By Patrick Malone
Dekalog is a series of ten short films written and directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski for Polish television. Each film revolves around characters in 1980s Warsaw struggling with a moral dilemma inspired (sometimes rather loosely) by a Commandment.
I would like to pay particular attention to the first film, inspired by the First Commandment: I am the Lord your God. The film is about a professor, Krzysztof, who lives with his young son Paweł, teaching him about science and technology, particular the use of computers. Paweł’s aunt teaches him about the Catholic faith and introduces him to the new nearby church. The father, who does not share his sister’s faith and rejects hope for salvation after death, uses his marvelous computer to show Paweł how quickly mathematical and physics problems can be solved, and later uses it to calculate how much weight the ice at the local lake can bear, determining that it is safe for Paweł to skate on that ice. Paweł, trusting that calculation, falls through the ice and dies.
What, exactly, has this to do with the First Commandment? Krzysztof sets science and technology up as idols in which he has absolute faith, certain that through them he can understand and control the world, as the world has an order that can be uncovered and known. Indeed, their apartment is often lit only by the sickly green light of the computer screen; it is that which guides him, but it is not a full and clear light. The problem is that this idolatry does not account for the fallenness of the world, in which its order fails. That green light is monochromatic, reducing all the world to that which can be calculated and measured. When he first thinks that Paweł may have fallen through the ice, he does not go to the lake to check: why not? Partly because he does not want to believe that his son has drowned, but also, to some extent, because he cannot believe that the calculations were somehow flawed. He cannot bear to consider that his idol has failed him, but that is what idols must ultimately do. Finally, Krzysztof goes to the local church, where he overturns the altar in anger. However, he then looks at an icon of Mary, which appears to be weeping. He tries to bless himself with holy water, but it has frozen.
As St. Paul says in the Letter to the Hebrews, we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses. We have a God who has taken all suffering and evil, even unto death, upon Himself. That God has a mother who stands at the foot of the cross in sorrow, pondering all things in her heart, suffering with her Son and with us. We do not suffer alone, but with a God Who shows us how to use that suffering for love, and Who does not see that suffering as the right end of human life, or justify or explain it away, but as something from which to be redeemed. The hope is that in suffering we can encounter God, be united to His sufferings, and die to ourselves so that we might love others fully.
However, it is also clear that, instead of encountering God in suffering, many believe to perceive His absence; this might be a dark night of the soul as in St. John of the Cross, or used to justify a loss of faith. This is the fundamental question of the first film of Dekalog: where to meet the Lord God before Whom we may have no false idols, and whether the place where God seeks to meet us is in fact also the place where we might turn away from Him. He is God of both the living and the dead. He meets us where those idols fail us, where we are tempted to reject not only the idols but also the true God. That frozen holy water may stand for both the principle that those who mourn are blessed because they shall be comforted, while also suggesting that in suffering the faith of some are frozen. And indeed, it is essential to note that the frozen holy water is ice, just as Paweł fell through ice; that is the paradox Krzysztof confronts. We do not know whether, in his moment of darkness, Krzysztof will shed all of his idols, but we do know that it is at this moment that God is calling to him, and suffering with him. That is the Lord our God.
Patrick Malone has a Bachelor of Arts Honours in English from Campion College at the University of Regina, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Saskatchewan. He has written on literature, film, and culture for Catholic Stand and has also been published in Millennial Journal.
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