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dekalog
Shadowlands: the warming light of decorations does not touch everyone

The release of the restored television and cinema classic presents a timely refocus on an urban community at Christmastime

KIESLOWSKI’S CAROL FOR THOSE LEFT OUT IN THE COLD

It is the evening of Christmas Eve when Poles celebrate the festival, and on a grey Warsaw housing estate a man dressed as Father Christmas is getting ready in his car before heading off with his sack to an apartment block. A little girl will answer the bell and he will tell her in a deep voice that ‘Santa Claus is here’. In his stationary car, he has already been passed by a drunk man dragging a fir tree behind him and weeping, ‘Where is my home?

As the block door opens, dishevelled bereaved father, Kryszytof (Henryk Brnaowski) whom we recognise from the first episode of this acclaimed television drama happens to come out. As his neighbour, Santa wishes him ‘Merry Christmas.’ ‘Sorry, I didn’t recognise you,’ replies the broken father, his words weighted with so much unspoken truth about the loss of his young son, Pawel. (The boy’s fate was sealed when his father gave him a premature Christmas present of a pair of ice skates.) Kryszytof looks through the block window and sees Santa entering a decorated living room. It appears as magical as the Mexican front room Arthur Christmas (2011) is in awe of. Santa hands out presents to his two small children, his wife and older relation. It is a jolly scene of family celebration – a Christmas archetype – yet we also see that there are those it shuts out by default, who are left with their noses up against an icy window pane at this time of year.

Ten tales that capture frail and troubled humanity

As the restored highlight of a box set comprised of almost the entire television output of acclaimed Polish film director, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Dekalog (1988) has acquired a deserved place in the cinema canon of the late Twentieth Century. Written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and loosely based around the Ten Commandments, it began life as a low budget ten part monochrome tv drama series. Money was so tight that the filmmaker could only afford two takes maximum but this gives each tale a naturalistic tone. We feel very close to these people. The series’ reputation grow beyond Poland (two of the sections were made into films, A Short Film About Love and A Short Film About Killing (both 1988), and Dekalog was celebrated beyond Eastern Europe at film festivals and included in cinema programmes.

In fact, the series can be effectively read as an extended film about a community centred on a Warsaw housing estate in the 1980s, where an individual whose story is told in one episode will be seen in the background in another one. (Kieslowski was to repeat this pattern in the remarkable Three Colours film trilogy, most astoundingly in the final scene of the finale, Red (1994).

A heightneed view of ordinary lives

Throughout Dekalog, an all but silent man observes the lives and stories playing out before him: he could be termed ‘Christ-like’ but he is a much like the Berlin angels of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), observing and standing by human beings but having no agency on what befalls them. None of the stories are prescriptive or moralistic but rather raise questions and do not take spiritual sides.

Indeed Dekalog speaks to viewers wherever they live of ordinary human predicaments and responses to recognisable circumstances. Today, the series can also be regarded as a semi-historical account of a people emerging from Communism into their own confused and often troubled autonomy even while there is no mention of this: people simply get on with their lives.

City-wide search for meaning

The Christmas Eve episode is the third in the series – Dekalog 3 (Dekalogy Trzyi) is based on the seventh Commandment ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ [Exodus 20: 14) it is effectively an hour long three-hander. The tale revolves around Santa –Jamusz (Daniel Olbrychski); ex-lover, Ewa’s search for her partner, Edward this winter’s night – and how she inveigles Jamusz into helping her in her quest even while he has left his suspicious wife at home.

Yet Dekalog 3 also turns out to be a rather touching fable about individuals’ search at this time of year for some sort of meaning. En route, we are shown how different beleaguered people celebrate Christmas: from taking their own life; drinking enough to end up naked in a grim cell; singing together at a care home; or celebrating Midnight Mass. Ironically for all this sadness, the screenwriters express an inclusive humanism. All these ‘minor’ Chirstma stories are as valid and important and worth looking at as the traditional family celebration at the episode’s heart. ‘It’s difficult to be alone on a night like this,’ admits Ewa at one point. Her ex’s reply: ‘People shut themselves in, draw the curtains’ is a pertinent comment about how exclusive a traditional Christmas can be. Dekalog 3 honours those people on the outside too.

Santa Claus and guardian angel

And Jamusz’s comment suggests he’s very aware of his role this Christmas Eve. He has stepped outside that decorated comfort zone. He seems to sense that, for this one lonely night, the Santa in him shall guide Ewa (Maria Pakulnis) beyond her despair, even while they deceive each other along the way. It is reminiscent of the angelic company of Nicholas Hoult guarding the suicidal Colin Firth in A Single Man (2009). By the morning, Jamusz and Ewa part, flashing their car lights at ach other.

Presumably, this was their old signal when they were having an affair, but this Christmas night they have spent together it has been redeemed into an act of fondness: a genuine farewell. Returning to his wife, Zona (Joanna Szczepkowska), it is clear to all three that the good and honest Christmas deed was done that night. The light of the season made itself known.

‘Dekalog and Other TV Works’ Dual-Format Blu-ray & DVD plus interviews, commentaries and a 128-page collector’s book is available from http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk at a special offer price of £49.99 (RRP £64.99) from 31st October.

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