If few people have made it all the way through The Decalogue – Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 10-part series of short films based on the Ten Commandments, all set in the same Warsaw apartment complex – it may be because Decalogue I is such a heavy and emotionally exhausting experience. You finish it wondering, “How much more can I bear?”
Although not every installment directly correlates with a Commandment, Decalogue I clearly considers the first: “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” For Krzysztof (Henryk Baranowski), that god is empiricism. When his young son Pawel (Wojciech Klata) earnestly asks, “What is death?” he responds with a biology lesson. The boy pushes him further and he allows, “The memory’s important.” He won’t entertain the possibility of more.
When Pawel asks the computer to explain dreams, it locks up. Empiricism has limits too.
Krzysztof, a college professor, has greater faith in the computers that take up the central room in their apartment. He and Pawel feed math problems into the machines and delight in seeing instant, correct answers spit out. They’ve connected the computer to the lock on the door of their apartment, creating a beta version of the smart home. Yet when Pawel asks the computer to explain dreams, it locks up. Empiricism has limits too.
Kieslowski and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz have essentially set up a dramatization of the faith-science conundrum, and at times Decalogue I can be as heavy-handed and strident as those debates. Yet for all its talkiness, the film also has moments of cinematic delicacy: the shot of Krzysztof pouring “sour” milk into his tea as he talks about death to his son, only clouding the issue; Pawel watching his father’s class lecture from behind a slide projector, purposely obscuring his image. And when tragedy arrives – when Krzysztof’s faith in science is put to the test – it unfolds with the horrific, unadorned awfulness that defines real-life despair.
Is the movie’s ending a punishment? A price paid for breaking the First Commandment? That’s a tempting reading, but I think a limited one. In fact, a more hopeful note exists in the film, and it involves the computers. At one point one of them appears to turn on of its own accord, with this message on the screen: “I am ready.” Perhaps Decalogue I merely means to suggest that reason doesn’t have to rule out God.