Together with ‘Dekalog: One’, this is the finest episode of the series dealing with (extra)marital affairs between a couple with genuine emotions and unparalleled sensitivity to its characters.
Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski
1988 | Poland/West Germany | Drama | 60 mins | 1.33:1 | Polish
Not rated (likely to be PG13 for some mature themes)
Cast: Ewa Blaszczyk, Piotr Machalica
Plot: Roman and Hanka have a loving marriage, but his impotence has led to her having an affair. The unbearable situation drives Roman to extreme measures both physically and mentally, testing their love and his own will to live. (from The Criterion Collection)
Awards: Won FIPRESCI Prize & Children and Cinema Award (Venice). Official Selection (Cannes).
Source: Telewizja Polska S.A.
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray – first published 5 Jun 2017)
Together with the first episode, this represents the very summit of Dekalog, a series with many peaks. Shot by Piotr Sobocinski, who photographed Kieslowski’s later Three Colours: Red (1994), Dekalog: Nine is a masterful drama dealing with the (extra)marital affairs of a couple, Roman (Piotr Machalica) and Hanka (Ewa Blaszczyk). Roman is impotent and suggests to Hanka that she should find another lover to satisfy her sexually. She has been discreetly dating Mariusz (Jan Jankowski), a younger physics student who becomes obsessed with her. Roman, plagued by obsession himself—that of extreme jealousy—begins to spy on them.
This sounds like a simple setup of a plot, one that would normally kick-start one of those saucy erotic thrillers about infidelity, a subgenre exemplified by such films as Louis Malle’s Damage (1992), and Adrian Lyne’s twin pairs Fatal Attraction (1987) and Unfaithful (2002), for example. In Dekalog: Nine, any eroticism is left out (after all, this was made for Polish television), with Kieslowski focusing on his characters instead. He gives Roman and Hanka unparalleled sensitivity, allowing them to develop emotionally through the course of the hour, with the intricate plotting giving us a sense of the psychological ambiguity that would besiege them as they deal with their set of marital issues.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.
There’s clever use of phallic symbolism, particularly a shot where Roman fills up his car’s fuel tank, momentarily reminding him of his impotence. There are also some great visual motifs that Kieslowski uses repeatedly to accentuate the emotional state of his character. Roman’s faulty car glove box is an example.
What makes this episode so essential a viewing is Kieslowski’s astute handling of its main theme of infidelity with complementary ideas of love and sex, of parenthood and adoption, and most crucially, of not wanting to be wronged. There are strong depictions of guilt, especially in the final act, which is a masterclass in building tension through characterisation vis-à-vis plotting, and expressed succinctly without dramatic manipulation through the technique of time-sensitive cross-cutting.
Dekalog: Nine is ultimately about faith and trust, a commitment to the sanctity of marriage, even when forces beyond one’s control threaten to disrupt life’s best laid plans. How Kieslowski deals with everything so effortlessly is a marvel… and infinitely enlightening.