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Dekalog 1 (1988)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

Based upon the theme of "I Am the Lord Our God", Kieslowski uses Dekalog 1 to tragically explore one of humanity's most painful emotions. In an apartment block flat Krzysztof (Henryk Baranowski) lives with, and looks after, his young son Pawel (Wojciech Klata). With Pawel's mother long departed, their home has become a shrine to technology and "toys for the boys". On assorted computers they can plot out their lives, perform calculations and even, thanks to Pawel, control appliances around the apartment. Fortunately Pawel has a female role-model in his aunt Irena (Maja Komorowska), who looks after him in the hours when school has finished yet Krzysztof has not returned home.

A very bright 11 year-old, Pawel startles his father one winter's morning by asking some searching questions on the meaning of death. Eager to understand what really happens when people die (prompted by his discovery of a frozen dog), Pawel listens intently to Krzysztof's every word, in wide-eyed admiration. However, Krzysztof only touches upon the mechanical aspects, since the spiritual side no longer holds any interest for him. He has long since lapsed as a Catholic, unlike Irena, who is concerned about Pawel's spiritual growth. In his quest for knowledge, such a situation is quite agreeable to Pawel, just as long as he's able to go skating. His Christmas present is a new pair of ice skates and, as the ice looks thick, Pawel's keen to try them out.

The first of Kieslowski's 10-part series, Dekalog 1 rapidly indicates the general style which will be employed by introducing both realistic characters and a strong storyline. Pawel and his father are linked by one of nature's strongest bonds (given that Krzysztof represents both mother and father) but, beyond this, they get on brilliantly. Pawel is a delightful and charming child, inquisitive and intelligent, a kid that any parent would be proud to bring up. Krzysztof does his best at this tricky job, allowing Pawel just enough independence and responsibility yet ready to step in with guidance and love when required. With Irena bringing a significantly different influence, this triangle of relationships forms the heart of Dekalog 1 (making their destruction all the more powerful).

The loss of a child is always devastating but when the circumstances involve someone with as much potential as Pawel, the feelings of waste and despair are multiplied greatly. It is in the generation of these emotions that Dekalog 1 succeeds, to the extent that it becomes difficult to keep watching (while a voyeuristic streak keeps the attention fixed). So powerful and subtle are the markers and cues which plot the progression of Krzysztof and Irena into what will be a life-long trauma, it feels as though the pain is personal. Like having your internal organs wrenched out and replaced with a heavy, cold blankness, an emotional numbness spreads from Krzysztof as he realises the full implications of the moment. No longer can an analytical world-view control events or help him make sense of what's happened (Irena is hardly better off though, even with her faith).

Kieslowski has produced a masterpiece in miniature, a tale stripped to its essence. Life is poured into the written characters via some excellent examples of acting, with Klata proving quite extraordinary. The thoughts and feelings of the three principles are projected with clarity and honesty, guided by excellent direction. When combined with striking and beautiful cinematography, together with an affecting score, Dekalog 1 scales heights that most films can only dream of. This is film-making at its finest.


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