University of Warsaw
Founded in 1816, the University of Warsaw is one of the top two institutions of higher education in Poland, and the largest university in the country. Its 21 departments offer over 100 majors. The school’s authorities, administration, and some of its departments are housed in the historical buildings located at the central campus on Krakowskie Przedmieście.
Zofia (Maria Kościałkowska), one of this episode’s two main characters, delivers one of her “Ethical Hell” lectures in a hall at the University of Warsaw. We hear the story of a Jewish girl who, during World War II, sought refuge in the home of a Catholic couple, but was turned away. The students debate the possible motivations behind the Poles’ controversial decision. A pivotal moment in the arc of the series, this scene points out that each of the ten episodes encourages viewers to discuss the ethical problems addressed in them. During the lecture, one of the students recounts the story told in Decalogue Two, drawing our attention to the ethical conflict that forms the axis of the plot. A lecture hall previously appeared as a venue in which to pose profound existential questions in Decalogue One, whose protagonist, Krzysztof, is a university lecturer. When Krzysztof Piesiewicz, the later co-author of the screenplay, approached Kieślowski with the idea of shooting a series of films based on the Ten Commandments, the director wasn’t immediately convinced. Later, after the scripts were written, Kieślowski planned to offer them to debut filmmakers: students of directing at the Department of Radio, Television and Film (WRTviF) at the University of Silesia, where he taught directorial techniques and the ethics of filmmaking. He ended up changing his mind, however, and ultimately directed The Decalogue himself. The WRTviF, also known as the Katowice Film School, now bears the name of Krzysztof Kieślowski.
The Eighth Commandment:
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
This commandment is often abbreviated to “You shall not lie.” Kieślowski is aware of this and prefaces the film with a clarification: truth is an insufficient motivation if it brings harm to you neighbor. In the view of pious Catholics in 1943, it would be a lie to baptize a Jewish child in bad faith, just to provide it with the necessary “papers” in case it was discovered. At a debate in a university lecture hall, in the present day, a student reveals such qualms to be un-Catholic, arguing that they effectively serve to harm “your neighbor.” The person who expressed these misgivings in 1943 is understood to be the Professor, an internationally renowned ethicist and university lecturer. A Jewish woman enters the lecture hall. Now an American scholar, she was the six-year-old girl whom the Professor refused to aid on that terrible winter night. It is a confrontation that haunts Poles and Jews to this day. The Professor openly admits that she had “borne false witness against her neighbor.”
But Kieślowski is not satisfied with her admission. He insistently seeks the motives for the Professor’s failure to act. We already know that truthfulness is an insufficient, “false” motive. To find one, the director introduces a conspiratorial plot twist: the Professor served in the Home Army, and her apartment was a key node in its underground network. Securing papers for the Jewish girl could blow her cover. A clash of values ensues. Kieślowski is himself a party to it: the story was given to him by a livelong friend, the great Polish-Jewish writer Hanna Krall, who based it on her own wartime experiences. The little hand clutching an adult’s hand in the opening shots of Decalogue Eight is hers. The problem, however, is that the underground network in her story was not the Homeland Army, but one whose fighters later filled the ranks of the post-war security apparatus. Are we still dealing with a conflict of values? Kieślowski never finished his conversation with Hanna Krall, though he groped for answers in the dark. It was only 1987, after all…