Kieslowski’s Decalogue seems to resort, at times, to self-consciously symbolic imagery: a bee clinging on to a straw as the neighbouring man in his bed clings to his life, a swinging rubber devil’s head on a doomed taxi driver’s car mirror, and wax tears running down the cheeks of a religious effigy – yet rather than affirming any spiritual or even transcendental themes, this hyperbolic symbolism is little more than a pop on the nose of Catholicism and the idea of an organised cosmos; ensuing events and responses throughout The Decalogue are instead a study of time, place and human choice.
Here, in A Short Film about Killing (Decalogue V), Kieslowski gives us a seven-minute murder scene in which a cab driver is first strangled, then bludgeoned to death with a rock – a scene deemed by many as too gratuitous for artistic or social merit. The act is filmed with an intimate brutality the likes of which wouldn’t be seen again until Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. This is followed by an equally harrowing state-imposed execution, both placed side by side for comparison.
Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak’s Warsaw is seen through ugly yellow, green and brown filters with darkened edges that claustrophobically close in on the action, whilst wide angle lenses and mise-en-scène visually bolster an overarching sense of individual isolation and social entropy.
Jacek commits arbitrary acts of destruction – throwing a stone off an overpass, running through a flock of pigeons and flicking a glob of cream at a window, and finally a murder; yet we are to take each of these acts as a result of autonomy, nothing more than a reaction to the random death of his sister rather than behaviour caused by a wider religious plan. Perhaps if Jacek’s sister hadn’t been killed by a tractor, then Jacek himself wouldn’t have had destruction on his mind – but then again, perhaps not.
Next, Killing places a state execution before the audience, that of Jacek, the murderer himself. The execution itself is quick, efficient, and yet more distressing than the prior violence because we are given Jacek’s emotional backstory. In this final act, Killing’s objective camera fixedly observes the protracted methods of a state-imposed death penalty: the priest ritualistically blesses him in a comfortless parody of religious solidarity, then he is given a cigarette before the devastatingly swift execution.
Kieslowski’s creative roots lie in documentary, and this is his fictional ‘documentary’ about the effect of choice in 1980s Poland; a country whose foundations of national, social and religious identity were rocked by the second world war, the shockwaves of which reached deep into the core of European artistic expression. There are no dogmatic religious or political allegories to be found in A Short Film about Killing – it just so happens that in this version of events, at this time in Poland, the rope with which Jacek articulates his autonomy becomes the rope he ties around his own neck.