Krzysztof Kieslowski may not be a household name. But the works of this towering Polish director played in a surprisingly large number of American theaters between the early 1980s, when his "Camera Buff" earned international acclaim, and the middle 1990s, when he died shortly after completing his "Three Colors" trilogy.
He was nominated for an Oscar in 1994 for "Red," and many a critic has echoed Roger Ebert's judgment that he was among "the greatest of all filmmakers," blending visual imagination with philosophical intelligence.
Now a long-delayed video event is making Kieslowski's most legendary work more available to American viewers than it's ever been before. A dozen years ago he directed "The Decalogue," a 10-part series of hour-long dramas inspired by the Ten Commandments and first aired on Polish television. Aside from a handful of specialty theaters and film festivals, it hasn't been shown in the US - until now, thanks to Facets Video, which has just released it as a handsomely produced five-videocassette set. It will have its American TV debut in May on the Sundance Channel.
"Decalogue" is distinguished by superb acting and expressive cinematography. But what makes it most unusual is the serious nature of its religious concerns. Although the Ten Commandments were the starting point for the series, Kieslowski and cowriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz resisted the temptation to illustrate each commandment through a simple morality tale.
Instead they explore the spirit of the commandments through complex contemporary fables, many of which seem linked to more than one commandment.
The first episode, for instance, probes the idea of "other gods" through a tragedy brought about by a father's willingness to rely more on computer data than on his own inner voice. Some of the dramas raise issues of violence and sexuality that may disturb some viewers but remind us that the human failings addressed by the commandments challenge our consciences today as much as in Old Testament times.
Adding to current interest in Kieslowski is the first English-language book on his work. "Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski" was written by American critic Annette Insdorf, a Columbia University professor who became his close friend during more than a decade of translating for him at film festivals and elsewhere. Although she devotes ample space to "The Decalogue," she also traces his evolution from a documentary filmmaker with a strong social conscience to a world-class drama director who capped his career with masterpieces like "The Double Life of Veronique," about the mysterious link between two young women, and "Three Colors: Blue, White, Red," a three-part series with interconnected stories.
Insdorf's high regard for Kieslowski stems from her recognition of his extraordinary skills as a cinematic artist. "He combines accessibility, formal richness, and spiritual questioning in films that entertain and provoke at the same time," she said in a recent interview. "After each viewing of 'The Decalogue' or the 'Three Colors' films, I find myself haunted by images that leave me to wonder about life beyond what we can see. He provokes both emotion and thought - or reflection - not only during the film but afterward, too. They have a lingering aftereffect where you have to grapple with the possibility of something beyond perception."
Kieslowski's films are varied despite the recurrence of certain moral and spiritual issues. His early hit "Camera Buff" is a pointed satire about a factory employee who uses amateur film equipment to record parts of Polish life that the authorities would rather keep quiet. "The Double Life of Veronique" has been called a "metaphysical thriller." The gorgeously shot "Three Colors" films include a dark-toned drama about the widow of a famous composer, a pessimistic comedy about the advent of Polish capitalism, and a humanistic allegory about a beautiful young student and a crusty old judge.
"The Decalogue" contains tales as different as the ferocious fifth episode, a passionate cry against capital punishment, and the humorous 10th installment, about the meaning of family in Poland's postcommunist society.
In the end, though, it's the spiritual element that makes Kieslowski's movies almost unique. Insdorf, whose other books include a study of film and the Holocaust, acknowledges a personal fascination with this aspect of his work, which she sees as central to its importance.
"I profoundly believe there is such a thing as spiritual filmmaking," she says, "and Kieslowski was one of its greatest exemplars. I believe there is something beyond our immediate lives, and I think his films contain elements of an inexplicable faith, as opposed to science or reason. They include a sense of awe before mysteries ... and they're filled with intimations of both mortality and immortality. Death is a constant factor in his films. But so is the possibility of transcendence."
*'The Decalogue' is available from Facets Video, (800) 331-6197 or www.facets.org. Facets has released several other Kieslowski films, including 'The Double Life of Veronique' and the 'Three Colors' trilogy. Insdorf's book 'Double Lives, Second Chances' is published by Hyperion/Miramax Books.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society