More noise than signal

A Short Film About Killing

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

I’ve not seen Dekalog, the series of short films based on the 10 Commandments, but even having read a little about them I’m not sure I was expecting the title to be quite so literal a description, to the point that the killing in question so dominates the rest of proceedings that there’s almost no point in relating them.

But I’ve never let the pointlessness of my actions stop me in the past, so here goes. Jan Tesarz’s Waldemar Rekowski is a taxi driver in Warsaw, and is a a bit of a tool. Not as much as Mirosław Baka’s Jacek Łazar, however. Waldemar is lecherous as self-interested, but Jacek seems happy to cause minor acts of destruction and violence. Ultimately their fates will become intertwined, briefly, when Jacek hires Waldemar’s cab for a trip to a secluded field and brutally murders him, in unflinching detail.

He does not get away with this, however, and soon finds himself in court, represented by Krzysztof Globisz’s Piotr Balick, an idealistic, newly minted lawyer stridently opposed to the death penalty in general, and in particular to the one that’s just handed down to Jacek.

From then we move from looking at the crimes of madness, or perhaps as a result of unresolved childhood issues that Jacek relates in to Piotr, to the state sanctioned killing doled out in prison, and Jacek is taken away and hanged. So, two killings for the price of one, don’t say that Kieślowski doesn’t provide value for money.

So, yes, it’s about killing, in a way that I suppose short cuts a lot of quibbles I could raise about the relative absence of narrative or indeed relatable characters. It’s not primarily interested in trying to paint a portrait of, or create a deep understanding into the mind of a killer. Which does rather undercut itself when it makes the half hearted attempt at doing so later on in the film.

Also on the “not sure why they bothered” side of things lies our lawyer, apparently a large part of the film’s expansion from the one hour TV origins, and an agreeable enough fellow, but not one who is not really of much interest or utility outside of the tirades against the death penalty.

While Killing is clearly coming from an anti-death penalty standpoint, to its credit it’s not being overly prescriptive in forcing you into drawing a moral equivalence between the acts of murder, one state sanctioned, on display here, even if it’s not going out of its way to present any opposing viewpoints. Which is fine, it’s not claiming to be a documentary, shot in a deliberately ugly way, all brutalist locations and murky filters and extraordinary vignetting giving a dark tone to match the subject matter.

It’s odd now, writing this in Space Year 2019 in Britain, and thinking about how this would have been received at the time in Poland where strident debates and, soon, law-changing on this issue was happening, or indeed how this is received today in any of the less civilised nations where the death penalty is still enacted. The death penalty has, the highly occasional right wing nutter aside, not been something we’ve had to think about it Britain for, well, as long as I’ve been old enough to know what the death penalty is, really, so it did feel a little less socially relevant to me.

That’s a luxury others may not have, and if you are in one of those locations this still has some powerful observations at its core. Given that it’s more of a social studies essay than a film, it almost seems trite to judge it as a film. Suffice to say, it’s hardly entertainment in any traditional, fun, sense of the term, but as film-making, it’s solid work.