Group scene from the film "Krótki film o zabijaniu", 1987, photo: Polfilm / East News
As early as in the initial phase of work on the famous "Dekalog” (“The Decalogue”), Krzysztof Kieślowski planned to realize two episodes of the series as feature films. The director especially wanted to elaborate on the fifth part of the series, which concerns the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”. As a result, “Krótki film o zabijaniu” (“A Short Film About Killing”) was created – the most shocking work by Kieślowski, which made his name famous all around the world.
The first half of the film is a crude, almost quasi-documental record of a few hours from the lives of three inhabitants of Warsaw. The fates of the men are presented parallel but over time the separate threads begin to overlap and in the end the threads merge into a single story. Jacek (Mirosław Baka) is a 20-year-old boy who sees no sense in life. He wanders around the city thinking about killing someone. Marian (Jan Tesarz), a surly, middle-aged taxi driver, becomes his random victim. The boy asks to be driven to a secluded place after which he murders the driver in cold blood. After the killing is done Jacek flees from the scene of the crime in Marian’s car. On the same day Piotr Balicki (Krzysztof Globisz), a young and sensitive lawyer, gets his first job at a law firm. When after a certain time Jacek gets caught, it is Piotr who takes on the task of defending the killer.
In "Krótki film o zabijaniu” there are two very long, naturalistic scenes of killing: the cruel murder of the taxi driver and the death sentence carried out on Jacek. In the first case the lack of a motive and the brutality of the crime come as a shock, in the second case what horrifies is the routine and clerical character of the killing. In 1987, when the film was made, the death penalty was still in force in Poland, therefore the director could faithfully reconstruct the course of an execution. On the screen we see the meticulous preparations for the carrying out of the sentence: an executioner arrives on the spot to check if the gallows works properly. He oils the mechanism and sets up a bowl, into which the excrement of the executed will flow, etc.
The five minute long scene in which Jacek is hanged is one of the most powerful scenes in the history of cinema and is often referred to in discussions about the death penalty. “Krótki film o zabijaniu” is definitely a protest against the law that was in force in Poland at the times in which the film was made. However, it would be a mistake to consider this film nothing more than immediate journalism. Keiślowski himself wrote in his autobiography:
I think that this movie isn’t actually about the death penalty, it is about killing in general. About killing, which is evil, regardless of why one kills, who is killed and who kills” (Krzysztof Kieślowski, “O sobie”; “About Me”, p. 126).
Jacek, who was played by the debuting Mirosław Baka, is a repulsive character, full of hate. Kieślowski, however, doesn’t try to judge and limits himself to sensitive observation. The director builds the narration in such a way that the viewers can almost physically feel the atmosphere of gloom and hopelessness that surrounds the character: there is arguably no other film in which Warsaw is as dull and depressive as in “Krótki film o zabijaniu”. The cinematographer Sławomir Idziak made a very risky choice – in order to intensify the grim atmosphere he decided to film the footage making use of greenish filters that gave the images an unreal air. The people presented on this saddening background seldom show compassion, most of the time they are unfriendly and off-putting: Marian, out of malice, heads away from a group of people waiting for a taxi, a group of men beats somebody up in an alley, aggressive sports fans shout out vulgar chants.
One of the reasons for which Jacek is depraved is the indifference of the society, which won’t hesitate to condemn the “degenerate” to death after the murder is committed. By showing the story of a murderer in this way, Kieślowski forces the viewers to conduct an examination of conscience and take responsibility for what is going on around them.
Even though “Krótki film o zabijaniu” is set within the stagnant atmosphere of the declining communist Poland, the film goes beyond this historical context. The empathic way of talking about humans, the sensitivity shown in discerning the details of everyday life, and the acute analysis of the relations between individual and society, caused Kieślowski’s work to be noticed at the most important international festivals. “Krótki film o zabijaniu” won the Jury Prize and the FIPRESCI Award at the Cannes Film Festival, and also won the European Film Award for best film.
Author: Robert Birkholc, March 2014
Translated by: Marek Kępa
Krótki film o zabijaniu (A Short Film About Killing), Poland 1987. Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski. Screenplay: Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Krzysztof Kieślowski. Cinematography: Sławomir Idziak. Music: Zbigniew Preisner. Scenery: Halina Dobrowolska. Cast: Mirosław Baka (Jacek Łazar), Krzysztof Globisz (Piotr Balicki), Jan Tesarz (taxi driver), Zbigniew Zapasiewicz (committee chairman), Aleksander Bednarz (executioner), Artur Barciś and others.
A PRF Film Groups and Film Group Tor production. Colour, 84 minutes.