Aside from a few reoccurring characters in the background and the central Warsaw apartment complex that serves as the setting, the various installments in The Decalogue – Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 10-part series of short films based on the Ten Commandments – have largely operated separately from each other. Not so in Decalogue VIII. Not only is a previous episode directly referenced, but the entire film is about the danger of applying intellectual analysis to ethical situations (which is our tendency when we engage with these films). Doing so, Decalogue VIII suggests, often denies the basic humanity involved.
The central figure is Zofia (Maria Koscialkowska), an older ethics professor who is visited by a younger American scholar named Elzbieta (Teresa Marczewska). During a visit to one of Zofia’s classes, Elzbieta listens as a student presents a hypothetical situation that is actually a plot summary of Decalogue II. Afterwards, Elzbieta shares her own story, which reveals that, unbeknownst to Zofia, they share their own morally complicated past, one Zofia has buried in her memory.
None of this is meant to demonize Zofia. Indeed, Kieslowski and co-screenrwiter Krzysztof Piesiewicz bring their usual delicacy to the characters, at first immersing us in the pleasant details of Zofia’s daily routine: her jogs through verdant, nearby woods; her habit of placing fresh flowers in her apartment; the way the students respectfully nod in her direction when she walks down the halls. Zofia’s careful, intellectual application of reason has earned her respect and honor. Yet things begin to crumble – the continually askew painting on the wall of her apartment is an omen – when Elzbieta arrives to reveal how Zofia’s strictly theoretical approach to ethics has ironically allowed her to deny the ethical dilemmas in her own life.
I take Decalogue VIII as a word of caution, then, especially to those of us who have watched the series continually wondering who was “right” and who was “wrong.” Here, Kieslowski reminds us that such an approach can problematically prioritize behavior over being. And one thing that’s been clear from Decalogue I is that these films are concerned with people first.