If Decalogue I was something of a parable, with characters standing for clear ideological positions, this second installment in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 10-part series of short films has a knottier purpose. In fact, it’s largely about the way that the moral decisions we make are far more complicated than they seem.
The central figures in Decalogue II are an older doctor (Aleksander Bardini) and the wife (Krystyna Janda) of a gravely ill patient at the hospital where he works. As they both live in the same Warsaw apartment complex where much of the Decalogue series is set, the wife becomes something of a stalker, smoking outside of the doctor’s unit and approaching him in the parking lot, pumping him for information about her sick husband. For his part, the doctor imperiously guards his privileged position, telling her that “relatives are informed on Wednesdays, from 3 to 5.” These games take a turn when the wife reveals an ulterior motive behind her pleading. Suddenly, the doctor finds himself in far more uncomfortable position of power.
The Decalogue’s structure is inspired by the Ten Commandments, and I suppose Decalogue II could be a reflection on the second law, as understood in the Reformed Protestant tradition: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” Certainly the doctor enjoys this sort of misplaced reverence, something which – the movie gradually reveals – he doesn’t deserve. He begins the film as a man assured of his lofty position and pronouncements; he ends it where the law should leave us all – full of wonder.
In terms of form, Decalogue II displays a notable preference for telling insert shots, from the leaves that the wife rips off her houseplant to the torturous drips of water on the metal footboard of the husband’s hospital bed. Near the end, there’s a lovely, seemingly continuous shot that begins with the wife looking out her apartment window; then travels down the building’s wall to the doctor looking out his; and then – via swish pan – arrives on the husband (Olgierd Lukaszewicz) as he suffers in his hospital bed. One more swish brings us to a shot of his bedside table, where a bee struggles to free itself from the liquid in a glass. Decalogue II captures exactly this: our anguished striving to crawl out of our own morass.