“Since the days of Cain, no punishment has improved the world or deterred anyone from committing crimes.” A Short Film About Killing (1988) – Krzysztof Kieslowski’s expansion on the fifth chapter of his lauded Dekalog series – sets out its stall. Far more than mere advocacy against the death penalty (although the film played an integral part in its abolition in Poland) it is a mournful and distressing meditation upon the act, eliding the senseless individual murder of a taxi driver with the state-sanctioned retribution dished out to his killer. A difficult and intense watch, it is vital viewing that has – and will continue to have – a deep lasting effect on those that seek it out.
What they’ll find is a Warsaw captured in unsettling fashion by Slawomir Idziak’s unique cinematography. Opening on chiaroscuro shots of dead animals that culminate with a cat hung to die by gleeful schoolboys, it remains engulfed in black. Its trio of characters inhabit an ochre-hued screen often obscured by a dark vignettes – other people only seem to partially exist, morphing in the shadowy recesses of this moral ambiguous work. At one point an apparently listless young man, Jacek (Miroslaw Baka) leans over and peers at the people behind him through a rap in the leather of his jacket beneath his arm. It both reflects the warped myopia of his current frame of mind, and warns that the purgatory to follow – that he’s already stumbling into – will perhaps be one of his own design, or at least his own hand.
That hand has already suggested nihilistic abandon when it tosses a stone onto a passing car from a bridge, or pushes a man to the ground in a public toilet without provocation. Throughout A Short Film About Killing‘s first act, Kieslowski unexpectedly exposes the spitefulness of both Jacek and his victim, Waldemar (Jan Tesarz). The latter delights in pulling away from the most needy of fares, and letching over a young woman. These actions all compound the overwhelming senselessness of the crimes to follow and occur within a thickly oppressive and alienating milieu that forebodes the shocks to come slowly tightens knots in the stomach. The build-up to both deaths are laced with tension and horror – through sheer atmosphere in the first act, and through the knowledge of what is to come in the second.