A Short Film About Killing (1988)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 24min

When Krzysztof Kieslowski created his Dekalog series with the intention of making ten one-hour episodes reflecting each of the Ten Commandments, he was pushed by TV Poland to expand two into full-length feature films. Dekalog: Five thus became A Short Film About Killing, as well as the strongest instalment in the series, disturbing our senses in both style and narrative while taking on the Fifth Commandment as its focus: “Thou shalt not murder.”

Though set around the same apartment block as the other episodes, A Short Film About Killing couldn’t have taken a more distinctive aesthetic approach. Kieslowski’s intent to use a different cinematographer in each story often leads to small variations in the aesthetic, but his collaboration here with Sławomir Idziak stands out among them like a grotesque pimple on an otherwise attractive face. This vision of Warsaw is a barren wasteland of mud and shadows, strained through a jaundiced yellowish-green filter that seems to permeate every image with a sickly pestilence. He also lays a vignette effect over virtually every shot of the film, narrowing our field of vision to the characters surrounded by a thick, oppressive darkness. Beneath it all, a chamber ensemble of strings drone with sustained, dissonant chords, heavy with foreboding and a creeping, existential horror.

These characters are often captured as pitch black silhouettes, a hollow emptiness filling their outline.
Thick, mustard colouring pervading this film like a sickness. Though A Short Film About Killing is part of the Dekalog series, it has its own distinctly grotesque aesthetic, and is all the more artistically remarkable for it.

From the opening frames of dead cockroaches, a drowned rat, and a hanging cat, an aura of death immediately settles over the film. We see a group of children running away from the animals, perhaps struck with a guilty realisation of what they have done, though these characters will not our focus. A taxi driver (Waldemar), a young lawyer (Piotr), and a mysterious wanderer (Jacek) are the subjects of our fascination here, each one a stranger to the others, yet unknowingly interweaving their individual paths in a braid of plot threads tightening until they collide over a single incident.

Foreshadowing right from the start. As always, Kieslowski is very purposeful with his symbols, here comparing the disregard of human life to the sadistic torture of animals.

Kieslowski is patient through all of his setup. We know what is coming, if not from the film’s title, then at least from Jacek’s sadistic and bizarre actions. Stand atop an overpass, he throws stones down on cars below. He attacks a stranger in a bathroom who makes a sexual advance. He carries around a metal stick and a rope, waiting for the opportunity to put both to use. Waldemar doesn’t seem all that different, as he leers at young women from his driver’s seat and exerts petty control over who he decides to give rides to. Piotr may be the sole bright light in this desolate landscape, asserting his views against capital punishment during his bar exam and later celebrating his success at a café where he fatefully encounters his future client, Jacek.

When the murder does finally take place, it lands almost exactly at the film’s halfway point, and is dragged out for eight gruelling minutes. Kieslowski doesn’t falter here, using every shot to set in the torture that seems to lack any purpose beyond one man’s instability. In a close-up, Waldemar’s foot hangs limp on a car seat. Below a sickly mustard sky, the taxi lifelessly rolls to a stop. From within the car, we watch Jacek pull the body down to a river through a claustrophobic frame created by the open door, before the wind blows it shut. Still, Waldemar is not yet dead, and with his final breath he begs for his life before a rock is slammed down on his head.

Kieslowski is methodical – eight minutes of torture, watching the murder of this taxi driver with very little dialogue, and every shot contains its own acute depiction of suffering.

That Kieslowski is able to find any shred of pity for Jacek after this point is astounding. It is evident he is not a skilled murderer, as it doesn’t take long before is caught, charged, and sentenced to death. Recognising him from that day in the café, Piotr holds some remorse that he didn’t do something to prevent it, though of course he cannot shoulder any blame for the outcome here. The best he can do is sit down with Jacek and just understand what could have possibly motivated such a disturbing act.

There is a backstory to do with his sister’s death which he feels partially responsible for, but we are not asked to offer him redemption through this alone. It is what comes after that is truly chilling, bringing yet another layer to the Christian commandment against killing. Jacek’s murder at the hands of the state is just as brutal as the one he committed, as he screams and struggles against the firm hold of the guards – and all for what? In the way that Kieslowski presents the complete destruction of two human beings mirrored in both halves, it is tough to reconcile them as being all that different, besides the state considering one abhorrent and the other righteous. Like the rat left in running water and the cat hanging from a noose, these humans are victims of a malevolence that will try to justify the destruction of life, and in the sheer distortion of Kieslowski’s artistry here compared to the other Dekalog episodes, he unnervingly finds the true horror in such a sacrilegious transgression of nature.

You would hope that you are past the worst of it once the first murder is done at the halfway mark, but this ending is just as brutal.

A Short Film About Killing is currently available to stream on Mubi and The Criterion Channel.


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