Kieslowski juxtaposes empathy with morality in this powerful film – as essential a watch as any in cinema on the nature of killing, government-sanctioned or otherwise.
Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski
1988 | Poland | Crime/Drama | 84 mins | 1.66:1 | Polish
M18 (passed clean) for strong violence and disturbing scenes
Cast: Miroslaw Baka, Krzysztof Globisz, Jan Tesarz
Plot: A youth randomly, and brutally, murders a taxi-driver. Piotr has just passed his law exams and been admitted to the bar. He is to defend Jacek, the young murderer.
Awards: Won Jury Prize and FIPRESCI Prize (Cannes)
International Sales: MK2
Subject Matter: Heavy
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed on DVD – first published 18 Aug 2011)
As far as short films are concerned, nothing comes bigger or more ambitious than Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog (1988), a ten-part miniseries written and shot initially for the television screen, but is now revered as a cinematic masterpiece. Based on the Ten Commandments, Dekalog has now been assured of mythic status among cinephiles because it is not only a brilliant examination of human nature, but it is also a turning point for Kieslowski’s filmmaking career – every post-Dekalog film has been a critical success with the Three Colors trilogy arguably the most important landmark in contemporary Polish cinema.
A Short Film About Killing is one of Kieslowski’s great works, a one-hour episode that was part of Dekalog but extended to become a feature film, winning critical applause at Cannes by bagging the Jury Prize. The plot follows Jacek (Miroslaw Baka), a disillusioned young man who murders a random taxi driver and is put on trial by the state. While Kieslowski takes pains in the first half-hour to acquaint us with not only Jacek, but also the unlucky taxi driver and a young, idealistic lawyer who would later unsuccessfully defend Jacek in his trial, the story ultimately follows Jacek as he struggles to come to terms with his death sentence.
Kieslowski’s graphic depiction of the effects of violence so shook up the Polish authorities that they declared a five-year moratorium on capital punishment.
A Short Film About Killing is necessarily graphic to be impactful. The planned but seemingly botched murder of the taxi driver is difficult to watch, both for its length and its brutality. But this entire sequence is masterfully directed, so is the dramatic climax when Jacek is sent to the gallows. In between, the scenes mostly meander in space and time, sometimes doing so without any purpose other than dealing introspectively with the characters’ psyche, often accompanied by a low-key, ominous score by the acclaimed composer Zbigniew Preisner.
Technically, A Short Film About Killing is quite astounding. The distinctive use of filters to saturate the visuals or to cloud the edges of the frame to form a kind of blackish halo around the characters, especially that of Jacek, may look abnormal at first glance, but becomes increasingly relevant to the themes that Kieslowski is seeking to explore, including the injustice of looking at people from a tainted lens, and judging them without due regard to understanding from where they are coming from.
In this respect, Kieslowski’s film is an excellent attempt at probing us to juxtapose empathy with morality, and how this tension functions in civilized society. Very much a film that condemns capital punishment as a solution to murder, A Short Film About Killing uncompromisingly questions the nature of killing (be it by an individual or by the faceless state) and the destructive cycle of violence that seems to be condoned by society.
This grim and dark Kieslowski effort is required viewing not only for its incisive treatment of a subject that continues to divide millions of people, but also for its cold and methodological approach, akin to a cinematic autopsy, that when dissected, reveals that while humans’ actions could be downright evil, their motivations are often clouded with ambiguity and uncertainty.