Trasa W-Z (The East-West Road)
Trasa W-Z (The East-West Road) stretches nearly seven kilometers across Warsaw, linking both banks of the Vistula river. Begun in 1947 and completed in 1949, the road was the first major transportation infrastructure project in post-war Warsaw.
Ewa and Janusz’s (Maria Pakulnis and Daniel Olbrychski) mad joyride down the East-West Road through the tunnel beneath Krakowskie Przedmieście, straight into an oncoming tramway, is one of the most thrilling and at once puzzling scenes in the film. The tram is driven by a mysterious young man who reappears in most episodes in the series. This silent witness, played by Artur Barciś, is often described as an angel. Cutting across Warsaw from east to west, Trasa W-Z symbolically plots a path through the film world that the characters traverse at breakneck speed, tempting fate. The shots of the white Fiat 125 tearing down the streets of Warsaw will remind Kieślowski connoisseurs of his short documentary Before the Rally (1971). The earlier film tells the story of a rally driver preparing an identical vehicle for a race at Monte Carlo. Automobiles were a well-known passion of Kieślowski’s, and the theme of a street race previously appeared in the director’s first short narrative picture, Concert of Requests (1968). The figure of the benevolent cab driver (bearing some resemblance to Janusz) can also be seen in the Kieślowski documentary Talking Heads (1980). He has an opposite, as well: the malevolent taxi driver in Decalogue Five and A Short Film About Killing. There’s a bit of Kieślowski trivia that’s worth mentioning here: Depressed over the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981, Kieślowski briefly considered abandoning his career as a filmmaker and taking a job as a Warsaw cab driver.
Jacek Łazar (Mirosław Baka), the main character of the episode, stands on the overpass near Castle Square and gazes down at the East-West Road (Trasa W–Z). This thoroughfare is the very scene of Janusz’s (Daniel Olbrychski) high-speed car ride on Christmas night in Decalogue Three. The character’s stories repeatedly intersect at different stages of the plot. In another scene in Decalogue Five, Dorota and Andrzej (Krystyna Janda and Olgierd Łukaszewicz), the characters featured in Decalogue Two, are seen waiting for a taxi driver to finish washing his car. The tragic events that take place later in the story seem to be anticipated by the grim incident shown in the overpass scene. Jacek notices some stones lying on the guardrail. Taking one, he drops it onto the road below, aiming at an oncoming car. We hear the sound of shattering glass. The stone and car become powerful and tangible symbols of the crime Łazar commits later in the episode. A car crash scene also opens the story in the film Silence (2001), directed by Michał Rosa, written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz, co-author of the screenplay to The Decalogue. The feature-length version of Decalogue Five, A Short Film About Killing, was produced and screened as the first installment in a ten-part series of one-hour TV movies and two full-length motion pictures. Kieślowski shot the twelve films in a mere two years. His workday began at five in the morning and ended at one o’clock at night.
The Third Commandment:
Remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day.
“Holiday in Purgatory”
The third commandment deals with holy days: sacred time set aside for extraordinary, divine matters, and the cultivation of their memory (Passover, Christmas). Again, Kieślowski is right on the mark: the lost characters featured in Decalogue Three make efforts to revive something special: the Husband—his family life; his Lover—the care and intimacy they once shared. They manage something, if only for a brief moment. The moment is unique for that very reason: it’s a holiday. But such sacred and at times terrible moments cancel each other out. They cannot be integrated in everyday life. Which is more believable, after all: the Husband telling his Lover “see you soon,” or his assurance, given moments later to his wife, that the affair was over? Do the Lover’s toxic passions not preclude the fulfillment of her promise that “things would go back to normal”? How eagerly the Husband abandons his family’s delicate holiday celebrations to follow his anti-Eurydice, who drags him through one circle of sad urban hell after another, from a drunk tank full of naked inebriated men racked by convulsions to the basement of a morgue. Nearby, a deranged child wearing nothing but pajamas escapes an asylum or prison and runs towards the blinking lights of a Christmas tree, like a little match girl, and into an abyss. As they make their purgatorial peregrinations through the city’s “toll houses,” they are finally caught by the death drive: a near head-on collision with a tramway, driven by the Angel of Death. Compared with such nocturnal passions, what excitement is there to be found in a formal Christmas, off-key carolers, and a drunk man dragging a Christmas tree? Where is the sacred and its promise of an extraordinary experience? At the end, in fact. The Husband, like a modern-day Odysseus, comes home to a dimming family hearth.
The Fifth Commandment:
You shall not kill.
“The law, and nothing but the law…”
The commandment about the simplest and most terrible of the Decalogue’s moral problems. A young lawyer, the director’s alter ego, struggles with a number of dilemmas: Is punishment synonymous with revenge? Is it carried out by the innocent? Do they have the right to do harm? If so, what are the limits to the law? What about Divine Law? The Lawyer perceives himself as defending the accused from the Law, in the name of Good. The long, slow shots depict Evil hiding everywhere, in every nook and cranny. The murderer and his ultimate victim commit many evil, if minor, deeds in the hours leading up to the crime. Both act on the side of Evil. The taxi driver’s evil hangs over him like a curse: he spitefully refuses to take two passengers, only to pick up Jacek, who is planning to attack a driver. The Law operates separately, as if untouched by Evil. There are signs—small ones, at first: one police officer walks away, indifferent to the iniquities taking place in the street, while the experienced high court judge confesses: “This (death) sentence burdens me.” How exactly does it burden him if it is just? The Law will commit murder in the name of the Law that says “You shall not kill.” The Executioner calmly comes in to work. He must not have to do it very often. Does an execution break the commandments of the Law? The Executioner must have the highest degree of immunity. A well-mannered person, he is polite to the convict. He gets to work preparing the gallows. The simple technical details are well thought-out. The murderer, like the execution, also acted with premeditation. We don’t know his motivation, nor the justification of the sentence. What we do see is the terrible parallel between the two murders, both depicted in gruesome detail. Kieślowski expands upon the law of “eye for an eye,” adding: “He that is without sin among you, let him first…”