“And God spake all these words, saying, I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-3)
Inspired by the First Commandment, Kieslowski’s Decalogue I tells the story of how a young boy’s tragic and inexplicable death leaves his pragmatic, atheistic father in a state of despair, and how that turmoil ultimately leads to a renewal of the father’s spirit. Kieslowski’s dialogue and symbolism serve as powerful tools in exploring issues regarding science, faith, purpose, and fate. The character Krzysztof displays a Cartesian mentality, in that he sees reason as the essential source of truth and his purpose as the passing of intelligence to later generations. In contrast, Irene displays a Pascalian mentality, in that she sees the heart as the essential source of truth and her purpose as the loving and evangelizing of unbelievers. Both Krzysztof and Irene struggle to account for Pavel’s death. Krzysztof must rationalize the incident, while Irene must make sense of it through her belief in a loving God. It is Krzysztof who fails in accomplishing his end, unable to bring himself to terms with his son’s death, until he experiences a spiritual awakening. Kieslowski’s thought-provoking dialogue and powerful symbolism highlight Krzysztof’s state of doubt and his turn to repentance, leaving the viewer to consider, in a Pascalian fashion, the limits of reason and the reality of the heart.
An early exchange between Pavel and his father is particularly revealing of Krzysztof’s humanistic perspective on reality and purpose, and Pavel’s heartfelt reaction to the conversation lends considerable support to Kieslowski’s endgame. After finding a dead dog in the snow, Pavel becomes passionately concerned with the meaning of life and looks to his father for guidance. Absent of Descartes’ personal theology, but subscribing to his principle that one should “never … accept anything as true that [he does] not plainly know to be such,” Krzysztof explains to his son that physical death is the utter end of existence, because no proof exists for the soul or the afterlife (Discourse on Method, 11). When Pavel points out that Irene believes there is a soul, Krzysztof responds saying, “Some find it easier to live thinking that.” Krzysztof sees religion as a crutch — something that satisfies the emotions while hindering sound judgment. Descartes addresses the state of nonbelievers similarly:
When, near the end of the conversation, Krzysztof admits that he cannot confidently deny the soul’s existence, he leaves open the possibility that it could be proven to him on a reasonable level. Though theologically opposed, both Descartes and Krzysztof see reason as the essential tool in reaching right conclusions. Pavel, unconsoled by his father’s answers, tearfully laments the inconsequence of his experiences — solving the math problem, feeding the pigeon — in spite of the pleasure he derived from them. If, like the stray dog, we are all fated to die, then there is no point to living. The scene ends on Pavel’s hopeful statement that the dog is, perhaps, better off now. Krzysztof makes no rebuttal, but we know that he would disagree. Pavel’s statement is interesting here, because Krzysztof likely has a similar sentiment after his son’s death. Kieslowski’s critique of rationalism gains considerable momentum here, when a father’s reasonable explanations are inadequate in comforting or convincing his son who feels compelled in his heart to go another direction.
A later dialogue between Pavel and his aunt furthers the purpose of Decalogue I by offering a deeper look at Krzysztof’s ideology and introducing Irene’s, which takes into account the heart, rather than reason alone, in the search for truth. After picking him up from school, Irene presents Pavel with an envelope containing photographs of the Pope, prompting a conversation about the meaning of life. Krzysztof’s view of the purpose of life, as explained by Pavel to Irene — “living in order to make life easier for those who will come after us” — reflects his earlier statements that one’s memories and achievements are all that are left after death. As a scientist, Krzysztof sees his purpose as the further expansion of the spectrum of knowledge, much in line with Descartes’ idea of charity. Irene seems to agree, but focuses on everyday, simple charity:
“If you can do something for others, to help, to be there, even if it’s only a little thing, you know you are needed, and life becomes brighter somehow. There are big and small things. Today you liked the dumplings, so that made me happy. One is alive, and it’s a present, a gift.”
The happiness she feels as a result of small acts of charity is reason enough to continue doing them. Pascal’s instruction, “Do small things as if they were great, because [Christ] does them in us and lives our life,” would certainly resonate with Irene, who is a fervent believer and ascribes all goodness to God (Pensées, 553). When Pavel asks why she and his father think so differently, Irene explains that although both of them were raised Catholic, Krzysztof took to science at an early age and eventually rejected his faith. He had concluded that measurement could be applied to everything, much like Descartes who wrote, “there cannot be any [truths] that are so remote that they are not eventually reached nor so hidden that they are not discovered” (11). Similar to Pascal, who asserts “we know the truth not only through reason, but through the heart,” Irene argues that although Krzysztof’s way of life may seem reasonable, it does not rule out God (282). Irene explains her understanding of God to Pavel, saying “God is very simple, if you have faith.” When Pavel asks who He is, she hugs him and asks what he feels. “I love you,” he answers, to which she responds “That’s where he is.” Attributing faith and feelings as essential indicators of God’s existence and nature, Irene exhibits a Pascalian perspective. A verse from Pascal is particularly useful in understanding Irene’s critique of Krzysztof’s ideology:
…those to whom God has given religious faith by moving their hearts are very fortunate, and feel quite legitimately convinced, but those who do not have it we can only give such faith through reasoning, until God gives it by moving their heart, without which faith is only human and useless for salvation. (282)
Because Krzysztof’s views depend only on reason, they are superficial. Even if Krzysztof were able to prove God to himself through reason, in which Descartes claims he has succeeded, such faith would be “useless” because it lacks a sincerity that only the heart can supply.
The behavior of the two computers inside Krzysztof’s apartment further establishes Kieslowski’s goal to expose the limits of scientific reasoning and the danger of idolatry. Pavel uses one computer to conduct calculations and write programs for tasks, such as controlling house utilities or displaying recorded messages from his absent mother. However, Krzysztof uses this same machine to determine the freezing rate of the pond that Pavel eventually dies in. Because the computer is proven fallible, it serves to demonstrate science’s inability to explain all things. The second computer is more mysterious in nature, but can be understood through an analysis of a few moments in the film. When Pavel asks Irene if she is aware of his father’s “project,” she disapprovingly responds that she “more or less” does, as if what Krzysztof is working on is morally questionable. Soon after, we get a glimpse of the computer screen, revealing what appears to be a long list of languages. Later, in one of his lectures at the university, Krzysztof supposes a hypothetical — a computer “capable of accumulating all knowledge of language, including the intimate historical, political, and cultural links and associations,” which gives it its “metaphysical” spirit. Krzysztof remarks that such a device would possess the ability to make selections on its own, be “capable of choice,” and perhaps have its own “aesthetic preferences” or “personality.” When the computer mysteriously turns itself on and displays the message, “I am ready,” it becomes clear that this computer must be Krzysztof’s allegedly hypothetical machine, an artificial intelligence device. A physical representation of Krzysztof’s god before God, the second computer symbolizes the broken commandment of Decalogue I, because it is Krzysztof’s attempt at proof of the metaphysical through reason. Following Pavel’s death, when the computer turns itself on for a second time and displays the same self-aware message, Krzysztof stares blankly at the screen, because he is now made aware of the uncertainties of scientific reason and of his own inadequacies. The film’s final symbols, the Madonna and the frozen holy water, in association with Krzysztof’s responses to them, elucidate Krzysztof’s inner workings. Crushed by Pavel’s death, Krzysztof enters the church in the dead of night in search for understanding. An icon of the Madonna holding the divine infant, illuminated by the light of the burning candles, stands behind the altar. Krzysztof pushes himself on the altar, causing it to collapse. As a result, the wax of a toppled candle drips onto the icon, creating the illusion of tears on the face of the Madonna. This sign of sympathy, despite being a result of coincidence, is meaningful, because it marks a transformation within Krzysztof. Krzysztof’s act of pushing over the altar is not one of rage, but of submission, and his behavior that follows exhibits his rededication to God. Krzysztof, in an attempt to draw holy water from the font, grabs hold of what is solid ice and performs the spiritual cleansing using it. The ice melts on his forehead, signifying both the softening of his pride and an acceptance by God of his faithful gesture. Pascal’s wager is appealed here, because the outward action of faith, “taking the holy water,” enables Krzysztof to finally reach God (233).
Pascal’s declaration that “Knowledge of physical science will not console me for ignorance of morality in time of affliction, but knowledge of morality will always console me for ignorance of physical science” provides insight into Krzysztof’s actions (67). Unconsoled by his Cartesian perspective on his son’s death, Krzysztof seeks and finds faith in God. Kieslowski’s deeply human story of how the sacrifice of an innocent party leads one man to repentance is purposefully referential to Christ. Just as Christ died for the sins of the world, Pavel must die for the sins of his father, and the stark injustice of that substitutional death is what makes the act so meaningful. One character in particular seems to confirm the necessity of this act. Throughout the film, a man in sheepskin clothing sits outside of the city and solemnly observes the lives of the three characters. He watches as Pavel finds the dead dog in the snow, as Krzysztof checks the ice for safety, and as Irene weeps for Pavel. He is sympathetic, even shedding a tear for Irene, yet he does nothing to prevent Pavel’s death. This silent spectator’s purpose seems to be to ensure that events unfold as they must. He might be understood as an agent of heaven, whose duty is to secure Krzysztof’s salvation. Kieslowski’s decision to prominently feature Christian iconography (the cross-patterned architecture of Krzysztof’s apartment-complex, the large cross on the church edifice) and monikers (Irene meaning peace, Pavel meaning Paul, and Krzysztof meaning Christ) validates the idea that he intended to make allusions to Christ through the narrative. Thus, the perceptive viewer should leave with a sense of hope, rather than one of despair.
Decalogue I. Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski. Prod. Polish Television, 1988. Film.
Descartes, René. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans. Donald A. Cress. 4th ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 1998. Print.
Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. Trans. A. J. Krailsheimer. London: Penguin, 1995. Print.