Site created 12/15/97.
review added: 6/20/00
1988 (2000) - Image Entertainment
review by Adam Jahnke of
The Digital Bits
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C+/B+/F
Specs and Features
560 mins (10 films at approx. 57 mins each - see film listing
below), NR, full frame (1.33:1), two dual-sided, dual-layered discs, Snapper
case packaging in slipcase, film-themed menu screens, scene access (8 chapters
per film), languages: Polish (DD mono), subtitles: non-removable English
We're halfway through the year
2000 and have already had a number of worthy candidates for Best DVD of the
year. It may come as a surprise, then, that several internationally respected
film critics have come out to say that the most important video release of the
year is The Decalogue, a set of two
featureless DVDs that costs more than The Abyss
and Fight Club combined. The late
Krzysztof Kieslowski created this series of 10 films, each based on one of the
Ten Commandments, for Polish television over a decade ago. Since then, they have
been virtually impossible to see in the United States. In essence, the very
arrival of these films in this country is a special feature in and of itself.
Although he'd been making feature films in Poland since the 1970s, Kieslowski
didn't become widely known in America until the 90s with the release of
The Double Life of Veronique and the films
that would turn out to be his final work, the brilliant Three
Colors trilogy (all of which remain unreleased on DVD at this point).
The amazingly high caliber of these films (and other lesser known works like
No End and Blind
Chance) leave the question of whether or not The
Decalogue is Kieslowski's best work open for debate. What is
indisputable, is that it is his most ambitious. Instead of using each film to
illustrate a commandment, Kieslowski and his co-writer, Krzysztof Piesiewicz,
instead make more tentative connections. Some of the parallels are fairly
obvious, such as Decalogue I, about a man
who puts his faith in his computer to determine if it is safe for his son to
skate on a local pond. In other films, the connections are so obscure as to be
almost invisible. For instance, you have to stretch your definition of the word
"adultery" to make Decalogue VI
line up with its commandment. In this episode, a postal worker spies on his
neighbor, brooding jealously over her many lovers until he finally works up the
courage to meet her.
One of Kieslowski's best ideas was to have each of the ten films revolve around
different occupants of the same Warsaw apartment building. This motif brings
focus to a project that could easily have careened madly out of control. This
also allows Kieslowski to connect the films in surprising and intricate ways.
When a character from an earlier film reappears, it triggers memories of that
person's story. When the man from Decalogue I
passes someone dressed as Santa Claus in Decalogue
III, our knowledge of the previous story makes the chance encounter
resonate with grief. By the end of the series, it's easy to believe that
Kieslowski could have focused on anyone, no matter how fleetingly glimpsed, and
told a compelling story about them.
Kieslowski's real gift, in this and all his films, was in telling stories that
were both cerebral and emotional at the same time. Each episode of
The Decalogue is designed to engage the
mind and provoke consideration of moral dilemmas that have no easy answers. If
that's all it did, it would be easy to admire but unworthy of the bounteous
praise it has received. It's the human side of the stories being told that
elevates The Decalogue to masterpiece
status. Although it takes place in a very specific place at a very specific
time, the issues addressed are universal. They are not dealing with Eastern
European politics or a specific religious dogma. These are matters of love,
hate, jealousy, greed, and loss. When something starts to go wrong in these
stories, the mind registers it as an omen of things to come. But at the same
time, we get a sick feeling in our stomach because we can feel that things are
going to get much, much worse. But don't get the impression this is an
unrelentingly somber affair. The films are peppered with lighter moments,
culminating in Decalogue X, the only
outright comedy in the series, about the difficulty two brothers have in
completing a series (in this case, it's a stamp collection).
As exceptional as these films are, their presentation on DVD could not be more
bare bones. The picture is soft and grainy, but I don't think anyone expects a
razor-sharp image from something made for Polish television in the 1980s. There
are also frequent scratches and blemishes to be seen and, most distractingly,
there is occasional instability. Having said all that, this is still a step
above the theatrical print I saw, which had frustratingly difficult to read
subtitles and was often much darker than it should have been. These are quiet
films, but the mono sound is surprisingly strong, striking a delicate balance
between the dialogue and Zbigniew Preisner's spare musical score, which is an
integral part to the series' success.
As for extras, forget it. Don't like the subtitles? Too bad. You're stuck with
them. Want to learn more about Kieslowski? Read a book, 'cause you're not going
to find a bio here. Decalogue V and
VI were expanded to feature length and
released theatrically as A Short Film about Killing
and A Short Film about Love, respectively.
Maybe it's greedy to think these should have been included as extras, but it
would have been nice to have all of Kieslowski's Decalogue
work collected in one package.
Classic foreign films remain ridiculously underrepresented on DVD. The
situation is slowly improving (Criterion by themselves trying the hardest), but
we have yet to see the real landmark films by such filmmakers as Fellini,
Godard, and Bunuel released. The release of The
Decalogue is a major step in the right direction, although its steep
retail price and lack of features will certainly limit its appeal. However,
those of us who mourned Kieslowski's passing, as the loss of one of the few
genuine artists working in film, would likely have paid any price to have this
series available on video. If you consider film to be an art form, you must
watch The Decalogue. If you don't, these
ten films might just change your mind.
The Films (Disc 1)
I: "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt not have
other gods before me."
II: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."
III: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."
IV: "Honor thy father and thy mother."
V: "Thou shalt not kill."
VI: "Thou shalt not commit adultery."
The Films (Disc 2)
VII: "Thou shalt not steal."
VIII: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."
IX: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife."
X: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods."