November 10, 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.
I think we can, Josh, and I think the answer is a simple: â€œEveryone.â€ Everyone in this film loses something, and the losing has been happening since before the film begins. Ania is stolen at least three times, maybe fourâ€”from Majka by Ewa originally, from Ewa by Majka as this story begins, from Majka by Ewa again as the story ends, and from Wojtek, her father, by the circumstances. Majkaâ€™s lost her innocence when she was sixteen, both her sexual innocence (to Wojtek) and her familial innocence (to Ewa). The grandfather, Stefan, loses his daughter, Majka, by the time the story ends as well. Everyone loses when anyone steals.
I donâ€™t think the Decalogue mostly questions the absolute moral authority we give the Ten Commandments. I think the series questions the flippancy with which we typically apply the Commandments to situations. The series is concerned with the messiness of the commandments when applied to real (or â€œsoap operaticâ€) life, and the series is also adamant in our need to wrestle with these complications. The Decalogueâ€™s questioning isnâ€™t a â€œtake downâ€ of the Commandments as much as it is an honest exhortation to take these commandments seriously in all their lived-in complexity.
I think Decalogue VIIâ€™s treatment of â€œThou shalt not stealâ€ fits right in with that exhortation. There is no question in the film that stealing has great negative effect on the people involved. Breaking the commandment wreaks havoc on this little society, just as breaking the other commandments have wrought havoc on the other denizens of these apartments. The questions come as to how widespread that havoc is.
As I watched this episode and considered your excellent description of the film as a fairy taleâ€”Iâ€™d add my favorite Grimm allusion, the sorcerer who lives in the woods and makes bears, to your listâ€”I was struck by how often all this Commandment breaking has impacted children especially. Recall the boy in I, the unborn child in II, the children of the adulterous man in III, the daughter in IV, the young man and his sister in V, the innocent boy in VI, and now the little girl in VII. The series could be subtitled â€œChildren in Moral Peril.â€
This focus on children is entirely appropriate as Godâ€™s Decalogue was a covenant with the Israelites and their children. God promises that if they follow the commandments, their children will be blessed for generation upon generation. Judgement for breaking the commandments is similarly passed down.
Both the Ten Commandments and the Decalogue are dealing with the foundation of society and how well or poorly we lay it. If Ania really is having nightmares because she fears what is to come, as Wojtek says, she has good reason to fear with the kinds of parents she has in her life. The home they have built is weak and is easily blown down by all those wolves.
"The sorcerer who lives in the woods and makes bears." Yes - what an odd touch! At first I thought he was going to be one of the wolves, but I loved how that played out.
What struck me about this drama (which I couldn't help but feel was a little more soap opera-ish than the others) was not so much the actual act of stealing, but the motives behind it. Selfishness is center stage here. It crawls in the background of the other installments, but it seems more apparent in VII.
Each character is taking from others in order to please themselves. The end is heartbreaking. Majka is estranged from her family and has seemingly lost Ania. Ewa and Stefan have lost their daughter. Wojtek saw a glimpse of what his life could have been. Ania has just been told the person she thought was her sister is really her mother (now she's gone). Selfishness has torn this family apart.
In keeping with the fairy tale motif you mentioned earlier Josh, Kieslowski turns the tables and takes away the happy ending. It reminds me of his Three Colors trilogy, which I recently had a chance to watch. It follows an anti-tragedy, anti-comedy, and anti-romance structure. Kieslowski loves to play with our expectations. We see that here.
I kept thinking about how Ania might tell this story one day when she's older. She's six years old, right? Is she going to remember this as a fairy tale with wolves and bears and sorcerers and witches that steal little girls away? Or is she going to remember the more terrible and sobering story we see about real people doing terrible things to one another?
The "anti-" structure of the Three Colors trilogy, as you put it, Wade, intrigues me. I can't wait to watch those films after we've finished this project.
We screened The Tree of Life last Friday night at Fuller Seminary, and one of the panelists, Lauralee Farrer, brought up how the Decalogue and The Tree of Life are similarly concerned with ideas of grace and nature and how we negotiate between the two. I'm not sure the Decalogue would put it in quite those terms, but I think I see what she was getting at - do we allow grace to reign or selfishness. As you say, Wade, selfishness certainly prevails here.
I like your Grimm analogy, Josh. That is not something I would have caught. And I like your point about the children, Elijah. This one in particular shows the effects of our actions on the innocent ones. I found the last shot of this installment to be quite powerful.
Selfishness is indeed the central motive here, Wade, but it is not selfishness for itself. Both Majka and Ewa want to be a mother to Ania, which isn't an inherently selfish motive. That pure motive has been corrupted, however, to the point where the best interests of Ania seem to be completely left out of the picture. I don't think one person stops for a moment to think what is best for the little girl. Maybe Wajtek and Stefan do, but they are really powerless in this situation.
Josh, thank you for the helpful description of how the fairytale colour scheme is contrasted by the bleakness of apartment building setting. Up until this episode the series's colour scheme has been bleak - dusty, dirty, barren, and dark. This episode featured both lush greenery and careful waterscapes, contrasted by the red coat of the child. That and the storybook elements (the theatre and teddybears) makes the consequences of the stealing shown in the ending all the more cruel. As you mentioned Wade, Majka is completely estranged from her family and Ania is left straddled and stranded between her quickly departing mother and her now foreign family. Tragic.
Up until now the characters in every episode have been left with the opportunity for grace. Even in the darkness of episode I, the father is brought to his knees in a church. In II, we see the grace in the chance of a child, in III through the reminder of Christmas, in IV through reconciliation of the father and daughter, and in IV, th repentance of the woman when she is shown what true love is. Even episode V, arguably the bleakest, the horror of the execution is seen by the young lawyer, giving him the possibility of effecting change. Can we see such grace in this episode or are we left barren? And what key difference is there? Does it lie the absence of a key character, present in every other episode?
Dan Schinder has written about how the Watcher lends this series a "semi-mystical" air. The lack of his presence in this episode is made up for by the mythical feel of the setting, but if the Watcher represents the intervention of the soul's conscience (a grace given to this world by God), or even of Christ himself, does his lack of appearance explain the hopeless coldness of this episode's ending?
Maybe I'm reading too much into it (I'm sure you could find grace in this episode if you looked hard enough). I'd appreciate your input. But it would be interesting if there was a correlation. For without the grace of Christ through the gospel, or through the common grace of the conscience, the ramifications of our sin (stealing) would be great indeed. Regardless, this episode does show us how terrible the effects of sin are and how securely the consequence of sin will lock us if there is no intervention from grace.
I have flitted in and out of these conversations over the last few weeks, so I'm excited to jump back in with all of you. After catching up with VI and watching VII this morning, I have to say that Kieslowski has struck gold with these middle few shorts. Hopefully VIII-X will finish just as strong.
Personally, VII was quite affecting. Much of my own story resonates with Majka. As a child of divorce and subsequent blended family, I often had the desire to create my own heritage from the ashes of what had been. Despite having loving parents, the fractures of our broken family were marginalizing for me as a young boy. Much of my pain came from the separation from a nurturing father figure, so I often imagined myself as the son of Merlin, whom I dreamed would come rescue me someday from my pseudo-alternate family. I found hope and relief for a stolen childhood through weaving fairy tales about my existence. I am past this now, knowing how to navigate brokenness and to see my family with grace, as I see more and more how I need it as a husband and father.
Sorry for emoting everywhere, but Majka was a mirror for me. Much of her childhood was stolen from her, and her mother quite literally steals her child as her own: innocence twice gone. Majka crafts a plan to steal back what has been taken from her, escaping to create the childhood that she never had and the family which was stolen from her. To follow Elijah's reflection on an older Ania retelling this story and how children are impacted throughout these shorts, I think it's key to remember that Kieslowski postures Majka as a child just as much as Ania. That connection makes the last shot so brutal: Ania gazing upon her own lost family and childhood, seeing what she's lost and what she might become. I'm hopeful that Majka will return home, that Ania's last look will coax her into grace, even though I'm sure she's gone forever.
Despite my sympathies for Majka, as Wade said, everyone here acts from a deep selfishness. It's heartbreaking to watch and maybe that's because the Watcher is not present as Daniel posited. Maybe it's the escape from the structure of the apartment complex into the wilderness that, despite the beauty of the place, pushes Majka further away from grace and hope and our benevolent Watcher.
Josh, in your opening paragraph you alluded to how the element of the apartment was more striking to you this time than in viewings past and that it was a clue for understanding VII. Could you go into more detail on that? Or was the building the clue which led to your seeing this as a fairy tale? I wasn't sure where you ended up with that but am interested because over the last three films I have gained more awareness of the complex as well.
Glad you were able to catch up, Colin, and thanks for sharing the personal significance Decalogue VII had for you. As far as the architecture of the apartment complex goes, it did seem that Kieslowski's camera paid particular attention to it at the start of this installment - its height, its stalwartness, its imposing nature in general. It wasn't until after I began to pick up on the fairy tale motif that I wondered if he was perhaps depicting the complex as a castle, with Ewa as the evil queen. (She certainly rules over her husband.)
In general, it's been interesting to see how Kieslowski uses the apartment complex setting. Some apartments seem warm and cozy - in Decalogue IV, for example - while some seem barren and lonely (that of the wife in Decalogue II). The overall portrait of the complex, however, has so far not been one of community, but of individual dramas unknowingly orbiting each other. I think the architecture has a lot to do with that.
Comments on all your interesting comments, if I may:
1 KK himself said the Decalogue stories do not give answers, just pose questions, 'open a conversationâ€™ as he put it, on which score he was highly successful judging by this thread.
His concern was less with morality, I think. As a rule, Thou shalt not steal, is a good moral rule: do not take items from the supermarket without paying. His concern rather was with ethics: what is the right or wrong thing to do in a particular set of circumstances â€“ and then invents a set of circumstances in which the right or wrong options are very difficult to discern, at least for human beings. The child is innocent, but all the adults are guilty, including the two men who have abrogated responsibility: Wojtek deserts Majka, Stefan allows himself to be put in the background, where his organ-building is a way of his not being involved. I thought at first Ewa was the most guilty but on reflection I am not sure: 'Everyone has their reasons,' but it is arguable whether any one of the quartet behaves better than the other three.
2 Without saying it or showing it, KK is making the case for the act of unconditional love as a way out of the impasse: Majka can forgive Ewa, Ewa can release her hold on Anya, Wojtek should help Majka (rescue her), Stefan can exert his will.
In his way, KK is like God: he can show his audience human weakness, but leave it to humans to find for themselves what redeeming action they should take. In Three Colours: Red the judge is omniscient but not omnipotent. Ditto the Watcher who appears in several episodes of Decalogue. Ditto KK himself.
3 A plot point. KK and Piesewicz brilliantly devised narratives at the edge of credibility or plausibility, but never go beyond that edge. Except maybe here: how did Ewa manage to pass off Anya as her own daughter while disguising the pregnancy â€“ was she not a headmistress, i.e. in a public role? KK was so clever that I think I've missed something here, and would be very happy to be told what it is by any of your distinguished contributors.
Tim Cawkwell/Norwich, UK
Iâ€™m glad you brought up the Watcherâ€™s absence, Daniel. Itâ€™s strange to feel the absence of a character who never speaks and never impacts the events of the films, but I certainly felt the Watcherâ€™s absence here. Iâ€™ve been using him as an avatar within the series to embody my feelings toward the storiesâ€™ events. Iâ€™ve looked to him to express, however cryptically, the filmâ€™s opinion of its other charactersâ€™ actions. He also connects all the stories and people for me.
His absence forced me first to take ownership for my own feelings about the people. I couldnâ€™t put them off on him. I was also more keenly aware of how the events of this story were taking place in isolation from the other episodes. In truth, all the episodes have taken place in isolation from each other, and thatâ€™s part of the tragedy, right? These people who all live so close to each other fail to be good neighbors. No one is looking out for anyone else. VII is perhaps the most wholly tragic of the stories(?). I felt that, and the Watcherâ€™s absence contributed. Thereâ€™s no grace. Thereâ€™s no selflessness. Thereâ€™s no â€œunconditional love,â€ as you put it, Tim.
I loved this episode as a film. I would love for any of you to point me toward a moment of grace within this tragedy.
Thanks for sharing, Colin. Addison Cooper, a friend who writes movie reviews from the point-of-view of a social worker (his first and main career), has told me that such imaginings are common among children from broken homes. Addison tells me that Wolverine is an especially popular character among foster kids, for example, because he is a kind of ideal absent father â€“ rough, mysterious, but always there when heâ€™s really needed, and he frequently has a surrogate son or daughter by his side.
Thank you for adding your expertise, Tim. That is helpful. Regarding how Ewa passed off Ania as her daughter while disguising the pregnancy, I donâ€™t think weâ€™re told explicitly, but I will say that the idea isnâ€™t far-fetched to me. My great-grandfather was raised by his grandmother as her son, and his real mother was passed off as his sister. For his whole life, he never knew this. It was only after his death that any of the extended family talked about it. So maybe it wasnâ€™t that everyone who knew them â€œdidnâ€™t know.â€ Maybe they just chose to â€œnot know.â€ I realize Iâ€™m adding that onto the story, but it seems plausible to me.
Fascinated, Elijah, about your personal story of your great-grandfather being raised by his grandmother as her son. So there is more plausibility there than I had recognized.
It's true how all these stories of close geographical location all exist in their boxes. KK (in that book Kieslowski on Kieslowski) talks of Poland in the mid-1980s being at a nadir in terms of the collapse of community, and not in his view (unless I've misunderstood him) just in Poland.
FWIW, I think the Watcher was supposed to be in this episode, but a mistake during filming prevented the footage from being used. I believe he was supposed to be the man getting off the train during the last scene (you can make him out in the background). I can't remember where I heard this. I will try to track that down.
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