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On April 1988, Poles restarted their anti-Communist protests with union strikes. In August, a second wave of strikes hit mines and shipyards. Communists then agreed to talks and, in January 1989, decided to legalize political competition—the Solidarity party—leading to the complete victory of democratic parties in the legislative elections of June 4. (The same day the Chinese Communist Party massacred Chinese democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.) In 1990, Solidarity leader and future Nobel Peace Prize recipient Lech Wałęsa won the presidential elections. Poland was free again, Communism had collapsed everywhere in Europe, and the USSR itself would collapse shortly.

The year 1988 also saw Krzysztof Kieślowski make his most important work—Dekalog, a ten-episode TV series on the crisis of faith in the lives of ordinary Poles in an apartment building in Warsaw. It premiered in December 1989 and ran until June 1990. Three decades on, it deserves celebration as the most important work of Christian art in the post–Cold War period—selected for the Vatican’s Best Films List because Kieślowski aimed to show that modern life can be understood only in light of the commandment of love in the Gospels (Matthew 22:37–40).

The series is apolitical, avoiding what we would expect—the longing for and celebration of the coming of freedom, democracy, and capitalism. Nevertheless, it is open to all these important historical changes: Kieślowski is already looking ahead to the society defined by individualism rather than family, conventions dominated by science rather than faith, and a public order defined by indifference to the deepest longings of the human heart rather than by the common good. At the highest moment of joy for personal and political freedom, Kieślowski gives us his greatest warning that our personal lives are turning toward misery and self-destruction rather than paradise. Whatever may be said for the end of history at the global level, at the personal level our very souls are in danger of debasement and, far from achieving any progress, we are becoming fearfully decadent.

Kieślowski’s warning about the confusion into which our freedom is falling follows from his interpretation of the Decalogue, which in turn follows from the distinction between law and faith: Christianity is not the establishment of a regime and does not teach what justice is or how to educate children. It appears necessarily as a corrective rather than an edification. It will not be the way to rule Poland or the post-Communist world. Instead, it aims to guide democracy by the Christian solution to man’s natural tragic inclination. Its influence comes from the soul rather than from public speeches, government, or conventions.

Love and death in modern times

The first episode, on the first commandment, to worship only God, is about the death of college professor Krzystof’s prodigy of a son, Paweł. They live in a brutalist apartment building in Warsaw whose most startling feature is the balconies formed like a ladder made of crosses, ascending austerely, a monument to something we do not understand but fear. Krzystof teaches computer science, and computers dominate his house, thinking, and education of his son. We even see Paweł among the students in Krzystof’s courses. The boy’s very love and trust are grounded by the father in science.

Paweł, a lovely boy of twelve, uses computers to control things like faucets and door locks around the house, to solve physics problems his father assigns him, and to learn what his mother is doing in America. Krzystof takes him to a chess competition, where they win together—reason goes very far in making and predicting the future. Together they calculate the thickness of ice on the lake near their building. Paweł nevertheless dies there. Not every question has an answer: Paweł faces that whenever he asks the computer what his mother dreams about. Dreams remind us of our hopes and fears, which are beyond scientific control. Krzystof cannot face that at all.

Paweł had no religious instruction; Krzystof is an atheist—he explains death to Paweł in biological terms that conceal why we even wonder about it in the first place. Krzystof confirms this atheism when he reacts impiously to the death he didn’t believe was even possible, since science assured him there was no danger. He desecrates an altar, revealing the problem Kieślowski and his screenwriter, Krzystof Piesiewicz, see with atheism. Not that it cannot prevent catastrophe but that it cuts people off from redemption. Church can offer him no hope, only a silent reproach, a reminder of mortality he resents as though death were God’s revenge on the man of science.

Paweł was scared of death because he saw a dog carcass. We may say that the whole purpose of being human rests on the distinction between corpse and carcass. When some boys disappear, the whole neighborhood goes looking for them, and people gather at a lake where firemen and divers retrieve the corpses. We do that only for human beings—there is something fearful and holy in death, so everyone kneels in prayer when the bodies are raised from the depths, because we all love children. Krzystof doesn’t kneel—he takes out his fury on a shrine to the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. That’s all that’s left of his fierce love for his dead child. The painting seems to cry.

The family facing liberal individualism

The second commandment prohibits taking the Lord’s name in vain, and thus the swearing of oaths, so the story is about breaking the commandment in order to save a life—the lesson of the Gospels. The protagonist, Dorota, is torn between her dying husband and her lover. She is pregnant by her adultery. She wants to learn from her husband’s doctor whether he will live, in which case she’ll have an abortion to prove her loyalty. To save the baby, the doctor submits to her desperation and swears her husband will die. A catastrophe is opening up in front of us now that the old Christian faith is dwindling—people begin to get fearful ideas about how to prove their obedience in the face of mortality.

Dorota, though an unpleasant character, is fascinating because of her complex reaction to death. She follows the doctor around, right to his door, but dares not ask him about her husband. When he delays answering her, she screams that she wishes she’d have run him over instead of his dog—the only previous event connecting them, though they live in the same apartment building. Her shame and her pride make her unwilling to abandon the husband for the lover in America. As for the dead dog, also mentioned in the first movie, it seems so terrible precisely because of our relation to dogs. They share in our spiritedness and loyalty—they seem to get no more reward for it than any atheist can expect.

Dorota’s a violinist in the Warsaw Philharmonic. Her lover is the star pianist in the orchestra, touring America. Aside from artistic temper, it’s his fertility and the future he offers that attract her—giving life and the possibility of a new existence in America. Laws and mores don’t impress her, and she’s ready to abandon the Old World, she thinks, but when her mountaineering husband is stricken with a deadly disease, a terrible guilt overwhelms her. Instead of feeling free, she feels she must sacrifice everything to appease fate. The life of sin had never suggested infanticide to her, but as soon as she sees her sins, she embraces this shocking idea.

This sheds light on the doctor himself, who first seems cold and imperious, using the prestige of his profession to torment mere mortals. But later we learn how he lost his family in World War II, when the British bombed his house while he was at work in the hospital. Losing everything he loved only made him turn more fervently to saving lives, and we also notice he listens to the BBC: he doesn’t even hate the British. He avoids Dorota, it seems, because he doesn’t know what to tell her—he’s afraid his patient is dying but hopes for a miracle. The confrontation between these two attitudes to personal catastrophe reminds us of the first episode—where the scientist Krzystof had a very pious sister, Irene—and the relationship between the two commandments. From a Christian point of view, you might have to swear an oath to bring back to faith people gone mad without it.

Love and death are the phenomena these commandments must govern—the plots and themes aren’t obviously connected, but the story is not a matter of chance. Dekalog imitates the confusions of individualism we experience—people now really don’t know how to deal with their fundamental humanity, which is love and death, not science or ideology or any modern abstraction. Even if they tried to live by divine law now, the results would be catastrophic. All Dorota sees of faith is a contradiction between sexual fidelity in marriage and the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, without which marriage makes no sense. The forms that form us and the purpose they’re supposed to serve are now hopelessly in contradiction. The strange plots of Dekalog are united by this crisis of faith, behind the accidents of everyday life. Similarly, modern society is like this apartment building—unifying people as strangers, scientifically formed, but really only serving to bring out a religious crisis.

Once tradition is lost, a loving understanding of human perversity is needed to guide people back to a more natural way of life. They need first to be made fit to obey commands, an ordeal all by itself—but these stories reveal that ordeals can guide people back to faith, by humbling pride and rewarding humility with grace. The sophisticated protagonists—college professor, doctor, classical musician—suggest that the problem we’re facing is not backwardness, poverty, or superstition, but high modernity.

We can see ourselves in these stories once we become able to understand them not as dramatizations of shocking events we might read as headlines in tabloids but as the agony of souls longing for a completion that this world simply cannot offer them. They are unimportant people, not heroes in the high tragic manner, but they reveal a disordered world that has slipped the bounds of reason as surely as those of faith, where a return to the commandments is needed to safeguard family.

Christianity versus liberalism

The third commandment is to keep the Sabbath holy, and the story is therefore about Christmas—since Christ’s birth completes the account of creation in Genesis. Janusz, a taxi driver trying to offer his family a wonderful celebration, instead ends up spending the night driving around Warsaw with Ewa, his former mistress. The more devious she becomes, the more impressive his patience seems, until eventually love, not intelligence or respectability, disarms malice and proves lifesaving.

The Gospels insist Christ did right to perform miraculous healings on the Sabbath. Faith itself requires it, despite the legal prohibition against work. If nature won’t wait another day, grace cannot either. So Janusz saves Ewa from suicide—although she blames him for her misery and pretends he abandoned her, ashamed of their adultery, when she knows she abandoned him, and she seems willing to ruin his family—yet he is not indignant or punitive in face of her viciousness.

Janusz, named for the two-faced Roman divinity looking at both past and future, is, like the nameless doctor, a character of remarkable Christian virtue. He takes his family to mass on Christmas Eve, where he sees Ewa—in a repetition of Genesis 3, this Eve also tempts him, but unlike Adam, he resists, Christ-like. Once adulterous, his love has transformed into mercy, which is why he believes that she is still able to return to innocence by confession.

In a bewildering story that reproduces the anger Janusz must feel, his peace robbed, himself humiliated, we see Ewa’s despairing loneliness and are supposed to sympathize gradually with her neediness, despite her irresponsibility. She needs mercy and forgiveness and cannot seek them except by transgression. Like so many people, destroying her life seems to her the only way left to show she’s not merely an animal—or an inanimate body in motion, at that. Respectability rejects her as surely as modern freedom has led her to hate herself for her unhappiness. A shocking revelation unfolds: a depiction of freedom from blame as the void when no one even bothers to think you’re human anymore. In a way, indifference is worse than punishment. In our own times, this would be the story of a drug addict, but it would be the same need for a grace that cannot be earned.

Who is my mother? Who is my father?

The fourth commandment is to honor your father and your mother. But our protagonist, Anka, has no mother—she died in childbirth. Now Anka learns that the man who raised her, Michal, is not her biological father. You might expect the typical liberal transformation of the natural family through egalitarian individualism, and the assertion of freedom: the child tyrannizing the parent. Instead, the problem is the dark secret partly behind the biblical command prohibiting incest.

Anka is a college student learning about love both in theater class and with her boyfriend, but this simply is inadequate, since she could not as a girl learn to be a woman from her mother. The story is remarkable for weaving together the high-strung girl’s self-searching and the revelation of the danger of father and daughter growing too close from long habit. In a way, the shocking is ordinary, since it follows from the absence of a mother in the house. This speaks to why the Jews, who made patriarchal monarchy the solution to the political problem, insisted on an equality between mother and father in the very family formed by that patriarchy. As King David’s adultery is followed by the incest of his son Absalom, Dekalog 3 and 4 also reproduce the danger personal freedom poses to family.

Michal’s very modern fear of losing his daughter, should Anka learn he’s not her biological father, turns into the ancient fear of losing his daughter because of their shameful desires. Anka’s crisis, her need to be protected although she’s an adult, follows from an inability to understand what she did not witness—Michal’s initial willingness to take her as a daughter and raise her, despite knowing her mother had not been faithful to him. That act of sacrificial love is repeated when he endures the shame of her desires and questions; his humility, instead of indignation or erotic selfishness, makes him a father by faith where he was not one biologically.

Dekalog 3 and 4 are set on Christmas Eve and Easter Monday, respectively, suggesting a pair, like the birth and resurrection of Christ. If the first two movies come together in their attempt to deal with the death of children, the next two try to protect family from erotic tragedy and achieve something like a miraculous salvation. I leave further connections between movies to the readers (the plots treat the same sins several times); for brevity’s sake, I will treat only Dekalog’s central argument, that grace can strengthen people in crisis in order to save the family.

The first four movies therefore present an ascent that corresponds, in a Christian interpretation, to the establishment of the faith in the Living God that culminates in the family guarding and guarded by divine law. The other six movies show a symmetric downfall and then ascent through the series of the commandments of the criminal law, where man’s relation to man is central, not man’s obedience to God. Love and death in the family is always the theme, and each pair starts with something close to tragedy and ends with something not really comic but happy. We see grace arrive or fail to arrive.

Thus we first find two young men driven to murder and suicide by the loss or absence of family in Dekalog 5 and 6; then two young women who are denied family, driven into exile from Poland in 7 and 8; then two men who risk losing their families through suicide, in one case a wife, in the other a brother, because of terrible jealousy—but family is at long last preserved in 9 and 10.

Suffering and Enlightenment Ideals

Kieślowski tried in Dekalog to show Christianity’s superiority to liberalism in the conflict about the future of Western civilization. He chose therefore the most important things about our ordinary lives that liberals do not understand and cannot replace—love and death, family, and suffering. Hence the insistence on shocking stories that we would normally blush at. The claim of our sophisticated elites has long been that they are less prejudiced, more enlightened, more sympathetic, and more helpful—that their understanding, therapy, and institutions are the only adequate way to deal with human suffering. This is what Kieślowski implicitly denies. He shows suffering that liberalism cannot understand, and indeed suffering caused by the Enlightenment ideals that liberalism trumpets.

By himself, man is fearfully needy and desperate, headed only for certain death—this is the harshness of biblical teaching, which liberalism denies. The audience must decide which description of our situation it believes to be accurate. For his part, Kieślowski insists that the good things in life depend on other people, living with whom depends on law, which in turn depends on God. Far from liberating man, Enlightenment atheism makes men miserable, unable to understand themselves, tempted to abandon or betray each other, ashamed of their meanness, and eager to blame someone else for their misery.

We see in Kieślowski’s stories a correspondence to everything wrong with our own twenty-first-century society, from the porn addiction crippling so many young men to the sterility of our scientific and artistic pretensions, to the fury guilt instills in people who then decide to live up to that guilt by doing something terrible, to the age-old evils invited back ignorantly by people who think themselves too sophisticated for obedience to law. It is not enough to criticize any of the mad things now fashionable individually, nor would it suffice to identify their origin in the liberal idea of self-authorship: of creating one’s own identity, including by re-creating one’s body. It is also necessary to have an alternative understanding of the crisis and what makes this madness attractive to modern people. This undeniable crisis makes faith plausible again and can return the Decalogue to our understanding of everyday life. Faith would then dignify our concealed misery by judging it against divine law, in hope of grace and mercy and righteousness.

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.

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