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Discussing Kieslowski’s Decalogue X
With Elijah Davidson on December 22, 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

Josh, here we are at the end of both the year and this discussion series. I was looking back over my Letterboxd diary this morning, and I noticed that I watched the first film in this series on August 15, over four months ago. I’ve watched 85 films since then (including the other nine films in this series) and 190 films in 2014 prior to watching Decalogue I. If I was ranking all films I watched for the first time in 2014, The Decalogue would be right near the top of the list (behind the three Tarkovsky films I watched for the first time this year). All that to say, thank you for doing this. It’s been a highlight of my movie-watching year. Thank all of you who have stayed with us through this entire four-month-long discussion series. It’s been wonderful.

As I looked over my Letterboxd diary, I also couldn’t help but note the way the site arranges the posters of the films I’ve watched – like so many stamps carefully collected and pasted in a book. Unlike the stamps that cause the conflicts in Decalogue X, my Letterboxd diary can’t be handed down to my children and grandchildren when I die. Maybe that’s for the better, as Decalogue X shows how if covetousness has any good end, it is only in spite of the coveters.

Overall, I found Decalogue X to be the most absurd of the entire series. I understand why Kieslowski suggested this final film was a kind of comedy. So much here is comically exaggerated - the audacity of the opening song, the foulness of the tank of dead fish, the callousness of the brothers to their father’s death, the appraised value of the stamp collection, the size of their watch dog, the lengths to which they go to “complete their collection.” Other installments in this series made me cry. Decalogue X made me laugh from start to finish, and as it ended, I was delighted to see the film laughing along with me.

Not only did I appreciate the levity in relation to the seriousness of the other episodes in the Decalogue, I also needed it, because I recognized myself in those brothers and the way they forgot themselves, their problems, the rest of their lives as they let greed take them over. I contend with that tendency all the time. When I was a kid, I collected everything—rocks, Happy Meal toys, LEGOs, Sonic the Hedgehog merchandise, book series, magazines, football cards, cds, Pokemon, and yes, even stamps—and though I’ve shed those collections over the years and tried to dampen my possessive urge, I still thrill from time to time at the thought of gathering a collection of something “valuable.” A week ago, I almost spent an irresponsible amount of money on some rare Criterion Collection dvds. My perusing of my Letterboxd diary this morning carried with it some of those same prideful feelings of accomplished ownership that I used to feel as I rearranged my McDonald’s toys.

This week contains Christmas, a holiday that has become as much about obtaining things as anything else. Perhaps Decalogue X will serve as a good reminder to value our relationships with our friends and family over the stuff they give us. If you haven’t been able to tell, in addition to finding Decalogue X to be the most absurd of the series, I also found it to be the most morally simplistic: “Greed is bad. It tears apart families. Everyone dies eventually anyway, so don’t waste your life on things with only momentary value. Love each other instead.” In terms of my Letterboxd diary, instead of placing value in the fact that I watched this entire series (and 266 other films) in 2014, I should value the conversations I’ve had about those films and the relationships that have developed because of them. The lesson seems clear, even if the layers of that lesson in the film are myriad.

What about you, Josh? Did you find Decalogue X’s lesson as unambiguous as I did, or did my near-constant laughter distract me from some deeper ethical complication?

4 Responses to "Discussing Kieslowski’s Decalogue X"

  1. It’s been quite a journey, Elijah. Revisiting these films with you and other faithful commenters has greatly enhanced the experience. I wish I could process every movie I watched this way!

    As for Decalogue X, it was a bit jarring at first to realize that this was, indeed, a comedy. And a very funny one. There have been instances of dry wit throughout The Decalogue, but here the laughs were at the fore: the dog that you mentioned; the ring of elaborate keys the brothers must work through to get into their father’s apartment; Jerzy Stuhr’s comically sad smile as the older brother, which painfully stretches as his paranoia intensifies. And in general the way this works somewhat as a parody of an espionage film, as the brothers find themselves enmeshed in the secretive, stamp-collecting subculture (I love the spy shot from behind a tree in the park).

    Is it a bit morally simplistic, presenting these brothers as clowns of covetousness? Perhaps, yet it was no less potent for me as an exploration of the moral dilemmas the Ten Commandments are meant to address. (You’re absolutely correct about Letterboxd: I must confess a silly sort of pride in looking back at my diary, even as I covet the diaries of those who’ve managed to see more than me in a given year.) There may not be as much shading or nuance to Decalogue X as there was in previous installments, but I attribute that to the fact that Kieslowski is working in a straight comedy style here, one not always given to sophistication.

    Or perhaps there is a layer we’re missing. The one element I’m still pondering is something the brothers are told early on, when they’re visited by a dealer who first explains to them how much their father’s collection is worth. He sees the greed rise in their eyes and then says, “It would be a crime to dissipate somebody’s life.” It’s worth noting that after this point, the brothers seek not to make money from the collection, but to complete it. Is this simply another form of covetousness – of wanting something simply because it will then mean no one else can have it – or is something else going on here?

    by Josh Larsen on Dec 22nd, 2014 at 6:22 am
  2. However simplistic this installment is (and I think it is, though obvious may be a better word) I still found the final shot a very nice punctuation mark to the series. That is one of things I so appreciate about Kieslowski—he can find emotion in all sorts of seemingly banal or contrived situations. I have to wonder if the final image of the two brothers laughing over the absurdity of their situation is K’s way of saying we needn’t talk it all too seriously.

    by Jeremy Doan on Dec 22nd, 2014 at 12:49 pm
  3. Elijah Davidson's avatar

    That line stuck with me too, Josh. I took it with a touch of irony though, because the father had already wasted the life he could have had with his sons by being consumed with his desire to collect the stamps. He had already dissipated. The real crime was how the father was distant from his family.

    I was overjoyed Kieslowski ended the series that way, too, Jeremy. I found it understated and rich just like the whole series.

    by Elijah Davidson on Dec 24th, 2014 at 7:59 am
  4. The perfect ending to this fantastically wonderful series.  The brothers laughing at the end, at the ultimate absurdity of it their ‘enterprise’ - which indeed was covetousness only in that they wanted to complete the collection, to the extent the brother gave up his kidney! (talk about dedication to goal), not to sell it but to have and to love it? is my take.  Like the contortionist in the earlier episode where stamp collector father “Root” makes a cameo, we are invited to ponder that taking life seriously is important but equally to realize that there is always the time for laughing (at ourselves).  This is the magic of Nothing, in its capacity of Sufficient Fullfillment.

    by Greg Turner on Mar 6th, 2020 at 5:26 am
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