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Discussing Kieslowski’s Decalogue VIII
With Elijah Davidson on November 24, 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

We’re eight episodes in, and Kieslowski finally gives us a purpose statement. He has an ethics professor, Zofia, delivers it no less. When Elzbieta, a visiting scholar with whom Zofia shares a painful past, asks what Zofia hopes to teach her students, Zofia replies, “I try to help them discover themselves… because goodness exists in every person. Situations release good or evil.”

This statement isn’t all that revelatory, in my opinion. Kieslowski and Piesiewicz have been putting the ethical question to us in almost every episode, leaving the morality of a situation unresolved, and asking us to discuss it amongst ourselves. They’ve challenged us to consider how we would respond and why. I like to think this discussion series has honored the filmmakers’ work and intentions.

I consider it appropriate that this purpose statement is delivered in dialog in this episode as it is perhaps the talkiest of the bunch, and it is about what we say – “bearing false witness” against others. I won’t be surprised if some found Decalogue VIII a little too “preachy.” We hear about the most dramatic ethical conundrums rather than seeing them. (We even hear about an ethical morass we’ve already seen when a student recites the events of Decalogue II.) The ethical dilemma in this episode hinges on whether or not characters will tell the truth or lie yet again. Did you like the talkiness of this episode, Josh, or did you wish for more action?

Still, in the days since I first watched this, another of Kieslowski’s images has lingered in my mind more than any of the conversations – that of a man bent over backwards on a platform in the forest in hopes of proving he’s “better than the TV man.” Josh, did you, like me, have to stand up and see how far backwards you were capable of bending after you watched the contortionist’s flexible feet, um, feat?

The gymnast has stayed with me, because his presence gets at the series’ purpose, and I think there’s two ways to read him. One, because he’s bent over backwards, he can see himself in way others can’t. The Decalogue series is the contortionist then, a cinematic “bending over backwards” to show us ourselves. Two, the contortionist is us, bending over backwards week after week as we’ve watched the series to prove we are better than the men and women on our TVs. He exposes our inflexibility. In the first sense, he is an exemplar. In the second, he’s an indictment. I prefer the second option, as the first is too self-congratulatory, and the second invites me to respond. Which rings most true for you, Josh?

Finally, as I believe the elastic man is there to remind me not to tie myself in knots to prove I’m better than these characters, and since I appreciate Kieslowski’s stated purpose to help me discover myself so that I’ll behave in a way that releases good instead of evil, I think I need to make an honest confession prompted by one of the episodes in this series. In episode VII, I saw more of myself than I liked in Majka. I too am prone to wanting my own selfish way even when it is hard on my parents. My parents are not nearly as selfish as Majka’s, but I am as eager to assert my independence, devil-may-care what they think. I should be more considerate, more trusting, and more loving toward them. Has this series prompted any soul-searching on your part? (A simple “yes” or “no” will suffice. Don’t feel pressured to share details if you don’t want.)

6 Responses to "Discussing Kieslowski’s Decalogue VIII"

  1. Wait – I thought we agreed to only pose each other one question for each of these. You’ve given me four! Thankfully they’re all good.

    Funny you should ask if the series has prompted any soul-searching on my part, because I think that’s precisely what Decalogue VIII is about: getting us out of our heads (debating ethics in general and the ethical situations of each installment in particular) and realizing that what’s essentially at stake is not a theoretical position but an actual person, including, quite possibly, myself. So yes, I found Decalogue VIII to be incredibly soul-searching: a challenge to spend less time “analyzing” the situations in these films (and in my own life) and more time considering how to serve the people struggling within them or take personal responsibility for them.

    I think this partly answers your question about the contortionist, as well. I’d agree that he’s an indictment of the way we may be bending over backwards to separate ourselves from the ethical dilemmas of the series by judging the actions of the characters. In the narrative proper of Decalogue VIII, Zofia’s careful, intellectual application of reason has earned her respect and honor at her university. Yet things begin to crumble – the continually askew painting on the wall of her apartment is an omen – when Elzbieta arrives to reveal how Zofia’s strictly theoretical approach to ethics has ironically allowed her to deny the ethical dilemmas in her own life.

    As for the talkiness of Decalogue VIII, I prefer to think of it as a meta touch – Kieslowski questioning the over-intellectualizing of these films that we may be guilty of by drenching us in it in the story proper. Plus, I found enough visual ingenuity to offer respite, especially in the “narrative” of the cinematography, which begins with the brightness of a green morning in the forest, descends into shadows and then comes out again into the verdant light.

    Now, a question for you: here and there we’ve wondered if The Decalogue is strictly Old Testament, or if it also gives us glimpses of New Testament grace. In the way that the Zofia-Elzbieta relationship unfolds from reckoning to reconciliation (and in the beautifully delicate performances from these two actresses), I’d argue that Decalogue VIII is the most grace-full installment yet. Would you agree?

    by Josh Larsen on Nov 24th, 2014 at 6:59 am
  2. Elijah Davidson's avatar

    I agree. Their ending was almost heartwarming. It was a hint that real reconciliation might be possible even amongst people who have done terrible things to one another. I like to imagine that the man in the shop saw their warmth and decided he wanted a little of it himself. (Maybe that’s a little too hopeful on my part.) The actresses real are amazing, aren’t they? I wished for a longer version of this story. A Short Film About the Truth? I guess I’ll have to settle for Ida.

    by Elijah Davidson on Nov 26th, 2014 at 9:55 am
  3. Yes, Ida! Very much a companion piece.

    by Josh Larsen on Nov 26th, 2014 at 12:16 pm
  4. I know someone brought up IDA in a previous instalment, but I agree that it matches thematically more with this one.

    I found it interesting that this one seemed more connected with the other ones than any of the other ones. We have the explicit reference to the events of Decalogue 2. We also get an extended “cameo” from one the characters (so to speak)  in Decalogue 10. All of this is consistent with what Elijah brought up, that in many ways this instalment is a keystone for the series.  I found it listening that, in the classroom, they allude to a sense of hierarchy amongst the commandments. Which ones are the most important? What does it mean to violate one commandment in order to keep another?

    I also found it interesting that the episode ended with a close-up of the tailor’s face, though I don’t really have anything to say about why that might be significant.

  5. Not sure about the tailor, Jeremy. Elzbieta doesn’t achieve the same sort of connection with him as she does with Zofia. Perhaps the close-up indicates that she has at least opened a window. An acknowledgement that grace can’t be forced, but comes in its own time?

    by Josh Larsen on Dec 3rd, 2014 at 8:42 am
  6. Elijah Davidson's avatar

    I took that final close-up to be an indictment of or invitation to us and/or Polish citizens to do as Elzbieta and Zofia do and connect, genuinely, with one another instead of staying closed off like he is. He glimpses the possibility just like Kieslowki allows us to glimpse it.

    by Elijah Davidson on Dec 4th, 2014 at 3:36 pm
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