Discussing
Discussing Kieslowski’s Decalogue III

Josh Larsen

Elijah Davidson
September 15, 2014

That’s a worthwhile question, Josh, because I’m wary of answering it, and I like questions that “scare” me a little. They typically push me to new insights.

I’m wary of answering that question, because answering it in the affirmative—that the Decalogue is perhaps a critique of the Commandments—could possibly inspire mild antipathy in me toward the series. As a film critic who is a Christian, I want to embrace this widely heralded series as a cinematic masterpiece that supports Christian theology. Christian cinephiles are a niche group both within Christianity and within cinephilia. The Decalogue is supposed to be one of those cinematic objects that legitimizes my work. I don’t want to have to disagree with it.

However, maybe I don’t have to disagree with the film even if my answer to your question is that yes, Decalogue III suggests that the Law is a man with a firehose tormenting naked drunks. As you wrote, no one is really happy here, and it’s all because this couple chose three years ago to honor their marriage vows instead of following their hearts. The unhappiness extends beyond the couple as well. The man’s wife lives in constant suspicion. The woman’s husband had to move cities and start a new life entirely. Their affair has long-lasting effects on their lives.

I don’t think we have to call it a “criticism” though. I think we can call it an observation, and it’s an observation that is in accord with Biblical thinking about the Law. As Romans 7 convolutedly explains, the Law makes us aware of sin, and recognizing sin, we recognize our need for freedom from sin, and recognizing our need for freedom, we look for someone to free us, and we find Christ. Romans calls the Law a slave master, and the people in this story, having been made aware of their sin three years ago, are certainly living in bondage.

Thank God, this is Christmas Eve night, and everywhere they go they find reminders of Christ. I’d like to watch the film again and count the number of times the frame includes a Christmas tree. They seem to be circling one constantly. Even the drunk with whom Kieslowski opens the film and whom we see later in the cell, is dragging around a tree. It’s like Christ is in the cell with him. After Ewa tries to wrest control of the car from Janusz and they crash into a Christmas tree, Ewa touches a cut on his forehead, and it looks remarkably like she’s blessing him. Then there are the wafers they share just before they kiss. Christ is everywhere trying to rescue them from their sin.

I’m glad Decalogue III was brave enough to expose the Law’s hostility. When ambitious Christians are clamoring to install the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns, I wonder if they have forgotten the tyranny of the Law, how it enslaves and kills. I always wonder why they don’t also want to erect a cross and an empty tomb next to the stone tablets. Or perhaps a Christmas tree would be more appropriate, planted between the tablets, growing taller and wider every year, overtaking the Commandments and freeing us from their condemnatory, security camera-like gaze.

Daniel Melvill Jones
September 15, 2014

Josh, I'm glad you brought up this question. I think in our haste to find gospel truths in cinema we forget to be "sober-minded and awake" and ask these tough discerning questions on the film's philosophy. And Elijah, your eye for these details is a gift and makes me consider if this episode finally focuses the soul-crushing power of the law to condemn us.

Reflecting further on that theme, I think back to the two visual elements that fascinated me the most: the bright light (mostly red, sometimes blue or white) that so often permeates the frame and the many, many window shots. I think too how often character's mouths, faces, and eyes were eliminated in darkness (much more terrifying than Bane's mask in The Dark Knight Rises). I had wondered about these visual choices and Elijah's observation of security camera I think answered my question on why the many window angles. Do the bright red lights condemn with their strip club association and white lights condemn like the searchlights of an authority?

Because as I watched this film I was personally convicted in the ways that I have disobeyed certain commandments in my haste to obey others. Janus is seeking to do the right thing, I think, and rid himself of his past, yet in the process he lies repeatedly and sacrifices the integrity of his home. They both show a hatred towards each other that speaks of an intent to murder (Matthew 5:21-22) and a desire for each other's body that speaks to adultery. For a film on the third commandment, it certainly applies the other commandments incredibly holistically. It might not have pointed to Christ in obvious ways, but watching it I certainly was convicted of my need for Him.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
September 15, 2014

How did you know I was thinking about the guard with the fire hose, Elijah! Yes, that is how I read the scene: the harsh penalty of the law being enforced, at least until Janus restrains the guard, much to the guard’s confusion. Why would this man object to the strict enforcement of accepted regulations? Perhaps because he believes the regulations can cause more harm than good.

I like the symbolic counters you offer – the reminders of Christmas, the gestures of blessing. There is certainly something there. But I can’t get past the fact that a) Janus and Ewa never once regard these details in this way, as “reminders of Christ,” and b) Janus and Ewa are viewed, more than anything else, as victims, not as people in need of recognizing their sin. Even Janus’ climactic return to his wife - “You’ll be going out again in the evenings?” “No.” - is less one of reconciliation than resignation.

Perhaps an answer of sorts lies in a detail that continues to confound me. What did you make of the instances involving the shaving razor? Might there be a clue here as to the position Decalogue III takes in regard to the Law and the two main characters?

Daniel – thanks for mentioning the hatred between Janus and Ewa that occasionally flickers. And you’re right, it’s mixed with their desire for each other. An instance of right relationship corrupted – but by the sinfulness of their actions or the demands of the law?

Jeremy Doan
September 15, 2014

Speaking of all the lights, how many times were those lights reflected in the glass? How many times were characters either reflected in a mirror/glass, or looking through a glass? Throughout most of the film, the characters are reflecting on the past, both on their decisions and the consequences of those decisions. I wonder if this is supposed to play against the idea of "Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy"?

I don't look at these two as victims, unless it is victims of their own sinfulness. I can't help but think that they would not be in this situation if they had not broken the law in the first place. The law is there to point us to Christ, but the law is also there to keep us from destruction. I realize that is a bit simplistic, and that it may be missing much of the point. I'll need to reflect on this some more.

Elijah Davidson
September 18, 2014

I don't think Ewa and Janusz have to regard these moments as reminders of Christ for the still to operate that way both in their lives and, more poignantly, for us, the audience. Invitations to grace are all around us without us realizing it all the time, and I think Kieslowski could be including them here to remind us rather than to remind the characters.

I also absolutely think that the conversation between Janusz and his wife at the end is a kind of reconciliation, because I felt the revelation that she knew about Ewa was a twist of sorts. The whole film, I thought he was sneaking around behind his wife's back and trying to cover his tracks. There's something about the way Janusz and Ewa talk about Ewa's husband knowing about the affair but don't talk about Janusz's wife knowing and the whole stolen car ruse that suggest to me that at least Ewa thinks Janusz's wife doesn't know. So, when Janusz tells his wife that he won't be "going out at night" again, it's his way of saying, "No. I'm not picking this affair back up. I'm committed to you."

Respect for the idea of the family so permeates this film from almost the opening shot on. How poignant is it that we begin by seeing the father from the first film looking through the window at the kind of family Christmas Eve celebration he won't get to have with his son this year? Janusz and Ewa's longing for the family they can never have together is central, as you say, Josh, and the fact that Ewa's ex-husband has a new family now in another city is what has driven her to considering suicide. For the reunion at the end to be merely resignation and not real reconciliation seems at least anticlimactic at probably unfaithful to the overall ethos of the film,

Allowing that this film is about how the Law inhibits human happiness, might we take that idea a bit further and say that the film (and the Law) suggest that an individual human's happiness is, at best, of secondary importance to whether or not individuals are faithful to one another and especially when they have made covenants, like marriage, with one another?

(Completely unrelated post-script: Daniel, have you ever noticed how Bane's mask obscures the part of the face Batman's mask doesn't obscure and vice versa? I loved that little bit of costume-based mirroring of the two very similar characters in TDKR.)

Elijah Davidson
September 18, 2014

Oh! And I think the bit with the razors is like the business with the key in Dial 'M' for Murder, nothing more.

Elijah Davidson
September 22, 2014

I thought a lot about this episode and the comments here over the past weekend, and I keep coming back to something you said, Jeremy, about "remembering the Sabbath day." Ironically, in all our talking about the Law's proclivity to condemn, we forgot the Commandment at the episode's center: "Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy."

The sin here is long since sinned, confessed, and forgiven or unforgiven, it seems. The adultery isn't the issue. Perhaps the need to respect the holiday—the day meant to be kept "holy"—is what Kieslowski is really getting at here. By going out with Ewa behind his wife's back and neglecting his family, is Janusz properly respecting Christmas? Is he honoring the day of rest and keeping it holy?

As I watched the episode, I too was struck by all the Christmas lights, Daniel. I think they, like the ever present Christmas trees, are meant to be constantly remind us what night this is, Christmas Eve. I'm struck too by how empty the streets are all during the night. No one else is out, because this is a night for being with family.

And what does this say about Ewa? Perhaps this is the real reason for her impending suicide – she's alone on Christmas. What responsibility does Janusz have to her on this night? Perhaps he is right to be by her side, saving her life, on this night. Perhaps in a way, though he is neglecting his family, he is keeping holy the day by taking care of her.

Those are the kinds of muddy ethical waters that Kieslowski has submerged us in through the series so far, and I think it works for this episode. What do you think? Do you think "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy" has more bearing on this episode than we've been giving it credit?

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
September 22, 2014

I'm still hesitant to put too much emphasis on individual Commandments, given that it's difficult to say exactly which one Kieslowski meant to address here. But you make a good case, Elijah, for the application of "Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy." (An alignment with which the <a href="http://www.facets.org/decalogue/synopsis.html">Facets DVD set</a> concurs.)

I especially like your suggestion that Janus may be doing just this by accompanying the suicidal Ewa. In that sense, there is a wrestling that goes on throughout the film: is he doing this for the "right" reasons or for the old ones? The final scene with his wife reads more the way you initially took it, then: as a rightful, welcome return for Janus after he gave Ewa a good Christmas gift.

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