Famed Polish writer/director Krzysztof Kieślowski already had a handful of feature films and documentaries under his belt when his writing partner, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, gave him the idea: “Someone should make a film about the Ten Commandments. You should do it.”

Recounting this genesis years later, Kieślowski couldn’t help but express his reaction to such a suggestion: “A terrible idea, of course.”

But some terrible ideas have a way of becoming magic, and that is precisely what happened with Dekalog. Originally made for Polish TV in 1988, Dekalog is 10 one-hour episodes set in and around a Warsaw apartment complex during the waning years of Communist oppression.

Though Kieślowski and Piesciewicz used the Ten Commandments as guides, Dekalog is not a hard and fast work of religious fervor. Instead, they use the commandments as jumping-off points to explore morality in a modern-day setting, questioning if these rules still hold relevance. The beauty of Dekalog is that they do, but maybe not in a way you might expect. In “Dekalog: One”—Thou shalt have no other gods before me—a father and son put too much stock in a computer program and pay an ungodly price. In “Dekalog: Five”—Thou shalt not kill—the state puts to death a young man who randomly kills a cab driver. The man’s crime is horrific, but is the state’s reaction any better? Kieślowski and Piesciewicz presented that question so viscerally and bluntly that it soured Polish stomachs to the death penalty. One year later, there was a moratorium placed on executions. Poland hasn’t practiced capital punishment since.

A shot from Dekalog: Five, also known as, A Short Film About Killing. Images courtesy The Criterion Collection.

While those particular episodes directly address specific commandments, the other ones do not. Many of the episodes look at the fracturing of multiple commandments, most revolving around one form of infidelity or another. But these morality tales are not stifling works of didacticism; they are emotional visualizations of people in crisis. They last the test of time because Kieślowski and Piesciewicz are light on dialogue, heavy on mood—a mood that is helped greatly by composer Zbigniew Preisner’s spare and powerful score. When Stanley Kubrick wrote the foreword to the published screenplays in 1991, he commended both writers for “the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story, they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what’s really going on rather than being told.”

Kieślowski was always one to show, never tell. The incomparable director began his career under the oppression of a Communist regime, and as such, he had to find ways to say what he wanted without tipping off the government. Few did it better, and Dekalog might be his masterpiece, one that could only be seen in the U.S. via a poor DVD transfer with muddled colors and fuzzy focus. Granted, the stories were intact, and the acting was compelling, but something was missing—something cinematic. Thankfully, Janus Films undertook a full restoration of Kieślowski’s seminal series, and now audiences can experience the Dekalog in all its glory via Criterion’s box set.

Cover art by Anthony Gerace. A version of the above essay first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 24, No. 23, “Ten short films about morality.”