrow, the Austin Film Society is presenting Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy, one film each Thursday, before rolling out the Decalog. These "are some of the most visually arresting films of contemporary cinema," writes AFS Head of Film & Creative Media Holly Herrick.
Update, 9/1: "Even in the age of Netflix and The Knick, when directors are often responsible for delivering 600 minutes of footage at a time, Kieslowski’s epic still towers above the rest," writes Indiewire's David Ehrlich. "It may not be the tallest building on the block, but—crammed with sex, death, love, murder, regret, reprisals, and enough moral fiber to earn the Vatican’s highest endorsement in spite of its many iniquities—it’s almost certainly the one most dense with life. And yet, for a biblically-scaled film cycle so rich with irony that it seems to be chipping off the walls of the brutalist apartment complex where most of it takes place, perhaps the greatest irony of them all is that Dekalog is ultimately defined by its humility."
Update, 9/2: Ella Taylor for NPR: "Perpetually confounded, these ordinary folk inhabit a film masterpiece of urgent philosophical inquiry that asks the eternal question, How shall we live? And as every storyteller knows, we are never messier, funnier or more poignant than when we are trying to be good."
"You can see the influence of Dekalog all over the place," suggests Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, "but perhaps first and foremost in David Chase’s Sopranos, which brought a similar spirit of religious and existential inquiry to a different narrative universe, using the story of a New Jersey mob boss as a way to explore American family life and the decaying social contract of the 21st century. Dekalog was much more than a series of short movies accidentally jammed into television and more than a peculiar cultural artifact of late communism. It was the beginning of a process that set television free."
Bilge Ebiri introduces an interview for the Voice: "Starting with 1985's No End, composer Zbigniew Preisner served as one of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s closest collaborators—he worked on all of the director's films until Kieslowski’s death in 1996, with several of their collaborations actually revolving around the world of music."
Updates, 9/3: "Kieslowski initially intended for a different young director to work on each of the Dekalog films," notes Kristin M. Jones in the Wall Street Journal. "He eventually chose to direct them himself… Another important collaborator was Zbigniew Preisner, who composed the spare, sometimes otherworldly score. His other collaborations with Kieslowski include the radiant The Double Life of Véronique (1991), which was partly inspired by a character in Dekalog: Nine, a singer with a weak heart."
And Edward Dunn talks with Preisner about working with Kieslowski here in Keyframe.
Update, 9/6: "There is a sequence in Dekalog One that is possibly the key to the spawning of Dekalog’s entirety," writes Samuel T. Adams for Brooklyn Magazine. "The father, a professor, lectures a class of students on the estranged intimacy of a foreign language: how do you get to know what’s hidden beneath history, politics, culture, and the soul of a language that isn’t your own even if you know it well? The professor singles out technology to sort the obstacle of translation—an unfortunate choice. In the Dekalog, Kieslowski strips his native being down to a universal visual language, and with the help of collaboration from his peers, unpacks the plethora of complexities hidden beneath and within all that is human in this ferocious masterpiece. In short, ditch formula and equation, and just rip through to the meat no matter the means."
Updates, 10/1: “In Kieslowski’s dialectic of consciousness and matter,” writes Paul Coates for Criterion, “Poles’ subjection to an increasingly oppressive, dysfunctional materiality ironically generated an immaterial place at which they met: the discourse of humble dreams…. Metaphysics and revolution percolate through each other as people grasp their status as ghosts in the machine, incompatible with it. If such everyday suffering affects first the working-class protagonists of Kieslowski’s earliest films, in Dekalog it extends to other social strata, such as doctors, rock stars, and university professors, indicating its pervasiveness in society.”
"Dekalog: Ten is the closest Kieslowski comes to lighthearted comedy," writes Sean Axmaker at Parallax View. "The episode opens with a punk singer belting out a song poking fun at the Ten Commandments. The vocalist (Zbigniew Zamachowski, who Kieslowski later cast as the hapless street musician hero of White) reunites with his conservative brother over the death of their father when they discover that he’s left them a priceless stamp collection. The plot turns on a con game but Kieslowski centers the film on the brothers’ emotional journey through sacrifice, suspicion, and loss until, when all looks bleakest, they find within themselves a sense of hope and family connection. Kieslowski leaves us with humor and ends the series on a quiet, modest, lovely grace note endowed with hope."
"With anything by Kieslowski, engagement is more important than understanding," writes Andrew Welch for Movie Mezzanine. "Most of us would prefer it the other way around, but The Decalogue challenges us switch them."