Thursday, September 14, 2017

Dekalog (For Wonders in the Dark)

(Cross posted on Wonders in the Dark, part of the television countdown.)

Dekalog is a 10 part television series, made in Poland in 1988, directed by Krzystof Kieslowski, written by Kieslowski and Krzystof Piesiewicz, his frequent writing collaborator. Each episode in the series is dedicated to one of the Ten Commandments, though the links are often quite free. The series is, in practice, more like a film cycle than television series - each episode is self-contained, linked only in their relationships to the commandments, and the setting, a large apartment complex in Warsaw. (And the filmmakers and crew.) Kieslowski conceived of the films as 10 separate films. He did not conform to TV conventions: recurring characters in an ongoing story; the need to pace the stories to match the way TV is watched, in the home, with the phone ringing and tea boiling and so on. Indeed, since 1989, Dekalog has been treated more like a film, or group of films, than as television. This is understandable: the films were distributed theatrically outside Poland, and Kieslowski himself was an established filmmaker when they were made, and his subsequent works made him a major art house figure internationally in the 1990s. He is a filmmaker first, and so Dekalog is treated as part of his film career. This is probably even more the case for Dekalog than for other TV shows made by people established in the film industry. David Lynch and Twin Peaks comes to mind - a series made by an established film figure a year or so after Dekalog, that, however congruent with Lynch's career, is still seen primarily as a television show. Of course, Twin Peaks did play by the rules of television - a continuing series with characters and a through-plot and so on - which certainly helps explain the difference. But the fact remains, Dekalog's origins in television is seen as somewhat incidental to what it is.

I don't really mean to dispute that - Kieslowski’s own remarks and ideas about the show push criticism in that direction; I have certainly always thought of these films that way myself. But it is interesting to consider how they do relate to television, as an art form, as a social force, as technology. The strongest link to television, I think, is the way Dekalog is structured around the home, the family, the domestic space. Television is a domestic form of entertainment and art - it exists in the home, to be watched in the home; Dekalog is centered around the idea of home. Far more than other Kieslowski films, which are often about individuals making their way in the world, or at least about how people live in public, outside the home, Dekalog is almost entirely rooted in domestic spaces. When it leaves the domestic sphere, it either brings it in through other means (as the ways the domestic ethical problems of Episodes 2 and 8 are discussed in a class in Episode 8), or makes the loss of the home a felt absence in the story (Episode 5 can be seen this way.) The apartment complex where the series is set may seem to be just the device linking these stories - but in fact, those homes become central to the stories being told. The importance of children in the series, and the importance of relationships between parents and children, is an obvious theme - but these themes are themselves part of the series' emphasis on the home. Home as family, as social space; home as physical space, actual buildings and rooms; home as symbolic space - a place of safety, rest, protection. Almost everything in the series hits one of those themes.

Kieslowski and Piesiewicz present a complex vision of the domestic world, as well. Homes (as physical spaces as well as domestic spaces) are complicated - sheltering and protective, but also dangerous, often broken. They promise protection but don’t deliver, neither the physical space or the social one of families. Homes do not protect you from bombs - they do not protect you from being spied on - they do not protect you from being pulled out in the middle of the night on a wild goose chase - they do not protect you from being stolen by your relatives - they do not protect you from thieves. When they do offer protection, that protection is not guaranteed - you can be refused shelter. You can be banished from your home. And even when you seem to have a stable, safe home, there is no guarantee that what you have is what you think you have. Your wife's child may not be yours; the man you thought was your father may not be; you sister can be your mother. Someone could be listening in on the phone; and if you think going back to your mother's house will offer you protection, be careful - you never know who's hiding in the closet. Home promises stability but it is never there.

In many of the episodes, this instability is shown through a significant absence. So in Episode 1, the mother is out of the country; in Episode 2, the husband is in a coma; in 3, Ewa's husband is missing, so she pulls Janusz away from his family on Christmas eve; Episode 4 is structured around the dead mother; Episode 10, a dead father. Episode 9 has a more symbolic version of this - first, in the husband's very Freudian lack, that his wife tries to fill with a young lover; later, by shifting to the more abstract idea that they are missing a child, which they hope to fill by adopting. These absences create many of the stories - certainly 2, 3, 4, 9 and 10 work that way - the thing that is missing drives the plot. The story itself, of course, can go a couple different ways - it can end up destroying a home and family (as in 1), it can end up restoring a home and family (2, maybe 9, even 10, in a sense) - but  for all of them, the status of the family, the home, is what is at stake in the story.

Other episodes approach it from different angles. The protagonists may have lost their homes, or at least their connections to others, as in Episodes 5 and 6; they may be expelled from the home (or expel themselves) as in Episode 7; they may be denied the shelter of a home as in Episode 8. Or home itself may disappear, as literally happens in the Doctor's backstory in Episode 2. It is interesting that Episodes 5 and 6, the most famous episodes, both expanded into feature films, feature protagonists who are the most isolated. The characters of 6 are all alone, separated from any family, and most companionship. Magda has lovers, but they are not very reliable or satisfying; the landlady's son is on the other side of the world, and though she sometimes treats Tomek as a surrogate son, she and he are both intensely solitary figures; Tomek has no family, and has even lost the closest thing he had to a friend. We usually see these three in their apartments, in their homes - but these are places that offer very little solace. Their living spaces give them no privacy, no protection - they all spy on each other, interfere with one another, often with very dire consequences. They all look for a connection - and you can almost imagine the three of them forming a kind of family of their own - but it doesn't come, and the connections they form are imaginary ones, existing only in the own heads.

Episode 5, and A Short Film About Killing, is even more extreme. (One of the harshest films ever made, frankly.) Of all the films in the cycle, it spends the least time in anyone's home - none, that I can think of. It all takes place in public. Despite the story occurring out in the streets, Jacek and his victim are almost perfectly alone in the film, living completely in their heads, hostile to everyone around them. Even in this episode, though, home operates as a structuring absence. The end of the film, with Jacek telling the attorney about his sister's death, reveals, probably, the reason why he is here, alone in the city. Having helped kill her in a drunken accident, he has lost his family and home. We have less information about the cab driver's isolation, but we see it played out. He treats his neighbors with contempt (leaving Andrej and pregnant Dorota in the cold, rather than giving them a ride); we get a hint at how his neighbors treat him, when someone drops a dirty rag on him. He lives in the apartment complex, but he rejects it - and it rejects him. Unlike the other characters who live there, we never see him at home - all we hear of his family are his pleas with Jacek that his death will leave his wife alone, and the possibility that the woman in a wheelchair in the courtroom scenes is his wife. The attorney, meanwhile, is only seen in either public places - school, the court, prison - or alone. We do, though, get a glimpse of his family life when a colleague congratulates him on his child. That is all.

The double edged significance of home, though, probably comes out the most starkly in Episodes 7 and 8. In 7, a girl in her early twenties kidnaps her 6 year old daughter, who has been raised as her sister. It's notable that this is almost the only episode in the series to show a complete, intact family (we get a glimpse at one in 3, though the poor father is pulled out in the middle of the night) - and because this is by far the most poisonous family in the series. Majka's parent's home may contain the entire family, but it is a family based on deception, on the exploitation of children - the younger Majka as much as her daughter Ania. Even here, though, Majka is driven as much by the desire to find a home as the desire to leave the one she is in - she takes Ania and seeks out the child's father, a teacher who seduced (to put it as kindly as possible) her when she was 16. She doesn't say so, quite, but she seems driven by the hope that she can find a new home, a real home, uniting her child with its true parents. It is a vain hope, even though Woytek seems to regret losing the same thing - and has turned to making teddy bears, as if in compensation for losing his child. They come together, sharing a space sharing a shot briefly - but they can't even look at one another, and their child is asleep, buried by teddy bears....

And it ends. He calls Majka's mother, she leaves - that is all. In the end, her mother finds her, takes Ania back, and Majka rides away alone on a train. She loses everything - her mother keeps the semblance of home, but it is one based on a lie, and it's hard not to see Majka's absence becoming the fissure that destroys that home in the end.

Episode 8, finally, is structured around the notion of home as shelter, and shelter denied - as well as raising the stakes, by setting that drama in the midst of the holocaust. It is also the most metafictional part of the series - discussing its own backstory in a class, along with the plot of Episode 2; containing direct comments on the apartment block, the idea of all the stories going on in that space. It brings the themes to the foreground: children in peril, what adults owe children, the notion of a home as a refuge, a chance to live - though also the possibility of betrayal. (The real backstory of the backstory - the false information that the family intended to shelter Elżbieta were collaborators - raises that image: home as false security.) Though this is not about a family in the present, or even really about homes in the present, these images permeate the film. The home Elżbieta is denied; the house where she met Zofia and her husband during the war, which they return to, and Zofia finds herself turned away; the tailor's home - which was denied its possibility of saving a child.

Episode 8 might also be seen as a model for the series as a whole. Zofia's class is a seminar about ethics - from what we see of it, it seems to operate by posing ethical dilemmas, that are then filled in by the class. That's not far from the structure of the whole Dekalog: take 10 situations suggested by the commandments and tell them as stories, rooted in lived human experience. That is what Kieslowski and Piesiewicz do - and indeed, the sense of lived experience elevate them. It is also important, I imagine, that episode 8 is also both explicitly based on an actual story from World War II, and brings politics and history explicitly into the series. Grounding these things in the lived experience of 2 specific women, yes - but also implicating them in the overall history of Poland in direct, inescapable ways.

All together, then, Dekalog is a magnificent piece of work, as film, as television, however you want to slice it. It is a very rich text, for its stories, for its ideas, and certainly as filmmaking. There are many ways to look at it - taking it as a meditation on the idea of home, family, on how they work as both shelter and menace is just one to look at it, though it's an important element. And one that links it more strongly to television - an art form made for the home, about home. It has to rank very high.

(Let me offer a quick recap of the episodes: it may help.)

1. Father and son live happily, though his wife is gone; they work work with computers, waiting for the pond to freeze; father and sister differ, one religious, one rational. The father calculates that the pond is frozen, then tests it – but the boy goes skating and disappears, leaving his father and aunt desolate.

2. A man is in a coma, his wife has had an affair and gotten pregnant - if the man lives, she needs to abort the child, but if he is going to die, she will keep the baby. She nags the man’s doctor to know if he is going to live or die. He refuses to answer, she insists - he finally tells her the man will die. The man of course lives,and is pleased to have a child, even if it is not his.

3. Christmas eve, a man’s former lover comes to his house, saying her husband is missing and asking for help finding him. He goes with her, and they search the city and replay the end of their affair. In the morning she admits her husband left her long ago - she just bet herself she could keep this man out all night, or she would kill herself.

4. A man and his daughter are happy together - but there is a letter from her mother that she finally can't resist reading. She looks at it, and may or may not open it - she makes up a fake version and reads it, saying she is not the man's child. She then makes a pass at him, but he resists. In the morning, she repents - they end up burning the original of the letter, except for a bit of it, which says the same thing she wrote in the forgery. (Assuming it was a forgery.)

5. Follows a young lawyer, a bitter taxi driver, and a young man, the lawyer through his exams, the young man looking for a cabbie to kill. He kills this one, a brutal, horrific murder. Then cut to the end of the trial, then the execution, with the lawyer trying to comfort the killer, and railing against the system.

6. A postal worker spies on a woman; when his stalking starts causing her problems, he confesses. Later they go out together, but she ends up humiliating him - she immediately repents, but not before he tries to kill himself.

7. A woman kidnaps a child who has been raised as her sister but is really her daughter. They are found, though and she leaves alone in the end.

8. A professor has a visitor in her class – a woman who tells a story about a jewish child who was refused by a Polish family who said they could not bear false witness, to claim she was Christian. It was the professor of course, and the woman who tells the story was the child – the professor had good reasons for her actions, but has hated herself since anyway. She takes comfort in the child’s survival.

9. A doctor is impotent - he half tells his wife to have an affair, but when he finds out that she did have an affair, he becomes wildly jealous. He also treats a girl who needs major surgery to be able to sing, professionally - she would rather not, but her family, and the doctor get her to do it. In the end, the man and wife are nearly reconciled, but the lover hangs around, leading to a near crisis.

10. Two brothers discover that their father was one of the country’s most important stamp collectors. They get tied up in a scam to trade a kidney for a crucial stamp, but this is a ruse to allow someone to rob their father's apartment and take all the stamps. In the end, after many trials, they forgive each other and bond over having picked up their father's bug for stamps.

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