Discussing Kieslowski’s Decalogue VIII

This is part of a ten-part dicussion series we did with Think Christian. The other half of the series can be found on the Think Christian website. – Editor

We’re eight episodes in, and Kieslowski finally gives us a purpose statement. He has an ethics professor, Zofia, delivers it no less. When Elzbieta, a visiting scholar with whom Zofia shares a painful past, asks what Zofia hopes to teach her students, Zofia replies, “I try to help them discover themselves… because goodness exists in every person. Situations release good or evil.”

This statement isn’t all that revelatory, in my opinion. Kieslowski and Piesiewicz have been putting the ethical question to us in almost every episode, leaving the morality of a situation unresolved, and asking us to discuss it amongst ourselves. They’ve challenged us to consider how we would respond and why. I like to think this discussion series has honored the filmmakers’ work and intentions.

I consider it appropriate that this purpose statement is delivered in dialog in this episode as it is perhaps the talkiest of the bunch, and it is about what we say – “bearing false witness” against others. I won’t be surprised if some found Decalogue VIII a little too “preachy.” We hear about the most dramatic ethical conundrums rather than seeing them. (We even hear about an ethical morass we’ve already seen when a student recites the events of Decalogue II.) The ethical dilemma in this episode hinges on whether or not characters will tell the truth or lie yet again. Did you like the talkiness of this episode, Josh, or did you wish for more action?

Still, in the days since I first watched this, another of Kieslowski’s images has lingered in my mind more than any of the conversations – that of a man bent over backwards on a platform in the forest in hopes of proving he’s “better than the TV man.” Josh, did you, like me, have to stand up and see how far backwards you were capable of bending after you watched the contortionist’s flexible feet, um, feat?

The gymnast has stayed with me, because his presence gets at the series’ purpose, and I think there’s two ways to read him. One, because he’s bent over backwards, he can see himself in way others can’t. The Decalogue series is the contortionist then, a cinematic “bending over backwards” to show us ourselves. Two, the contortionist is us, bending over backwards week after week as we’ve watched the series to prove we are better than the men and women on our TVs. He exposes our inflexibility. In the first sense, he is an exemplar. In the second, he’s an indictment. I prefer the second option, as the first is too self-congratulatory, and the second invites me to respond. Which rings most true for you, Josh?

Finally, as I believe the elastic man is there to remind me not to tie myself in knots to prove I’m better than these characters, and since I appreciate Kieslowski’s stated purpose to help me discover myself so that I’ll behave in a way that releases good instead of evil, I think I need to make an honest confession prompted by one of the episodes in this series. In episode VII, I saw more of myself than I liked in Majka. I too am prone to wanting my own selfish way even when it is hard on my parents. My parents are not nearly as selfish as Majka’s, but I am as eager to assert my independence, devil-may-care what they think. I should be more considerate, more trusting, and more loving toward them. Has this series prompted any soul-searching on your part? (A simple “yes” or “no” will suffice. Don’t feel pressured to share details if you don’t want.)