Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing (1988), adapted and expanded from a segment included in his Dekalog series for Polish television, remains an authentic, disturbing piece of cinema. Every frame is meticulously constructed, tempering the lustreless, cancerous pallor of wintertime Warsaw with a slowly evolving three-pronged narrative of the lives of a disaffected youth, a taxi driver and an idealistic, freshly-minted young lawyer.
With great deliberation, Kieslowski paints his grim portrait: the sullen Jacek (Miroslaw Baka) roams the streets purposelessly, an unnerving undercurrent suggesting a potentially darker ambition metastasising beneath his dead-eyed observations. At the same time a taxi driver, Rekowski (Jan Tesarz), arrogantly begins his day, washing his vehicle, snubbing potential fares that he takes a disliking to and scaring dogs off their leashes for kicks. Meanwhile a young lawyer in waiting, Balicki (Krzysztof Globisz), makes his pitch for a position with a legal firm.
There’s a casual cruelty in both Jacek and Rekowski, but nothing monstrous. Can our sympathies be divided between the two when they fatefully cross paths? The sequence in which Jacek brutally takes Rekowski’s life is genuinely disturbing, as much as for its randomness as its agonisingly protracted length. The sight of a casual biker passing on a nearby hill only serves to emphasise a desensitised, occluded world and the insulation that protects violence in the heat of the moment.
Kieslowski’s artfully composed film avoids histrionics, its low-key demeanour ensuring sobering insights into Jacek’s mind and the aloof efficiency that exemplify the legal process in the wake of his conviction. Especially harrowing are the small but telling details in Kieslowski’s construction, like the scene in which the chamber of death is prepared by an official. The work of cinematographer Slawomir Idziak – with its unique framing and masking filters – is worth its weight in gold, so heavily does it contribute to the hypnotic effect.
Also startling is the way in which Jacek is eventually humanised, his conversation with Balicki in the final hour before his execution mining a deep-rooted sadness that relates to a sister – glimpsed in a photo he earlier took to a photography shop to have blown up – who died in a tragic farm accident, scarring the troubled young man for life.
Conversely, Balicki experiences a paralysing mixture of regret and sadness that undermines his earlier joy at being accepted into the firm. This first case will mark him for life, as Kieslowski’s haunting final shot attests, the refrain of Zbigniew Preisner’s main theme poignantly starting up again. A Short Film About Killing is a near-masterpiece, flawlessly acted and vividly brought to life, in both visual and narrative terms, by the creative gifts of an idiosyncratic genius.