A Short Film About Killing Review

A Short Film About Killing started out as the fifth episode of Dekalog (Decalogue/The Ten Commandments), a series of ten short films co-written and directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski for Polish television in 1988. Dekalog 5: Thou Shalt Not Kill when expanded to a feature length film as A Short Film About Killing, loses none of its power and remains one of the most important and intensely powerful episodes from a cycle of films that dealt with many complex issues affecting our daily lives.

Right down to its simple, concise title, A Short Film About Killing clearly sums up its intentions. A young man, Jacek (Miroslaw Baka) brutally murders a taxi driver (Jan Tesarz) apparently at random for no comprehensible reason. A young, novice lawyer, Poitr (Krzysztof Globisz) is assigned to his case, but despite his best efforts his client is sentenced to the death penalty causing him concern at his own abilities as a lawyer and the nature of the legal system. The director’s background in documentary film-making provides a sound basis for the intellectual vigor and honesty in his examination and presentation of the subject, covering all aspects of the subject from every relevant angle with dispassionate objectivity.

In this film particularly, as much as in any of the director’s other films, Kieslowski demonstrates a perfectly assured and measured control over every single element of his craft. Nothing is left to chance or to accident - the director knows precisely the effect each scene will have on the viewer and uses it to maximum effect. The concrete drabness of the Warsaw apartment block, the coldness of winter, the dull palette of colour, the dark filters on the camera shots, the gloomy score by Zbigniew Preisner - all contribute to dreadful, portentous and hugely oppressive atmosphere of the film. Even the length of each particular scene is carefully weighed and balanced for precise effect. It is said that the murder scene is the longest killing on film, but whether this is true or not, the effect is obvious, calculated and effective. The director spares us nothing, drawing out the full horrible senselessness of the act, showing enough to horrify but so much as to be salacious. When it comes to the execution scene, also shown in its full and frank brutality, the act of killing by an individual is perfectly balanced against the killing by the state. Divested of any glamour or meaning, neither killing makes any sense.

The measure of Kieslowski’s genius is that he manages to make this all look so easy. He manages to clearly and concisely put across a complex and emotive subject within the short 81 minute time span of the film, skillfully using only the elements necessary and discarding anything superfluous. There is no place here for preaching or moralising. The director examines the subject from an ethical viewpoint, the moralisation comes from the individual viewer. Even when it comes to the courtroom scene, Kieslowski has the chance to grandstand and deliver from the mouth of the defence lawyer a powerful and moving speech against capital punishment, but the director shows tremendous restraint. "Your speech was, I think, the best case against capital punishment I have heard in many years", the judge tells Poitr, the defence lawyer, but the actual speech is never heard in the film. It is enough for the director, with the skills and ability he has, to show without a trace of condescension or preaching, the stark, grim brutality of murder, whether by an individual or the state and leave those eternal and universal questions - what drives someone to kill and is it ever right to kill - to be answered by others.

The film is not just a treatise on death, killing and capital punishment - the film is even more complex than that and operates, over its short length, on many other levels. In the film Kieslowski also explores themes of randomness, chance and how the actions of others and the small events of fate can direct our lives. These themes, already apparent in earlier work like Blind Chance and the Dekalog series, would also be developed further in The Three Colours Trilogy, particularly Three Colours Red. But perhaps the greatest legacy of the film lies in it being a catalyst to effecting genuine social change. The film’s grim and powerful message was instrumental in influencing public opinion and may have contributed in part to the abolition of the death penalty in Poland. There are not many films as important or socially relevant as that.

The picture quality here is really quite brilliant and a significant improvement on the image on its shorter R2 Dekalog counterpart. The film is correctly presented anamorphically at the 1.66:1 aspect ratio and it is practically free from print damage of any kind – barely a scratch or dust mark and no grain visible at all. The photography for this film is superb and it really shines with this DVD transfer. Blacks have a much stronger tone than the slightly weaker Region 3 release, and is much more sympathetic to the overall darkness of the film’s tone. The cinematographer, Slawomir Idziak (Three Colours: Blue, Black Hawk Down), makes heavy use of filters, so there is a faint hazy softness to the image at times, but this is only to be expected. English subtitles are provided and are removable.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack is about as good as it could be expected, again considering the budget and conditions it was made under. Dialogue is strong and clear and Zbigniew Preisner, the director’s regular composer, provides a marvellous score for the film, which comes across effectively in the mix.

Annette Insdorf Introduction (5:14)
Insdorf is the author of 'Double Lives, Second Chances – the cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski' and the English translator of Kieslowski’s Polish films. She talks about the ugly depiction of the world in the film and the reaction it is meant to provoke in the viewer and draws some interesting connections between this film and A Short Film About Love.

Slawomir Idziak Interview (13:35)
Idziak is the director of photography on A Short Film About Killing and he has also worked with Kieslowski on La Double Vie de Véronique and Three Colours: Blue. He talks about his use of filters here and the effect they are meant to have. I don’t know why this is the case with his Polish collaborators but Idziak, like Grazyna Szapolowska on A Short Film About Love, is reluctant to credit Kieslowski with too much importance. He grudgingly admits however that no-one else would have ever given him the freedom to experiment and take such risks with his photography.

Agnieska Holland Interview (9:22)
It’s down to closer friends and people who worked with him in France to put a broader perspective on Kieslowski’s work and be a bit more generous in their praise. Filmmaker, Agnieska Holland gives some thoughts on Dekalog and the freedom Kieslowski has making films in Poland compared to the pressures that came with success in the West.

Antonin Liehm Interview (4:50)
Author, Liehm gives his thoughts on the film from an 1988 TV programme.

From a Night Porter’s Point of View (16:09)
A superb little documentary feature from Kieslowski, made in 1977, the film follows the work of a petty government official who keeps an eye on everyone from absentee schoolchildren to people fishing without the right licence. The narrator, full of his own self-importance, warns of terrible consequences for anyone who doesn't follow rules - "Regulations are more important than people are" is one of the astonishing pronouncements he makes in the course of his narration. This kind of examination of real people allowed the director the grounding to be able to realistically portray characters like the taxi-driver in A Short Film About Killing. A good and relevant extra feature.

A full filmography is provided, covering Kieslowski’s short films, documentaries, TV work and feature films.

Trailer (2:20)
The trailer is presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic. Intercutting the two death scenes in the film, the trailer is full of what would traditionally be seen as spoilers, but in this case the knowledge of what happens in the film can only forewarn of the terrible tone of bleakness and dread that pervades the film.

Korean Region 3 comparison
There is a slight improvement in both picture and sound quality here over the Korean R3 edition. Colours on the Artificial Eye release are much more vivid, with deeper blacks and stronger contrast. The Korean release is on a single layer disc, while the R2 is dual layer. The Korean R3 is an NTSC conversion of the same PAL master, which means there is some slight blurring when there is movement on the screen. The extras on the Korean R3 release are miminal compared to the R2 – Cast & Crew, Biography and Synopsis information are in Korean text only, a slideshow Photo Gallery contains images lifted directly form the film, and a Highlight presents the two and a half minute trailer without subtitles.
Picture comparison – Artificial Eye R2 release above (PAL), Korean R3 A9 Media below (NTSC).

A Short Film About Killing is not easy viewing and not something you would choose to watch for pleasure - you will always watch it with some trepidation of the horrors to unfold, but it remains compelling and essential viewing nonetheless. Grimly fascinating, it is a remarkably accomplished and moving piece of filmmaking which has finally received a worthy Region 2 release.

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