“The Decalogue”

I am teaching a film class, and last night I showed my students The Decalogue by Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski. It was made in 1988, when Poland was still under Soviet Communism, a year before independence. “The Decalogue” consists of ten one-hour films, one for each of the Ten Commandments. Each film is a highly-realistic, character-driven drama showing ordinary people living ordinary lives, but running smack into the Law of God. In each episode, the same mysterious figure–the Watcher–is there somewhere in the story just watching what the characters do. The series is sophisticated European filmmaking, with no Hollywood conventions or commercialism. It’s intense, deep, difficult, and moving. I wanted to show my students that Christianity is that way too.

I also wanted to stretch their thinking about Christian filmmaking and the larger project of Christians making art in and to a non-Christian culture. Kieślowski did not just follow the dominant and officially approved style. He did not make another socialist realist film, tacking on a Christian message. Instead, he defied socialist realism–which insists that characters exemplify a social class and demonstrate the Marxist class struggle–but rather presented individualized characters with rich, if tormented, inner lives.

My plan had just been to show the First Commandment (“Thou shalt have no other Gods before me”), but my class got into it so much, they wanted me to go ahead and show the Second Commandment (“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”), a film that also deals with abortion.

Have any of you seen “Decalogue”? I wonder if film critic Martin Luther over at Strange Herring has seen it. He would at least like the numbering. (Actually, What Luther says about the First Commandment in the Large Catechism is the best gloss on film #1: Whatever you have faith in, that is your God.) Pastors, this film could be a good catechetical tool if you have catechumens who can handle it. (But watch the episodes first. Some are not for the faint of heart or mere entertainment seekers.)

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    From reading the Wikipedia description you linked to, it doesn’t seem to be a Christian series per se, nor does Kieślowski’s entry mention anything about his faith.

    So how much do you think you’re reading into these films, based on their nominal premise, and how much do you think is intentionally there?

  • Bethany

    I’ve seen a few of these movies. Our Hungarian organist encouraged us to watch them and according to what he told us Dr. Veith isn’t reading too much into them.

  • http://www.lutheransandcontraception.blogspot.com/ Erich Heidenreich, DDS
  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    tODD, what is a “Christian series per se”? No, it’s not the sort of Christian schlock whose only claim to being true Christian art is that the artist happens to be a Christian. The film is a study of the Ten Commandments. The director is a Polish Catholic.

    The two films I reference explicitly talk about God, Christianity, the church. The Wikipedia article skims the surface.

    As for the charge that I am just reading into them, I am aghast. I am a literary critic. That’s my training and my expertise. I’ve worked as a professional movie reviewer. Yes, I am a dabbler in other fields, but I know the difference between interpreting what is there and reading into a work something that is not there.

    Besides, tODD, I saw the movies! You are challenging me based on what you read on Wikipedia! Which is the more reliable source for what is in the movies?

  • Piotr

    I suppose the question whether or not the director was a Christian could only be asked out of an American context. In Poland it would have been absurd, because 20-30 years ago, it was assumed one was at the very least culturally a Christian. When those films were made for Polish television, they were meant to emphasize how much Polish culture, thought patterns, etc. were permeated with Christian ideas, and to what degree cultural changes and challenges (coming from within and without) therefore lent themselves to a Christian critique.

    Of course, in the context of the Decalogue one must still ask oneself an even more fundamental question (one that Kieślowski himself, I believe, is getting at), namely, to what degree the Decalogue is Christian at all (in the sense of divine self-revelation in Christ); or does it perhaps represent something more fundamental. In other words, is it a vehicle of cultural critique because the culture happens to have been shaped by Christianity (in this case, Catholicism)? Or is there a genuinely universal dimension to the Decalogue that makes it always and in every case not a vehicle of imperialistic Euro-centrism, but rather the very fabric of humanity through which humanity can always be critiqued.

    If we accept with Kieślowski the universal nature of the Decalogue, this, of course, is pace Marxism, with its own eschatological vision of a brave-new humanity that warrants the destruction of humanity as we know it. In this sense, there is genuine compassion in Kieślowski’s use of the Decalogue to show us ourselves in all our shortcomings.

    Piotr
    A Polish Lutheran

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Whoa, whoa, whoa, there, Dr. Veith (@4)! Read my comment again. I’m not accusing you of anything! I was honestly asking.

    I was intrigued by the discrepancy between your description of the films and the description that you linked to. Maybe it’s just me, but reading your description, I couldn’t tell if you were explaining what you got out of the films, or what you believed was the express intent of Kieślowski. Following your link to Wikipedia, I got the impression that you were mainly reading into the films, due to this paragraph:

    The series was conceived when Piesiewicz, who had seen a 15th-century artwork illustrating the commandments in scenes from that time period, suggested the idea of a modern equivalent. Kieślowski was interested in the philosophical challenge and also wanted to use the series as a portrait of the hardships of Polish society, while deliberately avoiding the political issues he had depicted in earlier films.

    And while you note (@4) that “the director is a Polish Catholic”, again, his Wikipedia entry says nothing about that, though it does feature a quote from him saying:

    … if there is anything worthwhile doing for the sake of culture, then it is touching on subject matters and situations which link people, and not those that divide people. There are too many things in the world which divide people, such as religion, politics, history, and nationalism.

    Now other than a little knowledge about his Three Colors trilogy, this was all I knew or had to go on about Kieślowski. Thus, my question, which I will again note was not an accusation. You can blame me for doing a hasty Wikipedia search, or the Wikipedia author for missing the influence of Christianity on both the director and the films, if you want. But blaming me for relying on a Wikipedia article which you linked to does seem a bit odd.

    But, since it’s out there, I’m not sure why you take umbrage at the idea of reading Christian ideas into a film, whether they are intended to be there or not. I had recently read a very interesting take on The Dark Knight which examined the characters’ motives in light of various core themes of Christianity. I don’t think that movie was intended in any way to serve as Christian allegory, but I do think the fact that such themes are often present in popular cultural works points to the truth of the Bible, the imprint of our creator.

    So even if I had been “challenging” you as such (instead of merely asking, given the discrepancies), I wouldn’t have meant it in a defamatory way, accusing you of being dishonest or something.

    Anyhow, I personally think that Christians could stand to do a little more of this analysis at which you umbrage, prying apart secular works to see what universal Christian themes are still there, underneath. This could also benefit our secular friends, who are more likely to see (and enjoy) a secular film that can be made to explain an aspect of Christ than they are a piece of explicitly Christian “schlock” (as you say).

    Anyhow, I hope it is quite clear that I meant no ill will whatsoever in my question, which your response answers rather definitively.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Well, tODD, sorry for over-reacting. But you are the guy always challenging us, including me, quite rightly, about what our sources are. The Wikipedia article gives a brief sentence or two about what the films are about, but doesn’t at all go into the detailed Christian references and themes. And, as Piotr usefully points out–and welcome Piotr!–that the entry on the author doesn’t mention his religious affliation means very little. You go on to say that we SHOULD read Christianity into works. I don’t think we should misinterpret texts or bend them to our own viewpoints–which would violate the calling of the critic, which is why what you said touched a nerve–but I think what you mean is that we should see works through our own Christian lenses. I agree with that. And works that are somehow honest and true will testify to Christian truth whether the artist is a Christian or not.

  • http://seconddrafts.wordpress.com Craig

    Love The Decalogue – I use episodes 1, 4, and 10 with my high school Biblical Ethics classes, most of whom whine and complain about how so few of the films resolve with a nice and neat Hollywood ending (yep, welcome to a life of breaking the Commandments).

  • http://www.reformatus.us Reformatus

    So where does one obtain them to view them?

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    They are available through Netflix. I don’t know about your local video store. Maybe. You could buy them online. Amazon has them.

  • Manxman

    Blockbuster’s online rental service has them – I added them to our queue.

  • elainep

    Found them at my library! Dr. Veith, don’t suppose you have any notes to share and or references to good critiques of the episodes?

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    elainep, go to the Wikipedia entry and click the links at the end. Roger Ebert has some good things to say, as does the New Yorker magazine “in depth” treatment. Note that these are not Christian critics, but the Christian ideas come through loud and clear, and the non-Christians find them very moving. See also the “Top Spiritually Significant Film” site, which gives a useful synopsis of what is going on in each episode (which may not always be clear), along with some links to online discussion of each one.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Also, everyone, do watch them before showing them all to your kids or to a catechism class. They deal pretty frankly with sex, not only in the one about Adultery but in others, including #3, on the Sabbath Day (in which a woman lures a man away from Christmas festivities with his family). Also, covetousness. (Although perhaps the subject would get the attention of young catechumens.) The First Commandment should raise few concerns, though the episode has lots of Catholic imagery (from Pope John Paul II to the Polish Black Madonna to a remarkable final resolution with the holy water, all of which works very well symbolically).

  • http://www.reformatus.us Reformatus

    Ah… Netflix. Maybe I’ll be getting that since I’ve made no effort to switch to a digital TV! They haven’t convinced me there’d be anything worth watching.

    Thanks.

  • Samuel Choi, M.D.

    Congratulations:

    As a Christian and former film Curator and film student – you have chosen one of the great films of all time.

    10 weeks with the
    Decalogue should and will create plenty of thoughtful insights and dialogue.
    Although it is not an overtly Christian film the issues of morality and social responsibility are unique.

    Christian examination of our world should have resources that do not necessarily refer to our worldview. Absence of Grace is seen in great examples from King Lear to Godfather.
    For example if we really want to understand the decay of urban America we should all watch “The Wire”.

    I trust the language/subtitle queasiness many Americans have will not deter the interest.

    How did it go?


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