Friday, October 03, 2008

Tension - Dekalog (The Decalogue)

As part of our Tension Blog-A-Thon, our friend Nigel (aka “Terraling”) gives us his thoughts on Kieslowski's The Decalogue.

Thanks so much, Nigel.



Dekalog is a series of ten films by Krystof Kieslowski (more famous for his Three Colours trilogy) thematically based upon the Ten Commandments and set in a grim soviet-era Warsaw housing estate. According to IMDB Stanley Kubrick described Dekalog as the only masterpiece he could name in his lifetime.

I wanted to discuss the first film -- the first commandment is 'Thou shalt have no other God but me' -- which deals with the consequences of one man's hubris when he displaces God with science.

It is not a thriller or murder-mystery, there are no Hitchcock-ian devices, no red-herrings or MacGuffins or dramatic irony to manipulate an ebb and flow of tension. It is a morality tale with a very simple but highly effective motor of escalating tension. Kieslowski plays it straight and the tension rises more-or-less linearly over the course of forty-odd minutes, and it is the film's very predictability that is the source of the tension.

How does it work?

Anticipation is pretty much the be-all and end-all of screenwriting. Make us want to know what happens next, want to keep turning the page. The dramatic tools available to create and manipulate anticipation work on two levels: intellectual and emotional. What we think will happen and what we want to happen.

Kieslowski simply takes the two and drives them further and further apart.

We start with a scene full of foreboding that primes both the intellect and the heart: something bad will happen. As the story unfolds details accumulate that foreshadow the outcome with ever greater certainty. A small boy, the nearby frozen lake, his curiosity about what happens when you die, and -- crucially in the context of the theme of the story -- his father's dismissal of religion and his faith in science, the boy's discovery of the brand new skates that were to be a Christmas present, the father's certainty that the ice on the lake is sufficiently thick for the boy to go out on it (they calculate it together on a computer).

Contrast the evolution of what we think will happen -- the foreshadowed incident which goes from possible to probable to almost inevitable -- with the evolution in what we want to happen. The more time we spend in the boy Pavel's company the more we grow to love him, the more we hope against hope that the tragedy befalls someone else, that somehow there is a way out of this against all the odds. This becomes not just any boy, but the boy I want my baby to grow up to be, intelligent, sensitive, curious and loving.

The evolution of our hope is diametrically opposed to the evolution of our expectation. Dead simple, and in Kieslowski's hands, deadly effective.

The film succeeds on many levels, and this wouldn't be a Mystery Man-sponsored post if there weren't a mention of the wonderful visuals, and one scene in particular, where on the fateful day the father is working at his desk on some papers and an ink bottle cracks (the frozen ink has thawed), and the blue ink soaks up through his papers -- looking for all the world like a frozen pond melting.


Unknown said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Nigel! I loved the Three Colours trilogy and after reading what you say about the tension and suspense -- the anticipation and the foreshadowing, I am excited about seeing The Decalogue (Dekalog).

I loved what you said about the evolution of our hope as contrasted to the evolution of our expectations!

What did you think of the tension and suspense in the Three Colours Trilogy ---another masterpiece!

I hate tension in real life but it is oh so important in the stories we write!

Woohoo Nigel and MM and all the contributors to this awesome blog-a-thon!

Anonymous said...

Hi Angel

thanks for the feedback. It's so long since I've seen the films -- probably ten years or more -- that I don't recall the specifics well enough to say much about the tension per se, the abiding memory is more about the visuals and the emotion.

With Dekalog I remember the first film as being very powerful and I had to go back and watch it to remind myself or rediscover what the source of that power was. Thinking about it now, whichever number it is, the film also known as A Short Film about Killing -- about the death sentence -- would probably also make a great study.

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