Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Chance and Control in the Dekalog

Fate and coincidence are hallmarks of Krzysztof Kieslowski's films, from the doppelgangers Veronique and Weronika in
La Double Vie De Veronique to the sea disaster in Three Colours Red that brings Valentine and Auguste together. The question of whether there is a hand at play behind the scenes, manipulating people as puppets, is up for debate but the effect of such events on the people themselves is unmistakeable.

The men and women who live in the Warsaw apartment block of the Dekalog are, in some ways, helplessly swept along by the course of their lives. They have control over their choices but not necessarily over the circumstances that create them. Now and again we see them try to assert a modicum of control over their surroundings if only to salve their existential angst. In Dekalog II Dorota pushes a glass off a table to watch it smash on the ground. Her very own inevitability. In Dekalog V Jacek flicks a rock off a bridge down onto a motorway causing a crash. In the same episode the man he goes on to kill honks the horn of his car with the sole aim, bound to be achieved, of frightening a couple of dogs. 

They all need to feel that they are directors as much as actors.

What is interesting is how Jacek's act leaves room for chance. This is because, no matter how powerless they feel, some of the people of the Dekalog face decisions so demanding and intractable that they are compelled to call on chance to act on their behalf. They abdicate part of their responsibility and comfort themselves with something that cannot be argued against - luck, fate or whatever one wishes to call it.

The majority of the Dekalog films feature Game-Playing. Tomek and Magda in V decide whether to go home together by seeing if they can catch the bus as it prepares to leave. In IV the dying flames of two candles decide which of Anka or her father Michal will be able to ask a potentially life-changing question of the other. Majka, the real mother of Ania in VII, initially reframes her 'kidnap' as a game, turning into hide-and-seek from her mother (the child's grandmother). In III Janusz accelerates his car straight at a tram, playing chicken with something that can not change its course, teasing fate with the opportunity to wrest the wheel of control from his hands.

On the surface, yes, it is fun, the frisson of a coin flipping in mid-air, but these characters are fearful too. They want to have the freedom to control their own destiny but they also want to have those decisions made for them. If they have Free Will they want to be able to suspend it, if only for a second. They want God to let them go without letting go of their hand.


  1. Fear and coincidence indeed Stephen. Those are the crucial ingrediants in Kieslowski's cinema. Similarly "game playing" is the central thrust in this staggering cinematic masterpiece. The films about KILLING and LOVE are the most celebrated, and the former ranks as one of the most disturbing ever made, as well as standing as the most definitive indictment ever made on capital punishment. Hence, I've always held it in th ehighest esteem, as it affected me on an emotionallevel more than any of the other installments. But you are right in what you posed the other day about each part standing as effective as the next. What is always superlative with all your essays, including this one, is that they go beyond the typical component assessment to delve into what is most resonant and thought-provoking in the subject.

  2. Thank you very much indeed Sam.

    " well as standing as the most definitive indictment ever made on capital punishment"

    In terms of the cinematic world, I completely agree.

    "The films about KILLING and LOVE are the most celebrated..."

    Have you seen the extended versions, Sam? I haven't. I worry they might be inferior. These 55 minute films seem perfectly formed.

  3. I do believe the Image set I have contains the extended versions Stephen, but I'll have to investigate to confirm that.

  4. These are great essays, Stephen. I can't say much more since I haven't seen the Dekalog in years, but they are certainly making me want to revisit it!

  5. Thanks very much, Carson.

    Well worth revisiting, I think.

  6. "They all need to feel that they are directors as much as actors." - Such a wonderful line. Yes, the question fo fate and free will has been THE prime question in all of Kieslowski.

    I've seen the extended version of LOVE and I can vouch that it is as good as VI, if not better.

  7. Thank you again for the very kind comments, JAFB.

    "I've seen the extended version of LOVE and I can vouch that it is as good as VI, if not better."

    Really? I should see it post-haste, then.