If you don’t know already, Barnes and Noble is currently doing their semi-annual Criterion Collection sale. You can get any of their releases for 50% off, and it’s a particularly great time of year to pick up some of The Criterion Collection’s exceptional box sets for a steal. But which one to pick up? My favorite release of 2015, The Apu Trilogy (see my thoughts here)? The Lone Wolf and Cub set I reviewed yesterday (see my thoughts here)? Wim Wender’s The Road Trilogy, which came out earlier this year (see my thoughts here)? All good choices. But today I’m going to recommend a release that I had been looking forward to for years before it finally arrived a bit ago: Krisztof Kieslowski’s epic ten-part television event, Dekalog.
The Criterion Collection has already given us some lovely releases of Kieslowski’s films, from Blind Chance (which I reviewed here), to The Double Life of Vêronique (which I talked about on a podcast here), to his final magnum opus The Three Colors Trilogy (which I haven’t written about or talked about with anyone yet). These are some of my favorite releases of some of my favorite films, yet despite my admiration for Kieslowski I had never watched any of the part of Dekalog until recently. Why? Well, there were rumors swirling that Criterion was going to release it, and I thought it would be worth the wait. It was. These are ten films (plus two that were extended into feature films released in the theater; both versions are available in this set) that I will go back to again and again. They are human and humane as they explore so many of the mysteries that surround us, that shape us, that we feel even while we struggle to comprehend. Kieslowski’s cinema is often able to convey in images and sound what is hard to articulate in words . . . but I’ll try to do my best to articulate why this is a treasure.
I first came to know Kieslowski through his Three Colors Trilogy, Blue, Red, and White, each color from the French flag, and each film exploring the abstract idea that color represents. So, for example, blue stands for liberty, and in the film of that name Kieslowski explores the concept of liberty. However, and this is relevant to the ten films in Dekalog, he does so from a unique perspective: in Blue a woman’s unwanted liberty comes at the beginning of the film, when her husband and child are killed in an automobile accident and she suddenly finds herself in a new life with no family responsibilities.
The thematic unity of Dekalog is similarly based on a set of cultural ideals: each of the ten films is based on one of the Ten Commandments, and they are named simply One, Two, Three, and so on. The series takes us to a Warsaw housing complex — apparently considered quite a nice one relative to what else was on offer in Poland at the time, but that just emphasizes the feeling of pervading gloom — where diverse characters are stuck in the throws of life, wondering, most not consciously, just what it means to be human and whether there is much else out there affecting our lives as we blunder from one thing to the next. In each episode we hone in on one of the apartments and stick with those characters for just around an hour. Sometimes a character we came to know in another episode will pop up in the background, much as they would in life, but narratively these stories are independent and, though some are stronger than others, each is a solid, standalone work.
Still, I recommend indulging in them over a short period of time as they become all the more powerful when examined as a whole masterwork. As I mentioned, characters will occasionally show up outside of their own story, and this intensifies the impression that we are dealing with a living, breathing world. Even more important to me, though, is the sense that this world is connected to something outside of its own borders. One character shows up in almost each of the ten films, and when he does he silently looks at whatever it is that’s going on, a bystander whose gaze can look indignant, befuddled, or compassionate, perhaps representing us as we witness these lives while sitting in our living rooms.
I recommend this set as highly as I did The Apu Trilogy last November. They are each magnificent works of world art, up there with the best of literature, painting, sculpture. They are the product of that rare occurrence when a gifted artist also has a complex yet humane view of our species and isn’t concerned with providing any answers or teaching any lessons so much as enriching our dialogue about the questions.