God's finger reached down to Mount Sinai and there, before the astonished and terrified eyes of Moses, wrote the Ten Commandments in fiery letters so hot that they dug grooves in a stone tablet. That's the story according to Cecil B. de Mille, the Barnum of Biblical movies, who took his religion literally. In his 1956 version of The Ten Commandments (Charlton Heston as Moses), the writing of the Commandments was a major highlight, not only because it was so graphic but also because the Ten Commandments remain, thousands of years later, embedded in our civilization.
Three decades after de Mille's movie came out, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a Warsaw civil rights lawyer, said to his friend, Krzysztof Kieslowski, the movie director: "Someone should make a film about the Ten Commandments. You should do it." Kieslowski first considered that a truly terrible idea, but then thought, "Maybe." He and Piesiewicz soon began work. They wrote 10 TV films, one per Commandment, each about an hour, 562 minutes in all. Collectively titled The Decalogue, it may be the best dramatic work ever done specifically for television, and the most impressive religious art produced in any field during recent decades.
The Decalogue took a year to shoot, was broadcast in Poland in 1988-89, then appeared on networks all over the world. Ever since, its reputation has grown. Five book-length critical studies have been written about it (in English, French, Italian, German and Polish), a Danish psychoanalyst has produced a book explaining its Freudian implications, and the scripts have been published in English with an admiring foreword by Stanley Kubrick. The Decalogue is on video and DVD, with English subtitles.
Unlike de Mille, Kieslowski approached his subject obliquely, through stories set in Warsaw in the 1980s. He had all his characters live in one bleak cluster of apartment buildings. ("It's the most beautiful housing estate in Warsaw," he said, "which is why I chose it. It looks pretty awful, so you can imagine what the others are like.") The stories are self-contained, but occasionally a character from one plays a minor role in another. There's also a continuing character who appears only briefly, often at critical moments: He says not one word, but watches the other characters with all-knowing eyes. He's there to add a dimension of mystery. Is he God, or the human conscience, or an angel? Does he represent Kieslowski? We never know for sure.
The Ten Commandments lurk behind the stories, but no one mentions them. Kieslowski said, "The films should be influenced by the individual Commandments to the same degree that the Commandments influence our lives." They are buried, but they are never absent.
In North America, the de Mille film enhanced for a while the media fame of the Commandments. After that, they retreated into Exodus and Deuteronomy, Bible classes, sermons and an occasional joke perpetrated by infidels. (Moses brings good news and bad news down from the mountain: "The good news is, I talked Him down to 10. The bad news is, adultery's still in.")
But the de Mille film and the Kieslowski series are current again because the Commandments themselves have once more become a potent symbol in the secular world. In the United States, a fair-sized movement now advocates improving public morals by hanging the Ten Commandments in public buildings, schools above all. (Both supporters and detractors call the plan "Hang Ten.") The Supreme Court explained in 1980 that the whole idea was unconstitutional, but in the 1990s it made its way through a dozen state legislatures and recently came to Congress as a bill called the Ten Commandments Defense Act of 2002, reflecting the view of its sponsor (an Alabama congressman) that the Commandments need defending against judges and civil libertarians. The same zealots have a plan to put Moses on a postage stamp, holding the Ten Commandments, and to Hell with the Constitution.
Kieslowski (who died in 1996, when he was 54) was an agnostic who had little in common with these earnest campaigners, but he shared their unease about purpose in the lives of individuals. In the 1980s, his world had lost direction and structure. Disillusionment had drained Marxism of its content, and perhaps religion, too, had been emptied of meaning. Individuals had infinite moral choices, but few knew how to use them. Travelling abroad, Kieslowski sensed a similar malaise, embodied in questions for which politics had no answer. "What is the true meaning of life? Why get up in the morning? Politics doesn't answer that."
The stories, while offering no answers, explore the questions. They deal with the themes we expect: murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness, etc. (The false god that a physicist worships is technology.) The stories are beautifully shaped, the characters credible and attractive. The material isn't solemn but it is substantial. Nothing dissolves in irony. Christopher Garbowski, a Canadian scholar who lives in Poland, pointed out in his book Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue Series (Columbia University Press) that the characters share, above all, a conscious or half-conscious desire to transcend the details of their existence. Their environment isn't exactly universal but it isn't local either. Because he wanted an international audience, Kieslowski ignored the specific daily humiliations and irritations of Polish life in the 1980s, such as queuing for food.
He cast the best actors of Poland and sculpted their faces intimately with lighting that seems dazzling even on second or third viewing. The Decalogue reveals an acting community of wonderful range and depth. In 10 hours, it's hard to find a mediocre performance, impossible to find a bad one.
The films that Kieslowski made for the theatre, while interesting, are less memorable than masterpieces should be. The Decalogue, on the other hand, stayed with me long after my first viewing, both style and content lingering in a corner of my memory. When I watched it again the other day, I discovered it was as remarkable as I had remembered. It could be, as several critics have suggested, the finest work of Kieslowski's too-short career. Perhaps he thought so, too. In his last days, when he had no idea that his heart condition was about to kill him, he was talking about doing something similar, three films on Heaven, Hell and purgatory.