Much ink has been spilled over how to classify Krzysztof Kieślowski's Dekalog. Is it a movie? A television show? For the purposes of this piece, I'm going to say that doesn't matter. The Dekalog, a 10-hour series created for Polish television in 1989 that embraces The Ten Commandments  as its thematic foundation, is an outstanding work. Indeed, before his passing, Stanley Kubrick said it might be the only masterpiece that was created in his lifetime.

Dekalog is not a straightforward adaptation of the commandments. The first episode, focused on a father paying a steep price for putting all his faith in scientific calculations, is based on thou shalt not put any other gods before me and is about as simple as it gets. Every episode after that, however, has a habit of conflating multiple commandants, often combining thou shalt not commit adultery with the likes of thou shalt respect thy mother and father.

Ultimately this structure works because Dekalog is about as concerned with the commandments as Hemingway's writing about warfare. Sure, the subject is there but the stories themselves are about more, and in the case of the Dekalog, Kieślowski's setting his sights not on religion necessarily but instead the social compact.

The rules of society keep us from killing and abusing one another but they also function as our prisons. The 10 commandments, like many systems of rules, are rigid and absolute with little room for interpretation. Unfortunately, they don't account for context, and this is where Kieślowski's work comes in. The series, split into 10 episodes, concerns the residents of an apartment complex in Warsaw as they try to navigate the difficult roads of living. Each episode is concerned with an ethical quandary, one that shows the cruelty of these 10 rules in how they function in a real world.

For example, Dekalog 7, ostensibly based on thou shalt not steal, follows a 22 year old student named Majka's attempts to 'steal' her own daughter, Ania, back her mother, Ewa. When Majka was 16, she  was impregnated by her teacher, Wotjek. To avoid a scandal, Ewa pretended Ania was her own child. However, over time, Majka starts to feel intense jealousy and anger, both over the fact that Ewa treats Ania with a level of kindness she never gave Majka and that Ewa  'stole' her motherhood from her.

It's an ethical mess, with heartbreaking consequences. As Majka tells Wotjek later, "is it really stealing if you take something that was yours to begin with?" Logically the answer is no. However, in reality, Majka is a 22 year old woman who doesn't know how to raise a child (as is seen when she fails to comfort her daughter over and over again) and, despite whatever the absuive Ewa has done to Majka, Ania has only ever known Ewa has her mother and Majka as her sister.

This culminates in a unavoidable but tragic ending where Ania chooses Ewa over her, and Majka departs from her family on a train, running away to an uncertain future, alienated from her family. The most heartbreaking part is that despite how absolutely awful Ewa is to Majka, for Ania's childhood development, it's probably the best option, given how Ewa fits into Ania's view of the world.

Dekalog, like many great works, captures the messiness of life but also its beauty too. Even in the grimmest episode, great moments of kindness emerge, like when a doomed killer plays innocently with children in a bakery or said killer's victim feeds a dog the lunch his wife made for him. It's a complicated piece that works more as a moving painting than something that's making an argument (outside of episode 5, which strives to show that state-sanctioned killing is just as cruel as murder and should be abolished). Living is difficult and we are all prisoners in some way but we have each other, and we're driven to help one another survive the long days and nights, no matter what. That, in itself, is its own kind of power.