A Short Film About Killing began as the centerpiece of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s landmark Dekalog miniseries (still one of the few non-Bergman made-for-TV works that figure prominently in Sight & Sound top tens), and this fleshed-out theatrical extension stands as one of the central works of Kieślowski’s career. Working in collaboration with the musical scoring of Zbigniew Preisner (whose jagged, sensualist orchestral rumblings underscore the film’s sense of moral desperation) and inventive photography by Slawomir Idziak, Kieślowski takes what, on the surface, could be easily read as a straightforward rumination on one of God’s more blunt commandments (“Thou shalt not kill”) and delivers an anguished, two-act take on the inseparable and diseased connection between isolated violent acts and those sanctioned by governing systems, between the murderers that hide behind institutional anonymity and those who cannot hide their face from the police.
Even from its first frames (showing a cat that has been strung up by its neck by a pack of giggling children), Killing exudes a cosmic foreboding. Kieślowski follows three seemingly unconnected people around Warsaw, and though Piotr (Krzysztof Globisz) is celebrating his successful Bar Exam performance, a taxi driver (Jan Tesarz) and a sullen young drifter, Jacek (Miroslaw Baka), are discernibly wrestling with depression/aggression. Cinematographer Idziak films them in grimy sepia-drenched tones and obscures the edges of his camera frame with dark, brownish filters that accentuate their otherwise unexplained sense of encroaching doom. (Because so much of the film is without dialogue, Idziak’s visionary work here can’t be stressed enough.) Though the three occasionally cross paths momentarily, their fated cosmic connection doesn’t manifest itself until the film’s first harrowing murder scene (one that has been aped recently in the far more sensationalistic Dancer in the Dark and Irréversible).
One particularly brilliant aspect of Killing is Kieślowski’s entirely unsentimental portrayal of both victim and perpetrator. In fact, at times it seems the director is doubling over—coming up with ways to make both as prickly and unlikable as possible. The taxi driver demonstrates a knack for picking out the most desperate prospective fares and then coldly leaving them behind on the curb. And the drifter’s contempt for others is best represented in the café, where he takes swigs off of other people’s leftover bottles and then methodically spits in his own cup of coffee, lest someone else tries to finish his. It would be all too easy to read this stylistic choice—treating both hunter and hunted with seemingly unabashed nihilism—as a means of setting up a blanket condemnation of capital punishment in totally black-and-white terms, even in the most extreme cases (say, “That which you do to even the worst of us, you do unto us all.”). And, to be sure, that wouldn’t be necessarily far off the mark, but the film’s second act is where Kieślowski makes it extremely difficult to settle on that fairly jejune take.
The film’s second half sees the drifter awaiting his execution by the state. (Kieślowski carefully elides the details of the trial, cutting directly from Jacek’s slip-up to the verdict of the trial and keeping his scenario tightly focused on the parallel build-ups.) Myriad details from the first section are echoed in the second half, such as when the executioner winds the noose’s slack in nearly the same manner that Jacek wrapped lengths of rope around his hand in the café. But, in stark contrast to the first murder’s wordless anticipation, Jacek has the knowledge of his impending death, and Kieślowski uses this crucial difference to staggering effect in the lengthy pre-execution scene when Jacek opens up to Piotr, who it turns out defended his indefensible case.
By allowing Jacek to have the emotional baggage and connection with humanity he didn’t allow the taxi driver, it is ironically and increasingly clear that Kieślowski isn’t simply out to forge the simplistic path of critiquing the death penalty by showing how even society’s dregs don’t deserve the ultimate punishment. No, that would be letting the government off the hook too easily. Kieślowski plays the Devil’s Advocate well, and he poses an interesting question to the Polish government represented in the film: What better can you expect of your populace when your systematic murders are more inhuman and far less accountable than even the most heinous of criminals’ actions? He drives this point home when he stages the state’s murder of Jacek in direct counterpoint with the film’s earlier murder. Whereas the cabbie’s death was characterized by randomness, hazy motivation and slow, slipshod execution (no pun intended), Jacek’s sentence is all jogging guards, barked by-the-book commands, a priest who can seal the condemned’s forehead with the sign of the cross but is unable or refuses to offer comfort when Piotr collapses in terror.
And even as Kieślowski strides to humanize Jacek in the penultimate scene with Piotr, he ultimately takes a gamble of good faith on that portion of the audience that might bristle at the notion of actually contemplating the human worth of a seemingly unrepentant murder. Just as he tested audience sympathies earlier in the film with the café scene, he throws caution to the wind and has Jacek rationalize that if his sister hadn’t died as a child he might not have murdered the cabbie—there are undoubtedly those who watch the film who will find this explanation inexcusable. Gus Van Sant’s recent Elephant, which others at Slant suggest owes a great debt to Kieślowski’s film (take note of the car window decoration that shows up in both films), ran into similar indignation for refusing to define the high school gunmen in a clearly antagonistic manner (given Van Sant’s eye for young male beauty, consider the film’s infamous gay kiss Elephant‘s “dead sister” rationale). But it’s exactly this sort of risky, headlong dive into ambiguous territory, this obstinate insistence on leaving moral question88 unanswered, that turns both Elephant and A Short Film About Killing from great documents of social advocacy into great works of art. Which do you think lingers longer in the memory?