Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Decalogue: Four

Fourth Commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother.

Krzysztof Kieslowski didn’t set out to create simple parables with The Decalogue; instead, he sought to complicate the binary nature of the Ten Commandments and demonstrate greater implications of their dictums. In the fourth film, based around the commandment to honor one’s parents, Kieslowski expands his story to encompass the societal relationships between parents and children and the rigidity with which we adopt these roles.

The story tells of Anka, a beautiful twenty-year-old drama student, who lives at home with her father, Michal. The two have a very close, personal relationship, since Anka has been raised entirely by her father following
her mother's death when she was only five days old. One day Michal leaves on a business trip for a few weeks, and during his absence, Anka discovers a letter in his desk that says, ‘to be opened after my death.’ As anyone would be, she is tempted to open the letter and read it anyway, dishonoring her father’s wishes that it remain unopened until his demise. Ultimately after much agonizing, she determines to open it and finds a letter addressed to her from her mother.

Now the simple moral is already in place. Anka’s father requested that the letter not be opened until he dies, yet she opens it anyway. And the letter serves as a Pandora’s box, for all that once was will be irrevocably altered now that it has been opened. When her father returns, Anka angrily confronts him with what she has learned from the letter: that Michal is not her real, biological father. She is angry that she was never told the truth, but her father responds that he never knew the contents of that letter and was never sure about the truth of this, himself, and so he always delayed revealing her mother’s letter to her. To Kieslowski’s credit, he does not allow the moral compunctions of the two characters to remain at this level, delving deeper into their relationship in a manner that one is unaccustomed to seeing even today, when so-called taboo subject matter is so common.

The rest of the film is essentially a long, beautifully photographed conversation between the two in order to get to the bottom of things. Anka is committed to knowing the truth and avoiding deception, and she gets Michal to swear to revealing his true feelings, no matter how painful. In the ensuing conversations, she reveals to her father that she has always a more than straightforward filial feelings for him—she has always had ambiguous, long-
suppressed urges that suggested to her the romantic love between a man and a woman. She then gets him to confess that he too has had similar unrealized feelings for her. The implication from all this is that now that she was a mature and biologically unrelated woman, there was no moral law standing in the way of their consummating their long-held-back love.

Of course, society would recoil from such an arrangement, and as a viewer I couldn’t help but feel a bit of revulsion myself. Yet just because such behavior is not often addresses in literature or popular culture does not mean that such feelings are nonexistent, or even all that rare. While making his audience quite uncomfortable, Kieslowski is able to express a story that seems to reveal an aspect of the human condition worthy of further thought and introspection.

The morning after these searing revelations, Anka runs to her father and confesses that she had never really read her mother’s letter. The whole story about Michal not being her father had been a forgery, a fake letter in her mother's handwriting to show to Michal. Both she and her father may have their suspicions about her true parentage, but the truth still remains buried and unrevealed in her mother’s letter. Nevertheless, this lie of Anka's has led to the revelations of other truths concerning the real feelings between the two. She now asks Michal what they should do about the real, still-unread letter. But even with the truth still unknown, the Pandora’s box has still already been open, for the two have been playing the social roles of father and daughter for twenty years; an ability to shift into new roles as romantic partners seems not just improbable but likely impossible.

Anka’s lie reveals a continuation in the pattern concerning ‘honoring’ her father and her mother. On
the surface of things, she has dishonored her parents in many ways, especially when she lied to Michal about having read the letter after opening it against his wishes. And her culminating action at the end of the film concerning the disposition of the real letter is also a dishonoring of her mother's wishes, in a way, as she decides to burn it without knowing the contents. Yet through these actions she and her father come to the conclusion that violating the social roles of father and daughter is impossible for they have inhabited them for so long. Her father is her father, perhaps not biologically as the remnants of the burned letter suggest, but rather because he played the role of her father for twenty years. It’s a cliché to say it, but it’s true, and as Anka and her father adjust to the altered relationship created as they confessed their desires, they respect the social roles and thus boundaries in the filial relationship, which of course is a way of saying that they honor it.

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