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Piotr Florczyk: Retracing the Decalogue

Remembering Kieslowski on the 20th anniversary of his death.

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Image taken from Flickr user Kim Davies

By Piotr Florczyk

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Decalogue (Polish: Dekalog) series of ten films—made for Polish Television and released starting in 1989, each clocking in at just under an hour–have earned scores of admirers around the world thanks to its quiet yet riveting portrayal of moral and ethical dilemmas common to us all. Infidelity, abortion, theft, bearing false witness, misguided love—how would we behave in the face of any of these quandaries? What’s more, the metaphysical offering of Kieślowski’s cinema serves as an antidote against the superficiality that surrounds us, and the ten films are a serum of both faith and doubt, rather than the ready-made answers of the middle ground that fuel so much of our existence. They remind me of the other side of life, if you will, the one not ruled by the prevailing tyranny of happiness. This isn’t to suggest that Kieślowski acts the part of a moralist holding a mirror to our faces. Kieślowski doesn’t discard the unpleasantness of life nor does he do away with hinting at how much of our life is influenced by coincidence, which can alter the course of the tributaries that compose the image we have of ourselves and of those around us. When I watch The Decalogue films, sometimes two or three in a row, I imagine my experience as comparable to that of first love or death—extreme in its singularity yet all-encompassing. The films are my food for thought and my small talk. Ten breadcrumbs. Ten signposts.

While Kieślowski and his co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz never intended the films to be dogmatic, they did “frame” their narratives in advance by basing them loosely on the Ten Commandments. This strategy must have been immediately recognizable to Polish audiences, who, without any explicit encouragement, would have felt compelled to identify with the characters. The films not only reference, however obliquely, religious tenants familiar to most people in predominantly Catholic Poland, but their setting, a ubiquitous and drab tower block in Warsaw, grounded the series physically, providing the audience with an extra level of contextual familiarity. I was eleven years old when the films aired. My family has never been particularly religious, but when I was a kid we did reside in various apartment buildings similar to the one Kieślowski chose for his characters. In fact, my parents, who never moved to the United States, still live in a similar apartment block on the outskirts of Kraków.

The California houses and apartments I have lived in since emigrating in 1994 look nothing like the Inflancka Street complex at the heart of the series—think stucco instead of concrete. But during my annual trips to Poland, having witnessed the changes wrought about by the country’s transition from communism to democracy and its flawed sidekick, capitalism, manifested most easily in infrastructure and housing improvements, I’ve often wondered about how the Inflancka block was faring. Until, several years ago, I finally got on the train in Kraków and went up to Warsaw to see it for myself.

Some argue that building fences only further divides an already factious society of have and have-nots.

Watching the films, one has no idea how massive the apartment complex at Inflancka Street, the setting for most of the films, really is. On screen, the buildings’ gray, prefabricated concrete slabs that make up the exterior walls give off a good dose of sterile inhospitality. The architecture of so many Polish districts, only slightly less ubiquitous now than during the late period of the People’s Republic, can be off-putting, yet behind the shabby job and the rough, cold materiality, people live and die just like they do everywhere else. Their apartments are small—and the occupants must suffer their dwellings’ crooked walls and uneven floors—but their existence, at the very fundamental level, is no different from that of someone who lives in a spacious house in an American suburb. In fact, turning left from Stawki Street into Pokorna Street—just a few miles from Warsaw’s Central Railroad Station—any visitor realizes that the apartment buildings also look like castles. The gray concrete façade is gone. Their overall height varies due to the varied number of floors in each section—some parts of the buildings have ten while others have twelve stories—which makes the whole thing look toothed, like a mountain range or, more fittingly, a rampart. Their light yellow or pastel color is neither loud nor clashing with the surroundings, most of which are dwarfed by the sheer size of the structures anyway. The characteristic balconies, supported by concrete beams, which some feel resemble the cross, are painted white. It was the balconies that helped me spot the buildings from a distance.

I still can’t believe that I rode the train from Kraków to see the apartment complex with my own eyes, as if I had doubted its existence. Could this be my private Eiffel Tower, my Colosseum? While I was dithering, some construction workers nearby ran up and down a scaffold, but the din didn’t bother me. I was in a trance—and then it dawned on me that I had no clue how to get inside the complex. Along with the Styrofoam insulation and a fresh coat of paint, both of which are very much in vogue in Poland, as housing cooperatives attempt to improve and beautify their Soviet-style abodes, the concept of a gated community is also fairly new to Poland. In recent years, residents of countless communities have felt the need to separate themselves from others. They claim the fence keeps out drunks and tramps, thus making them safer, but it’s merely an illusion, isn’t it? The race to paint over the past has proven disastrous at times, for the housing estates where so many Poles live now look like amusement parks, featuring all colors of the rainbow and various stenciled designs. Some argue that building fences only further divides an already factious society of have and have-nots.

The man endowed with the task of keeping unwanted visitors out was an old, grandfatherly figure, dressed in a white uniform-like shirt. When I stuck my head in the small window of his kiosk, interrupting his completing a crossword puzzle or reading the latest tabloid, he looked at me immediately. I explained why I was here, that I’d love to go inside for ten or fifteen minutes, just “to have a look around the famous site.” He stared at me for a second, without blinking, then said, “go ahead,” and pushed the button that unlocked the gate. Thanking him, I expected him to say something about the camera slung around my neck. In Poland, with its history of political oppression and denunciations, taking pictures in public can be downright dangerous even today. But maybe the man is used to letting in movie buffs like myself; I’d read somewhere that it’s not unusual for busloads of Japanese tourists to descend on the housing complex, and one can only imagine the kind of electronics and other gizmos they bring along with them.

Having crossed the gate, I felt like I’d been initiated into a secret society, one whose members spend their days tracing life’s significant moments to their sources. As memoirists of time and space, they fill in the gaps spanning our memories. The countless windows—how many hundreds of them?—that surrounded me looked exactly as they do in the films. In the sixth film the teenage voyeur uses a looking glass to spy on an older, attractive woman, but I saw only retirees, men and women, chatting in the distance, with their well-behaved poodles and yorkies by their side.

I took my camera out of its bag and began snapping pictures voraciously. Getting further and farther from the entry gate, I took pictures of the roofline and of the balconies seemingly stacked one on top of the other. I zoomed in on the trees—thirty years ago there were none. Do the residents mind that people like me bring with them the images of the past, rather than the present or the future, and some, no doubt, leave still clinging to the past? Countless films shot in People’s Poland, and in many other countries, including those in the richer parts of the continent, for the ubiquitous apartment high-rise structure was not endemic to the countries of the Other Europe alone, featured some kind of housing estate like this, but do the residents here feel like theirs is special?

How long was I actually inside the complex at Inflancka Street? Twenty, thirty minutes? Long enough to feel like one of Kieślowski’s characters.

I can imagine a conversation between a local man and a woman who’s been asked to go out on a date with him. In addition to the standard repertoire of “what’s your name” and “what do you do,” they would talk about where they live, because even though today’s Poles are a lot more transient than their parents ever were, many still identify personally with where they live, be it a specific street or district. Does the woman, for instance, tell the man to pick her up at “the Kieślowski or The Decalogue complex,” instead of giving him the street address? I wasn’t brave enough to ask the people who left me alone while I roamed their alleyways and peeked into their windows, although the advanced age of the ladies I saw meant that at least some of them could have been living here when the films were shot in the late 1980s.

How long was I actually inside the complex at Inflancka Street? Twenty, thirty minutes? Long enough to feel like one of Kieślowski’s characters. In 1988 I wasn’t old enough to play Tomek, the postal clerk, or Artur, the nonconformist rocker, but I could’ve played Paweł, the tragic hero of the first film. The first apartment I lived in with my parents and older sister—my younger sister hadn’t been born yet—in my native Kraków was in a three-story block that faced an asphalt playground with basketball hoops and a field we played soccer on, using the surrounding trees as goal posts. I learned how to ride a bicycle there. In winter, the playground was hosed with water and turned into a makeshift ice rink overnight. It’s where I learned to skate, along the way scoring at least one major fall that cost me a deep gash on my chin. I have the scar to this day.

As I was heading back towards the gate, I seemed to have lost some of my inhibitions, for I was snapping pictures like crazy. I’d hoped to visualize the telephone scene from the aforementioned sixth film, the one in which Tomek, the voyeur, calls Magda and listens to her talk into the receiver while starring at her through a looking glass. Or the scene from the first film, when Paweł’s dad, Krzysztof, is stopped from entering the building by the sight and sound of an ambulance and a squad car driving by with their sirens blaring. His initial surprise gives way to confusion and panic. He runs into the stairwell and up the stairs—which door did he go through to reach the stairwell? Was it even here, I wondered, taking one last look around. Sometimes it’s best to dwell in the unknown, though Krzysztof’s search for his son will eventually lead him back outside and to the edge of a pond that was supposed to remain frozen.

On my way out, I thanked the gentleman who’d let me in. He looked up from his newspaper and smiled. The structure’s windows glinted in the sun. Then I remembered that I meant to ask him about the way to the famed necropolis, the Powązkowski Cemetery (a.k.a. the Powązki), where Krzysztof Kieślowski is buried. Clearly surprised that a relatively young man like myself wanted to know how to get to, of all things, a cemetery, he rose from his seat and stepped outside his kiosk. He seemed taller now—taller than me at six-one. Extending his right arm forward and pointing, like a general, he explained that I’d have to cross two major intersections and tram tracks. “In any case,” he added, “the cemetery’s a stone’s throw from here. You’ll be there in no time.”

Ten minutes later, I promptly asked a young woman for directions. The fact that I stopped her in the shadow of a tall brick wall meant that the outskirts of the cemetery were in fact right next to us, but the woman, wiping the sweat from her forehead and cheeks, had no idea where the entrance was. Clearly I’d made a mistake assuming that her black blouse and skirt meant that she’d just attended a funeral. Next I decided to ask a couple of teens for help. Stupefied by my question about where I could find the entrance, since, clearly the cemetery was right here—they pointed at the wall and looked at each other, smirking—they instructed me to turn left at the street over there, then head for a white church whose spire I’d be able to see once I rounded the corner. One is always most lost when he’s almost there, isn’t that the case?

The incessant honking of car horns at a nearby intersection reminded me of the fifth film (“Thou Shall Not Kill”) and its diegetic use of sound. The narrative of the film, which revolves around the victim (“Waldemar”), the murderer (“Jacek”), and the lawyer (“Piotr”), plays out against the background of Poland of the late 1980s and its various interest groups, including the state that carries out Jacek’s death sentence for murdering the cabbie Waldemar. Jacek’s and Waldemar’s paths first cross when Jacek hops into the cab, a Polish-made Polonez, a major step-up from the Polish-made Fiats, especially the 126p model, nicknamed “little Fiat,” which one could buy after putting down a deposit and spending the next twenty years on the waiting list. The car, with an engine only slightly larger than what’s found in a lawnmower, has since become a cultural icon, like the Trabant in Germany. However, the Polonez, though a much better car, doesn’t command similar respect. Four-door, rather than two. A hatchback. Named after a traditional Polish dance, the polonaise, the car was produced between 1978-2002. But, unlike the “little Fiat,” I never saw one in France or Switzerland.

Strolling the Warsaw streets, Jacek is painfully out of touch with his surroundings. Dressed like a bum, his hair uncombed, he cannot elicit sympathy from anyone, including the box office clerk. When he asks her about the film that’s currently playing, she tells him it’s a dud about love. Later on, we see Jacek, who’s been looking for a taxi stop, walk through an alley. It had rained recently. He observes two guys chasing another man, whom they beat up the second he runs up against a fence and has nowhere to go. It helps to keep in mind that Poles have been exposed to the suburbia only in the last fifteen years or so—thirty years ago, when The Decalogue was filmed, the social and cultural division between city dwellers and country folk remained entrenched. The lack of any audible reaction from Jacek brings into focus both Jacek’s state of mind and the surroundings in which he finds himself adrift. The feeling of desolation is further accentuated by the green filters used by the cinematographer, which soil the scenery and render it impotent. Ironically, the green filters also desensitize us to the images projected on the screen; they make the world ugly, bland, even though most of what we see are touristy parts of Warsaw.

If, as we are told, the largest metropolitan areas in Asia and America can be seen from space, then I’m sure Polish cemeteries on All Saints’ Day are also visible, haloed as they are in bright lights.

If Jacek’s presence in the grand city highlights Kieślowski’s goal of populating the space with incongruent elements in order to underscore societal and cultural rifts, then the use of sounds follows a similar logic: they serve as conduits to something that may or may be seen on screen. When Jacek pushes a rock off the bridge, sending it down into traffic on a busy urban thoroughfare, we merely ‘hear,’ rather than see, the accident he caused. The fact that many of us have done this, just like we’ve run through a flock of pigeons or stepped on a wiggling silverfish, does not excuse his actions, but Kieślowski suggests that we should consider the larger picture here. By bringing the world, both on screen and in reality, to a standstill, the sound of the accident serves as a point of contact for Jacek and us.

Jacek’s mumbled way of speaking reinforces the mood of social and political malaise of the day while suggesting that speaking on screen can be used for non-narrative reasons, and as such may help elevate some of the seemingly random sounds featured in the fifth film, such as the church bells or the car horn. The church bells in particular seem of great significance—their meaning, of both sounding alarm and calling people to worship, are a major component of the tapestry of sounds experienced by Poles on daily basis, then and now. Unlike tolling bells, however, the sound of the car horn was a rarity in Poland of the late ‘80s. In a sense, the horn’s sound, both alarming and annoying, disruptive, even, can be viewed as serving an opposite purpose to that of the bells: church bells are often associated with contemplation and personal reflection, whereas the car horn embodies aggression. In any case, it’s clear that the sounds are not random: they occur at specific times in the film, sounding a cautionary tale and coloring a space that’s turning increasingly more ominous, or, formally speaking, opening the scene up. For example, the car horn lets us see Waldemar’s mischievous side; later on, it becomes a tragic call for help, not unlike Jacek’s wailing in the execution chamber at the end. Jacek’s desperate cry for help is not less intelligible than the bells and the car horn, but its purpose seems less ambiguous.

Lucky for me, the car horn gave way to the sound of bells tolling after a few minutes. The clearer the sound became, the more my confidence in finding the cemetery rose. The Powązki Cemetery or the Old Powązki Cemetery—not to be confused with the equally venerated Powązki Military Cemetery—dates back to the end of eighteenth century. It is one of the most famous cemeteries in Poland. During the All Saints’ Day, when legions of Poles visit the cemeteries to commemorate their dead, the Powązki is always featured in newscasts. The millions of lit votive candles lend the day a special aura. Televised images of flickering flames, carnations and chrysanthemums, and people crowding around graves, including those of famous people, whose memory and upkeep are assured by dedicated volunteers, are beamed around the country. As the autumn sun begins to set, the cemeteries are a spectacle to behold. If, as we are told, the largest metropolitan areas in Asia and America can be seen from space, then I’m sure Polish cemeteries on All Saints’ Day are also visible, haloed as they are in bright lights. The maddening rush undertaken by many families, who need to visit multiple cemeteries in the same day and often devise elaborate schemes in order to account for traffic and crowds, culminates, if only briefly, with each candle being lit. The images of their aglow faces are not unlike those produced by master painters of long ago.

The grave of Krzysztof Kieślowski, who died in Warsaw just shy of his fifty-fifth birthday, on March 13, 1996, after an open-heart surgery, is one of the most famous at Powązki, which is no small feat, given the number of esteemed people buried there. What makes it of interest to those who wouldn’t call themselves movie buffs, is its design. The reserved beauty of the black slab of granite that marks the grave, with the simple inscription of Kieślowski’s name and the dates of his birth and death, is supplemented by a square post of the same stone, crowned with bronze hands immortalized in the gesture of the director’s hands framing a shot. The stark symbolism of the entire grave, designed by the sculptor Krzysztof M. Bednarski, who also happened to design the statue of Federico Fellini in Rimini, is simply amazing. I’ve read somewhere that Kieślowski had been one of the last auteurs who repeatedly made the framing gesture while working on a film. The hands, modeled after Kieślowski’s own, severed just below the wrists, form the image of the cross as well.

Less than a week before my visit to Warsaw, the late director’s wife noticed that the sculpture was missing. The police began to scour surrounding scrap metal shops in hope the grave’s most famous detail—the hands framing a shot—would turn up. In the meantime, people from all walks of life voiced their disgust at the vandal’s crime. To steal a part of one of the cemetery’s most famous graves seemed not only audacious but also utterly foolish. Did whoever stole it think nobody would notice? After a day or so, the police received a call from the owner of a scrap metal shop where someone had brought in the sculpture. Soon two young perpetrators, a man and a woman, both drug addicts, were arrested; the man was allegedly an employee of the cemetery. The owner of the shop paid less than 100 dollars for the sculpture.

I wish I had been able to see the real thing, the way it was designed and meant to be seen, but I left the cemetery having taken lots of pictures of the desecrated grave, believing, unsure why, that the sight had to be documented and preserved only if to prove how relevant The Decalogue remains. I also thought about how Kieślowski himself, who in photographs and interviews comes across as melancholic and downward sad, must be rolling in his grave, laughing until it hurts. He died at the height of his powers as a filmmaker—having announced after the success of the Three Colors: Blue, White, Red trilogy that he was done making films—and now he was back in the news, a victim of the most human of crimes: greed. It’s not a stretch to think that he’d already forgiven the thieves. After all, in the fifth film he suggested that Jacek, the man sentenced to die for brutally killing the cabbie Waldemar, should be shown mercy.

Walking back to the train station in the heat, I admired the bustling city, with its ubiquities construction cranes, the red trams, and the crowded sidewalks. Thirsty and a little hungry, I stopped at a small grocery store, where I wasted improbable amounts of time staring at the assortment of bottled waters and snacks. So many choices—so much time, I kept teasing myself. I took a few slow sips of the water I bought; it felt good to drink something cold and follow the coldness as it flowed down my throat. I still had a little over an hour until my train’s departure, so I decided to check out the Golden Terraces, the shopping mall in the shadow of both the station and the Palace of Culture and Science. What were all those people doing here, I wondered as I walked through the door. It was Wednesday, after all, mid-day. Surely not all of them were tourists doing what I was doing: killing time. I rode the escalators up and down. I walked the air-conditioned corridors, staring at the window displays full of enticing clothes, shoes, electronics, perfumes, and toys. People-watching has never been my thing, but I made the effort of connecting the fantasy this mall was selling with the people who raced past me. Most of them were high school students, which didn’t make sense, because the school term wasn’t over for another two weeks or so. Some sat around on benches, taking a deserved break from trawling the grounds full of possibilities that by and large remained out of their wallets, if not their reach. Feeling hungry again, I bought a salted bagel pretzel—an obwarzanek, as they are called in Kraków, but only by tourists, since the locals simply call them pretzels—from a cart, and after taking a bite, chewing slowly, commented that it tasted almost as good as they do in Kraków. The woman who tended the cart smiled widely and said that I wasn’t the first person from Kraków to tell her so. Then I ran to catch my train, not wanting to miss it and end up like one of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s all-too-real characters.

Piotr Florczyk’s latest books are a collection of poems, East & West (Lost Horse Press), and a volume of brief essays, Los Angeles Sketchbook (Spuyten Duyvil). He is a Ph.D. student in the Literature and Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern California. For more info, please visit his website at www.piotrflorczyk.com

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