Krzystof Kieslowski’s Dekalog (1989), a series of 10 one-hour short films made for Polish TV, takes place largely around Christmas, but what better time than Lent to reflect on the relevance of the ten commandments in modern post-Christian society. The first episode explores the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”. What could this mean for us today? Who are the gods of modern society? Why should we care about the old Christian God anymore?
The episode follows the character Krzystof, an atheist professor who puts his faith in science to solve the world’s problems. (Is science a false god to him? Or is his son Pawel his god? Or is he Pawel’s god?) The plot, such as it is, involves Kryzstof’s son Pawel’s desire to ice skate on a frozen lake near his apartment in Warsaw. Krzystof checks and rechecks his scientific calculations to prove that the ice is safe for skating. (It seems significant that Krzystof doesn’t have blind faith in his scientific calculations. He goes out on the ice himself to check it first-hand.)
In Dekalog 1 God is the unmeasurable. Not just fate – the unpredictable breaking of the ice that leads to Pawel’s death – but the social bond between Polish people – the relation between souls, which are themselves unmeasurable. Pawel’s computer knows his overseas mother is sleeping, but it has no access to her dreams. As Krzystof’s sister Irena puts it, God is found in the unquantifiable love of family embraces. But more than that God is found in the culture itself that Krzystof’s linguistics lecture suggests is untranslatable for a human-made computer.
Krzystof is an unbeliever – a modern professor of the soviet system – and thus on the outside of the religious community. In grief over his son’s death he lashes out in anger at the community-built altar, but even there God begins to show up, made visible in a crying icon of the absent Mother of God. Relating to the Church in anger is progress for the man who begins the story with cold indifference toward religion. He knows where the meaning of life is to be found, as does the Polish Pope (John Paul II).
Kieslowski’s chain of symbols reaches a climax in the image of frozen holy water. From sour milk that school children refuse to drink (the loss of nourishing culture) to a frozen milk bottle to a frozen baptismal font — a symbol of the state of religion under communist Poland, unable to do its work in the culture. But the grieving Krzystof presses the all-but-useless holy ice to his forehead, longing for the thaw of religion.
In a way it is not the father, but the son who has a false god. Krzystof was raised Catholic and, as Irena points out, does not completely believe what he says about the power of science to explain everything. But Pawel’s generation was raised without any instruction in religion. Pawel doesn’t know what the soul is, or even what God is.
He has been deprived of even the cultural dimension of religion, the symbols that give some comfort to the grieving father and have the power to bind him to his community. For Pawel, God is forever frozen, just as Pawel’s own soul – the memory of his departed personhood – is a frozen image in Krzystof’s computer screen.