This is part of a joint series with Elijah Davidson of Reel Spirituality, in which we’re considering each installment of The Decalogue. Krzysztof Kieslowski's landmark collection of short films was first released on Polish television in 1989 and is based on each of the Ten Commandments. Links to our other posts can be found here.
So far, Elijah, we haven’t spent much time talking about the central location that has unified each installment of The Decalogue: a high-rise apartment complex in 1980s Warsaw. This element stood out to me in Decalogue VII not only because Kieslowski opens the film with a lengthy pan down its façade, but because I think it’s a clue to what he and co-screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz might be up to this time around.
The central character is Majka (Maja Barelkowska), who lives with her mother Ewa (Anna Polony), father Stefan (Wladyslaw Kowalski) and a 6-year-old girl named Ania (Katarzyna Piwowarczyk). Although Ewa treats Ania as her daughter, we soon learn that she was actually born to Majka when Majka was a teen. Increasingly distressed at the way she has been cut out of her own daughter’s life, Majka runs off with Ania one day, telling her the truth and hoping to start a new life together as mother and daughter.
Decalogue VII struck me less as a riff on the Ten Commandments than a reworking of Brothers Grimm.
Although this is a modern-day story, Decalogue VII gives it a decidedly fairy-tale motif. There is the nightmare about wolves that Ania has at the beginning, the staged fable Ewa takes her to see and the question she poses to Majka: “Have you kidnapped me like in the story books?” Also, note the red coat Ania wears while walking through the woods and the bridge she hides under with Majka. Even the concrete apartment complex, which is where Ewa and Stefan live, has the air of a fortress or castle, what with its immense concrete face and Brutalist air.
So Decalogue VII struck me less as a riff on the Ten Commandments than a reworking of Brothers Grimm. I do believe the two strands come together, though, in that Kieslowski seems to be deflating the absolute moral authority that’s given to fables in the same way this series has occasionally deflated the absolute moral authority that’s given to the Ten Commandments. Once again, The Decalogue presents us with a real, lived-in moral dilemma that seems beyond what any culturally accepted lists of do’s and don’ts can address.
More specifically, in this story of a mother who steals the daughter who was stolen from her, Decalogue VII seems to question the black-and-white lines drawn by the command, “Thou shalt not steal.” By the time this tale has been told, Elijah, can we easily say who is doing the stealing, and who is being stolen from?