“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” —Exodus 20:16, King James Version
The eighth commandment of the Roman Catholic faith (the ninth in the Protestant) is largely interpreted as “Thou shalt not lie,” but for Kieślowski and Piesiewicz, this commandment creates a moral conundrum that places the subjects, Zofia (Maria Koscialkowska) and Elzbieta (Teresa Marczewska) in an ethical hell.
This hell plays out in Zofia’s classroom, where she welcomes Elzbieta — a scholar from New York — to sit in on one of her classes. Zofia is a renowned Polish professor of ethics and Elzbieta has translated her many volumes into English, but the two have never met. Yet, it quickly becomes clear that they have a shared past when Elzbieta offers a hypothetical situation to pose to Zofia’s class. The situation takes place during the Nazi Occupation, a young Jewish girl is brought to a Catholic safe house. If the husband and wife take the girl in, her life will be spared. But the couple will not accept the girl unless she is christened. The man and woman who are to perform the christening decide that they cannot go through with the sham ceremony because it is a sin to bear false witness, effectively turning the child out to certain death.
Elzbieta’s story strikes Zofia to the core as she was the woman who refused to bear witness all those years ago. Later, she explains her position to Elzbieta: she and her husband were active in the Polish underground army and got wind that the Gestapo was trying to infiltrate the organization. The man who brought Elzbieta to them was supposedly a collaborator and Zofia and her husband decided not to go through with the christening for fear of being discovered. Since Zofia has spent her life wondering about the fate of the child, never forgiving herself for what she had done.
Elzbieta, not fully satisfied with words, takes Zofia to the scene of the crime and abandons her, forcing Zofia to confront the reality that Elzbieta faced all those years ago. Zofia becomes lost in the housing complex, which is now a crack den and place of prostitution and empathizes with Elzbieta’s past and the terror of not being able to find a safe way out — a possible Kieślowski metaphor for Poland’s history and future. After Zofia invites Elzbieta to her home and the two share a cup of tea — a Kieślowski communion if ever there was one — and they come to terms with each other’s past. Zofia tells Elzbieta that the man who was unjustly accused of collaborating was almost executed, but spared, and is now living without a past and making his living as a tailor. Elzbieta asks to be taken to him, but Zofia warns that he refuses to discuss the past, and he doesn’t. No matter how hard Elzbieta tries, the Tailor (Tadeusz Lomnicki) refused to acknowledge any existence prior to yesterday. Zofia consoles Elzbieta and the two exit the Tailor’s shop with a semblance of resolution while the Tailor looks on through the window forever isolated.
Dekalog Eight is one of the strongest offerings in the cycle and it starts to wrap up many of the strands from previous Dekalogs. Before Elzbieta can offer her story to the class, a student (Ewa Skibinska) provides another hypothetical and tells the tale of Dekalog Two. Zofia’s response is that “Nothing is more important than the life of a child,” which also relates to Dekalog One, Five, and Seven.
Dekalog Eight also contains ties to Ten with the Stamp Collector (Bronislaw Pawlik), a man who collects pre-war German stamps like they are children. While the Tailor refuses to acknowledge the past, the Collector embraces the far past, bypassing the war entirely. Here again, characters must confront the ugliness of the war years as Janusz did in Three.
Kieślowski’s main goal through these tangents and connections relates specifically with the commandment that this episode is constructed around — the idea of bearing witness. If the first seven Dekalogs are about fractured people in a fractured country, Eight asks the viewers to stop passively watching and start confronting what it means to see. As Zofia’s student tells the story of Dekalog Two, the camera tracks amongst the other students and finds the Young Man (Artur Barciś) listening. As the student utters the word “witness,” he turns and looks directly at the camera. The reverse shows that he is looking at Zofia, who returns his stare with another look aimed at the lens.
Kieślowski reminds us that we are not passively watching these stories and these people; we are also passing judgment. On Jacke, on Tomek, on Magda, on Ewa, on the Doctor, on Zofia and on Elzbieta. There is no such thing as a passive viewer, and we must either accept this or, as the lawyer does in Five, abhor it.