Sunday, 12 February 2006

A Short Film About Killing (1988), dir. Krysztof Kieslowski

A Short Film About Killing originally formed the fifth episode of Kieslowski's celebrated Dekalog, a set of one-hour films broadcast on Polish television exploring the ten commandments in a modern context. Two of these have been developed into full-length features, A Short Film About Love and this one about killing. It's a powerful and affecting film that is hard to describe in detached terms.
It is the story of a young man Jacek (Miroslaw Baka) who brutally murders a taxi-driver (Jan Tesarz), who is put on trial, found guilty, and executed by hanging. The Exodus text tell us not to kill, rather than not to murder, and the implication throughout the film is that killing is perpetrated by the individual criminal and by the State. Both deaths are depicted in gruesome detail: the taxi-driver takes forever to die and is attacked in three different ways by Jacek. It must be the longest murder scene I've ever seen in a film. Likewise, the court process is not dealt with, just the death sentence, and eventually his hanging. Jacek's idealistic young lawyer defending his first case comes to realize that he can be an eloquent and persuasive critic of the death penalty but the judge will still not be turned, the instrument of the State will be deaf to these pleas. This is all against the backdrop of gloomy housing estates in Warsaw in a cold winter. There is no preaching in the film: Kieslowski simply shows us both killings graphically and their barbarity speaks for themselves. The why? we have during the film changes its focus from the taxi-driver's murder to the murderer's murder in a subtle and unsettling way.
Even though this is a highly finished film it is a far cry from the sheen of Three Colours, a film that is far more 'mainstream' in a certain way, or perhaps even The Double Life of Véronique. That's what makes it so powerful, its roughness. Kieslowski is one of the great directors in European cinema, and A Short Film About Killing amply demonstrates why. Watch it.

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