Discussing Kieslowski’s Decalogue II
With Elijah Davidson on September 01, 2014

This is part of a ten-part dicussion series we did with Think Christian. The other half of the series can be found on the Think Christian website. - Editor

Well, Josh, two weeks and one episode into this four-month conversation, and we’ve already discussed the nature of God’s goodness, the role of the Old Testament Law in guiding human affairs, the Law’s immutability, the purpose of faith and doubt, the worth of religious devotion during tragedy, the Theodicy, Kieslowski’s cinematic subtlety (or lack thereof), his relative stridency as a filmmaker, his overall purpose, the pattern of a spiritual journey, and even the Singularity. So far, the Decalogue has proven to be as rich a vein of spiritual and moral ore as reported.

For this second entry in the series, Kieslowski and Piesiewicz have dropped us into the middle of a story—about a woman who is considering an abortion and a doctor who refuses to make that decision for her—that could be easily included in a medical ethics textbook. As before, we can get into plot specifics and spoilers in the comments.

In one sense, I feel that arguing over the right and wrong in this ethical dilemma distracts from the deeper issue at the heart of this film and the second commandment. Clearly, no one in this story is making a “graven image” to bow down to and worship, but the “because” of the second commandment has to do with the effect of our actions on our children’s lives. That’s where Decalogue II and the second commandment overlap.

So much attention is given in this film to how what one does affects the lives of others. The unborn child is the prime example, of course, but consider also the many plants and small animals under the doctor’s care, the plant the woman destroys, the dog hit by a car two years ago whose death still affects relationships between neighbors, the doctor’s family taken by war, the bee, the rabbit, and even the woman’s cigarette smoke which becomes a kind of haze that includes anyone near her. Cinematographically, Kieslowski and cinematographer Edward Klosinski emphasize these connections most notably in one of the film’s final shots in which they use a telephoto lens and an editing trick to include the film’s three principal characters in one shot even though they are in different locations.

Through our discussion of Decalogue I, I began to see the film not as Kieslowski’s lifting of Christ over other, lesser gods, but rather as Kieslowski’s affirming of spiritual faith over humanistic certainty. To me, Decalogue I seems less about God punishing someone for not obeying the the first commandment and more about a man being awakened to a reality greater than one he can measure. In Decalogue II, by focusing on the ways one’s choices affect the lives of others instead of on “graven images,” Kieslowski seems once again to be shifting our focus away from debates about God’s agency in administrating these Laws and toward the general societal order expressed in the Commandments.

So, Josh, my question is two-fold. One, do you think this is a fair reading of this film and of Kieslowski’s hermeneutic method thus far in the series, and two, if so, do you think Kieslowski and his collaborators are rendering the Commandments faithfully?

14 Responses to "Discussing Kieslowski’s Decalogue II"

  1. Wow – did we really cover all that in relation to Decalogue I? Not bad for a 53-minute film!

    In answer to your first question, I think Decalogue II confirms your understanding of Kieslowski’s interest in the Commandments. This installment, even more so than the first, is more about the moral morass the Commandments mean to address than the repercussions that come from breaking them.

    Now, does that mean that the films are “rendering” the Commandments faithfully? Well, this is probably the time to bring up the fact that not every religious tradition agrees on the same numerical order of the Commandments. So any talk of how directly a certain film relates to a certain law is a bit circumstantial. So far you and I have been working from the Reformed Protestant ordering as found in the Heidelberg Catechism, which would align Decalogue II with, as you wrote, the law against the worship of “graven images.”

    I do think there are reasonable parallels there – maybe we can get into that later – but for now I’d rather answer your question about The Decalogue’s “faithfulness” in more general terms. Thus far, I would say that Kieslowski’s handling of the Commandments is faithful in the sense that his films so far illuminate one of the central purposes of the Law, as mentioned by Daniel Jones in our earlier conversation: to bring us closer to God. In Decalogue I, you could argue that is done through tragedy. Here, it’s done by deflating the doctor’s “worshipful” status, particularly with – spoiler alert! – the miraculous recovery of the husband. Through this, the doctor is no longer in his lofty position of special knowledge and power. Rather, he finds himself where the Law should leave us all – full of humility and wonder.

  2. Elijah Davidson's avatar

    “Deflating the doctor’s ‘worshipful’ status,” as you put it, does fit in better with the reported title of this episode which refers to the third Commandment about not taking the Lord’s name in vain. I didn’t even realize that was the widely accepted title of this episode until after I watched it, wrote my response, and then started reading what others had written about this episode. I chose to ignore it, because I feel that making the episode all about the doctor’s one moment of swearing narrows the impact of the film and relegates the other characters to secondary status. Dorota, especially, deserves equal billing with the doctor, and Kieslowski gives it to her throughout the episode.

    Ebert said that we could waste a lot of time trying to figure out which Commandment applies to each episode. He’s probably correct, and I don’t really want to go too far down that rabbit hole. There are at least a few Commandments at work in this story. And maybe that’s part of the point. While the Ten Commandments are famously a list of ten laws to follow, they also co-mingle in surprising ways as they do in this story - adultery leads to lying leads to swearing and could potentially lead to murder. The Commandments are a moral order, a net that holds us up unless we abandon it. If we remove one, the rest unravel as well.

    Here’s something else that’s been “bugging” me - I’m not sure what to make of Kieslowski’s in-your-face symbolism. Part of me appreciates his creativity. Part of me is turned off by the audacity of it. How does it strike you?

    by Elijah Davidson on Sep 1st, 2014 at 8:26 am
  3. Great discussion, gentlemen.  I wish I had more time today to give a fuller account of the ways I’ve been processing this since I watched it one week ago, but alas- a Pentateuch final and family day at the waterpark beckon…
    I completely understand and agree with the point (as I also heard or read Ebert say) that it would be unnecessarily limiting and pointless to pigeonhole each film into one single commandment.  Clearly, the films are connected and overlapping, just as the commandments are, just as life is.
    However, I do think its fair to push a little harder into the commandment given as the subtitle, since Kieslowski and Piesiewicz reportedly very deliberately did set out to explore the depths of one commandment per film.  (Is this what you’ve gathered, too, that the first two commandments (using the ordering of the Reformed tradition) were condensed to one film and that the final commandment was expanded to 10?)
    I’ve tried to avoid thinking about which commandment is being emphasized prior to watching, but have enjoyed looking for a “trigger” or “tell” that reveals the emphasized commandment.  This isn’t to say that the incident of the doctor’s “swearing” is the central or defining action of the movie, but I think there’s quite a bit going on in this episode that more broadly relates to that commandment’s ideal of “the sanctity of speech” (full disclosure: the Wikipedia page for the Decalogue provides “ideals” for each film- again, probably stifling to seek them out before watching, but in this case, “the sanctity of speech” has helped focus my thinking about many of the grandly melodramatic ethical decisions we get to tangle with in Decalogue II).

    I hope this might spark more discussion between you two and others.  I’m sadly checking out until tomorrow or the next day, but look forward to your thoughts!

  4. Saying that Decalogue II is largely about the “sanctity of speech” seems a little reductive to me, even if you widen your definition of speech to include honest communication with others. I really like Elijah’s notion of the Commandments “co-mingling” with each other, both in life and in these films. That seems to allow the movies themselves - and all of us - a bit more breathing room.

    As for the symbolism, Elijah, I can’t say I feel strongly one way or the other about it in general, though specific uses of symbolism work better for me than others. The “tears” on the portrait of Mary (or Christ) in Decalogue I was a little much for me, yet the shot of the struggling bee in Decalogue II, foreshadowing the husband’s recovery, seemed like a wonderful touch. How have you felt about the symbolism? Which uses of it have been most potent for you?

  5. Hello gentlemen! Sorry for the delayed response. I’ve been out in the mountains and away from cell service all day. I must say that I enjoyed this episode even more than last time, mostly because I knew what I had to look forward in this conversation. As much as I enjoyed the slightly macabre allegory of Decalogue I, this second episode felt more “ordinary” in the way it applied to commandment to the fullness of life. I also found the ending, connecting the doctor’s backstory to the action of the events, very satisfying. I wondered what you thought of the doctor’s motive and how it applied to the commandment?

    Thinking on discussion of which and how many commandments this episode applies to, I went into it with the understanding that it illustrated taking the Lord’s name in vain.  But I agree that it applies much more broadly. And how impressive that it was not chiefly concerned with profanity but in whom we place our trust and how we play God with our words. The commandments are much more than a moral grid - they deal with core of our very being.

    Which brings me to my chief question from last time (thanks for the mention, Josh!). Do these interpretations of the commandments point to Christ? By now I don’t think Christ and his atonement are a major factor, but rather the exploration of how broadly the law demands and how deeply and subtly we fail points towards a moral view of humanity and our need for his redemption.

    I was wondering if the foreshadowing was too much, but I’m finding it quite satisfying. Remember last time the shot of the milk on the coffee looking like a layer of ice? I liked the way the violinist snubbing out her cigarette spoke to her desire to snuff out the life of her baby. Did you make anything of the dripping of water in the hospital room? And what about the brief appearance of The Watcher?

    by Daniel Melvill Jones on Sep 1st, 2014 at 8:22 pm
  6. Wow. This one gets me each time I watch it. Hopefully I will have something to add in a day or two. For now, I will just say:

    “I have a god, but there is only enough of him for me.”

    by Jeremy Doan on Sep 1st, 2014 at 8:54 pm
  7. Before diving into the denser topics of conversation here, I just wanted to mention that no matter one’s take on the symbolic nature of the struggling bee, praise should be given to the incredible patience from Kieslowski to even film that! I mean, what if the bee would’ve fallen in the juice and died? Given that this was a television mini-series shot on film, what a gutsy choice.

    To begin, I agree with the general consensus here that the commandments are a moral framework for the community of man, a net - as Elijah said - to keep us. In Kieslowski’s re-contextualizing the commandments, we get a better sense of their core, why they were given, and to where they are taking us. They are the through-line of harmonious human relationship, grounded in the reality of God. The beautiful thing about these films is we see real, modern humanity wrestling with decisions and circumstances under-girded by the commandments. Clearly, these films were crafted with that general conceit in mind, but how brilliant it was to make the commandments subtext so that we are always considering them in light of the stories themselves. Here the humanity/society is elevated over the Law, which is God’s concern as well (i.e. Jesus’ own re-contextualization of the decalogue). The commandments are a means, and in these films Kieslowski uses them to haunt these stories instead of allowing them to dictate.

    I’m curious about the take on the doctor as being “deflated” because that’s not the overall read I got on him. He seemed to be a figure of despair, not of haughtiness. He was cautious in his work because of the tragic loss of his family, which played as a great parallel to Dorota’s situation. He was a man paralyzed by the definite, his life filled with a surrogate family of animals and his housekeeper. Dorota’s entrance into his life is disruptive beginning with her killing his dog, then demanding him to answer questions about her husband’s destiny, placing her decision in his hands. He doesn’t want to answer (we find out) because he is an embittered man on the other end of tragedy, of a fatal happening where control lied in the hands of no one. In the end, I do think the miracle of the husband’s recovery imbues the doctor with wonder and humility but founded more on the hope of life revived than on the humiliation of a proud man.

    The symbolism can go either way for me also. I like some of the touches in this one: Dorota’s constant destruction (the plant, the tea/coffee glass, the box of matches) in light of her situation and the use of the bee scene (give the bee an Oscar!) as a summation of the stories of these three was a good touch. During the scene where Dorota confesses her situation to the doctor, he’s dressed like a priest which is a subtlety I appreciated. The teary-eyed Christ/Mary painting in the first film was definitely on the nose. Also, how about the rabbit in the first few scenes? Does it represent potential personal losses evaded by these three characters seeing as to how it belonged to no one in the story?

    by Colin Stacy on Sep 1st, 2014 at 10:24 pm
  8. A couple of thoughts:

    With Decalogue II, Kieslowski seems to illustrate the “domino effect” as it relates to the commandments. Breaking one (adultery) can easily lead to the breaking of others (murder, idolatry, etc.). Think David and Bathsheba. Like these films, the commands can’t be easily separated into neat categories. This seems like a more “realistic” take than simply handling one command per film. I do have to say, the multiple layers of the story are great to chew on here.

    I didn’t feel like the symbolism is too strong in this film—a little less on the nose than Decalogue I.

  9. One of the main themes of this installment is control, or the lack thereof. As Colin states, “He doesn’t want to answer (we find out) because he is an embittered man on the other end of tragedy, of a fatal happening where control lied in the hands of no one.” That seems the be the question here: who is in control? The husband evens says this after his miraculous recovery, that he felt like the world was disintegrating around him, and no one was in control of it all. For the most part, the only control people have is destructive. For Dorota, she can destroy the plant, break the coffee cup, and even end the life the of the unborn child. But neither she nor the Doctor can do anything to save the dying man. And the doctor is relatively powerless as well. He couldn’t prevent his family from being killed. All that he does for his plants seems to come to no good. The world is really falling apart. The only life that the Doctor can save is the unborn child’s. I don’t know how this plays into the commandments, unless their sense of control (or lack thereof) is there graven image. As the quote I posted earlier says, the doctor’s god is big enough only for him. Maybe his god is is ability to choose.

    As with all these films, one of the main themes is choice. All the characters have choices to make. For Dorota, she has created a false dichotomy. Either she abort her baby and save her marriage, or keep the baby, as long as her husband dies. The choice she has to make is a direct result of her actions (as Wade points out). Maybe this dichotomy she has constructed for herself is her false god.

    by Jeremy Doan on Sep 2nd, 2014 at 1:12 pm
  10. Not sure I have much to offer about the rabbit, Colin, though it’s clearly an important element. Perhaps someone else has a theory? I do have a thought about the dripping water that Daniel asks about. That and other details in the hospital scenes seem to be observed from the ailing husband’s point of view, capturing, as he later says, his feeling that “the world was disintegrating around me.” For me, it made the sense of wonder at the renewed possibilities of life that he eventually expresses to the doctor all the more palpable.

    As for whether or not we’ve moved a bit further from Law and closer towards Grace with Decalogue II, I can’t say that I felt that. Perhaps it’s yet to come, or perhaps this will mostly be an exercise emphasizing our need for that Grace in face of this unyielding Law.

  11. Elijah Davidson's avatar

    So much of this is so great. Thank you all for participating. I can’t stress my thanks enough. When Josh and I conceived this, we worried that it would be just the two of us talking out in the open. It’s so fun that y’all are all joining in and making this so much richer.

    David, thank you for what you said about how the first film collapses the first two commandments into one film. That makes a lot of sense—the father’s worship of certainty a kind of graven image that welcomes destruction upon his son. So the 10th Commandment is spread over episodes 9 and 10, huh? Where did you learn that?

    “Sanctity of speech” seems a little too vague to me as well, but I don’t think it’s too far off. I like what Daniel added to the idea by bringing out how the Commandment might be referring to where we place our trust (or where we look for guarantees of trustworthiness in others) more than profanity. That works very well with this episode and with the Commandments. I can see how Dorota is trying to place her trust in the doctor’s words, though he refuses to accept that responsibility.

    I’m still suspicious of the doctor. I’m not convinced he’s telling Dorota the truth when he says her husband is going to die. I think he just wants to save her unborn child. The other doctor in the room when they are looking at the husband’s blood seems wary of what they doctor is saying about the illness “progressing.” Colin is right. The doctor is a sad man at the beginning, and he seems genuinely surprised that the husband lives. He has no answers for him when the man comes to his office at the end. Concerning the idea of control, no one is in control even when they try to be, and then the husband at the end says that it felt like everything was disintegrating and then something )maybe that little) bee wanted him to survive. Only God is in control. Only God can control.

    I don’t know what to say about the rabbit either, and it’s kind of bothering me. I think that’s a little part of what irks me with all Kieslowki’s symbolism, actually. Some of it is very bold—the bee, the tears—and some of it is more opaque, like the rabbit. I’m sure there’s lots of other symbolism I’m not even catching. I suppose I’m more irked with myself than with Kieslowski or his film. I wish I could see and understand more of it. I like the bee and the tears, even if I feel like the later is a bit more earned, as it results more directly from a character’s actions as opposed to the former which feels inserted to me. (Or course, it’s all inserts, as it is a film.)

    I also don’t think these film “point to Christ” in the easy way. I think they point to the Law, but as Paul wrote, the Law makes us aware of our sin, and that awareness leads us to the answer to our sin, Jesus.

    by Elijah Davidson on Sep 2nd, 2014 at 6:38 pm
  12. Theory on the rabbit: The characters seem to think that the rabbit was thrown or dropped off of a balcony. A pretty terrible way for someone to treat an animal.

    Compare this to how the doctor lovingly cares for his pet bird. Could this be a contrast between the way people either respect or disrespect the sanctity of life?

    At one point, the doctor asked the wife if she killed the rabbit—a reference to her disregard for the life of her child or husband? The doctor, who seems to have more respect for animal life, in contrast, convinces the wife (in a way) not to get an abortion.

    This could also play into the theme of playing God (giving and taking life).

    Just thinking out loud here.

  13. Great points about the relationship between control and destruction, Jeremy. There’s a lot of loss in this film, be it past or present, and it’s dealt with through the lens of control. Nature is wonderfully used here to reflect states of helplessness, sorrow, anger, etc. as characters act out against it or observe it. We get a sort of progression through the states of control in these three characters: Dorota using it to destroy and manipulate her surroundings, the doctor feeling the loss of it passively as his plant dies and as he recounts the loss of his family and dog, and the husband’s utter hopelessness in succumbing to losing all control completely.

    Josh, I’m with you concerning the scenes in the hospital. They help us to feel the slow death he is experiencing and how control over his situation is something far from him. Those scenes reminded me of Barton Fink, though obviously this Kieslowski film is less surreal and more literal. There’s a strong visual power to having a character’s surrounding reflect their state of being.

    The bee is key, Elijah! I totally understand how you feel with the symbolism. It’s all so dense and hard to decipher. So, maybe the rabbit was simply used to set a tone for the film?

    I’m wondering how much Kieslowski is really even concerned with pointing all this explicitly to Christ. I have a feeling he won’t, that it may feel too heavy-handed if he does. (I’m just not sure how he would integrate that into these stories, unless through characters like the Watcher who reside in positions of observation and are not immediate characters). The power, at least in these two films so far, has been in observing an awareness of sin and how it’s fractured societal life, as the viewer reflects on these stories in light of the commandments. Grace seems to enter these stories through the glimmers of hope that end these films - even if these people are still very much broken, more so than when we started.




    by Colin Stacy on Sep 3rd, 2014 at 7:50 pm
  14. is about the revelation of gods and discussing kieslowskis decalogue ii

    by cara menggugurkan kandungan on Nov 10th, 2015 at 10:56 am
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