Lights! Action! Tyranny!

What would it take to get American directors to start making better movies? For Alexander Payne, it could be martial law. “I think if I lived in an oppressive country I might become a truly great filmmaker,” he declares. Whether he’s sending up the abortion wars (Citizen Ruth) or high school (Election), Payne has already shown himself to be a dead-on caricaturist of life in places like Omaha, his hometown. But speaking recently in The Nation, he suggests that making a truly great film is as hard in Hollywood as it was under Soviet-style censorship. In one crucial sense, Hollywood is even worse, he adds, “because you could at least make art under communism.”

A case in point is The Decalogue by the acclaimed Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Originally made for Polish television in 1988, The Decalogue is a series of short films, each under an hour long and tied to one of the Ten Commandments. All are set in a cluster of drab apartment towers in Warsaw. The entire work had been shown in North America only at a few film festivals until the Sundance Channel aired it this spring. Those who missed it can rent it on video or buy it from Chicago-based Facets Multimedia (800/331-6197).

Born in 1941, Kieslowski first made documentaries that were often slyly critical of Poland’s regime. As Annette Insdorf notes in Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski (Hyperion, 1999), he applied to the prestigious Lodz Film School three times before he got in. “He gradually grew into an artist,” she writes, “by learning his craft, observing the world closely, and later developing a personal vision.” In 1996, shortly before he had heart surgery, friends urged him to seek better care, perhaps outside Poland, but he refused. As Insdorf puts it, “He walked to the Warsaw Hospital, checked himself in, had the operation, and never woke up.”

Kieslowski has been best known in the West for The Double Life of Veronique and his Three Colors trilogy–Blue, White, and Red–films he made in the early 1990s with money from outside Poland. But many insist that the grittier Decalogue is his masterpiece. In the first episode, a college professor assures his adoring young son that their computer can tell them when a nearby pond will be frozen thick enough for the winter’s first skate. But the boy’s faith in his father, like his father’s in the machine, proves tragically misplaced. The first commandment warns against worship of other gods; in fact, no other episode is so straightforward.

The viewer must often ponder who are the real victims of sin, and even what sin is in a godless age with few moral certainties. In episode five, a study of murder, a new lawyer must defend a psychopath who has randomly strangled a cab driver. The lawyer can’t help but feel for him, in his terror, as the system tries and hangs him just as brutally. (Kieslowski co-wrote The Decalogue and all later films with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a Warsaw defense lawyer whose experiences inspired many of the episodes.)

Whatever sin may be, The Decalogue is even more about love. In fact, love and sin are inseparable; people cannot know love without confronting their capacity to hurt or be hurt. But love is also central to Kieslowski’s adamant humanism. In what amounts to a vast catalog of love, including the love between brothers–the note on which the series beautifully ends–it’s curious that homosexuality is never mentioned.

Many of Kieslowski’s characters belong to Warsaw’s intelligentsia–academics, artists, and doctors living modest, even shabby lives. A Western eye might see a city suffocated by a repressive ideology, but life there has its own richness, a human dimension as yet unflattened by the free-market stampede that was to follow. Kieslowski was as eager as anyone to explore self-realization in the Western sense, as his later films attest. But The Decalogue reveals his commitment to the truth in all its complexity, even when it stirs a touch of regret for what freedom will cost the Polish people.

Placed in similar circumstances, could Alexander Payne really make a film this good? There’s a cartoonish quality to his vision, one that has often relegated the satirist to the second tier among artists. But then along comes a scene like the one in Election when a teenage lesbian, who’s miserable at her public high school, happens on a muddy soccer game at a nearby school for girls. As the camera lingers on her face during a tender and funny epiphany, the viewer sees her not as a social or sexual type, but as that rarest of things in the modern American movie, a human being. It’s a wonderful scene that lofts the viewer to a vantage of radical tolerance much as Kieslowski could do–but in this one instance never did.

So, yes, maybe Payne ought to be shipped off for a bit of agit-prop work somewhere, to hone his skills at tricking the censors with subtlety and indirection. Or better yet, he should learn from Kieslowski to play the hand that fate has dealt him, knowing that his own private Omaha is simply another Warsaw waiting for its own auteur.

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