Department of Theatre and Film
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue and the Ambiguity of Meaning
As protests against The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988) and debates surrounding The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004) suggest, incorporating recognized religious elements in a film can be a decidedly risky practice. Yet the awards and critical acclaim garnered by The Decalogue (1989), directed by Krzysztof Kielowski and written by Kielowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, indicate that this project, composed of ten one-hour films first shown on Polish television, explores narratives loosely tied to the Ten Commandments in ways that can speak to audiences with differing views about the Bible. As writing about The Decalogue reveals, the film project has prompted a range of responses, among them anguish, empathy, identification, debates about faith, and discussions about inter- and intra-personal relationships. Yet these responses reflect the shared view that the philosophical quandaries embodied by the characters allow audiences to consider not just identifiable socio-cultural ideologies but also the complex and ambiguous meaning that the commandments might have in contemporary daily life.
The very subject matter – the tenuous relationship of the commandments to modern everyday existence – provides the opportunity for audiences to become active viewers, in part because the characters in the films face dilemmas and crises that are personal yet ultimately universal in scope, generating a “value of empathy” where “[e]mpathizing with others makes available to us possibilities for our own emotional development” (Neill 192). The film’s ecumenical framework for approaching the commandments as both a unifying and divisive “list of governing rules” provides Kieslowski with the lens through which to examine complicated relationships between people in modern, secular society. Kieslowski’s Decalogue thus takes on problems of modern “spiritual” identity and the quest for meaning and answers to unnerving questions that are too often unanswerable. By focusing on characters’ attempts to establish a “true” sense of self, the films reveal their difficulties in creating an authentic identity through self-analysis, interaction with others, deed, or accomplishment. In the films’ exploration of metaphysical dilemmas in modern society, Kieslowski suggests that a complete truth will never be revealed but that the pain of living is what constitutes ambiguous morality.
Kieslowski’s work suggests that the commandments are not easily understood or interpreted in modern society because their meanings are ambiguous. Thus, the ten films that make up The Decalogue are not religious tracks but instead explore spirituality and the metaphysical – both areas of modern, personal reflection and theoretical conjecture. As Joseph Kickasola proposes, “the episodes in The Decalogue never function as a ‘thou shalt not’ proclamation, but rather as an investigation of why one would desire to break the commandments in the first place” (239). In other words, what the films show us are people who have transgressed in some fashion, either willingly and knowingly as the young killer in Decalogue 5, or more ambiguously, as in Decalogue 7, which is a story about possession, the complex relations between a child and her parents, and the “false domesticity” that people often create to sustain a sense of hope. Decalogue 2 is a story about a woman contemplating an abortion that hinges upon whether or not her dying husband will recover. Here, the film focuses on the way others affect personal identity and moral choice, which is a point reiterated throughout the films. Significantly, the films suggest that inner, moral choice is often dependent on others’ perceptions, despite one’s ability and responsibility to act alone. The Decalogue is a monumental statement about modern society, about individuals searching for identity, about the ambiguity of meaning, and about the difficulties of adhering to or breaking rules, or in this case, the commandments.
While each of the ten films that make up The Decalogue were retroactively given titles that aligned them with a specific commandment, the films are not overtly religious in nature and only loosely based on a specific commandment. While Kieslowski is ostensibly concerned with the Biblical Ten Commandments, he populates the series of films with characters that are grounded in a modern place (Poland) and a modern space (a grey apartment complex); that approach creates a decidedly ambiguous connection between film and commandment. Presented with a contemporary setting, audiences are invited to watch the characters “in situations that require [their] immediate and vital [moral] decisions” (Haltof 79). The films make the characters sympathetic figures but also suggest that they are fundamentally flawed, so that living by rules, even laws dictated by God, is often impossible.
The Decalogue presents audiences with ordinary people caught in moments of spiritual crisis. This is not to say that the films that make up The Decalogue should be interpreted as explicitly religious (religion and spirituality being different things). Instead, the films seem to be authentic accounts of secular spiritual crisis because they feature a documentary-like aesthetic that avoids didactic, dogmatic, and sermonizing tendencies. Kieslowski’s background in documentaries likely contributes to the films’ aesthetic and his ability to draw audiences into the world of the fictional characters reveals his ability to “document” the social world. Discussing his documentary-like style, Annette Insdorf notes, “Kieslowski’s [fictional] work developed in this direction, addressing ordinary lives in their poetry and poignancy” (13). Underscoring that point, Charles Eidsvik’s analysis of the two expanded Decalogue films (A Short Film about Killing and A Short Film about Love) suggests that Kieslowski’s documentary style is an attempt to mirror a realistic theme. Eidsvik writes “Kieslowski has found a form to make the struggle for spiritual survival in such a land exciting. The struggle can be filmed by treating stories as if they were real, by treating characters as if they were people, by treating film as if it were always a document” (55). Addressing the (realistic) universality of The Decalogue project, Slavoj Žižek argues that Kieslowski’s style was not just “legitimate” but also “necessary” (8). Žižek argues that “to inquire into the concrete social conditions within which Kieslowski accomplished the turn from socio-political concerns to more global ethico-religious ones” the filmmaker needed to use a documentary-like approach that allowed “universality” to be revealed through “a set of particular conditions” (8). As a look at scenes from the different films in The Decalogue should show, Kieslowski creates a sense of authenticity by exploring the “particular conditions” of the characters’ universal dilemmas and by suggesting that in a modern world, people reckon with the Ten Commandments through efforts at spirituality, authentic personal identity, and ethical behavior in interpersonal relationships.
There are several accounts of how Kieslowski got the idea to make a series of films related to the Ten Commandments. One is that he came upon the idea while talking with a friend as they traveled along the streets of Warsaw. Kieslowski is supposed to have noted that when he saw people, the “[t]ension, a feeling of hopelessness, and a fear of yet worse to come, were obvious.” He is reported to have said, “I sensed mutual indifference behind polite smiles and had the overwhelming impression that I was watching people who didn’t really know why they were living” (qtd. in Hames 225). The account highlights the point that Kieslowski made The Decalogue as ten films that might be loosely based on the Ten Commandments, but are more fundamentally rooted in the everyday interchanges of ordinary people. Decalogues 1, 4, and 7 thus concern familial relations. Decalogue 10 depicts the relationship between two brothers; Decalogue 6 examines the nature of love.
The ten films in The Decalogue do not focus on individual commandments. Instead, each film deals with more than one commandment, so that “the correspondences are more fuzzy, [and] sometimes a story refers to a multitude of commandments” (Žižek 111). In addition, The Decalogue is about the moral problems any one might face and, more importantly, how one might deal with them, regardless of the commandment one must heed. The films become universal in scope by exploring problems of greed, love, betrayal, family life, and friendship, and by portraying a large spectrum of concerns familiar to people in essentially any environment.
Kieslowski had made it clear he wanted the films to be representative of any society, in any culture, in any place. “The Decalogue,” according to Kieslowski, “is one of the ethical foundations of our society. Everyone is more or less familiar with the Ten Commandments, and agrees with them, but no one really observes them” (Clapp). It is from this perspective that the films develop their narratives. While one may see the films as reflections of Polish life in the 1980s (which they do indeed chronicle to some extent), the thematic concerns are applicable to almost anyone, which is why the films are so powerful in their enunciation of spirituality, transgression, and the search for meaning and stability. The overlaps in the films and their “displaced” commandments suggest Kieslowski’s attempt to explore the commandments in various life situations. This approach allows us to see the “truth” of the commandment even though it is not literalized and is very often undermined.
For instance, Decalogue 5 examines murder, but in two separate ways: unpremeditated and court-sanctioned. Thus, it offers a morally ambiguous perspective through which to consider the basic tenet itself. All of the films’stories revolve around the choices people make, and the ethical or moral problems that coincide with such decisions. While those problems are arguably the basis for many narrative films, in The Decalogue series the moral complexity involved in characters’ decision making is heightened because the narratives touch on the commandments. As Joseph Kickasola suggests, “Regardless of one’s theological commitments, the commandments demarcate ten universal arenas of moral choice [which] are the loci of our most important decisions as humans, and Kieslowski shows how rich and complicated these arenas are” (161). That the narrative of each film is loosely connected with a specific commandment is not the chief concern for Kieslowski. Rather, the engaging aspect of the films is that the fundamentally flawed characters enact moral dramas that reflect and refract the commandments. Kieslowski aims for the universal, not the overtly political or ideological (a prominent concern in 1980s Poland and his earlier films), and so frames each narrative to explore the way individuals behave in difficult ethical situations.
The characters make spiritual decisions about freedom, identity, transcendence in the process of living with the consequences of their actions that arise from their beliefs, passions, or codes of behavior. For example, the young boy of Decalogue 5 decides to kill for no apparent reason; the protagonist of Decalogue 8, a philosophy professor, lies in order to protect a child; and the scorned husband in Decalogue 9 hides in a closet to spy on his cheating wife. Discussing the way the fictional characters might resemble anyone, Kieslowski explains, “You have criteria, a hierarchy of values. And that’s what I think proves that we have a sense of what is right and wrong and that we are in a position to see our own, inner compass” (qtd. in Stok 150). Rather than having characters enact the commandments, Kieslowski asks them simply to be human, to be questioning, yet authentic and morally lost, following a flawed “inner compass.” While their behaviors appear to be superficial, the characters never seem artificial or representational. For instance, in Decalogue 1, the young boy’s spiritual crisis is instigated by the death of a neighbor’s dog. He is lectured about mortality by his father, who takes a scientific perspective, and his aunt, who takes a theological point of view. However, when the boy dies, the father first searches for scientific answers on his computer and then overturns the Madonna statue in a nearby church as if to blame God.
The Decalogue films are demanding because they allow ambiguity to remain. Their power resides in the way they reveal how and why people spiritually transgress. Yet the characters are presented in a sympathetic light, and the films suggest the need to constantly strive for a spiritual center, no matter how destructive or enlightening it may be. Decalogue 2, for example, is the story of a woman who becomes pregnant by a man other than her husband. She confesses her transgression to her husband’s doctor, who refuses to pass judgment on the woman. After the husband miraculously recovers, he enthusiastically tells the doctor that he and his wife are having a child, and the doctor remains silent, knowing the truth. To transgress in this context means to seek a personal, subjective way of living ethically. In other words, the characters transgress the way they are told to behave (e.g., through the commandments) and instead seek meaning and justice through personal action and interaction. Here again, characters’ search for spiritual meaning does not involve following religious precepts. Hence, The Decalogue is more secular than religious in nature since the characters, according to Kieslowski, are “caught in a struggle precisely because of these [difficult situations] and not other circumstances [that] are fictitious but which would occur in every life” (qtd. in Stok 145). Put another way, the films depict the lives of ordinary people caught in complicated ethical circumstances.
While almost all of the films have a tinge of melancholy or hopelessness, there are moments of humor and redemption – or the suggestion that redemption is possible. The young boy in Decalogue 6, for instance, having been humiliated by the woman he spies on, gets to face her again at the end of the film when she comes to see him at his job. They say nothing but do exchange glances through the thick pane of glass. Similarly, the brothers in Decalogue 10 find grace through the bond they develop through their egoistic coveting of the stamp collection. To some extent, then, the series is not without hope; indeed, the possibility for spiritual growth and reconciliation exists throughout.
The films suggest that life choices are sometimes too complex to make when we are in the midst of transgression. Thus, the characters continually seek understanding, but it is never easy to achieve. The father/daughter relationship in Decalogue 4, for instance, hinges upon their attraction to one another, an ethical dilemma that stems from a taboo moral situation. According to Slavoj Žižek, “Kieslowski’s topic is ethics, not morality: what actually takes place in each of the installments of his Decalogue is the shift from morality to ethics. The starting point is always a moral commandment, and it is through its very violation that the hero(ine) discovers the proper ethical dimension” (137). Arguably, this is why the films are less religious in a biblical sense, and more applicable to the daily conditions and incidents that shape modern ethics. The commandments by nature serve as limitations; each film thus represents the attempt to deal with these limitations, though not in any overt fashion. In this way, transgression is not negative; it simply suggests that the characters cross boundaries in search of meaning. In essence, “[w]hat The Decalogue gives us, are plausible people plausibly adrift in a world where their moral and spiritual lives are tinted in varying shades of grey” (Clapp). This results in their need to try to make connections with others, and to seek ways to strengthen their identity and moral compass. The characters in the films try to do that but rarely succeed, which makes them and their situations recognizable and makes the protagonists often very sympathetic. The father in Decalogue 1, for example, has a connection with his child, but it is built upon false pretenses and when the boy drowns, it is too late for reconciliation. The boy and the woman in Decalogue 6 attempt an awkward courtship, only to remain disconnected. And the brothers in Decalogue 10 are both too self-centered and concerned with making their lives better to become truly ethical individuals. Yet each of these films (and the others in the series) is an example of characters attempting to locate meaning through individual contemplation and connection with others.
Kieslowski establishes various ways for audiences to associate commandments with the films. Marek Haltof explains that the “open structure of Decalogue invites the viewer to interpret the actions of Kieslowski’s protagonists, to follow their struggles with destiny in [an] abundance of chance encounters, symbols, allusions, ambiguity, deliberate slow pace, laconic dialogue and a number of recurring motifs (such as the bottle of milk: sipped, frozen, spilled and delivered)” (79). In other words, The Decalogue uses multiple symbols, allusions, metaphors, and motifs to convey meaning and establish connections among the various characters. To create metaphoric meaning, the films will use a pane of glass that separates people (Decalogue 1, 6) or the apartment complex itself, which is a large, nondescript entity that both confines and invites communion in its halls, pathways, or stairwells. While the symbolism of specific details is not always clear, the mise-en-scène conveys the sense that the films’ world is filled with meaning and significance.
The Decalogue captures the struggles of individuals in a fictional form but in settings that belong to everyday life. For instance, the drab Warsaw apartment complex represents an ostensibly real world of real people who correspond to figures who might belong simply to reality or be caught in allegorical narratives about the commandments. The apartment building suggests a spiritual wasteland that entraps the protagonists. The housing complex is a cold war relic, gargantuan, grey, and dotted with tiny windows and door frames. Kieslowski has explained: “We decided to locate the action in a large housing estate, with thousands of similar windows framed in the establishing shot [so that while the estate] looks pretty awful . . . the fact that the characters all live on one estate brings them together” (qtd. in Stok 146). Indeed, home life, family, cohabitation and chance encounters occur in almost every film. And within this “community, Kieslowski probes the strained cohabitation for true human connections. In this fragile, personal arena, he confronts us with the heaviest issues in human experience” (Kickasola 165).
Characters do leave the apartment building, but they always return. And it is within the confines of the intricately detailed world of the apartment complex that the protagonists engage in small dramas of moral choice, where the little stage represents a larger macrocosm. Characters from all ten of the films appear in other films and so there is always the possibility of connection among these lost and desperate souls. Still, the films emphasize that the confinement in the spaces of the apartment complex hinders such unions. Framing often highlights the limited space of the rooms. The films create a claustrophobic environment through close-ups on various aspects of the mise-en-scène, to show not the characters’ anguish and that their relationships with one another are close yet never really connected. Settings are typically dark and gloomy; “[t]he ugliness and greyness of the dehumanized urban setting dominate the filmic landscape, together with close-ups of the people who endure these harsh conditions” (Haltof 76).
The characters are trapped by their living conditions and rarely feel empowered enough to make connections with others, even though they need to. If they do, as a young man does in Decalogue 6 when he spies on a neighbor who eventually invites him to her apartment, they often meet with embarrassment or ruin. Accordingly, “[h]uman interactions in The Decalogue invariably yield suffering and pain” (Hames 229), as shown in Decalogue 1 with the loss of a child, or the attempted love affair in Decalogue 6. But the characters’ pain is human and The Decalogue shows how precarious authentic existence is, especially when people are faced with the challenge of being ethical in everyday circumstances. Thus, the films might be anecdotes about the commandments but their focus is on precariousness and complexity of living a “spiritual” modern life.
The overlapping themes in The Decalogue – moral ambiguity, choice, identity, ethical responsibility – touch on familiar beliefs and understandings of morality, law, religion, and politics. Yet The Decalogue is not didactic but instead makes it possible for audiences to contemplate the meaning of their own lives. As such, the commandments are relevant even though the films ultimately point to the ambiguity of their meaning and the impracticality of following them in contemporary times. Tellingly, the characters in the films do not progress to enlightenment but instead live through dilemmas and crises that shape or re-shape their identities and relations with others. For example, in Decalogue 4, the tenuous relationship between a man who may or may not be the father of the young woman with whom he shares a mutual attraction creates not just tension but also, more broadly, the search for identity through relations with others.
These two desperate characters exemplify the overarching theme of the series, which is that “Kieslowski seems to be highlighting the importance of our choice in our relationship roles. In whatever ways biology, society, or circumstances define us, ultimately we also have volition in determining the contours of meaning in our relations with others” (Kickasola 199). In this sense, The Decalogue does not present us with a moralizing treatise on how to live according to the commandments, but rather, allows us to contemplate when such rules or laws typically guide us (or are supposed to guide us). Whether exploring the role of the Sabbath (as shown in Decalogue 3) or theft (Decalogue 7), the films are grounded in the everyday realities of the characters, and so show that it is impossible to live according to something “pre-ordained” because modern life is far too complicated and ambiguous. As Kieslowski has noted, crossing limits “has nothing to do with any description or exact definition of right and wrong [but instead] with concrete everyday decisions” (qtd. in Stok 149).
The Decalogue reveals how people turn inward and away from others when they lack guidance or fear change. Although the major characters in each film interact with others, they make decisions and contend with their moral dilemmas from the perspective of a solitary being; any film in the series shows this idea, from the distraught father in Decalogue 1 to the cheating wife in Decalogue 9. Recognizing that burden of autonomy, Kieslowski observes “We’re always trying to find a way out. But we’re constantly imprisoned by our passions and feelings [because we] can’t get rid of this…freedom [that] lies within” (qtd. in Stok 150).
In The Decalogue films, the characters’ experience of being solitary individuals actually arises out of their attempts to live according to established, external principles. As Miroslaw Przylipiak explains, “practically all the protagonists in The Decalogue” are initially confined to a form of existence governed by rules that “have become narrow format rules, hemming in all those who comply with them” (qtd. in Hames 226). Over the course of a film, a character’s feeling of imprisonment eventually “takes the form of a (spiritual) dilemma [in which the] binary logic of the Law (signified by obedience or breach), until now willingly accepted, suddenly turns out to be irrational and unbearable (qtd. in Hames 226). In other words, the characters come to recognize their own authentic individuality when complex and painful ethical dilemmas show them that life does not square with the simple, schematic picture of a world in which actions do or do not conform to “the rules.” They come to understand that, on the one hand, their ethical choices necessarily involve interactions with other people and that, on the other, as individuals they necessarily stand alone when they make personal, ethical choices.
The Decalogue’s (secular) humanistic orientation depends in part on the fact that throughout the ten films there is only one explicit moment of religious iconography. Decalogue 1 is a story about a father grieving over his son’s “illogical” death. “In a striking image, the father knocks over an altar in grief, causing a candle to drip down the face of the Virgin Mary icon like paraffin tears” (Cummings). The moment is “an enigmatic and yet wholly appropriate beginning to a series confronting the harsh realities of daily life in dialectical relationship to its metaphysical values” (Cummings). It is also a devastating image that sets the sad, yet redemptive tone of the film project. The father’s rage and sorrow are given visual expression by the “tears” of the Virgin Mary at the same moment that he violates the first commandment by raging against God. According to Žižek, “Decalogue 1 sets the basic matrix of the entire series: the intrusion of the meaningless Real which shatters complacent immersion in socio-symbolic reality and thereby gives rise to the desperate questions: What do you really want from me? Why did it happen?” (123). Here, the death of the son causes the man’s rage at God and makes him feel that he is utterly alone.
Here and elsewhere, The Decalogue explores the loneliness and alienation that can cause individuals to feel disconnected and can lead to a (spiritual) search for or journey (transgression) toward something. How should one create an identity, from solitary contemplation or the desire for companionship? In The Decalogue the answer is both. The spiritual quality of the ten films is palpable and it suggests a polemic against strict religiosity. Describing the impetus for the films and their (secular) thematic content, Kieslowski explains that he and co-author Krzysztof Piesiewicz “thought about a lot” a series of ethical questions “when we were working on Decalogue”; these include: “What, in essence, is right and what is wrong? What is a lie and what is truth? What is honesty and what is dishonesty? And what should one’s attitude to it be?” (qtd. in Stok 149). With the focus on how characters face the challenge of adhering to ethical principles like the commandments, The Decalogue easily links questions of “God’s will and wrath” to non-religious dilemmas “of right and wrong, of illness, loneliness, betrayal, rudeness, mid-life crisis, life and death” (Iordanova 112).
With their individuality and dignity arising from the fact that they are outmatched by the complexities of human existence, all of the characters seem to yearn for contact with another even though this desire inevitably leads to frustration and alienation. That trajectory is perhaps most clear in Decalogue 5, a loose interpretation of “Thou Shalt not Kill.” The film, probably the best known of the series, was released as a feature called A Short Film about Killing. Decalogue 5, which examines the ethics of killing, is not an edifying lesson. Instead, “[l]ike the other films in the series, Decalogue 5 features the commandment, not as a didactic point or lesson, but as ground for the articulation of modern ethical complexities” (Kickasola 193). The horrific seven-minute killing scene presents the murderer as despicable because there is no apparent reason for the boy to kill the taxi driver. Yet because the film also shows the cold, flawless efficiency of the boy’s execution, it also calls into question the ethical basis of state-sanctioned murder in the form of capital punishment.
The ethical complexities explored by films such as Decalogue 5 are, in a sense, witnessed by the “angel” character who is the only character found in all of the films. This character has been seen as a bridge between the physical and the metaphysical. As Marek Haltof suggests, “The enigmatic angel-like character appears in some decisive scenes of Decalogue, during moments in which the fates of the protagonists are determined. The Angel of Fate glues the series together and adds an almost metaphysical dimension” (81). Though he is not an angel and therefore not a clear religious figure, the presence of the “watcher” does point to a larger, metaphysical realm of interconnectedness. Kieslowski has remarked, “There’s this guy who wanders around in all the films. I don’t know who he is; just a guy who comes and watches . . . He doesn’t have any influence on what’s happening, but he is a sort of sign or warning to those whom he watches” (qtd. in Stok 158-159).
In Decalogue 1, the figure warms himself by a fire beside the lake where the boy drowns. In Decalogue 4, he passes the protagonist during moments of decision-making, first when she burns an important letter and then later when she tells her father about it. In Decalogue 5, just before the young boy kills the taxi driver, the film shows the “watcher” crossing the street. There is no indication that he is a figure of fate. Instead, he appears in scenes as a silent witness. He never speaks or judges, but his presence signifies the possibility of omniscience. Kickasola proposes that the idea that one can “know the truth about another person through unlimited observational power – indeed, divine omniscience” helps to explain the presence of the “watcher” (234).
The “watcher” is a potentially spiritual presence who tacitly guides some characters to question their actions. Kieslowski has explained “He leads the characters to think about what they are doing…his intense stare engenders self-examination” (Insdorf 73). The way that the films are edited suggests the “watcher” is aware of the characters’ actions as they continuously struggle to make sense of them. His gaze does not suggest judgment but instead an acknowledgement of their challenges. Whatever his role, he ultimately represents various positions, issues, and perspectives, never moralizing, yet always attentive and cognizant of those around him. He simply watches, as we do, seeing the external world but never fully knowing the inner world of the characters.
The irony and lack of closure in Decalogue 10 that establishes an unassailable distance between the film and the audience approximates the distance between “watcher” and the other characters in the films. Decalogue 10 is about two brothers who inherit their recently deceased father’s stamp collection. The film returns to the first commandment against worshipping a false God and explores the tenth commandment against coveting. The stamp collection is stolen and each brother initially accuses the other of the theft. While their reconciliation seems to provide closure for The Decalogue series, song lyrics heard during the film disrupt that stability. Artur, one of the brothers, is in a punk band and we see them perform a song whose lyrics invoke the Ten Commandments. He sings:
Kill, kill, kill
Screw who you will
Lust and crave
Pervert and deprave
Every day of the week
Every day of the week
On Sunday hit mother
Hit father, hit brother
Hit sister, the weakest
And steal from the meekest
Cause everything’s yours
Yeah everything’s yours
The song runs over the final credits of Decalogue 10 and thus creates an ironic end to the series in that it seems to encourage people to transgress. As Kickasola notes, the film project “essentially ends telling people to sin again [and this] wry, sarcastic smile from Kieslowski keeps us from tying up the story too neatly” (Kickasola 241).
Although Decalogue 10 ends on an upbeat note with the brothers’ reunion, its conclusion is ambiguous, just as the basis for ethical choices in the modern world remain ambiguous. The Decalogue represents the complexities of modern existence as it explores the confused spiritual striving of its characters. While not religious, the films suggest that characters’ suffering is related to the lack of spirituality in daily life, at least as it is experienced in 1980s Poland. The Decalogue suggests that the Ten Commandments intersect insofar as they “command” obedience from people and that they are anachronistic because experienced reality does not conform to the simple binary of following or not following the commandments. An astonishing examination of modern morality, the film project shows how the attempt to discover meaning in one’s existence involves a mysterious convergence of the various means by which individuals try to control the uncontrollable, to harness meaning in a meaningless world. Ultimately, The Decalogue shows the ineffable dignity of facing ethical challenges.
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