Thursday, June 16, 2016

Film Notes: Dekalog 2

Krystof Kieslowski's second film in his Dekalog series is another brooding, atmospheric piece of drama. Unlike the first Dekalog film, in which death made a sudden and dramatic intervention in the story, in Dekalog 2, it lurks menacingly in the background for the film's entire length. The film is set in and around the 'dekalog' Soviet-era, high rise flats - as I am told the whole series is. 
Apparently, the film was inspired by the third of the Ten Biblical Commandments“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name"; although is is not immediately obvious on first viewing. The reason that this is not clear from the start is less to do with Kieswowski being a complex an unusual filmmaker who routinely eschews obvious
and unambiguous delivery - and more to do with the fact that in Western Europe especially, I suspect; this commandment is usually misunderstood. However, when it is appreciated that in Biblical times, to "take the Lord's name in vain", was not so much about invoking God's name (YHWH) as a swear word/cry of exasperation; but of violating an oath made in God's name. While it is thought that the ancients would have equally understood the prohibition against blasphemy in terms of casual or offensive speech (they were not even allowed to pronounce YHWH); they would have certainly not limited it to this, as we are prone to do. Rather, the solemn business of oath taking, and enforcing would have been central in their thinking. When the commandments were given, the Israelites were a transitory people, without fixed law courts, or contracts as we know them. For their society to function, oaths were used as a means of binding parties to agreed terms; and were often guaranteed by the parties offering themselves up for divine sanction should they default. In terms of the commandment then, such oath making should not be done flippantly, stupidly or even manipulatively.

The story of Jephthah, in the obscure corner of the Bible that is Judges 11, is perhaps the most appalling example of what it means to misuse oath-making 'in the Lord's name.' "And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: .....“whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” Of course, when his daughter then walks out of the house, he is in an impossible dilemma. On one hand he must commit the dreadful sin of oath breaking, or on the other the dreadful sin of murder. Through tears and devastation, (and at the urging of the victim herself) he chooses murder and ends up offering YHWH a human sacrifice, which is condemned throughout the Old Testament. The utter folly of foolish, flippant oath making which when made 'in The Lord's name' is utterly binding, is thus writ large.

In responding to this commandment, Kieslowski in his film addresses questions of life and death, where they concern oath making and truth telling. While the 'in the Lords name' element is not directly invoked, it is sometimes noted that in the New Testament, Jesus tells his followers not to use fancy systems of oaths to re-enforce the veracity of their words, but that they should simply 'let their yes be yes, and their no be no'. In other words, be trustworthy and reliable in speech regardless of invoking formulas and ceremonies to solemnise their sentences. 'Any more than this comes from the evil one' Jesus proclaims, surely because all truth is God's truth anyway.

[[spoiler alert!!]] Dekalog 2 features two central characters, who are neighbours in the dekalog flats. Firstly, Krystyna Janda plays Dorota Geller a chain-smoking violinist whose husband lies critically ill in hospital. Then,  Aleksander Bardini, plays her neighbour, who is also the doctor in charge of her husbands care. She is in a state of escalating anxiety, and desperation to know if her husband will survive his illness. The doctor seems to be gruff, distant and utterly detached from the human tragedy he deals with every day. While he works with the sick, his compartmentalised mind dwells comfortably in his little flat, full of plants, birds and memories. The reason for Dorota's escalating anxiety is only revealed later in the film. She is carrying a child, but the father is not her husband, but her lover's. If she is confident that her husband will die, she plans to keep the baby, but if not - to have it aborted; but the legal gestation limit for abortion is fast approaching. Her lover makes it clear, that if she kills their unborn child they will have no future together, no matter what.

The critical scene in the film occurs in a meeting between Dorota Geller and the doctor, in the drab and decaying hospital ward which he runs. The husbands symptoms are getting worse, and the doctor holds out very little hope for his survival. He tells her to prepare herself for the her husband's expected demise. Dorota, given her circumstances, pushes the Doctor for absolute certainty on this sad prognosis. He appears about 95% certain that the patient will not make it, but adds tersely that has seen strange things in his medical career. Dorota though is not satisfied. She needs total certainty that her husband will not survive his illness, in order to cancel her abortion appointment. She demands that the doctor swears an oath, a solemn and binding oath, that the prognosis is terminal. He initially refuses, but realising that Dorota will then precede with the abortion, finally relents, and swears that her husband will not live.

We soon discover that there is more going on than is at first apparent. The Doctor finds himself in a Jephthah style dilemma. On one hand, he believes in God, and has therefore a commitment to tell the truth - all truth is God's after all. He presumably as a believer in Catholic Poland, is no great admirer of abortion either. Should he take an unwise oath, which he cannot guarantee; even if this saves a life? Or should he stick to his principles of truth and science, which will push Dorota towards ending her unborn child's life? Under great pressure, and in spite of his protestations to the contrary, the Doctor makes his oath. Mr Geller will die, there is absolutely no hope of recovery, he intones. Dorota seems relieved, and asks the old Doctor if he knows what it means to have a child. Yes, he replies.

His "yes", which is virtually the last sound in the film is hugely significant. We learn from his conversations elsewhere that he did have a child. However, his child (along with his wife and parents) was killed by a bomb during the Second World War. He returned home to find a hole where his home had been, and all lost. He is therefore in the reverse situation to lamentable Jephthah, who chose truth over life which lead to the loss of a child. This doctor, had already lost his child, and therefore chose life over truth.

He knew, that while his words were almost-certainly-true, they did not have the absolute certainty he offered Dorota with his oath. The patient then rallies, and slowly begins to perform an unexpected recovery. His illness goes into remission, and he regains first consciousness and then movement. The first sign we have that this might be the case is an insect amazingly managing to extricate itself from the sticky glass of juice at the patient's bedside; prefiguring the patient's highly improbably escape from the clutches of imminent death.

What becomes of Dorota, with husband, lover and lover's child? We do not know. We don't even really know what Kieslowski thinks the doctor should have done. Did he really chose to break the commandment? Was he right to push the boundaries of truth and certainty to preserve life? Again, we are not finally told what Kieslowski thinks, more than that Dorota put him in a position which (given his life story) was morally impossible for him to navigate.

Comparisons with the rest of the Dekalog series are hard to resist. Dekalog 2, is not as powerful as the first film, despite its vivid imagery and potent exploration of its theme. The acting is good, and the material thought-provoking, perhaps the impact is less because the message is left more as a question, without the bite of Dekalog 1. Still, it is a deeply thought-provoking film and part three beckons!

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