Thou shalt not steal

I am stealing Suburban_elk’s film-rating system. It’s a zero-to-two scale with Zero = don’t bother, One = worth seeing once, Two = more rewarding after multiple viewings.

Given that I watched all ten installments of the Decalogue (1988) many times over in my youth and then after a nearly twenty-year break watched Decalogue 7, “Thou Shalt Not Steal” approximately ten times over the past few weeks, it’s a Two on Elk’s scale. After all that time and so many times having seen that particular episode, I still find new ways in which the theme of Theft figures in the story, in addition to the nominal act of theft that was done to and then by the protagonist. I did just this morning, in fact, think of yet another treatment of that theme.

Another thing that’s worth observing is one’s own response to a film at two very distant points in his life. One of those is his attitude toward child-characters that are central to a film’s conflict. A childless young man, as I was when I first watched Decalogue 7, will likely sympathize with the young-adult protagonist. He might grudgingly grant a much-older antagonist his due, but his heart’s not in it. As to the child-character in the world of adult leads, he or she is an abstraction in the drama, sometimes just buzzkill. Young childless viewers don’t think much of children (or fatherhood) one way or another.

Twenty years later, one sees the same film but this time with an instinct, an imperative, that overrides all others. Namely, that a child, above all considerations, must be protected. With that new perspective after two decades, seeing Decalogue 7 was an even more profound experience.

Below, I am linking to Dekalog 7, which is on YouTube in three parts. Unfortunately, not with English subtitles. It’s subtitled in Spanish. I’m also providing a detailed plot summary to make it easier for you to follow the story, should you want to see this one-hour film and you don’t speak Spanish. I recommend that you see it. The cinematography and acting are worth it. To summarize the film, I used Infogalactic’s plot summary as my starting point to save effort. The translations of dialogue are mine.

I don’t plan on doing this with any of the other episodes of the Decalogue.

This is one of only two episodes in the series in which the recurring, mysterious “angel” character does not appear. But there are moments in this one that have an otherworldly air, like something out of Grimms’ tales of forests and peril.

Prior to the events of the film: Ewa is the mother of 22-year-old Majka. She was unable to have children after Majka, though she wanted to have more. She worked as principal at Majka’s high school, where she hired a young literature professor, Wojtek. As then-16-year-old student, Majka had a romance with her teacher Wojtek that resulted in a pregnancy. To avoid a scandal and because of Majka’s young age, it was arranged to have their illegitimate daughter Ania raised as Ewa’s daughter and Majka’s sister. Wojtek was possibly willing to start a family with Majka and their baby but ultimately, then-teenager Majka agreed to her mother’s arrangement and Wojtek avoided criminal charges for seducing a minor by walking away.

Decalogue 7:

Part 1 of 3. [An Argentine public television host introduces the episode for about the first four minutes, then it begins.]

Twenty-two-year-old Majka, who still lives with her parents in Warsaw, is expelled from the university during her last term and wants to flee to Canada with Ania. She needs her mother’s signature, however, to obtain Ania’s passport. Six-year-old Ania has recurrent nightmares and can only be consoled by Majka’s mother, Ewa. Majka’s father, Stefan, spends his time fixing a pipe organ in their apartment. Ewa is just as cruel to Majka as she is affectionate to Ania.

Ewa takes Ania downtown to watch a theater performance for children, and then the kids in the audience are invited onstage. Majka manages to get backstage and lures Ania away with her. Ewa is shattered by Ania’s disappearance. Ania, meanwhile, believes that all of this is just a game with her “sister.” In the scene with the merry-go-round, Majka tells her that she is not her sister, but her mother. Ania seems to understand and then asks who her father is. That scene begins at 15:00.

ANIA: [Riding on the carousel, giggling] You kidnapped me?

MAJKA: [Smiling] What?

ANIA: You kidnapped me. Like in that fairy-tale “A Kidnapping in Tiutiurlistan.”

MAJKA: [Stops the carousel, becomes serious] You’re a big girl now, aren’t you?

ANIA: Mom tells me that I am.

MAJKA: Exactly. [Pauses] Look at me. Mom… mom is not your mom.

ANIA: I don’t have a mom?

MAJKA: You do. Your real mom… I am really your mom.

Part 2 of 3. Majka and Ania go to Wojtek’s house in the country not far outside of Warsaw. He now earns a living by making Teddy bears. They meet for the first time in six years, and Wojtek is surprised and somewhat uncomfortable to see his daughter. While Ania sleeps, Majka and Wojtek discuss their past. In her sleep, Ania grabs Wojtek’s finger and he begins to warm to her. Majka goes out to call her parents from a phone booth.

Part 3 of 3. Majka calls her parents in Warsaw and tells them her conditions regarding Ania, namely that she be legally recognized as the little girl’s mother and that they be left alone. Majka’s dialogue with her mother Ewa that begins at 0:41 is important:

EWA: Hello?

MAJKA: She’s with me.

EWA: [sigh of relief] My God, she’s with you…

MAJKA: Did you report this to the police?

EWA: Yes, we did. But never mind that. Where are you?

MAJKA: Call it off. Tell the police that you found her. Do that first.

EWA: Yes of course, we’ll do that. Where are you? We’re picking you both up. [Yells at Stefan to hurry up with her cigarette.]

MAJKA: Somewhere. I’m not telling you. You have to change everything.

EWA: Like what? [Stefan lights her cigarette] What am I supposed to change? I don’t understand.

MAJKA: Everything. Ania must be mine.

EWA: [Sits down] That’s impossible.

MAJKA: She must be.

EWA: Nobody knows about this. [That Majka is Ania’s real mom]

MAJKA: They’ll find out. I’ll prove it.

EWA: You’ll prove nothing. Ania is mine. She’s my child in all the records, only Jadwiga knows that you gave birth to her but she’ll never tell. [Long pause] Where are you?

MAJKA: Father knows.

EWA: Your father knows nothing, absolutely nothing.

MAJKA: And Wojtek knows.

EWA: You’re better-off not counting on Wojtek. When I retire, I’ll tell you a few things about him.

Now at 2:05 Majka accuses her mother of theft, the heart of Decalogue 7:

MAJKA: Listen carefully. You stole my child, it wasn’t supposed be like this. You stole my child, and my motherhood. Also love. You robbed me of yourself, of you both, everything. I’m giving you two hours to think about it and then I will tell you what you have to do. [Hangs up]

In the meantime, Ania has woken up and engages in conversation with Wojtek who is now very affectionate towards her. Majka comes back and in an increasingly tearful scene, asks Ania to address her as her mother, but the little girl can only call her “Majka.” Later that night, Majka’s father calls, but Wojtek lies and tells him that he has not seen her in six years. Ewa begs Stefan to call up his former political acquaintances to help them find Ania.

Ania falls asleep again. Wojtek tells Majka to consider going back to her parents’ house, since the trauma of the entire ordeal will be too much for Ania. At 10:50 he tells her:

WOJTEK: If you are planning on going somewhere alone with her…

MAJKA: Where?

WOJTEK: Wherever. Somewhere far. She won’t endure it. Your shouting, your impatience, your hysteria. She is delicate. […] You’ll destroy the child. […] You should go back. She must have a normal home. Her own bed, her own toys, her own milk. Do you understand?

Wojtek also reluctantly tells her that she and Ania can either stay with him, or have his house and he’ll move out. Majka pretends to agree and Wojtek promises to get a friend, who has a van, to take them back.

When Wojtek returns with his friend, Majka and Ania are gone. (As they were leaving, Majka told Ania that Wojtek doesn’t want them there.) Majka calls Ewa from the phone booth again and demands that she agree to all her previous conditions and sign the necessary documents to get Ania’s passport and visa for Canada. Ewa tries to negotiate but Majka is relentless — either Ewa agrees to her demands or else she will never see Ania again. After a moment’s silence Majka hangs up, just as Ewa is about to agree to her terms. The phone rings again at Ewa and Stefan’s. It is Wojtek; he confesses to his earlier lie and offers his help in locating Majka.

Shortly after the 18:00 minute mark: in predawn hour, Majka and Ania stand under a bridge to hide from Wojtek’s oncoming van. I will not spoil the final scene. It stays with you, in the characters’ expressions, camerawork and the music.

The Decalogue

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.”

Here is the execution scene.

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.

Kieslowski’s Women

Documentary filmmaker by training, Krzysztof Kieslowski had expressed an array of moral themes through female beauty at least since his Decalogue television series (1988). International audiences first saw his eye for detail and its power to render inscrutable concepts in 1991’s The Double Life of Veronique. The film follows the lives of two women at their crossroads, each played by Irene Jacob: Veronique, who makes the necessary compromises and lives, and Weronika, who flies too close to the sun and falls:

In Blue, the fist installment of the three-color trilogy (1993-1994), Kieslowski works with the earthy Juliette Binoche. The hardness of her character lets her survive a horror that would have destroyed a weaker woman, but the story is about her letting go of her pride to find grace in humility:

In White, Julie Delpy’s angelic radiance belies her cruelty. An even more cruel comeuppance makes her a woman again. In this flashback scene, she’s downright beatific:

Red once again features Irene Jacob personifying feminine selflessness. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is a scene in which Jacob’s character tells her confidante, a cynical retired judge, that her younger brother is a heroin addict and she wants to help. His advice to her: Être. Just be. She’s confused by his answer, so he repeats: être. As I also noted then, this is not over.

Each of the installments of the trilogy focuses on its respective theme liberté, égalité, and fraternité. That said, I see another dimension to Kieslowski’s nominally Revolutionary themes: a vision that a reunified Europe had an opportunity to become whole by reconciling its humane but frivolous half with its spiritually raw, debased other half.

Short-term, things have worked out a bit differently, but the trilogy ends on a prophecy. Foreshadowing the present cataclysm, the events in Red culminate with a tempest and a new day for its survivors.

rd1

A Short Post About Killing

Here are two literary references to the taking of human life.

The first one is from Henryk Sienkiewicz, recipient of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature. I read his popular adventure novel for boys titled “In the Desert and the Wilderness” (orig. “W pustyni i w puszczy”) when I was in second grade. It is a story about two children of British empire’s civil engineers in Egypt, a fourteen-year-old boy Stan and a younger girl Nell, who are abducted by Arab rebels and transported to Sudan as hostages.

While traveling through the Sahara, Stan gets a hold of a rifle and kills his captors. After a series of adventures in Africa in their quest to reach British soldiers or explorers in Kenya, he and Nell are rescued and reunited with their families. In telling his story to his father, Stan gets to the part where he killed the men and looks at him apprehensively. His father says, as translated by me:

“Listen, Stan, don’t deal in death lightly, but if someone threatens your homeland, the life of your mother, sister or the life of a woman placed in your care, put a bullet in his head with no questions asked and don’t burden yourself with any remorse.”

The second fictional account of killing — two killings, to be precise — is from Krzysztof Kieślowski’s one-hour film “Decalogue 5.” The eleven-minute clip below shows both homicides, each in graphic detail: the brutal murder of a taxi driver that starts at the beginning of this video and the killer’s resulting execution by hanging, which starts at 5:45.

The anguished-looking man in the execution scene is the convict’s lawyer, a young idealist who is very emotionally involved in the case and at one point (not shown in this video) is reprimanded for being too delicate for his job.

In my past conversations about the film — in which the taxi driver is rarely mentioned — sophisticated liberals have pointed to “Decalogue 5” as an impassioned case against capital punishment. As far as I know, Kieślowski himself was against it. But an artist’s conscious mind and what he transmits through his art can be two different things.

When I watch the execution scene, I feel sincerely sorry for the kid but I am also satisfied that the punishment redeems his humanity and ours.