Here are short summaries for each of the ten installments of “Dekalog,” also known as “The Ten Commandments” and “The Decalogue.” I wrote these summaries just now from memory, without looking them up online. I watched them multiple times, most recently about fifteen years ago. “The Decalogue” was directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski in 1988 as a television series. It consists of ten one-hour films, each short film exploring — rarely in obvious ways — a character’s struggle with a moral dilemma related to the episode’s Commandment.
The episodes briefly feature a mysterious young man, sometimes a tram driver, a road surveyor, and so on, who observes each of the key characters at their moral crossroads. He never interacts with anyone, merely watches man freely choose his action. This mysterious character is not explained by Kieślowski. In most interpretations he is said to be an angel.
1. Thou shalt not have other gods before me. The first and most tragic episode of “The Decalogue” is about a man, who is an engineer or something similar, calculating the expected thickness of ice on a nearby pond to be sure that it’s safe for his nine-year-old son to skate on. Though all of his data and methodology are correct, the ice breaks anyway.
The opening scene of Dekalog 1 is one of the reasons why Kieślowski, who died at a fairly young age in 1996, is not merely the storyteller of then-newly reunified post-communist Europe. He is the prophet of the present European cataclysm. This opening scene shows this “angel” character as a drifter or a vagabond. He looks into the camera, directly into the viewer in the most chilling kind of foreshadowing. His gaze penetrates to the soul, commensurately with the the tragedy that this episode covers, as well scaling up to the attempted murder of Europe itself that we are presently living through.
“Thou shalt not have other gods before me” is the first and thus the most important Commandment. It is the key to beating back the demons that swarm about our lands.
2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. An oncologist holds a human life in his hands, in the most unwelcome dilemma. Not his patient’s life, but the life of an unborn child. His cancer patient has a mixed prognosis. The doctor has to tell his patient’s wife what her husband’s odd are, in his medical opinion. She had just confessed to the doctor that she is carrying a child from an affair that her husband does not know about. She tells the doctor that if he expects her husband to recover, she will abort the child but if he tells her that he will die, she will keep the baby.
Kieślowski’s films are inseparable from Zbigniew Preisner’s music scores. It really is a fusing of image and sound, you almost don’t know where one ends and the other begins. They collaborated on 1988’s “Decalogue” and remained lifelong friends and artistic partners, notably in Kieślowski’s later French-language works, “The Double Life of Veronique” and “The Three Color Trilogy.”
This is one of the evocative scenes in “Dekalog 2.” The dying patient, perhaps miraculously, begins to heal. He observes a honeybee that was drowning in a glass of fruit juice dramatically pull herself from certain death. It’s clearly a metaphor for overcoming a terminal disease. What else, on a larger scale, could that small insect’s powerful will-to-life struggle symbolize…
3. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. A family man who goes through the motions of being the dutiful father and husband in a cold marriage is confronted by his old flame. She accosts him on Christmas Eve, which is Poland’s most sacred holiday, manipulating him into spending an entire night in pointless wandering around nighttime Warsaw with her. She has a haunting kind of beauty and is something of a femme fatale, but also lonely and despairing. He must choose between honoring the Holy night and his old passion for this woman, a feeling that is now sublimated into a sense of responsibility for her.
4. Honor thy father and thy mother. A high school girl and her widowed father had always suspected that something is not fully normal between them. She finds herself sexually attracted to him and he, as a man, sometimes can’t help but notice her precocious beauty. What they have always suspected, on a downright instinctive level, is that he is not her biological father. There is a sealed letter his late wife, her mother, had left for the young woman that will resolve the uncertainty.
5. Thou shalt not kill. This is the best-known of the “Dekalog” installments, also made into a full-length film. A young man with sociopathic impulses murders an innocent taxi driver. He is sentenced to death for his crime and executed by hanging. I am not venturing into details and subplots in any of these films, for the sake of keeping this brief. Each episode requires the length of a full blog post to start appreciating. There is a great deal of complexity behind each moral dilemma, as well as in the characters’ personal situations.
The taxi driver is not a sympathetic figure, maybe a little more so than the nasty old woman killed by young Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment.” On the other hand, the viewer is drawn to sympathize with the killer in “Dekalog 5.” I’ve had conversations with liberal academics in Boston, who pointed out how this film makes a solid case against capital punishment. I disagreed with them twenty years ago and I still disagree. When I watch the execution scene, I feel sincerely sorry for the kid but I am also satisfied that the punishment redeems his humanity, the victim’s, and ours.
Here is Preisner’s film score for “Thou shalt not kill.”
6. Thou shalt not commit adultery. A lonely, awkward teenager spies on his neighbor. She is an attractive thirty-something single woman who has many flings and boyfriends. She discovers his spying on her and catches on to his pattern of creepy and nuisance stalker-behavior. She invites him over so that he can consummate his infatuation with her.
7. Thou shalt not steal. A teenage girl and her domineering mother go to extremes in their fight over a six-year-old girl. The child is an illegitimate daughter of the high school girl and the young lady’s handsome teacher, but raised to think that the older woman is her mother. The real mother, understandably for a teenager, originally agreed to that arrangement but then changed her mind.
8. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Another way of saying that, is “don’t lie.” Two women meet in Warsaw for the first time since the German occupation of Poland in WWII. One is an older Polish woman, a university professor, if I recall correctly. The other is a somewhat younger visitor from the United States, an affluent Jewish woman who survived the war as a little girl and shortly after emigrated to America. She returns to confront the other woman over her refusal to shelter her during the war. As it turns out, there is more to the story, and the original grievance is misplaced.
9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife. I don’t remember the plot of this one too well. I recall that it involves a well-to-do couple’s adultery. There is a sublime subplot involving the husband, who is a charming cardiologist, and his platonic relationship with a young opera singer. She is his patient, being treated for a career-ending heart condition. No doubt, a precursor-thought to Weronika/Veronique in Kieślowski later film.
10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods. This is a farce/comedy similar to the later “White” of the “Three Color Trilogy,” including the same principal actors. It involves the theft of a priceless stamp collection but I don’t recall it in detail.
The entire series is available on popular to-your-home streaming services, with English subtitles. Also on DVD if interested.