Polish director Kieslowski (1941-1996) is a master at shaping the screen image to probe a reality underlying ordinary, mundane existence. His films are not known for their plot or action. Instead, they use artful cinematography, sparse dialog, subtle acting and haunting musical scores to gesture toward a mysterious order of being. A good introduction of Kieslowski's cinema is "The Decalogue." It consists of ten one-hour films made for Polish television in 1988 and represents an attempt to translate the meaning of the 'Ten Commandments' for modern society.
All ten films of 'The Decalogue' are set in the same massive apartment complex in Warsaw at a time when Polish society was still suffering from the spiritual and economic deprivations of communist rule. Kieslowski says, the Polish world, at the time was "terrible and dull" -- full of pitiless people, moving in a gray, robotic atmosphere alone, isolated and lonely. Although Kieslowski's earlier films, both in the documentary and narrative genre, engaged political events in Poland, The Decalogue focuses more on the psychological and moral life of individuals, using the depressing political climate of martial law in the 1980s only as a backdrop for exploring the inner state of his characters.
Decalogue I explicitly poses a philosophical question about the reality and nature of the soul. It is a meditation on what for Kieslowski would be the first of the Ten Commandments: "Thou shall not worship false Gods." This film tells of a close relation a father, Krzystof and his young son, Pawel (the mother is away). The plot turns on Pawel's desire to use his new Christmas ice skates on a local pond and his father's caution about making sure that the ice is thick enough. Krzystof is a professor of computer science, engaged in a project to develop software for a computer to construct poems and stories.
As he explains to his university class, with his son watching from the back of the room, a properly programmed computer may have a will, aesthetic preferences, and a personality of its own. Tragically and ironically, however, his computer fails to gauge correctly the thickness of pond's ice, which thaws because of unexplained events causing his son to drown while trying out his new skates. Early in the film, Pawel comes across the corpse of a dog lying in the street and then, shortly thereafter, reads about a man's death in the obituary section of the newspaper. These experiences disturb him, prompting him to ask his father about why people die.
In response, his father, Krzystof, offers an account of death in which the human being is described as a machine. Death occurs, he says, "when the heart stops pumping blood ...... movement ceases, everything stops." Pawel, not quite satisfied with this, asks about some words he saw in the paper, "the deceased's peace of soul", to which his father replies: "It's a form of words of farewell. There is no soul." At the end of the film, of course, these words that the human being to an automaton will come back to torment him, as the encounter with the reality of his son's drowning shatters the precious mathematical certainties by which he has structured his life.
In one beautiful and haunting scene, Kieslowski suggests the dissolution of such certainties by filming a splotch of blue ink mysteriously seeping through some paper of Krzystof's desk. There is a perfectly rational explanation for the appearance of this stain -- the bottom of an ink bottle has cracked -- but in this context the viewer is allowed to discern an elemental, disruptive reality lurking beneath and behind our solid, phenomenal reality. We learn as the film unfolds that at the very moment the blue ink washed over Krzystof's desk, the ice on which Pawel was skating gave way, causing his death. The question Kieslowski elicits in this film how we ever know this deeper reality that eludes our modern machines and scientific calculations. What in us fails when the computer, our contemporary "etched image" of the gods, fails?
We do not sense from Kieslowski that the father did not attend to his own vague intuitions of unease about the ice, intuitions that could not be translated into a computer program. Even though his measurements presumably calculated the safety of ice sheet, Krzystof nevertheless at one point ventures out to the pond to feel it for himself. There he observes a young man huddled by fire on the side of the pond. The man says nothing but gazes directly at Krzystof with an intense, questioning look. As we watch this we have an ominous sense of something wrong and know that Krzystof does as well. Viewers of the entire Decalogue will recognize this silent, watchful character as one who appears briefly in other films of the series.
Various interpretations have been given for this character's appearance. He has been described as an angel, a witness, and and embodiment of conscience. His appearance by the pond in Decalogue I suggests that there is a gap between what the protagonist knows and what he is about to do, a gap that can only be closed by an adjustment to something other than what can be gauged by a machine. Failing to heed feelings, intuitions, and presentiments, he misses a kind of truth about the fragile nature of the human reality he has attempted to reduce to computer codes -- with terrible consequences.
Film is an enchanting illusion that “tricks” us into thinking that the characters and scenery are real when they are mere appearances, and no doubt that the film is a simplistic way to approach the human psyche in comparison to philosophy. In this way, Kieslowski succeeded through his explorations of the mysterious depths of the human personality in offering to his audience an intriguing and serious philosophy of the soul.
I will briefly examine, a lot of Kieslowski's movies in the future blog posts.