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A Short Film About Killing
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Writers: Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Krzysztof Kieślowski
Cinematographer: Slavomir Idziak
A Short Film About Killing is not easy to watch. The film tells the story of a young man. His murder of a taxi driver. His capture by authorities. Followed by his trial. His sentencing. His execution.
The viewer experiences both deaths as horrific; Kieslowski directs his viewer to contemplate the moral repugnancy of both killings. The taxi driver is battered with a stone and dies slowly. At the same time, the long-winded bureaucratic precision of the hanging was so horrendous to film that Kieslowski’s team had to break off in the middle.
Kieslowski deliberately chooses to not linger over the two most violent scenes. Exposing the viewer to very little. What little we see- is there to shock us, and for a good reason. They are there to shock us, and according to Kieslowski, justified. Their power lies in their neat insertion into the rest of the film’s drama. We, the viewer, find ourselves inside the young man’s world – his nightmare. Cinematographer Slavomir Idziak’s choice of lowering, ochre-colored filters places us, the viewer, inside his purgatory.
The film is set in Warsaw. A city deliberately painted as bleak and dep[ressing.
Krzysztof Kieslowski argues that “The city and the surrounding world is filmed in a very deliberate way. [Slavomir Idziak] used colored filters, which he made especially for the film. The filters were green. So the color of the film is deliberately greenish.”
Traditionally, green is experienced as the color of spring, a color of hope. However, the world is seen as crueler, desolate, and empty here by putting a green filter on the camera. This visual style leads the viewer to see the city as empty, dirty, and sad, and its residents – are the same. Kieślowski’s visual process is a radical departure from standard cinema dynamics.
This film was instrumental in the abolition of the death penalty in Poland due in part to the mobilization potential of cinema.
Moving images are the best way to reach the most illiterate of the population, for instance. The empowering visuality helps activate an audience and lead them into re-envisioning ways of seeing the reality in the country long after the war. The images, in shots and sequence of the film, had the power to change attitudes because seeing comes before words.
Though set around the same apartment block as the other episodes, A Short Film About Killing couldn’t have taken a more distinctive aesthetic approach. Kieslowski’s intent to use a different cinematographer in each story often leads to minor variations in the aesthetic. Still, his collaboration with Sławomir Idziak stands out among them like a grotesque pimple on an otherwise attractive face. This vision of Warsaw is a barren wasteland of mud and shadows, strained through a jaundiced yellowish-green filter that seems to permeate every image with a sickly pestilence. He also lays a vignette effect over virtually every film shot, narrowing our vision to the characters surrounded by a thick, oppressive darkness. Beneath it all, a chamber ensemble of strings drone with sustained, dissonant chords, heavy with foreboding and a creeping, existential horror.
The film introduces the viewer to the three characters whose lives are about to entwine. The opening sequence sets the tone for the entire narrative to come. It starts with a dead rat, a cat hanging by a noose, and a shrunken head in a rearview mirror in a world of dark clouds and mud. A bad omen.
In the first, a lumpen young man kills a taxi driver for no reason. In the second: he is caught, brought to trial, condemned to death, and executed.
In the second: he is caught, brought to trial, condemned to death, and executed. Both ends are dreadful. Socially repugnant. And yet it takes a highly visual film tactic to do something about it. “We all know why society kills the boy, but we don’t know his real human reasons, and we never will.” All conceived in an apathetic atmosphere of a prosperous nation and manifesting blatantly the relationship of man and collective.
When the murder finally occurs, it lands almost precisely at the film’s halfway point and is dragged out for eight grueling minutes. Kieslowski doesn’t falter here, using every shot to set in the torture that seems to lack any purpose beyond one man’s instability. In a close-up, Waldemar’s foot hangs limp on a car seat. Below a pale mustard sky, the taxi lifelessly rolls to a stop. From within the car, we watch Jacek pull the body down to a river through a claustrophobic frame created by the open door before the wind blows it shut. Still, Waldemar is not yet dead, and with his final breath, he begs for his life before a rock is slammed down on his head.
There is a backstory to do with his sister’s death which he feels partially responsible for. Still, we are not asked to offer him redemption through this alone. What comes after is genuinely chilling, bringing another layer to the Christian commandment against killing. Jacek’s murder at the hands of the state is just as brutal as the one he committed, as he screams and struggles against the firm hold of the guards – and all for what? In the way that Kieslowski presents the complete destruction of two human beings mirrored in both halves, it is tough to reconcile them as being all that different, besides the state considering one abhorrent and the other righteous. Like the rat left in running water and the cat hanging from a noose, these humans are victims of a malevolence that will try to justify the destruction of life. In the sheer distortion of Kieslowski’s artistry here, he unnervingly finds the true horror in such a sacrilegious transgression of nature.
- A Short Film About Killing (1988)
- Filming the 10 Commandments: Kieslowski as a Catholic Director
- A Short Film About Killing
I wanted to rehabilitate you, Joanna Kramer.
Get people to like you.
To feel empathy.
I had such high hopes.
Create a visual scheme expressing the claustrophobia of being an “object.”
Locked inside a box
Treated like a child.
At the whim of another, your father, your b’aal.
Trying. Searching. Reaching. Pushing.
For a voice.
A unique voice.
An individual voice.
When reminded gently and not so gently to stay
To tread carefully.
Don’t go into that forest, little red riding hood.
You know what awaits.
The big bad wolf.
He will eat you.
You will be devoured.
Not just you, red.
Do you want to see your children consumed in the fires of your rebellion?
Let your husband say Kaddish for you.
You stay home with your children.
Say brachot with them, l’iyulai nishmat.
That’s what your mother wants.
But. But. But my husband doesn’t like my mother.
And yes… Joanna, Hilchot Lashon Hara. That’s a good focus for you. Did you know the Chefetz Chaim was very social, like you? That’s why he chose to work on the discipline of restricting speech.
I won’t transfer my responsibility, my privilege of mourning my mother, to my Baal.
To my brothers.
To my father.
Yitgadal V’yitkadash Sheme Rabbo
Nine months in.
The voice gets more robust with each passing day.
The presence belongs.
The woman stands alone.
Fierce. Committed. Defiant.
Less sorry with each passing day.
I tried Joanna.
How I want them to like you. To hear you. To feel you. To experience life through your eyes. Your lens. Your perspective.
My job as a director.
Create a connection between the viewers and the protagonist.
You refused to cooperate.
You sit there back straight.
So proud. So erect.
Your body language continues to emit.
Your wild eyes communicate.
Your lips tighten.
Joanna, say you’re sorry.
Joanna, say you feel bad.
Joanna, say you wish you could do better.
In fact. You make things worse. As that could be. I mean, you did walk out on your sixth-month-old baby. A nursing baby. And your husband.
You know how hard it was for your husband. You know he lost his job. You know he depleted his funds, scrambling for childcare.
I want my son back.
That’s all you keep saying.
Why? Why should you get your son back?
Joanna — you are an unfit mother. A cold person. Unfeeling. Uncaring. Unfeminine. Not a woman. Not a good person. Not a person. Who would leave their child?
Say you’re sorry, Joanna.
I want my son back. Are you serious?
Are you aware of your crimes?
You, my dear, will not get your son back.
You and I didn’t work.
Good try, Joanna.
You just further insulted him.
And in the process, it made us love him even more.
Look at his face. His downcast eyes. He’s going to cry, Joanna. You are making this proud man cry.
It was as much my fault.
You reach for his hand.
Why would he touch you? You are toxic. Poison. Contagious.
I was in a difficult place when I left.
I got help.
I started therapy.
I’m learning things about myself.
Good girl, Joanna.
I see a little remorse.
Just a little.
Not a lot.
Your back is so straight.
Remains so proud. Still so defiant.
You somehow think your emotional outburst will sway him. Sway us. Gain a small point of favor.
You should have tried harder, Joanna.
Why, Joanna, couldn’t you have tried harder.
A little sweeter.
A little more bent.
A little humbler.
He wants to know.
He is asking.
What did you learn?
Yes. What did you learn, Joanna?
Tell us. One thing. One thing you learned.
Here it is, Joanna.
Say you are sorry. Say you did wrong. Accept responsibility for the disaster you made for your baby’s life, your husband’s, and your family. You know how hard it was being on the lips of everyone in your community.
Of waiting in line at the supermarket and having your neighbor ask about your whereabouts?
How is Joanna?
When is Joanna coming home?
What is planned? This disappearance.
Such a little baby.
Joanna, we want to know.
What did you learn in all your therapy?
Tell us, Joanna.
Tell this nice, sweet, earnest young man.
Did I mention handsome?
What is so bad?
What is so hard?
He is so cute.
You make such a lovely couple.
Joanna, what did you learn?
I want my son.
That’s what you learned.
The big bad wolf didn’t teach you anything.
Well. We will teach you.
Leave. No forwarding address.
Get married. Don’t get married.
Have children. Don’t have children.
Do whatever you want.
Just leave my baby and me alone.
Joanna, you can still save this. You still have a chance. Joanna, please.
Joanna, for your baby.
Make this better.
He loves you. You know how to make this better.
Joanna, it’s terrifying after this.
You will never get your son back. They will never let you see him. Hug him. They will punish you. They can. You know they can. Joanna, I’m warning you. He is getting up. This is your last chance. He is running out of patience.
I’m your eyes and ears.
I’m your director.
I’m on your team.
This isn’t working.
You are incredibly unsympathetic.
He is so earnest. So hurt. So wounded.
You have a great husband.
Stop being so defiant.
For your son.
Show us a little emotion.
A little humanity.
You did leave.
Joanna, say you’re sorry.
If you can’t act like a rational human being.
No. No. No.
That was the worst possible thing to say.
Oh my god, Joanna, really.
He is gone. He is off. You lost.
You ruined your chance.
I can’t help you, Joanna.
I can’t get the viewers to love you.
I can’t even get them to feel empathy for you.
You are now alone.
Eat your cookie.
Does this feel good?
Is this what you want?
To be a bitch.
To be unsympathetic.
No tricks. No manipulations. There is nothing I can do to save you.
You refused to bow.
You refused to humble yourself.
You refused to succumb.
You refused to surrender.
Now you are free.
You belong to no one.
Not to your father. Not to your husband.
You are no longer someone’s daughter or someone’s wife.
And yes, Joanna, you are no longer someone’s mother.
Isn’t that why you came?
Isn’t that why you arranged the meeting?
Isn’t that why you called up your husband after eighteen months?
Well, he is a father.
He is returning to his son.
You, Joanna, you sit there alone.
No one’s daughter. No one’s wife. No one’s mother.
He doesn’t care.
We don’t care.
I’m done caring.
I give up.
You gave me no choice.
You are the same character you were in 1979.
Forty years later, we still hate you.
We still wish you would sit down.
Stop being so emotional.
Do the right thing.
Step up to the plate and do what you are supposed to.
Stop making such a fuss.
Enough with your emotional outbursts.
I couldn’t change the text.
That was the instructions for the exercise.
I could have.
In the Hebrew translation, my teacher distributed.
You say sorry.
I can’t accept that change.
That breach of who you are, Joanna.
The rapid beating of your heart.
The fear on your lips. The nervous tapping of your fingers.
Your refusal to accept.
Your desire to grow.
To have it all. Just not at the same time.
Your release of control.
Your submission to the unknown.
And so I failed.
We told our story.
We expressed our truth.
Our choice is to keep on swimming.
Who knows Joanna.
The big bad wolf may not be so scary.
Such a death sentence.
Maybe he likes strong and broken women.
A real woman.