For Sinners and Cinephiles, Kieslowski’s Ten 60-Minute Films

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue , from 10 one-hour screenplays by Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieslowski, achieved legendary status among American cinephiles in the years following the first showing of the series on Polish television in 1988, just before the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ostensibly based on the Ten Commandments, the10 only slightly interlocking stories are neither religious nor political parables, but rather, slow-starting but ultimately absorbing character studies, often climaxed by ironic twists of fate and choice, filmed in a style that emphasizes the randomness and complexity of existence.

I must confess at this point that I have never been the most fervent admirer of Kieslowski’s Blue (1993), White or Red (both 1994), in which the director’s excessive aestheticism overwhelmed the tenuous narratives and trivially self-absorbed heroines. Decalogue is something else again, and its legendary status seems to be fully accessible to American audiences-in a current revival at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, on the Sundance Cable Channel and on video. As the late Stanley Kubrick wrote in the foreword to the published edition of The Decalogue , “By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what’s really going on rather than being told. They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming, and don’t realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.”

Kubrick’s generously admiring description of the 10 separate movies that make up Decalogue may give a misleading impression of stylistic and thematic uniformity. There are recurring themes and patterns of camera movement, but the stories are strikingly different, one from the other, and not merely because of the particular commandment being violated if only in the most venial or peripheral manner. You have to see all 10 not because they add up to a coherent whole, but because each is excellent in a distinctive way. I don’t want to go into each of the plots in any detail because one of the joys of Decalogue is its flair for storytelling in the most enjoyable way imaginable. As one goes from film to film, one never knows in advance how anything will end based on what has happened in a previous film.

On the other hand, as good as Decalogue is, I don’t know how many times I can bear to see at least some of the films. That is to say, I urge everyone to see Decalogue at least once for the sheer virtuosity of the writing, acting and directing, but after that you are on your own. Also, I don’t think it is necessary to see all the films in numerical order, except that you should see number 10, Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Goods , last.

Decalogue dissects the inhabitants of a single apartment-house complex in Warsaw in the mid-80’s, certainly not the best of times in Poland or anywhere else behind the Iron Curtain. Yet one feels a surge of timely uncertainty in the number of directions Kieslowski’s camera can turn to follow all the possible collisions of characters with their destinies, accidental or preordained-who can tell?

The issues of abortion and capital punishment come up in two separate stories, but there are ironic twists in both. Indeed, the complete absence of sentimentality in Decalogue is amazing when one contemplates the depths of the emotions explored. Kieslowski and his screenwriter, who suggested the series in the first place, have wisely dealt withcharacters who are mostly bourgeois, and who are thus capable by Aristotelean standards of making the moral decisions that make them masters or mistresses of their fate. There are no special pleadings for underdogs or victims of the class struggle, no whiff of political correctness for its own sake. Life is hard and it makes no easy exceptions for the presumably deserving. Among the stories are two that stand out for the poignant and painful love shared by parent and child. There is only one story that deals even marginally with the history of the Holocaust, but the emphasis even here is on personal memory rather than social history.

On several occasions, God and sin seem to have been forcibly implanted in the dialogue as if to conceal the crisis of faith expressed by the very capriciousness of the 10 narratives. Kieslowski’s artistic heritage is one of thoughtful skepticism about the human condition in an age of perpetual change, upheaval and anxiety. His death in March 1996, after open-heart surgery at the age of 54, deprived us of a moralist and metaphysician of the medium in the mold of Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky. Decalogue , perhaps more than any other of his artistic enterprises, may serve as a fitting memorial to his complex and compassionate sensibility.

You Can’t Get Green Lighted in 61 Minutes

Robinson Devor’s The Woman Chaser , based on Charles Willeford’s novel, is something of a misnomer in that Patrick Warburton’s Richard Hudson, the title character, does not seem overly interested in chasing and seducing women, but, instead, devotes most of his time and energy to selling used cars, being as unpleasant and as unsympathetic as possible and finally and fatally deciding to make a movie because that strikes him as the easiest way to do something at long last that will make him feel like somebody. This is to say, to put matters as bluntly as possible, that there is a severe shortage of babes on the screen. Indeed, Richard’s first “conquest” is a middle-aged lady in the Salvation Army played amusingly in full uniform and appropriately tacky lingerie by Pat Crowder.

Actually, this farcically anti-erotic seduction is the last carnal act Richard will perform until he gets out of the loony bin, if he ever does. And what has brought him to this sorry state? Nothing more nor less than the traditional treachery of the motion picture industry when it is confronted with the real or imagined genius of Richard Hudson with the Stroheim-Welles gift of making movies too cynical and realistic for the general public.

Richard’s problem with his proverbial producer was that he (Richard) kept cutting his masterpiece until it was what he considered a well-paced 61 minutes, and he wouldn’t consent to a minute more, even though no current theatrical feature could find a distributor or exhibitor at that length. When the producer comes up with a counterproposal to turn Richard’s feature into a television pilot for a series of harsh, cynical, realistic exposures of the awful world we live in, Richard goes ballistic. He destroys his film by burning down the whole studio with it, and mutilates a valuable painting his stepfather lent him to help finance the production.

It is only a reviewer’s coincidence that enabled me to see The Woman Chaser right after I had seen Kieslowski’s Decalogue . Here were 10 one-hour masterpieces being hailed as among the cinematic highlights of the last century, and here was also Richard Hudson supposedly being comically insane for insisting on a 61-minute movie. Of course, it is not clear in Mr. Devor’s darkly grotesque satire whether Richard’s film is really any good or not at any length. This satiric uncertainty is characteristic of the film as a whole. Much of the intended satire is conveyed by Richard’s offscreen narration, and even here the tone sometimes shifts from the heavily satiric to the lightly didactic. The gallery of characters, though seedy and unglamorous in the main, occasionally summon the firsthand knowledgeability of the desperate denizens of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust . Mr. Warburton himself brings a beefy conviction to Richard’s most bizarre conceits, and there are a few laughs generated here and there by the film’s sheer outrageousness.

While we’re on the subject of movies and television, the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria is screening all 26 episodes of The Sopranos as a more tightly constructed Decalogue -like entity June 3 through June 25. And why not? Television is outdoing the big screen in the middle range of enjoyable entertainment on these hot summer days. And don’t miss the new 35mm print of Jean Vigo’s classic, L’Atalante (1934), at Film Forum, June 16-22. For Sinners and Cinephiles, Kieslowski’s Ten 60-Minute Films