Thursday, February 23, 2017

Film Notes: Dekalog Eight

Dekalog Eight is a short film about lying, or rather the refusal to lie; even when the lie will save lives and hinder the progress of evil. The film is a powerful drama in which Krzysztof KieĊ›lowski seems to question the absoluteness off the biblical commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour", through the setting up a moral situation in which lying would have been the better option.

The action in this film takes place in Poland, in the mid-1980s, but just as in Dekalog Seven; the story pivots around a backstory which is unearthed as the film progresses. An ethics professor at a Polish university engages in fascinating debates with her students, and is visited by a younger academic from America who has translated her works into English. The visitor contributes an ethical dilemma to the class discussion, proposing a dilemma about whether a Polish Catholic family during WWII, should lie and forge a fake baptismal certificate for a Jewish child, to prevent her being taken by the Nazis. In other words, is lying still unethical, if it saves lives and frustrates evil?

(Spoiler alert). As the film develops, we realise that the younger woman was the girl who was taken by the Nazis, but survived the holocaust; and the ethics professor is the Catholic who refused to break this Commandment - prefering to stay ethically pure according to her own code; but failing to impede the evil of others. The professor, haunted by these questions all her life, she is forced to face them again by the younger woman. Of course, the plot is more complicated than that single dilemma, the older woman explains that there were rumours that the family who were to have hidden the child were collaborators with the Gestapo. This means that the pressure to not lie, and allow evil was all the greater; coupled with the fact that cowardice and fear makes assessing true motives precariously difficult, even with ourselves. The film ends with the characters in dangling irresolution, the matter left to us to judge.

The original commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour" originates in the story of the biblical Exodus. Having led the people out into the desert, escaping from Pharoah's tyranny Moses is pictured in chapter 20, receiving the law of God on stone tablets. This was the original Dekalog. I have been reading this ancient story in recent days, and was struck by something in the story, which relates directly to the dilemma faced by the characters in this film. While Moses delivered the 'do not lie' commandment from God, Moses himself was saved from something of a Holocaust, because of a heroic liar. Pharoah had ordered the slaughter of new-born baby Jews, but Egyptian midwives lied to enable them to live. Fascinatingly, the book of Exodus, describes God as blessing those who lied to save life! My younger son (rather astutely) asked if it was different them, because they lived prior to the issuing of the 'do not lie' commandment, than for anyone subsequently. This is a great question, and I think that the answer that Exodus gives is that it is no different then as now. I suspect that if Exodus was wanting to propose a 'before and after' ethical watershed, it might have said that God allowed them to lie because they were ignorant of His ways. Rather than that, however, it seems that God actually rewarded them, for doing something He regarded as good.

Strong performances, and intimate facial close-ups capturing every flicker of emotion make this an emotionally stirring, and deeply involving drama. Each of these 'dekalog' films last an hour, some of them seem to rush by in minutes.

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