Discussing
Discussing Kieslowski’s Decalogue I

Josh Larsen

Josh Larsen
August 18, 2014

Think Christian's Josh Larsen and Reel Spirituality's Elijah Davidson watch and discuss Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue one film at a time.

Elijah Davidson
August 18, 2014

Okay, Josh, I'll take the blame for suggesting this discussion, but I want the credit too when it turns out to be the most enriching four-month-long, online, open-to-all-comers theology and film discussions in which either of us has ever participated. I kid, of course, but given its reputation—both Ebert and Kubrick called the series a masterpiece—and the moral complexity of even this first episode in the series, I think this discussion has great potential. Thank you for being willing. I'm glad I'm not watching them alone.

The initial thing that strikes me about Decalogue I is that, like the Commandment it obliquely references, the film seems straight forward at first. Then, the more you think about it, the more complicated it gets. As you wrote, it's easy to read the final fifteen minutes of the film as a punishment against the father for breaking the First Commandment. He certainly worships at another altar, and something terrible does happen to him prompting him to return to God.

However, the terrible thing happens to the father's sister as well, and she doesn't appear to put any other gods before God. And then there's the watcher by the lake who, though we don't know about his faith, seems greatly troubled by what he witnesses. Finally, as you allude to in your question, Christ "cries" when the father comes to see him, suggesting that the events hurt Him too.

So, in answer to your question, yes, I think the events of the film are punishing to the father, and I think they are punishing to God as well. I think they are also punishing to the aunt, the watcher, the boy, to all the other people gathered around that lake when the rescue personnel are doing their work, and even to us, the audience.

Still, I don't think Kieslowski is being strident or judgmental with this story. I think KIeslowski is simply exploring the essential nature of society, how it best operates, and the complications we run into when we veer from that "best" way. I think the Ten Commandments are meant to work the same way.

Often, we read the Commandments as a checklist against which God will judge us. If we've broken them, we fear God will convict us and punish us by unleashing calamity upon us. But the Commandments (and the rest of the Law that follows) can also be read as a right-ordering of society, a statement about the essential nature of the world.

So, in the case of the First Commandment, it's not that if we worship another god, God will punish us. It's that those other things we worship aren't really gods. They can't "bring us out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery," as it says in Genesis 20:2, the foundation for all the Commandments that follow. They can't even guarantee that the ice is thick enough for skating.

So, I don't see Decalogue I as being pro-faith* (or affirming the idea that God punishes us for sinning) as much as I see it as being anti-certainty. I think the film suggests that when we put our trust in something we have built, something that we can understand—a "system" like the one the woman uses in the chess match—we set ourselves up for disaster. And those disasters grieve God's heart as much as they grieve ours, if not more. That's not what God wants for us, and so God gave us the Commandments as a guide.

Do you think that's a fair reading of both Decalogue I and the Commandments? How would you answer your initial question?

*I suppose I can see the film as being pro-faith as long as we're talking about faith intermingled with doubt, as two sides of the same coin we're betting on God.

Daniel Melvill Jones
August 18, 2014

Thanks Elijah for initiating this discussion and Josh for playing along. I can't think of better mentors to guide us through this series, the perfect opportunity for watching and discussing these films.

My question for both of you is regarding this film's use of the Law. Debates in Christian theology over the use of the Law in the believer's life are endless, but most agree that it is "our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ" (Gal 3:24), showing us our need for redemption. Do you think Decalogue I is a morality tale, showing us what happens when we forsake obedience to the law? Or does the terrible death in the film launch the father into a journey of repentance, as represented by the wax tears of Christ?

I was haunted by the figure of the Watcher. I look forward to hearing your interpreation of his role in the film. Was Ebert's early guess correct, the character representing Christ? Or his later assumption that the Watcher is similar to Wim Winders angels? I'm wondering if he represents the conscience; the conscience of us the viewer or of the characters in the story.

Thanks again! I look forward to the next four months.

Daniel Melvill Jones
@djmelvill
www.danielmelvilljones.com

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
August 18, 2014

I like your nuanced reading of Decalogue I, Elijah, better than the either/or option I offered. I think it's truer to what the movie is interested in: what do the Ten Commandments mean in everyday life, both for those who hold to them and those who don't? In this sense the aunt is a very interesting figure - she holds to them more faithfully than the father, yet also suffers.

Yet I'm not sure I'm willing to say the father is prompted to "return to God." Consider that crowd gathered at the lake. When the devastating reality finally sinks in, all fall to their knees except the father. However you want to read the crowd's action - communal shock, mourning, repentance - the father clearly stands apart from it. And when he visits the church at the end, he does so as a vandal.

It's that vandalism which causes the portrait in the church to appear to cry. I'm not sure if it's a picture of Jesus or of Mary, to be honest. Either way, it's the first point at which the idea of grace comes into play, which brings me to Decalogue I's vision of the Law. To your question, Daniel, I do feel the dominant understanding of the Ten Commandments here is, as Elijah said, "a checklist against which God will judge us." Will grace - which that portrait offers a hint of - become a larger presence as the series goes on, leading to a fuller understanding of the Law? I guess we'll see.

Dgermer
August 18, 2014

I'm with you both on all you've said. I resonate especially with Elijah's point about the way that the commandments work- not so much about a checklist of exactly what to do and not do so that we are rewarded and/or not punished, but to give us a vision of life as it is meant to be lived, a vision that we are called to live into.

What I loved so much about The Decalogue I, and what I found so challenging about it, was that the father's tragic "mistake" was indeed very understandable, and reasonable, and a decision that someone more inclined to place their faith in God (the sister/aunt, for example) might have just as easily made. The decision itself would likely not be something that would cause the father a great deal of anguish, but it would likely point him (and the sister-aunt, in a completely different way) toward rethinking the reliability of what is known and not known, and would cause everyone effected by the tragedy to consider the implications we must be prepared to live with in giving anything the central and defining place in our lives. I find the movie very faith-affirming, in exactly the way you describe, Elijah- it does cause us to face our doubts and to wrestle with them. What are the things that I offer the central place in my life, and when I do that, am I even aware of doing it? When I do remember that God is God, and worship only God, am I truly prepared for the implications of that way of living? Am I prepared to continue to live faithfully, and continue to worship God, when all the other gods I am prone to worship (including reason, like the father) in one way or another, fail, with tragic consequences?

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
August 18, 2014

The way you describe the implications of the First Commandment, dgermer, makes me wonder: Can our children become our "other gods"? Decalogue I does play with this idea a bit (the aunt again, perhaps). A tough question Branson Parler wrestled with in this <a href="http://thinkchristian.reframemedia.com/free-range-kids-and-resurrection-parenting">earlier TC piece</a>.

Elijah Davidson
August 18, 2014

Thank, Daniel. I'm glad you're joining us. Yes, I think Decalogue I is a morality tale showing us what happens when we forsake obedience to the Law, but I want to be careful to properly characterize the Law as I see the series characterizing it so far.

I don't think the film presents the Law as a speed limit on the highway, for example - an established standard which, if broken, warrants punishment. I think the film presents the Law as a scientific law, like Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation - a description of the way the world works. So, Genesis' "thou shalt nots" are like saying, "Thou shalt not jump off a very high place, because if you do, you will fall to the ground and die." The Commandments don't deal with natural laws, of course. They're relational, but I think the same principal applies.

So, when the father goes into the church to vandalize it, as you say, Josh, I think he raging against God, but even raging against God is a significant step toward God compared to where he is earlier in the film when he doesn't know what to think and sides with his mathematical certainty. Blaming God is an admission of God's existence and a recognition of God's saving power (even if he didn't see that power in action this time). He then crosses himself with the frozen holy water. He might not return to God completely, but I think he's on the way. He's once again submitting himself to the God-established nature of the world. (I think he doesn't kneel like the others, because it is his son coming out of the water. I can't imagine a father obscuring his view in that circumstance.)

I agree that the portrait's tears are an instance of grace. I'm eager to see how Kieslowski develops that idea as well.

I'm not sure what to make of the Watcher at this point. I'm not even entirely convinced my understanding of the film's depiction of the Commandments is correct. As Josh said, we'll have to see as the series continues.

Elijah Davidson
August 18, 2014

That's a good point, David, about how the aunt might have made the same mistake as the father even as she put her faith in God instead of math. She too might have let the boy skate, trusting God to take care of him, and the ice still would have broken. I wish the film could have also given more attention to her reaction to the tragedy. It does bookend (sort of) with her watching the boy on the television. She's clearly in distress. As you say, it begs the question, "Am I willing to trust God when it seems that even God fails me?" In what is our faith grounded - In the desire for God's blessing or in the fact that "I am the Lord your God. You will have no other God's besides me?"

Dgermer
August 18, 2014

I second (or third) the fascination with and uncertainty about the watcher. I am assuming and hoping he will be a recurring figure throughout the series.

I read that terrific piece by Branson Parlor out loud to my wife just three days ago- great timing for us, as we continue thinking through what it means to take care of our children and to entrust them to God's care. Our older son's first day of Kindergarten is today...

Jeremy Doan
August 18, 2014

Did anyone else think the frozen holy water at the end resembled a wafer, as in a communion wafer? I am not sure what (if anything) that means. It is a powerful scene, and that resemblance didn't strike me as unintentional. Of course, almost nothing in a Kieslowski is unintentional. They are all so tightly constructed, which is one of the things that make them so remarkable.
I found it very interesting that the film opens with the Watcher, and that he looks directly into the camera (at us). I don't know what this means. Just throwing some stuff out there that maybe someone else can run with.

Rkw
August 18, 2014

I have only recently watched Decalogue I and am fascinated by this discussion. I would argue that God is not punishing the father for his agnosticism. He does, after all, explore the possibility of a world outside of reason and materialsim during his lecture on translating languages. He longs for a metaphysical component to his analytical mind. Further, he doesn't object to his son's wish to study Christianity with his aunt (his sister). The transcendent is just within reach.

Lastly, he secretly checks the thickness of the ice even though his perfect calculations comfirm its stability. His god is the natural world (science, perhaps), but deep within he has his doubts. I have often acted like him, only to find God awaiting my return.

Elijah Davidson
August 18, 2014

That's a good observation about the father's longing, doubts, etc, rkw, specially about him checking the ice. You're right. That scene does suggest some cracks (no pun intended) in his otherwise certain exterior.

Chance seems to play a significant role in the story. The whole conversation about the dead dog the boy has with the father and if there is any meaning in life if it can all end so quickly, so haphazardly, comes to mind. Here at Fuller Seminary, Dr. Johnson uses Decalogue I to open his Theology and Film class every year to kickstart his students into "theology and film discussion" mode. He feels the film works very well to open the students up to two of the big theological questions at the heart of cinema and in the world in general - Where is God in suffering, and given the inescapability of death, what's the value of life?

I don't think Decalogue I gives any answer other than the one given by the writer in Ecclesiastes 12: "Remember your Creator" before you die, and, "Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil."

Jeremy, I noticed the resemblance of the water to a wafer as well. I thought he was going to eat it when he first picked it up. I'm not sure what to do with that resemblance, either though.

All I know to do with Watcher at this point is to assume he kind of a conscience for the series. His eyes look so sad, and I know Kieslowski and Piesiewicz wrote the series because they were dismayed at the general moral quality of Poland at the time.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
August 18, 2014

There's another aspect to Decalogue I worth considering: the computers used by the boy and his father. They're great at calculations, but when the boy asks one of them about dreams it locks up, suggesting that empiricism has its limits. More intriguing is the message that occasionally appears on the screen, especially at the moment when the computer seems to have turned itself on: "I am ready." What should we make of that?

Colin Stacy
August 18, 2014

Throughout the entirety of this first installment, I could not shake the imagery and theme of structures/frameworks - the computer that only Pavel's father uses, the first shot of a half-frozen lake (a structure of ice on the left side of the frame, nothing but water on the right), Pavel's gazing at his father through that machine during the lecture, the church structure (literally) that the father enters into at the end. There seems to be so much emphasis on these structures, only to see most of them dismantled or assaulted by film's end. Decalogue I pursues an upheaval of the false structure - clearly resonating the first commandment.

The one that stuck most with me is Pavel peering at his father through many facets of that machine in the classroom. Pavel has begun to poke and prod at mere structure (religion?). As he gazes through the machine, his father is obscured. Is there another lens that will bring clarity, other than simple framework? That's what the imagery evoked for me. And maybe the Father enters into that new lens. That church structure in the end, looking to dismantle it possibly but only being encountered with Christ's grace. This father is not the author of the purest of structures (religions) so he does not know every variable that will assert itself along the way.

His computer's statement of "I Am Ready" is maybe, thus, a projection of the father's desire and lack of faith. Reception during readiness can often be and is often during times of suffering and loss.

I literally just ended the film, so these are as cursory as they come.

Also, the Watcher is a confounding character. By film's end, I thought he may have had something to do with the ice breaking. An omniscient force/variable/presence the father couldn't have known about that would assert a will upon a "solid" calculation. Anywho, then I remembered the burly man seemingly confronting our Watcher. Anyone have a take on that encounter? Also, the father sees the Watcher's fire at one point, before he chases the family to ask their young boy about Pavel, but he doesn't see the Watcher.

Colin Stacy
August 19, 2014

RE:my last comment:
When I talk about structures and frameworks (literal and physical) throughout the film, I don't mean to say they represent religion but idols or false constructs that we use to appropriate reality. Just to clear that up if my comment sounded reductive at any point. I wasn't going for the "Religion is bad!" slant.

Also, I'm very struck by Pavel's conversation with his Auntie, and his questions about the Pope. I feel that the childlike innocence and exploration of faith Christ calls us to is well represented in him. And that question about the Pope knowing the meaning to life is just striking.

We are only one film in this and things are already so dense and layered. Kielowski knew how to craft some great art.

Colin Stacy
August 19, 2014

So, I'm rewatching the scene between the Watcher and the man on the ice, and it's his father not some random guy. The lighting threw me off on first watch, so I couldn't tell who the man was. Sorry!

Colin Stacy
August 19, 2014

That scene between the man on the shore and the father during the night becomes all the more striking when I think about it. He sees the Watcher and his fire, the look on his face. The father has checked out the ice, and it holds. His calculations were correct. On his way back home, he sees a group of townsfolk holding hands around the half-built church. The father smiles as he walks by. He has faith in himself, it seems, and his response to those at the church is one of haughtiness (maybe?). The next day is when Pavel drowns.

Why shouldn't Pavel trust his father? The calculations were made and, not only were they made, they were tested. When he's at the site again looking for Pavel, that's when he sees the fire but no Watcher. That encounter between them has intrigued me.

Michelle Noel
August 21, 2014

rkw: I created an account here just to mention the fact that the father checks the ice himself. I found that act in direct contrast to the idea that he put his trust solely in the computers, which makes it difficult for me to accept the idea that it served as a single source of information, or an "idol" for him. What do others think?

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
August 21, 2014

For me Michelle, that detail (the father checking the ice himself) certainly makes Decalogue I feel like a spiritual journey for his character, rather than a battle of ideological positions.

Colin Stacy
August 21, 2014

I know I posted 4 times the other night, my apologies for clogging the comments. My excuse was: It was late and I was excited to throw some thoughts out there.

Michelle, I'm with you. I think his trust in computers is more a projection of his actual trust in himself, just solidified by empirical study. He did go test the ice, furthering his belief in the calculations. That's why I think that first scene with Kielowski's camera panning up showing the icy structure on the left side of the frame and the clearly melted ice on the right is so shattering. The ice is solid, but can also melt. The unknown depths are just feet away. It is more that he trusts what he can see - not just computers, but observable data, the world he inhabits. It's also worth mentioning that he examines the ice at night, further showing the audience his blindness. That's my take anyway.

Josh, I certainly think this is the father's spiritual journey, with the boy's as subtext, a type of foundational undergirding for the events to come. I love that the only certain, complete thing in the church structure is the picture of Christ and that holy water. It's as if Kielowski is acknowledging that this man's journey will continue to build that structure (not literally). The church, God's people, is continually being built by those stories of loss, grace, and ultimately transformation. This man's horrific but possibly life-changing journey is substantial and won't be lost in the ether. There is no cynicism here from Kielowski.

Elijah Davidson
August 25, 2014

Honestly, Josh, the “I am ready” message kinds of freaks me out, and I’m not sure what to make of it. There are two computers in the house–the boy’s computer which is “better for calculations” and the father’s computer which is programmed for more important things. It’s the father’s computer that answers questions, right?

In thinking about the “I am ready” message, I keep going back to the father’s lecture about the potential for a “properly programmed” computer to develop a personality, to transcend human intelligence, essentially. I take the “I am ready” message to mean that his computer has been so “properly programmed.” It has achieved a kind of transcendent intelligence. It’s telling, I think, that when that happens, he shuts the computer off. He doesn’t engage with it. Much like he left the church as a boy in favor of what could be measured, he now has to leave the computer, because it has advanced beyond measurement. It’s like he thought he wanted that, but when he found it, it freaks him out.

I think this works in concord with what you write, Colin, about all the unfinished structures and with what you wrote, Josh, about the way the boy uses the projector to obscure his father while the father lectures. Everything in the film is between states. Everyone and everything is on one side or the other of a constructed barrier. Occasionally, people pass through from one side to the other. The father, in giving his lecture that hints at transcendent intelligence, is on the edge of slipping through to faith, so, his image is obscured partly by the projector. He trusts his computer until it crosses onto a new plane of existence beyond his calculations. Checking the ice is a rejection of faith then, not a rejection of a false god. He’s once again trusting only himself and not one beyond himself. (Good eye, Michelle.)

At the end then, when he goes into the church and pushes over the scaffolding, he’s pushing through the barriers. When he takes up the Holy Water that looks suspiciously like a wafer, he’s accepting a transcendent reality. He’s accepting faith and completing his spiritual journey.

Colin Stacy
August 29, 2014

Elijah, I felt the same about the "I am ready" message. It reminded me of the computer in last year's film COMPUTER CHESS with which two men converse concerning life and love. It's a strange, surreal touch for this film. But, I do agree that it's a direct link to the father's pursuit of the "properly programmed". Kieslowski does a great job with using it to underline the father's journey, but never letting the audience become too attached to the computer's seeming sentience and turning the short into surrealist sci-fi.

Also, brilliant analysis about this being concerned with the transitions between states. You've pressed me even more into this story. I think your exegesis gets right to the heart of it and connects beautifully with the first commandment. "You shall not have any other gods before me" is a commandment issued to a people in transition: the Israelites being between Egypt and Canaan, going from trust in one god/kingdom/way to the one, true God and being established as His kingdom. Their trust is obscured along the way by their grumbling, a golden calf, the mount of Sinai, and other obstacles. Their peering at God through lenses of slavery/captivity, hope lost, safety provided by an enemy, etc. further obscures their journey. This may be reaching, but thematically it seems to line up perfectly with the father's journey of losing his son and his own framework/god crumbling around him.

All yearn for the "properly programmed" framework, e.g. tower of Babel, democracy, whatever. No matter their results, these frameworks always fail if complete trust is placed in them. We can perform the calculations twice and check the ice ourselves, but at some point it all crumbles. These weren't meant to withstand our trust. They are obscured by their creators' own transitional state, the human's own obscurity. The transcendental reality beckons, "I am ready," despite our attempts to hold strong and turn away. The loss of a beloved, the haunting of a faith denied, all life's pains we had no way to fit into the calculations overwhelm and we are left in a misshapen sanctuary, with scaffolding torn and barriers broken. Christ alone covering us, lamenting our loss and misplaced trust, but offering his body, nonetheless.

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