Decalogue 1: Reflections and Ruminations

by Zachary Way

As (ideally) many of you know, I’m running our “Philosophy & Cinema” film series throughout this Fall and Winter semester. The bulk of this series consists of Kryzstof Kiewloski’s the Decalogue, a 10 part Polish television series that thematically mirrors itself after the Ten Commandments of the Hebrew Bible but for a contemporary setting. While there was discussion after our inaugural screening last Thursday, I’ve taken here to offering some written thoughts on the film in question.

Simply titled ‘Dekalogue 1’, the common thinking on this first episode is that it is a direct examination of the first commandment; “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me” as found in our main character of Kryzstof’s “worship” of science. The crux of the third act rests upon our protagonists unfailing belief that the ice of a nearby stream cannot have broken and thus endangered the life of his son, Pavel, based on calculations of weather temperature’s he has previously produced. In this reading, a vengeful god has struck out at Kryzstof by way of Pavel’s death for improper worship.

But this reading seems awfully flat and uninteresting, in fact it seems to fly in the face of the otherwise grounded and normal presentation of the film.  Instead, I’ll turn to some explicitly philosophical concepts to navigate our way through the themes of our feature. The heart of our third act is the tragedy of what happens to young Pavel as seen from the perspective of Kryzstof, who is aloof to any sense of things having gone amiss until they are too late.

I turn to Derrida’s notion of L’Avenir for help. L’Avenir for Derrida is a specific kind of future, one which is unknowable and unforeseen. Typically we think of future events as set in a certain kind of way, we ‘know’ this future and map it out. I’ll have class on Thursday; I’ll see a movie on Friday, read on Saturday, etc. But this is only one ‘kind’ of future. There are those events that shock us in their unexpected and unannounced ways and in so doing change us. That friend you haven’t seen in years meets you at a coffee shop and you spend the next several hours talking feverously as your schedule for the day is thrown away. Derrida goes further of course to link this concept of the unpredictable future explicitly to his thoughts on the human Other, the person who summons the I to the ethical situation. I won’t go there today (perhaps in later films!) but this distinction between the known and unkown futures is forceful for Decalogue 1.

It seems like Kryzstof has most everything planned out. He teaches and takes care of his son, yes, but he heavily uses the then new personal computers for complex calculation around both mathematical and linguistic problems. He, by way of his calculations, has his future very much mapped out. This is why Kryzstof is so slow to even realize that anything is amiss in the first place. The ice simply could not have broken, he ‘knows’ it to be true. And yet, the ice has broken, and as that fact dawns on him, Kryzstof is shocked and saddened all the more by the events that follow. This is not the L’Avenir that opens up the human Other, but a terrible future that reminds us of that things in life are fluid and not set in stone like we think they are.

This is one of the many lessons I think we can take away from the inaugural episode of the Decalogue. The L’Avenir is out there, the unknown will intrude into our lives, and we will likely not be ready for it. What then can we do? Perhaps adapt to that dynamism as best we can, acknowledge that things will get out of our hands and things will not go as we plan them. But those are thoughts for another time. Till the next time!

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