The Decalogue (1989) Episode 8

The Decalogue 8

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

A Holocaust survivor named Elisabeth (Teresa Marczewska) confronts ethics professor Zofia (Maria Koscialkowska). Zofia once refused to save Elisabeth from the Nazi's by declining to falsify her baptism papers, on the basis of this commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Zofia, a woman in her 60s, teaches ethics at the university. One day, Elisabeth from the United States arrives, who has translated her books into English, and asks permission to follow her lesson, Zofia accepts.
A young student tells a story about a doctor's dilemma, a pregnant woman, who wants to know if her cancer-inflicted husband will live, in other words an account of what happened in Dekalog 2.
Zofia makes it clear, that nothing is more important than saving a child's life. However, it turns out she failed to help a little Jewish girl during World War Two. It's established that the girl in fact survived, and it was Elizabeth. For many years Zofia has had a guilty conscience. What actually happened back then is delved into, and what Zofia's motives were.
A tailor and his wife, who were to be Elisabeth's foster parents, have with time become closed off and reluctant to discuss what happened. When Elizabeth arrives, he is uncomfortable in her presence. Zofia has spoken to the tailor and his wife once since WW2 and said only the words "I'm sorry". According to Zofia, the underground movement she was involved in almost assassinated the couple, because they were thought to be cooperating with the Gestapo. From Elisabeth's perspective, the tailor risked his life to save her. Yet this is not necessarily the whole truth, as Zofia could be rewriting the past.

Analysis and interpretation:
Kieslowski was quoted as saying that it’s a film about justice and injustice. Zofia's life is indelibly stamped by a guilty conscience. On the outside, everything looks in order, but even the moments that mattered along the road have been overshadowed by her past. There is an air of respect surrounding Zofia among her students, perhaps also a professional distance that doesn't allow deeper emotions to reveal themselves in her teaching.
40 years on from the war, Elisabeth arrives, now a grown woman, and Zofia senses a chance of closure. However this matter of conscience was not something she could have predicted would happen as a young woman, logically sacrificing one person to save many makes more sense. There are no easy answers.
Since then she has tried to pay off of her debt by teaching others to live so they avoid such burdens. In a way, Zofia's and Elisabeth’s roles are reversed; the older woman needs redemption, the younger Elisabeth can either give closure to the matter, or refuse to help her. Though you also suspect that redemption works both ways, Elisabeth is in need of closure as well.
The film also alludes to that the reality of war cannot be boxed into simple categories, there is a lot of post rationalization, but also the fact that nothing is more important than the life of a child. It is probable that Kieslowski is saying that it is okay, justifiable, and even necessary to lie sometimes to save precious, human lives.

The picture frame being put back in place several times at Zofia’s apartment is a metaphor I had trouble understanding. Perhaps represents Zofia wanting to maintain order on the surface?

Zofia jogging in the woods we witness twice, for no apparent reason, and could also be a sign of outward order, strength and health, yet subtlety revealing in her eyes, that her mind is not at peace.
Or maybe you could regard it differently, as Deciphering the Decalogue does: “Out of the 5 parts I watched, this is the first time I have seen bright lighting and the use of happier, more peaceful music. I believe this change represents the fact that there is still a possibility for good after sin.”

As Stephen Innes writes at the site damaris:"Early in the film, the touching hands represent innocence and trust, but after this innocence is broken there are images of hands pulling away and a resistance to touch. Towards the end of the film, as the opportunity to reconcile is made available, the image of hands coming together carries a powerful emotional impact. (...) Zofia and Elisabeth have discovered that the only way to bring about good is to love, which fills the void left by trying to always do the ‘right’ thing. Perhaps one can detect a small glimmer in the tailor’s eye as he witnesses this."

As another reviewer points out at IMDB: “the funny thing is that in this one, the drama has already past, which is necessary for connecting to it the idea of the law”.
However, this could also be looked at as a weakness of the episode, that we don’t get to see the vital moments, yet it also adds a mystery to what happened during the war, that is gradually revealed.

Connected to the eighth imperative of the Ten Commandments: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. As with Decalogue 6, again we are dealing with childhood trauma.
Zofia losing sight of Elisabeth in the apartment area was an intriguing plot development, in that perhaps Zofia would receive some of her own medicine of feeling abandoned, as Elisabeth did as a child. Also the classroom scene was quite powerful.
There is a sense of community in this installment, we hear about the moral dilemma from Decalogue 2, and meet a stamp collector who is important in Decalogue 10.
The WW2 angle is an interesting one, that transcends the singular case, and encompasses an infinite number of other situations regarding lying, both past and present.
The episode showcases that lying and honesty are more complex terms than you'd think, that crucial decisions can haunt you for the rest of your life, and that closure is key to leading a happy life.

Next time, I'll look at Episode 9. Any ideas, readers, what the picture frame and jogging symbolize? Other thoughts on episode 8?

Kieslowski on Kieslowski / Danusia Stok

Deciphering The Decalogue



  1. Oh man, the correcting of the picture frame... I completely forgot about that. I remembered being puzzled by that, and thinking that was Kieslowski's whole point. But who knows.

    Nice write up here, although I love this installment, I remember it as the weakest of the bunch. Still great though.

    1. @Alex Withrow: Puzzling indeed, part of the fun I guess is that it's an active experience for the viewer.

      Thanks. The more you look, the more you see. I've watched this episode twice now, and still didn't notice how the touching of hands is dealt with(which I read about in another review)

  2. Excellent piece, Chris. I tend to overlook this episode, but it really has a lot of depth to it. I'll have to rewatch it, as I've only seen it once.

    1. @Josh: Thanks, worth a rewatch, I agree. Even though critics of could find fault that episode 8 does get bogged down in excessive dialogue, which maybe could have been reduced a little, who knows? I'm nit-picking ( :

  3. (I've missed a couple of these. Mea culpa.)

    I've heard that this is the weakest of the ten, and I'm not sure I agree with that. I like this as a story of the seeking of forgiveness--even the need for it--as a need for use to seek ways to redress the sins of our past, almost by overcompensating in our future.

    I've heard it said that you can always trust a retired wealthy business person to be scrupulously honest in all dealings because they are atoning for their past behavior. This story strikes me as exploring that same theme.

  4. @SJHoneywell: Difficult to say if one episode is better than the other, because each is a different story. To me, a film is more meaningful if you in some way or another can mirror the moral dilemmas with situations from your own life.

    Overcompensating in the future, I could imagine wealthy business men atoning for their past behavior!

    Episode 4 also deals with the issue of telling the truth, and how you can potentially ruin a relationship by speaking your mind. Again, this is a theme that transcends the singular case, and encompasses an infinite number of other situations.

  5. This was my least favorite of the 10 episodes but it's still an intriguing one. Especially as it plays to not just guilt but also the past and how one can find redemption and move on. It was a bit difficult to watch though there were moments that were enjoyable like the student talking about a scenario similar to episode 2 and Zofia's encounter with the rubber man.

    1. @thevoid99: There's a lot of dialogue in this installment, but does good job of giving a sense of community, as you say, we hear about the moral dilemma from Decalogue 2, and meet a stamp collector who is important in Decalogue 10.
      Zofia's life is indelibly stamped by a guilty conscience. The WW2 angle is an interesting one, that transcends the singular case, in that crucial decisions can haunt you for the rest of your life.
      But I agree it isn't as fascinating as other episodes in the series.


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