This masterwork by Krzysztof Kie?lowski is one of the twentieth century’s greatest achievements in visual storytelling. Originally made for Polish television, Dekalog focuses on the residents of a housing complex in late-Communist Poland, whose lives become subtly intertwined as they face emotional dilemmas that are at once deeply personal and universally human. Using the Ten Commandments for thematic inspiration and an overarching structure, Dekalog’s ten hour-long films deftly grapple with complex moral and existential questions concerning life, death, love, hate, truth, and the passage of time. Shot by nine different cinematographers, with stirring music by Zbigniew Preisner and compelling performances from established and unknown actors alike, Dekalog arrestingly explores the unknowable forces that shape our lives. Also presented are the longer theatrical versions of Dekalog’s fifth and sixth films: A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love.
When you spend some serious time talking to film lovers, you start to see that some people believe film should exist explicitly as an art form, that in some way the work needs to elevate or speak to the human condition. Meanwhile, there are other people out there that don't view film as an art form at all, that the point of creating is to entertain and in so doing enlighten an audience. Both beliefs are right. The nature and purpose of any can be a "have your cake and eat it too" scenario. You can be entertained and at the same time be struck by something beautiful and meaningful. You can enjoy yourself while you're experiencing a profound work that actually says something about the human condition. Now, the word "masterpiece" is tossed about rather loosely when it comes to describing a great piece of work. It's a great adjective, but it can be overused. That said, "masterpiece" may be the only way to describe Krzysztof Kieslowski's ten-part magnum opus 'Dekalog.'
Coupled with having to take in and process such a heavy and thought-provoking piece of work like 'Dekalog,' I'm confronted with the reality that it is nearly impossible to provide an accurate and encompassing synopsis. With ten almost one hour long episodes and each episode tackling the theme of one of the Ten Commandments, it's too much material to wrap up within a paragraph or two. Quite simply, it's a work that you must experience for yourself. I could break down each individual episode, the characters, the major players and how some of these stories are loosely interconnected, but that wouldn't really do 'Dekalog' the sort of critical justice that it rightly deserves. All I can do going forward is speak from the gut and how it made me feel from my personal life perspective.
I'm not a very religious person. That isn't to say I don't believe in God or an almighty creator, it's just that I've long found myself unable to subscribe to a single religious viewpoint. I was raised without the church even though my parents hailed from devout Roman Catholics, German Lutherans, and Episcopalians. To say that sort of background would be a conflicting household if we were religiously active would be a bit of an understatement. I give all appreciation and thanks to my parents for not forcing me to live in that structure and trust me to come to my own conclusions. I mention my religious background and views (or lack of) because it is the only way that I can frame the context of my experience with 'Dekalog.'
For me, 'Dekalog,' is absolutely a religious or spiritual film event. God and specifically themes indicative of Christianity are there - but they're not standing right in your face. The iconography, the trappings and the conversations of each episode are always present with this material. However, none of these episodes are explicitly about religion or maintain a bent one way or the other. This isn't some arthouse faith-based film where every conversation is a little morality play about why you should always bend a knee in reverence and constantly give thanks to God no matter the situation you face in life. Instead of wearing the Shroud of Turin on it's back, the stories within 'Dekalog' are more akin to religious conversations between a believer and a non-believer in the loosest sense of those archetypes. These are stories that examine the essence of faith and religion without pandering to a base audience. Between whatever viewpoints are expressed by whatever character, 'Dekalog' explores these ideas on a thematic level without explicitly stating one side is right or wrong in any given situation. It's not so overt as to come to a definitive conclusion at the end of each segment. Each character has their belief system tested and examined, some come to earth-shattering conclusions about their lives, others entrench themselves further into their already established belief system - for better or worse.
Perhaps what I appreciate most about Kieslowski's approach with 'Dekalog' is that it doesn't condemn or condone any given character. As each commandment is explored, there is wiggle room that an adulterer or even a murderer could well be a good person at heart and still worthy of some form of redemption either in this life or in the hereafter - if you believe there is a next life. That's what I appreciate most about 'Dekalog.' It doesn't work within absolutes. It recognizes that there is a lot of grey area to life and extenuating circumstances for any number of situations that humans face on a day-to-day basis. 'Dekalog' doesn't sit in judgment over the characters but instead leans back and lets these individuals act like real people. It takes average relatable people, puts them in a tough position and lets them go. While at times you can feel like Kieslowski is guiding the outcomes, this is rather true for 'Dekalog 5' and it's long-form version 'A Short Film About Killing,' there is still an ever-present honesty to the work that is actually rather refreshing. I never once felt like I was being manipulated or forced to agree with someone just to be able to empathize with any particular character. Each episode of 'Dekalog' allows the audience to see the story, identify with the character, and then draw their own conclusions about things depending on your personal proclivities.
As I said before, 'Dekalog' isn't something that you watch as much as you experience. The film plays with heavy ideas and religiously dense themes, but at the same time, it doesn't insult the audience's intelligence by forcing conclusions. Whether a character is right or wrong in their actions or beliefs is going to depend entirely on you and how you approach the material. 'Dekalog' is absolutely a masterful work of art while also entertaining and approachable. You don't need to have written a doctoral thesis about thematic imagery in film in order to "get" 'Dekalog.' It's a collection of short stories that I feel very confident in stating that everyone will come away from differently. It's not a work that I recommend anyone marathon through, instead, it's something I encourage people to take their time with. Watch an episode, digest it for a couple days, and then start in on the next one. You're going to want to give 'Dekalog' time to sink in as you ponder your own reactions to each story.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Dekalog' arrives on Blu-ray in a four-disc set from the Criterion Collection. Disc One is a Region A locked BD50 disc and contains episodes 1-5, Disc Two is a Region A locked BD50 disc and contains episodes 6-10. Disc 3 is a Region A locked BD50 disc and contains the full theatrical film versions of 'A Short Film About Killing,' and 'A Short Film About Love.' Disc Four is a Region A locked BD50 disc that contains all of the bonus feature content for the series. All four discs arrive in a four-disc book-style case with slip cover. Inside is a book containing essays by Paul Coates and Kieslowski along with technical details about the film and audio restoration work.
'Dekalog' arrives on Blu-ray with a truly stunning 1.33:1 and 1.70:1 1080p presentation. Newly restored and scanned in 4k, the image quality is often striking. Eight of the ten episodes, parts one through four, and seven through ten are presented in their original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1 with black bars on the right and left sides of the screen. Episodes five and six, as well as their respective longer theatrical form versions are presented in their original 1.70:1 aspect ratios. On the basics level, film grain is apparent throughout the series and is never overpowering or "noisy." Details are strong and present throughout allowing the audience to see and appreciate facial features, costuming, as well as the impressive production and set design work.
Where some may experience some sort of inconsistency with the presentation of certain episodes, it's important to remember their appearance is relative to that particular episode. This series was shot with nine different cinematographers to give each story a signature look. So where one episode may appear to have more drab and desaturated colors and the next may enjoy more bright and vibrant green and yellow hues, there is an intentional technical and thematic reason for that appearance. To that end, it's impossible to judge the transfers for 'Dekalog' in comparison to each episode. Colors are bright and vibrant with plenty of primary pop when and where necessary. Black levels are equally deep and inky or feature boosted contrast dependent on the episode. While there are the purposeful inconsistencies throughout the different episodes, I didn't experience anything terrible like DNR, violent white blooms, scratching, fading, or any kind of compression articles. I never once felt like I wasn't seeing something that I wasn't intended to see a certain way. Each episode has it's own look and style, some are similar, but they're unique in their own ways. My only true gripe is that occasionally the image can appear rather flat even with the presence of deep blacks and strong shadow separation. But that is a small gripe when you take in the totality of the work. This is a near-flawless presentation.
Each episode, as well as the films 'A Short Story About Killing' and a 'Short Story About Love,' are presented with Polish language LPCM 1.0 Mono tracks with English subtitles. If you speak or have a rudimentary understanding of the Polish language, I would encourage you to attempt to watch the series without subtitles. I unfortunately, have no understanding of the language on its own. The subtitles feel accurate, but at the same time given the conversations and the material they do start to feel a bit intrusive at times. So if you can, watch without the subtitles. That aside, each track for their respective episodes sound fantastic. There are no signs of age-related wear and tear. Dialogue comes through crisp and clear without any interference from sound effects or the beautiful score by Zbigniew Preisner. Even as mono tracks, each episode and the full film versions exhibit an impressive sense of imaging and spacial definition. Obviously there isn't much in the way of channel movement, but each track displays an immersive auditory quality to it that sounds and feels natural. Sometimes the tack can be a bit soft, I did have to monitor my levels here and there, but overall everyting sounds pretty fantastic.
Krzysztof Kieslowski Interviews: On the Set of Dekalog (SD 3:37) A Short Film Abut 'Dekalog' (SD 20:28) Kieslowski at the National Film Theatre (23:10) These are a collection of archival excerpts and student interviews with the writer and director. Kieslowski proves to be a very fascinating individual, especially when he explains his approach to the material and the challenges he faced developing the stories before the cameras even rolled.
Annette Insdorf Interview: (HD 28:00) Insdorf offers and insightful look at Kieslowski and 'Dekalog' and how the 10 Commandments were used as a road map of sorts rather than explicit interpretation.
Krzysztof Piesiewicz Interview: (HD/SD 25:14) As Kieslowski's co-writer, Piesiwicz provides a unique perspective of 'Dekalog' and how they'd intended the piece to be more of an introspective exercise for the audience and spirituality rather than stating an overt opinion.
Thirteen Actors Interviews: (HD/SD 21:09) A collection of recent and archival interviews, the cast of 'Dekalog' through their brief little moments give their own individual perspectives of the project as well as what it was like to work with Kieslowski.
Ewa Smal Interview: (HD 15:21) Smal was the principal editor of 'Dekalog' and I can only imagine what it must have been like to wrangle these films. She goes into a lot of detail about how the production brought in the best of the best from the crew to the cast of actors and it made it easier to bring the best moments to the screen without sacrificing too much of the deep material.
Wieslaw Zdort Interview: (HD 15:41) Another fascinating interview. Here Zdort goes into detail how he was given complete freedom to light subjects as he saw fit within the context of the piece without interference from Kieslowski.
Slawomir Idziak Interview: (SD 2:56) This interview is unfortunately very short but it still provides an interesting look at how this cinematographer approached their segment of 'Dekalog.'
Witold Adamek Interview: (HD 12:25) It's cool to learn that while Kieslowski gave Adamek the choice of which film he wanted to work on, deep down he knew Adamek would choose 'A Short Film About Love.' As you hear all of these interviews it's clear that Kieslowski was easy to work with, but very passionate and had a specific vision for the work.
Hanna Krall Interview: (HD 15:55) Hanna was a reporter and close friend of Kieslowski and often was a creative confident making her in many ways the person who was closest to him.
'Dekalog' is a challenging experience. Whether you find yourself of a faith and are interested in a religiously themed character drama or if you're someone more interested in exploring the human condition, you're sure to get something out of watching each piece of 'Dekalog.' One episode simply can not be graded against the next because they're so unique unto themselves. They may tackle religiously and personally dense materials, but each episode doesn't play safe or to expectations. You're very likely to have a different reaction to one episode than the person sitting next to you. To that end, Krzysztof Kieslowski's 'Dekalog' is a masterpiece of filmmaking. With ten episodes as well as the two longer film versions episodes five and six, the Criterion Collection has outdone themselves here. Each episode and film boats an impressive A/V presentation. Additionally there are a host of in-depth interviews as well as some fabulous essays to dig through. You're going to want to take your time getting through everything, but I can guarantee that if you do take that time, 'Dekalog' will be an incredibly rewarding experience. The fact that I know this won't be for everyone out there is the only thing keeping me from calling this as a "Must Own" set. Just the same, this beautiful set comes very highly recommended.