Discussing Kieslowski’s Decalogue IX

Josh Larsen

Josh Larsen
December 8, 2014

To mark the 25th anniversary of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, Think Christian and Reel Spirituality will co-host a joint viewing and discussion series.

Elijah Davidson
December 8, 2014

I'm probably being a little pedantic here, Josh, and I don't mean to "Jesus juke" you, but I don't think I'd go so far as to say the series is headed toward some sort of "Gospel hope." I don't think Kieslowski is interested in the least in the essentiality of Christ for any sort of reconciliation. However if we're just asserting the series is a little more optimistic at the end than it was at the beginning, I can go along with you there. I think as the series has gone on, Kieslowski and his collaborators have highlighted the hope more than in the earlier episodes.

I think that's one of the reasons why, for me, these latter episodes have been so affecting – the chance for reconciliation is so obvious throughout, I can barely stand the idea that it won't be achieved. Doom hung a little thicker over the early episodes, and even when they ended "happily"—as in II and, I'd still argue, III—it was an uneasy peace. The ends of VIII, and IX have been unambiguously positive (thought let's not forget the tailor). Kieslowski seems to be opening doors now instead of just telling us they need to be open.

I too found IX to be very affecting. Speaking of melodrama, I literally cried all throughout the latter half of the episode, and my wife, who was flitting in and out of the living room while baking Christmas cookies, was concerned for my emotional state. She sat down with me and watched the final act. Afterwards we reiterated how much we love each other and that we'd always be faithful. I'm not typically a fan of broad melodrama, but when it is shot this well—the interplay of light and shadow in this episode is remarkable—and when it compels me to reaffirm my commitment to my wife, I'm all for it.

I appreciated how IX took the commandment to its "limit" and forced its characters and us to wrestle with the extreme demand of ever-faithful love. Will the couple stay faithful from this moment on? Yes! Or at least that's what I think the episode wants me to believe. Will my wife and I always be faithful? Yes! Because to answer any other way is to violate the faith we've put in each other and in the God that sustains our vows.

So to answer your initial question about how this episode compares to III, I feel more sure that this relationship has been made stronger by this trial, because I feel like they both endured something here. III didn't give us enough of the wife's story to let me believe similarly about their relationship, even though III's final moment reveal that she knew about the affair all along was striking to me. Her ordeal was trusting her husband all night long.

And yes, I do see the series trending toward hope. In the book Kieslowski on Kieslowski, Kieslowski said that his aim with the series was to show his Polish viewers how they'd become buffered from one another, how they'd lost all empathetic connection with their neighbors. The early episodes are like a slap in the face. These later episodes feel more like the compassionate embrace that follows that slap reassuring viewers that it can be okay if they want it to be.

P.S. - I have a projector and a large screen at home where I've watched every episode in this series except IX. I watched this last episode at my in-law's house on their normal-sized, living room TV. I think I would have enjoyed watching this entire series that way. It was made for TV, and it felt better on a TV. It felt like the best shot TV show I'd seen in my life, and I think I "bought" the melodrama since melodrama typically works better on TV, in my opinion.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
December 10, 2014

Well, now I feel even worse for having watching the majority of these on my laptop! I do think the square framing and intimate scale is more fitting for smaller screens, and perhaps has made whatever melodrama there might be in the series seem more appropriate to the medium.

I wanted to run something else by you in regards to Decalogue IX, and that has to do with the recurring character of the Watcher. He makes an early appearance on his bike, when the husband's car spins out on the road. Later, when the husband is on a bike and - SPOILER! - rides off the elevated highway in an attempted suicide, the Watcher sees him lying on the ground but doesn't come over to help. What did you make of that, in the context of this installment and the Watcher's appearances overall?

December 10, 2014

One thing I haven't been able to get straight in my mind is the purpose the young lady plays in this. At some level she is a temptation to the husband, but he never seems drawn to her very strongly, though he is clearly attracted to her youth and beauty. The whole subplot with her surgery so that she could sing (or not sing--that wasn't entirely clear to me) didn't obviously fit with the story of the husband and wife. Why are we giving some insight into her, but very little into lover boy?
I find it interesting that this is really the only segment that has secondary story line. One of the brilliant aspects of these stories is how tight they are. There is room for nothing other than the main story. Yet here we get something that seems almost incidental to the main plot, though I have no doubt that it is important.
Can you guys help me out? What obvious thing am I missing here?

(I just re-read that and realize how poorly everything is phrased. Sorry about that.)

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
December 11, 2014

For me, Jeremy, the young patient exists to balance the ledger for the two many characters. Both are succumbing to covetousness in their yearning for someone outside of their marriage. The irony for the husband is that the young patient is someone he "shouldn't" have (morally) and can't have (physically), yet she still remains an object of desire.

Elijah Davidson
December 12, 2014

The Watcher, yes, well, I didn't like the fact that he didn't help the man, but I guess that's in keeping with his character throughout. He doesn't get involved. He just watches.

I like the way Kieslowski used him here though. I so wanted to step into the story and clear things up at that point as the man was hurdling toward his death. We've bandied about the idea that The Watcher is us watching these characters, judging them, and not being very happy with what we see. When he shows up on his bike toward the end, I hoped that he'd help, since that what I so wanted to do. His presence heightened my sense of urgency and made the moment all the more intense and tragic.

The girl - yeah, what Josh said. Also, I like the way her predicament contrasts with the man. If she has an operation, she'll be able to do something (sing). If he has an operation, he will be unable to do something (have sex). Both of them have to consider the desires of people who love them and what they, themselves want as well. Her situation reiterates the intermingling of desires in any relationship, even platonic ones.

December 14, 2014

Elijah, your comparison of the earlier episodes ("a slap in the face") to the latter ("a compassionate embrace") is really quite good. And I aggree that this is the melodrama to last episode's talkie.

I was prepared to enter this discussion talking about the Watcher's deliverance of the husband. Then I read your commentary and was forced to go back and rewatch the ending. I've remarked earlier how valuable a rewatching of this series will be and I realized this again in those 10 minutes. The score as the husband rides his bike into the abyss - lowering piano arpeggios marked by shattering strings in the upper registry. The paucity of the shots - although the cinematography is as ugly as its landscape in this series, it's barrenness becomes its virtue. (Right after he falls there is a silent pause as the bus rolls past a bridge, the camera steady as the vehicle disappears. A lone black bird darts across the road.

The Watcher is without a doubt the most compelling and hauntingly memorable aspect of this series. You were talking about the lack of Christ centredness to this series and as Christians we realize where this series could have gone if it had that perspective. But the Watcher, as a silent witness to the secret thoughts and motives of our characters, has a gaze that seems to me to be above those of his other charcters. There is a purity, and, in contrast to that purity, a judgment. The judgment of Christ perhaps, who walked in our shoes and faced our temptations, but did no evil. And if it is Christ, even the darkest episodes to us contain a living reminder of the Hope that we have (a sort of 10 week advent calendar, if you like).

All that to say I found the ending all the more beautiful for the Watcher's presence. The husband is on a road to self imposed death. The Watcher is a witness to his intent. He is there for the aftermath, down in the dirt of his death. The next time we see the husband, he is in a hospital. Who witnessed the incident and summon the health authorities? We don't know. But the closing lines give us a clue. "You are there" the wife sobs. "God, you are there."
"I am."

Elijah Davidson
December 16, 2014

I hesitate to respond, because I kind of like the idea of ending this discussion with the words Kieslowski chose to end the episode - "God, you are there." "I am." Masterful. Thanks for reminding me of that, Daniel.

I like your understanding of the Watcher's actions in this episode - that he's the one who alerted the authorities. I hope that's true. I'll choose to believe it is, because it makes the entire series feel warmer to me. That seems appropriate, because I don't think Kieslowski believes in a cold world, or rather, that the world necessarily has to be cold. He's inviting us to warmth throughout, and it makes sense that his Watcher would respond compassionately to the situation he witnesses even if he is reluctant, for whatever reason, to get noticeably involved.

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