Tuesday, May 22, 2012

THE DECALOGUE: EPISODE I - FILM REVIEW (1989 - Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski)

“And God spake all these words, saying, “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate me; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.”
- Exodus 20:1-6

There is nothing on film quite like it. Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski's The Decalogue is a ten episode miniseries that explores the ten commandments. It was aired in 1989 and seems to be still only at the very beginning of gaining the public attention that it deserves.

Kieślowski is a storyteller who can pack more content, theology and philosophy, into one little 45 minute episode than most Hollywood directors can reach after filming for years. It's time for more of us to take notice. Out of all the countless hours we're supposed to be spending watching television these days, there is no good reason why The Decalogue should be missed. It is a little hard to acquire these days. But that is simply our fault. Supply meets demand. Supply is low when there is low demand. It about time we started entrepreneurs like Criterion a reason to produce more of these.

Episode I starts us off with a reflective story on the nature of idolatry. Idolatry is forbidden in the first of the ten commandments, and yet, because of how we've been taught, it is often difficult to separate the idea of idolatry from pictures in our heads of people bowing down to idols. Thus, for a TV show set in 1989, Kieślowski gives us a symbolic idol in order to explore the nature of the commandment. Kieślowski's symbolic idol for modern day times is a computer. In our society in 2012, there still may not be a better modern symbol of idolatry. I'd even wager that most of us spend far more time in front of a computer than people in ancient times spent in front stone idols. In fact, we currently trust far more aspects of our own lives to computers and the internet today than anyone ever trusted a stone idol with.

So what is idolatry? I believe that C.S. Lewis, in his essay, First and Second Things (most recently published in the book, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics) hits upon the fundamental idea behind the prohibition against idolatry. We may not think in terms of "worship" in the way that we view how we relate to the world anymore, but the idea of worship involves making something a first or ultimate priority. If there are things you are willing to sacrifice everything else for, if there is something in which you place all your trust and confidence, something that motivates and forms all the rest of your thinking and your choices, then it is that thing that you "worship" as the ancients understood the idea. For some people, this thing is money. For others, it is sex. Fame, celebrity, alcohol, drugs, career, family, marriage, relationships, sports teams, political causes ... all these things can be idolized and "worshiped" as "gods" in the Biblical sense. And it is very important to remember another corollary to this idea. The things that we idolize can be good things. It is the idolization of them that is wrong. Furthermore, the people who engage in idolatry can be good people. But their idolization of things that ought not to be idolized is still going to hurt them.

C.S. Lewis writes:

“To sacrifice the greater good for the less then not to get the lesser good after all - that is the surprising folly ... The longer I looked into it the more I came to suspect that I was perceiving a universal law. On cause mieux quand on ne dit pas Causons. (One converses better when one does not say, ‘Let us converse.’) The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication. It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman - glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens? Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to great, or a partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made. Apparently the world is made that way.

... You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first. From which it would follow that the question, What things are first? is of concern not only to philosophers but to everyone.”

In other words, idolatry is valuing something higher than it ought to be valued. The idea of right and wrong, of ought and ought not to, and of morality applies to the amount of importance that we place in things. But by valuing something too highly, you are losing its good and requiring of it what it is incapable of giving you. There is an order to the health of our spiritual and mental lives. Idolatry disrupts this order and destroys what is meant to be. When God says "thou shalt have no other gods before me", He is saying not to grant deity to what is not divine, not to hold of first importance what is not of first importance. When God says "thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" and "thou shalt not bow down thyself to them," He is saying not to serve and worship our own creations, things that ought not to be worshiped or sacrificed to.

In the first episode of The Decalogue , Kieślowski gives us the story of a man and his son. The man, Krzysztof, is an agnostic linguistics professor who essentially idolizes, of all things, science. The choice of science as an idol in this episode is tremendous for us because, if you think about it, science is often idolized in modern times. For many people, the discoveries of science contain the greatest good that mankind will ever attain. We trust in science to save us, and while science is a good, it can still be valued out of proportion. There are some things science can never give us.

There are many people who dismiss the first three or four of the ten commandments as merely religious commands having to do with religion, but they are wrong. Each of the commandments touch upon fundamental truths about human nature that apply no matter what you personally believe.

The son, Pawel, is a 12-year-old who is questioning these truths for the firs time. He shares his father's enthusiasm for science and computers but is also fascinated by his aunt's religious faith. His father, his aunt explains to him, noticed that many things could be measured. Later, she says, Krzysztof concluded that measurement could be applied to everything. There is nothing wrong with studying and measuring the world, but she points out to Pawel that this does not necessarily rule out God. Neither does it explain important facts about us or God. Pawel shows her that he has programmed his overseas mother's daily schedule so that the computer will tell him what his mother is doing when he asks it to. When the computer tells him that his mother is sleeping, his aunt tells him to ask what his mother is dreaming about. "I do not know!" replies the computer. The computer is also inadequate when it comes to understanding how Pawel's mother feels for him.

Pawel's aunt tells him that it is doing things for others that makes life brighter. She tells him that human life is a gift to be treasured. When he asks her whether she believes in God, she answers yes. When he asks her who is God, she hugs him and tells him that God is in the place where they feel love for one another. Science, as his father explains it to him, does not answer all of his questions.

There is something about the scientific answer to everything that does not answer everything. For example, at one point when his father answers some of his questions, Pawel leaves the discussion completely unsatisfied. How does science explain meaning? How does it explain human understanding, emotion, free will, choices or the appreciation of what is good or beautiful? It doesn't. This doesn't mean that science is defective, it just means that the scope and realm of science is limited. Idolizing science is always going to leave the idolizer unsatisfied. Man still wants something more than science can give him.

Pawel: Why do people die?
Krzysztof: It depends ... heart failure, cancer, accidents, old age.
Pawel: I mean ... what is death?
Krzysztof: The heart stops pumping blood. It doesn’t reach the brain. Movement ceases. Everything stops. It’s the end.
Pawel: So what’s left?
Krzysztof: What a person has achieved, the memory of that person. The memory’s important. The memory that someone moved in a certain way, or that they were kind. You remember their face, their smile, that a tooth was missing
Pawel: ... “For the peace of her soul” ... You didn’t mention a soul.
Krzystof: It’s a form of words of farewell; there is no soul.
Pawel: Auntie says there is.
Krzystof: Some find it easier to live thinking that.

When Krzystof gives his lecture at the university, play close attention to what he says. In it, he reveals a philosophy that, even though he is a linguistics professor, upholds science to a level where it can do anything. He admits the limits language, the limits of our ability to express ourselves, the limits of a translation from one language to another. He admits that any translation between two languages loses meaning. "Rationally," Krzystof posits, "we may have an excellent command of it, using a rich vocabulary, but how can we get to know what lies hidden behind the words in that vocabulary? How can we know the cultural luggage of a language? How to formulate historical, political and cultural links and associations with daily life? How to establish and understand what creates the spirit of a language, its metasemantics ... perhaps even metaphysics?"

In an episode devoted to exploring the commandments of an ancient Hebrew text, Krzystof's questions are even more relevant. The spirit of a language, the metaphysical meaning behind the wonderful fact of human communication - these ought to be untranslatable to the world of science. Oughtn't they? In fact, the whole point of the prohibition of idolatry is that no idol, in and of itself, can satisfy the metaphysical longings (and pursuits for meaning) of man. Krzystof continues with his lecture:

"[T.S.] Eliot said: poetry is what’s untranslatable. But must Eliot be right? Try to imagine an interpreter capable of accumulating all knowledge of words and language with an unlimited memory that can be used at any time. An unconventionally used mathematical apparatus might be made into something, or somebody, like that. This device, which seems only to differentiate between zero and one has not only a kind of intelligence, it selects. That makes it capable of choice, perhaps even an act of will. In my opinion, a properly programed computer may have its own aesthetic preferences ... a personality."

But we, and Krzystof and Pawel, come up against the curious fact that a computer that turns itself on, that makes it's own choices, is eerily unnatural. When Krzystof's computer starts turning itself on and declaring "I am ready" we begin to see a hint of how terrible an idol might be if it really possessed the qualities that we acted as if it possessed them. Even the fact that I'm using the word "possessed" in this sense feels wrong. Krzystof's computer is starting to act as if it had a will of it's own, as it if might be self-conscious, as if, as Pawel suggests to his father, it might want something. This is precisely what Krzystof, from his lecture, sounds like he was hoping for. And yet, when it starts happening, something is wrong. It is still inadequate. It is still missing something very important. And it's very inadequacy is what is so dangerous because of the hope and trust that Krzystof has placed in it. There is an understanding here that we can miss if we aren't paying attention. There is a sense in which trusting science to give us what it cannot give results the in loss of what science is really for.

“This uncanny self-generation resonates as an everyday mystery, a commonplace unexplained event with suggestions of a transcendent reality lurking behind the material world. The computer falls short in the face of the most important questions. Technology cannot convey the divine love that Aunt Irena conveys in her physical contact with Pawel. All the gadgets, with which Kieslowski was so fascinated and which generate such happiness between Krzysztof and Pawel, ring very hollow at the film’s end, failing in the liminal space. Even the computer’s memory, which is often mentioned throughout the film, is shown to be cold, factual memory lacking the nuances of meaning in human recollection ...

The scientific paradigm is critiqued elsewhere in the film for its lack of nuance in the metaphysical arenas of human life. For instance, Pawel’s encounter with a pretty girl and a dead dog (yet another stark pairing of life and death images in Kieslowski) provokes a very emotional reaction in his young, searching mind. He vents his emotions and explores his questions with his father through a conversation that stands among the most metaphysically and spiritually direct Kieslowski has ever filmed. It is in this remarkable conversation, a metaphysical context if there ever was one, that we see one of the first examples of Kieslowski’s abstraction in full bloom.”
- Joseph G. Kickasola, The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski: The Liminal Image

Krzystof believes that man could create a computer that could have it's own intelligence and it's own ability make choices or acts of the will. But a self-conscious creature, with the faculties of reason and free will, is exactly how we define man in the first place. And man, according to the Old Testament is created in the image of God. God is a self-conscious, reasoning, and decision-making person. With this episode purportedly exploring the command against making, and then worshiping, any graven images, there is a very close parallel to the computer that Krzystof hopes for and a superficial image of something that is not what it appears to be.

British philosopher, Owen Barfield, thought deeply on the subject of idolatry. He reasoned that the first commandments were unique in the history of human civilization. Like C.S. Lewis, he then argued that idolatry involved people treating little things (often good things) as ends in themselves and thus blowing their whole lives out of any ordered proportion. To Barfield, artificiality and superficiality are characteristics of idolatry. The idolater treats pleasure or knowledge as if they were more important than other things of equal or higher value. Then the idolater is unable to enjoy pleasure or acquire knowledge as he was meant to.

"The children of Israel became a nation and began their history in the moment when Moses, in the very heart of the ancient Egyptian civilization, delivered to them those ten commandments, which include the unheard-of injunction: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’ This is perhaps the unlikeliest thing that ever happened ...

The brute acceptance of phenomena at their face value, which was contemned by Plato, is paralleled, in the sphere of the will, by the sensuality which seeks repose or self-extinction in the contacts of the senses, taken as ends in themselves. Both are the passive ‘expense’ of spirit, replacing its active manifestation. Moreover, participating cults naturally cluster about man-made images; artificial representations evoke and focus the experience of nature as representation: the grove is rendered more numinous by the idol in the grove ... In a wider frame of reference than that hitherto adopted, idolatry may be defined as the valuing of images or representations in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons; and an idol, as an image so valued. More particularly, idolatry is the effective tendency to abstract the sense-content from the whole representation and seek that for its own sake, transmuting the admired image into a desired object ... The devotee in the presence of the totem feels himself and the totem to be filled ... It was this state of affairs which Israel consciously arose to destroy. The idols, their Psalmist insisted, were not filled with anything. They were mere hollow pretences of life. They had no ‘within.’"
- Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, pgs. 109-111

I will refrain from giving away any spoilers, but I will suggest that what happens at the end of the episode is symbolic for what ultimately happens to the person who idolizes what ought not to be idolized. The idol will fail. It will somehow prove horribly inadequate. Not necessarily because what is being idolized itself is not an intrinsically good thing, but because it is being "worshiped" in the sense that too much trust, hope or importance has been placed upon it. Also, let me try and carefully note that I am not of the opinion that there is any divine punishment that occurs in this episode. We see two instances of the divine, one towards the very beginning and second toward the very end. Both instances involve tears, not judgment ... grief, not condemnation. The results of idolatry may be brutal and destructive, but they are also naturally what happens when, as Lewis put it, second things are treated as if they are first things. Not only does the person who acts as if he or she worships something that shouldn't be worshiped lose sight of the greater things, but one also loses the good of the lesser thing that is being overvalued. There are far deeper needs within humanity than a created object, idea or method can provide us with.

"Why should the nations say,
'Where is their God?'
Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases.
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them."

- Psalm 115:2-8

The words of the Psalmist are a warning, a warning that anyone who breaks the first commandment is going to change into a worse sort of person. But it is also explaining a fundamental understanding. And that understanding is this - acting as if human or divine characteristics belonged to that which is not human or divine is spiritually nonsensical. And Spiritual nonsense (or perhaps even more accurately, spiritual superficiality), is damaging to the soul. There are valid arguments to be made that our society has its own modern and secularized forms of idolatry (consumerism, for example). But that doesn't make them any less tragic. There is a sort of hope that belongs in only one place. Placing that hope where it does not belong is what the first commandment forbids. There is a certain sort of higher and deeper meaning to be found in our human lives here on earth. Attempting to place that meaning where it cannot be found will only lead to utter despair. This is why Kieślowski's The Decalogue is so special - watching this single little episode will give you an appreciation for these ideas in a few ways that perhaps nothing else ever would.


  1. This is a wonderful essay on E-1 and shares tremendous insight. I am still not so sure , though, that the computer is the Hal type of computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey that is thinking for itself. I thought that it was possibly the voice of God saying , I am ready, (as I am ready for you to see more of life than you presently acknowledge) , then also the ink spilled looking very much like blood. Clearly, as in the blood of sacrifice and foreshadowing the death of his son. The Lord speaks through the ages to us in different ways . The father believed that in science he could find all the answers but when he calculated using math and science the thickness of the ice as being safe to skate on, math and science did not work, and his son fell through the ice.

    This story is about the protagonist, the father. The father felt he needed science to live and fulfill his needs. What he didn't get from that was love and that love he got from the wonderful, caring, warm and sharing relationship he had with his son.
    That was enough for him. When his son died, he realized that there was more than science and technology to life, and he returned to faith, returned to ask for answers in front of the Black Madonna. When she cried, she cried with him, compassionately and he realized I believe that he had to look outside his former belief system for answers. What was interesting is that this same father turns up in Episode 3 leaving the house of Januszs' family right as he enters his home as Santa Claus. This implies to me that the father was celebrating Christmas with this family in light of not being able to celebrate Christmas with his son.

  2. That was a beautifully thoughtful and illuminating review. I'm really happy I found your blog.