Short Film about Killing, A (Poland, 1987)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Commandment Five: "Thou shalt not kill."

A Short Film About Killing, Krzysztof Kieslowski's powerful examination of the nature of murder, was a stunning success at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival, taking home the Jury prize. In the same year, the film also captured Europe's coveted Felix award. An extended version of Decalogue 5, A Short Film About Killing was one of two features to spring from Kieslowski's ten-part television drama about applying the Ten Commandments to modern-day life (the other being A Short Film About Love). However, while Decalogue could not be released in North America because of a distribution snafu, A Short Film About Killing can, and has been.

Wrenching in its uncompromising indictment of capital punishment, A Short Film About Killing doesn't pull punches. Sitting through this film is the emotional equivalent of going through a grinder. Everything about the production is dark -- from its themes and characters to the manner in which Kieslowski and cinematographer Slawomir Idiak chose to shoot the picture. Bleaker even than Blue, A Short Film About Killing captures the perfect tone for an autopsy of its subject matter.

The movie follows the activities of twenty year old Jacek (Miroslaw Baka), a seemingly-normal young man with a sadistic streak. He goes through a day, wandering around town but rarely interacting with anyone. Then, suddenly, in a seemingly-unprovoked action, he murders a cab driver (Jan Tesarz) by garroting him then beating him to a bloody pulp with a rock. Jacek is captured and tried. Despite the best efforts of a newly-practicing, idealistic lawyer named Piotr (Krzysztof Globisz), Jacek is sentenced to die. Before the execution, the condemned man spends some time in a cell with his attorney, telling fragments of a tragic life's story and expressing his final request -- to be buried in a plot alongside his father and beloved sister.

There are two murders in A Short Film About Killing: the slaughter of the cab driver, which runs slightly over seven minutes in length (and apparently is the longest murder in the history of cinema) and the execution of Jacek, a scene that lasts about five minutes. Kieslowski doesn't spare the audience any details, and takes pains to illustrate the parallels between Jacek's brutality in the back of the cab and the Law's cruelty with the noose. In the director's words, "It's wrong no matter why you kill, no matter whom you kill and no matter who does the killing... Inflicting death is probably the highest form of violence imaginable; capital punishment is an infliction of death."

Until he actually throws the garrote around the cab driver's neck, Jacek doesn't seem particularly abnormal or homicidal. While it's true that he's lonely and isolated (reasons for which we learn during his final confession to Piotr), we don't see him as a detestable person. In fact, Kieslowski makes it apparent that his victim is little more than a self-centered boor, and probably less likable than the killer. There is no doubt that Kieslowski deplores Jacek's action -- the viciousness of the scene illustrates that. However, the director makes an effort to humanize the murderer so the audience will realize that the execution does far more than merely blot out a "blight on society."

Jacek's story, which is the focus of the film, is intercut with moments from Piotr's life. (In fact, most of the twenty-five minutes of extra material beyond what's in Decalogue 5 centers on Piotr.) Initially a bystander, then an observer, the lawyer is drawn into the tale to become part of it. His last attempts to aid and comfort Jacek are feeble protests against the great wrong that is about to be committed in the name of justice.

From a purely technical standpoint, A Short Film About Killing is an abnormal viewing experience. More than 600 hand-made greenish filters were used to mute colors and distance the audience. The movie often appears dark and grungy, and there are times when a blackish halo surrounds various characters. Only in the final scene, after the killing is done, are the filters removed -- but all is far from right in the world, as Piotr's ravaged features indicate.

A Short Film About Killing is as grim as a motion picture gets, but the intelligence and insight applied to its themes will keep the viewer riveted despite the pervasive gloom. Whether an individual agrees or disagrees with Kieslowski's position on the issue of capital punishment, there is no denying that his case against it is powerfully made. And, while the director cannot answer the question of why men kill, his scrutiny of murder offers a bloody portrait worth repeated study.

Short Film about Killing, A (Poland, 1987)

Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Polish
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1