The Decalogue (1989) Episode 1

The Decalogue 1

Spoilers occur about the ending, this review is intended for those who have already watched the film.

Pawel is 11-years-old. He lives with his father, a doubter of religion, who is an
IT-teacher at the university. Pawel admires his father, who is so knowledgeable, and has taught his son to solve puzzles on their home computer. He agrees with his father, that a computer is an entity that can perform miracles. But Pawel is also curious of the things which can't be calculated, measured and weighed. He wonders about his aunt's faith, what is God? And what is a soul? Pawel can't ask the computer or his father these questions. On the other hand, the technology can be requested to answer queries about the depth of the ice on the local pond, if running on ice skates is safe or not. Pawel and his father trust the computer's calculations, but forget to use their common sense.

Analysis and interpretation:

Dekalog 1 is connected to the first imperative of the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me."

The father loses his only son, and feels responsible for the boy's death. He senses it’s a tragic event that could have been avoided.

Children can give parents the illusion of avoiding death, as their genes live on past their death, the next generation usually survive their elders. This possibility is lost, when a son dies before his dad.

Many parents fight an ongoing battle of having a guilty conscience, have they done enough for their child? In that way Dekalog 1 is very much relatable for parents, and the anxiety of failing as a parent.

The father in Dekalog 1, suffers a triple-fold failure, the loss of his son, the loss of his belief in technology, and the loss of his confidence to be a good father. When he doesn't believe in God, and technology has let him down, he has nowhere to turn to for comfort. He has a lot of love for his boy, and he can no longer channel that energy as he's been used to. The father's biggest fail-safe turns against him and is the tool of disaster, and he learns something about humility in the process. You should never rely on something 100%, but always have a critical viewpoint. The father has an existential, religious crisis at the end with no easy answers. He is the scientist who doubts science. He works out the strength of the ice, but also goes out to observe it.

During documentary Krzysztof Kieslowski: I'm So-So (1998), Kieslowski talks about his childhood: “Father talked to me often. I was frightened of him. Not because he hit me. But because of his authority. I didn’t like school at all, I dreamed of becoming a stoker. I dreamed of shoveling coal into a furnace. But my parents were not at all keen on the idea. So they tried to find a school for me. Wisely my father got me into a training school for firemen. A clever trick, I soon realized I didn’t want to be a fireman. Trying it for real would also have put me off being a stoker. (…) My father died when I was still at school. How did you react? It was hard. Did you cry? Yes. The school was incredibly good. It made us intellectually aware. It gave us a choice and that life was more than just practicalities.

The son Pawel naively has a blind admiration that his father can do no wrong and will always be there to protect him. Pawel is not so different from his father, blindly trusting. The events show the child's helplessness and total dependence on the surroundings. The audience can also relive childhood moments of disappointment, when parents were not there for them.

Irena, Pawels aunt, has faith in God, she regards man, in spite of all its knowledge, to be beneath a higher power. For her, a loving hug is more important and is the meaning of life, and further questions are rendered superfluous. Her pure love for the boy makes the audience yearn for a similar unconditional love.

In interviews, Kieslowski admitted he loathed technology such as phones, which create a distance. (On a side note, the director would probably have enjoyed the song Hard To Change by Meg Hutchinson)
It is likely that Aunt Irena is Kieslowski's spokesperson. She explains to Pawel what God is by holding him lovingly in her arms, without any ulterior motive, she doesn't expect anything of Pawel, love with no strings attached. Irena loves Pawel for simply existing, not for his performances. Kieslowski's understanding of love is an inner peace, which fills a person, not the love of expectations; I'll love you, if you do such and such. Kieslowski clearly doesn't believe if we are meticulous enough we can conquer the world as scientists.

The irony in the final moments of Episode 1 is that the father turns to God, because his faith in technology failed him. We sense faith in something bigger than himself will be essential for the father to move on from the tragedy. The father was equally as naive as his son, yet behaved as an atheistic intellect, arrogantly believing God was unnecessary in his life.

Another interpretation could be, that God is punishing the father for his blind faith in technology, and that "you shall have no other gods before me". I don't think this is the case here, but you can't rule it out. Most likely the accident is a random, unfortunate tragedy.

The lesson to be learned is technology has limitations, and the unpredictability of life is simply part of being human. It's healthy to always be sceptical of what you see. Certain important questions are impossible for a computer to answer, or are very subjective. The world of numbers and figures can fool you, when adults don't listen to their intuition and inner critic. As Jack writes at Not Just Movies: “the entire point of Decalogue I is not to mock science but blind faith in any philosophy.”

In an interview, Rene Girald expresses an opinion of the anti-icon, a logical assumption that people many years ago would feel safer with more than one God protecting them. The commandment “you shall have no other gods before me” was not necessarily what people believed, but were instructed to follow.

The Decalogue Episode 1 is memorable, intellectually stimulating, and perhaps the most moving and tear-inducing of all the episodes. The young boy talks philosophically and spiritually with his father and aunt, eager for answers. We are dealing with a very smart boy, who has a childlike naivety and curiosity.

Next time, I'll look at Episode 2. Readers of this review, any thoughts on Episode 1?

Kieslowski on Kieslowski / Danusia Stok

Review, Not Just Movies

Interview, Rene Girald

Conversation With Kieslowski (1991)

Krzysztof Kieslowski: I'm So-So (1998)


  1. I'm not sure how far you've delved into the series yet. For me, the first film in The Decalogue is in many ways the weakest, as good as it is.

    1. @SJHoneywell: I guess we are in Three Colors territory, all of them are good, so bloggers have their personal favorites. I happen to think The Decalogue E1 is among the strongest!
      Care to elaborate why you think it's the weakest?

    2. I'm not really sure. I was less compelled by the story for this one than I was for the others. One and three were the ones that I felt the least connected to. It may be my own disillusionment with religion in general that pulls me more out of this story than the others.

      That's not a slap against them, though--I think all ten are fantastic. For me, 2, 5, 6, and 9 are the strongest. I know some are down on 8, but I liked 8, too.

    3. @SJHoneywell: I do feel episode 1 is to a certain degree defending faith as a part of our contemporary technological society, although I forget what religious preferences Kieslowski had himself. I suppose a favorite episode is what we are drawn to on an emotional level.

      I think its fair to compare E1 to lessons from Titanic, the difference is E1 is on an intimate, smaller scale.

      I'm currently rewatching all 10 episodes for these reviews. There is so much to contemplate that a 2nd viewing I feel is in order.

  2. Great analysis Chris! This is one of my favorite entries in The Decalogue. I love how Kieslowksi is able to use simple stories like this to convey larger messages.

    1. @Josh: Thank you! There is something universal about The Decalogue. Indeed, the macro in the micro.

  3. I've never actually formally ranked each film The Decalogue, but this first one was the installment that moved me the most. I remember it as my favorite, but that could very well change when I rewatch the whole series.

    At any rate, really great work here. Can't wait to read your other posts.

  4. @Alex Withrow: Yeah, I'll be writing about all ten episodes, sooner or later this year. I'm currently watching them for the second time, so I'm also interested to see if I feel differently about each episode. Thanks fo reading!

  5. What I loved about the episode is that concept. It plays to the idea that we live in this world and can do what we want but we can't control everything. Shit happens that can't be explained and what unfortunately happens is tragedy for this man who thought he had all the answers to everything.

  6. @thevoid99: You hit the nail on the head, we can't control everything, and shit happens.

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  8. I believe that Pawel was a sacrifice just as Christ was a sacrifice . Pawel's life was pre-ordained to die which is why all the foreshadowing . The man by the fire was Death. Pawel died because the first commandment had been broken in that the Lord is God and you shall have no other gods before me. The father's love for Pawel was so great and Pawel's innocent life was taken in order to bring the father and his generation back to the belief in God and not science alone. The father was a professor, an influential one at that, so it was important the father had faith and that faith would be communicated to the next generation. The aunt says that God is love and that is all one needs to understand. The father ink mysteriously spills and looks just like blood but it is blue. Blue is the color of cold and of the cold lake where Pawel drowns, the holy water in front of the Black Madonna is frozen just as the father's heart has been hardened . With the Black Madonna crying and the father crying, they share together the loss of their sons, both of whom have been scarified for the higher good: to bring others back to God , back from worshipping false gods and back to having faith.

  9. Chris: I have enjoyed your blog so much and listened to Meg Hutchinson based on your recommendations. What a find!
    I watched the second episode of the Decalogue. In the first episode the milk is spoiled and Pawel dies as a sacrifice like Christ died, an innocent. In the second episode , the milk is good and the doctor drinks the milk. In the first episode it was winter and the water was frozen that Pawel left outside. In the second episode, it is still cold but leaves are being raked at the beginning so it is cold but not bitter cold.

    The apartments are very cold but the doctor is able to heat water to warm things up and Barbara drink hot coffee. The young musician's coffee is cold when she is still thinking of having an abortion. The doctor having lost his entire family and his two young children from a bomb understands that having a family and new family is more important than the woman's having gotten pregnant through an affair. The doctor advises the women to keep the baby and tells her that her husband is going to die to convince her it is ok to keep the baby. In the first episode, a child dies but in the second episode, a new life is being brought forth and the husband who was very ill is better.

    The young woman asks the doctor if he believes in God in much the way that Pawel asked if his father believes in God. The doctor answers that he has a God for himself and the young women asks him to ask his God for absolution. When the doctor asks his intern what his prognosis is about the disease the intern says it is progressing.

    It is ambiguous as to whether he is saying the disease is progressing or the illness is progressing. At the end of episode 2 though , it is apparent the characters in the concrete apartments are growing and are more optimistic and that their lives are getting better. The weather is not as severe, the milk is drinkable, the people in the apartment building are starting to talk to one another. God while not a universal God is discussed and provides comfort.

  10. @country mouse: Thanks for your comments, and happy you are enjopying the blog! Always good to meet someone who is passionate about The Decalogue.

    I see the accident in E1 as a random, unfortunate tragedy, with a harsh lesson. That's an interesting interpretation, that "Pawel was a sacrifice just as Christ was a sacrifice", and he was "pre-ordained to die".I missed the ink and holy water symbols in my review. I will watch it again with that in mind.
    However I do feel the aunt and father could give Pawel different things, so the father's ideas are not completely worthless.
    I'm glad you like the music of Meg Hutchinson-that tune really does fit with episode 1, the wording of "dreams" is even in the screen cap I shared, and of course the anti-technology message is in both the song and Decalogue 1.
    I personally disagree with Kieslowski's anti-technology viewpoint, to completely dismiss technology I feel would be narrow-minded, and excluding you from today's society. Having faith in God should be a choice, and the father shouldn't be punished, in my opinion, for what he believes in. That's just me.
    The aunt preaches a love that is unconditional. But if God (in episode 1) only lets his son survive, if father does as God says, then God is forcing you to behave in a certain way. That is not unconditional,that is conditional love God is asking for.
    So what I'm saying is I like the aunt's world view, but dislike the judgemental God in Episode 1.

    Thanks also for your comment about episode 2, and how it compares to E1

  11. I see your point, Chris about Episode One. I have to say this is the best show I have ever, ever seen. I like so much that the writer and director take the stance that in life our decisions are not so clear cut at the time they are occurring in our life's.

    In episode 2, what do you think the symbolism is of the hare (rabbit)falling out the window and then the janitor bringing it to the doctor to see if it is his?
    Did it fall from the woman's window? The symbols related to the woman have to do with loss of life, death (related to her potential abortion, the potential death of her husband): her pushing her glass of coffee off the table, her pulling the leaves off of the plant in her apartment) whereas the symbols related to the doctor are all living: his sweet little bird, his lovely cactus, his kind and communicative relationship with Barbara, also the name Barbara is very benign in the Polish culture and affiliated with St. Barabara) anyway, trying to think what the hare means?

  12. Chris: You may enjoy a group called Fluxitron? Given your taste and especially your acoustic inclinations (same as me) I wonder what you would think of these two flute players. I think their music is very interesting. I was surprised you liked Fawlty Towers though.

  13. I hear what you are saying about punishment. Here is an interpretation to consider and you can let me know what you think.

    The Decalogue is taking very large concepts from a worldwide even universal outlook into the very lives each of us lead on a daily basis. In this context, big to small, Christ is to Pawel as Mary is to Pawel's father. Mary was not being punished and Pawel's father is not being punished. Their children die to bring about a transformation. In the story of Christ it is on a large scale, for mankind, in the Decalogue the large issues are seen within the microscope of individual lives. Pawel dies but in his death the father must move on and expand his views and his heart. God is not forcing himself upon the father and God is not punishing the father.

    If there is no growth toward a higher spiritual ground we are dead. Just like the Pawel's dad said when the dog's heart stops functioning it is no longer alive. I think what you said is correct, the father has a viewpoint and that view point is honored but that viewpoint alone is not all there is: that is the viewpoint of the writer. That is why there are unexplained events that defy explanation. Faith is not something scientific or that can be measured. Faith is the belief that something will occur but that you can
    not proof. If someone has been given a harsh life but they have faith that one day it will get better and they will be loved and happy and of that they have no doubt, that is faith. What is interesting about this series and I have just watched 2 whereas you have already seen all of them is that the writer/director is showing us that all these issues, which you question in your response, cause us to question our assumptions about things within a moral context (as in the death of a child or a woman's extra marital affair) asked withing the Ten Commandments. This series rests on the assumptions, in my opinion and I could be wrong, of course, that the Ten Commandments are the truth. Do you agree with that?

    1. @Country mouse: So many comments, I can hardly keep up :) The Decalogue is one of the best tv-series ever made, I agree.

      Fluxitron I have never heard of, thanks for recommending, I will give them a listen. I have a sense of humor, so that’s why I love Fawlty Towers, I find it endlessly quotable.

      I see what you mean that spiritual growth is vital, but you can still grow in regular life, you don’t need your son to die for you to change your outlook. Maybe Pawel’s father did need something drastic, though, to shake him out of his blind faith in technology.
      I realize The Decalogue is saying things on a grander scale, and it would be foolhardy of anyone to presume it only speaks of the domestic story.
      I don’t remember the rabbit falling out the window in Episode 2, you have a great memory for the details!
      I like what you say about in life our decisions are not so clear cut at the time they are occurring. In episode 2, I hadn’t thought about the symbols representing the loss of life, and living.
      I hope you enjoy the other episodes. I agree The Decalogue encourages discussion, so we question our assumptions on these issues.
      I don't think it's saying the Ten Commandments are the truth, but maybe the series is suggesting the Commandments are important, you can read what I wrote here in my introduction:

  14. In regard to episode 3: Keep the Sabbath Holy

    There are two ways to look at this.

    The first way is that Janusz, the father and husband in this episode, is a good man. However, he broke his marriage vows and had an affair which has been over for 3 years. He is is not fully emotionally back in the marriage although he is living back at home. They show him as not completely engaged, somewhat distracted and detached at home.

    On Christmas Eve with his family he is lulled out by his former mistress, Ewa, under false pretenses. He spends the night trying to find her husband, who in reality has already left her and is happily remarried. He is kind to Ewa who is portrayed as mentally unstable, dangerous and a liar. He knows something is up but plays along with it and is still over all respectful of her. In this reading of it, he spends time with someone who is lonely, alienated and you have the sense that in doing this he prevents her from killing herself.
    There are allusions to this potential suicide by the insane boy who escapes from the mental hospital, the razor blade with the dull edge in her flat, the man driving the bus the narrowly avoid hitting (this man has shown up in episode 1 as a representative of death--he is the vagrant man with the fire sitting in the snow-- and he also shows up in episode 2 as I believe death again when he is hanging around Dedora's husband in the hospital room) and in this episode again as death driving the bus.

    Janusz shows her back to her car and that end and the two exchange a goodbye with the headlights of their car flashing back and forth. You have the sense that the desire to die that prompted Ewa to start her evening has been prevented by the kindness of her prior lover. He on the other hand, avoids another tierst and leaves back home. He assures his wife that when he returns home he will not be seeing Ewa anymore. He observed the Sabbath, he went to church, he ended his affair truly this time because when he comes home we have the sense once more he is engaged again with his family. To be a plot of interest, the plot has to show that the protagonist has some challenge to overcome and for Janusz is challenge is to not go back to the affair. What he liked about it is the danger and the living on the edge which is Ewa and he engages in it again for that evening but ultimately rejects it.

    I think the writer and director are not stating the obvious in episode 1 , 2 and 3 but are showing life is not black and white but is ambiguous and sometimes observing the commandments may be in a slightly different way that is on the surface.

    In other words, clearly, Janusz should be home with his family but she led him to believe her husband was missing and desperately needed his help. He did what a good hearted person would have done which is to try to help. So, in this reading, he observed the Sabbath by doing and acting as a good Samaritan and by not sleeping with his mistress and truly returning home, he kept in holy.

    The symbols of homelessness (the boy at the end wandering alone in the station who the police stop, insanity (the little boy escaping out of the house) , incarceration (the drunks in jail), suicide are contrasted with the loving and warm symbols of the Christmas dinners with the families in this episode, the children, the trees, Church and the faithful wife. In the end, the protagonist, returns home. He rejects the sterility of Ewa's apartment,her lies, and her flirtation with death. He keeps the Sabbath holy.

    The second way to read this is that Janusz is bad, he does not stay home with his family but leaves them on Christmas to engage again with his mistress and does not keep the Sabbath holy. He violates the sanctity of the day and the birth of Christ. I think that this reading of it is too black and white and does not put the protagonist through any stages of development and would be uninteresting as a plot. While this could be the

  15. @country mouse: You keep posting here on Episode 1 article. Could you please next time write your comment on the post for E3 if you are talking about E3. Thank you. Otherwise it's confusing. You can find E1-E10 in "Films Reviews" at the top.

    E3, it does seem open to interpretation, whether the old flame is his lover, or just passing through. I suppose everyone can relate to the questions the episode raises: Should you cut ties with an old girlfriend once and for all, and is it possible to have them as a friend? If circumstances had panned out differently, would you be with another partner?

    "observing the commandments may be in a slightly different way that is on the surface".
    Yes, this is a thread throughout the whole series. Kieslowski is looking at the
    commandments critically. Sometimes to follow the commandment blindly is wrong, because real life gets in the way, and following a rule without thought can be hurtful. So I think Kieslowski is saying we should think, life is a complex, changable, unpredictable place, while the rules are stagnant. This will become apparent when you continue to watch the rest of the Decalogue.
    in E3, Janusz lies and says someone might be stealing his car, but he lies to his wife out of kindness to Ewa's lonely situation, so sometimes rules are flexible. In this case, kindness was more important than lying to his wife.
    Maybe Janusz knows all along Ewa's husband has been living with another woman, maybe out of kindness he pretends and goes along with it, he's also enjoying himself it seems, so he doesn't mind a night out. Perhaps he is bore in his marriage, and he would like to get out and reconnect with an old flame.

    1. @country mouse: "allusions to this potential suicide" in E3, good observation. I just rewatched the last 5 minutes of E3, and it looks like Ewa drops a suicide pill on the floor, while saying goodbye to Janusz
      I also noticed the insane boy who escapes from the mental hospital, maybe he was trying to jump on the tracks and kill himself, very sad.

  16. I would be curious what you thought of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others. You have such a wide variety of interests and this is one of my all time favorite movies, ever. I would be curious to read what your thoughts are on this. I wasn't sure were to post this comment but I thought of it because it deals with East Germany during a difficult period of time and the Decalogue coming out in 1989 , was just one year after the fall of Communism---you would see similarities in some of the large issues that both delve into

    1. @country mouse: I haven’t reviewed The Lives of Others, an excellent film. If you loved that, you should seek out Barbara (2012), which is about similar theme, Petzold's film is more personal, and has a mood of tension and distrust which is striking. The story in both films made me curious about 80s East Germany, so maybe it can be a starting point for those interested in looking into the history. Yes, it was a similar era to The Decalogue, during the 80s, I hadn’t really considered that before.

  17. Thank you for the suggestion of Barbara: it does look excellent.
    Also, if you like music , you may want to look at two fantastic performers called Flutronix. I actually went to see them today. Wow, so creative and such beautiful music...

    1. @country mouse: You’re welcome, hope you manage to track down Barbara-a German film.
      I don’t know that band, glad you love them, thanks for the suggestion

  18. The first time I saw this I did not like it and forewent all the
    other films. Then eventually I was persuaded to watch it again, Loved it this time, and went on to see all the others in this monumental work.

    You see, the first time I watched I had convinced myself that this was a simplistic tribute to the Church. But the second time I realized: Kieslowski doesn't pick a side. Other than blind faith can be disastrous.

    Or redemptive. Life is funny that way.

  19. @Mark: haha, yes, definitely worth viewing The Decalogue episodes a few times. I like the possibility to interpret and see things from different angles. Mainstream Hollywood films are often lacking that.

  20. I have only seen Episode 1, which I checked out from a seminary library in the 1990s. I am a high school history teacher but also have a degree in theological studies from a seminary/worldview institute. I will hesitate to write more unless I know that this blog is still active.

    1. @Get: Thanks for reading. This is my old blog you are visiting. In 2017, I moved to wordpress. You can find all my posts, including Decalogue reviews there:


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