On A Short Film About Killing (1988)


To view A Short Film About Killing click here.

I used to work in the DVD division of Facets Multi-Media, a Chicago arts organization devoted to showing, distributing and preserving foreign, avant-garde and documentary films. Facets was the first to own the North American distribution rights to The Decalogue, Krysztof Kieslowski’s ten-part series inspired by the Ten Commandments that he made for Polish television. My role in the release of the series on this side of the Atlantic involved everything from checking the authored discs to editing the subtitles to producing the booklet inserted in each package. In the process, I viewed each hour-long episode at least half a dozen times, and to say they hold up on repeated viewings is an understatement. Episodes V and VI were expanded by Kieslowski to feature-length films and released to theaters. A Short Film About Killing (1988) and A Short Film About Love (1988) are both available on FilmStruck.

Kieslowski and his cowriter Krysztof Piesiewicz did not interpret the Ten Commandments as a series of bible dramas or religious treatises. Instead, they offered ten stories set in contemporary Poland in which characters face ethical dilemmas, or the events that unfold illustrate ethical questions. Each episode is inspired by a commandment. A Short Film About Killing is based on Commandment #5: Thou shalt not kill, and A Short Film About Love is based on #6: Thou shalt not commit adultery.

The Decalogue was produced during the mid-1980s, a difficult time for the people of Poland, which was still a satellite country of the old Soviet Union. The decade had begun with martial law and ended with harsh economic conditions, including food rationing. As Kieslowski described it in a 1991 book about the series: “One could detect a certain tension, a feeling of hopelessness and fear of yet worse to come.” Each episode was directed by Kieslowski, written by Kieslowski and Pieziewicz, but shot by different cinematographers, some of whom migrated to the Hollywood system after the fall of communism. The alternating cinematographers added their unique touches to each episode, but Kieslowski maintained an overall look to the series that captured the prevailing sense of anxiety and desperation. However, despite the topical nature of the series in regard to Poland’s problems, the ethical and moral challenges of each episode are universal. Any viewer from any country in any era will relate to the series.


“Episode V: Thou Shalt Not Kill,” which was expanded into A Short Film About Killing, was one of my two favorite episodes of The Decalogue. As a feature film, it played at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival, winning the Jury Prize. The movie tells the story of a young man named Jacek (Miroslaw Baka) who brutally murders an innocent cab driver for no reason. When the viewer first sees Jacek, he seems alienated and aimless—not unlike other disaffected youth—but he does not appear to be homicidal. It is a shock when he strangles the cabbie and then beats him to death with a rock in a scene that lasts nearly seven minutes. The scene is so brutal that the viewer is not only relieved, but gratified when Jacek is arrested and tried for murder.

Kieslowski’s cowriter, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, was a practicing attorney before and during their collaboration on The Decalogue and other film projects. He had spent years defending Solidarity dissidents, and he believed that the law should be more than a means to maintain order. It should embody real moral values. It is not hard to see that Piesiewicz’s experiences and expertise with the law helped shape the character of Piotr (Krzysztof Globisz), Jacek’s attorney.

Piotr works hard to defend his client and prevent him from being hung by the state. As Piotr gets to know his client, Jacek reveals fragments of his tragic life story. The cruelty of capital punishment becomes apparent as each step of the excruciating process drags on. This part of the narrative reminded me of I Want to Live (1958), the Susan Hayward drama about Barbara Graham, whose execution order was drawn out for weeks and months, albeit for different reasons. The pressure of waiting for the axe to fall, the misery of preparing yourself to die, only to have the execution postponed, and the frightening details of how an execution is carried out are difficult for humans to endure, even criminals. In both films, sympathy is created for the killer living through this ordeal.

However, A Short Film About Killing challenges viewers on the issue of capital punishment in a way I Want to Live does not. In I Want to Live, the film takes the position that Graham, a party girl who lived on the fringes of society, was innocent of this particular crime, making it very easy to sympathize with her as she is jerked around by the state. It is easy to be against the death penalty when the accused may have been railroaded. But, that is not the case with Jacek, who brutally committed a murder without provocation. The film forces us to consider the hard questions. Does Jacek deserve to be killed because of the horrible nature of his crime, which we have seen him commit? If that is the case, is it justice or vengeance we seek? In a progressive society, we stress a distinction between the two to rise above our base emotions. If we accept that there is a difference, does that mean that killing for any reason—even a criminal execution—is wrong, because “Thou shalt not kill?”

Susan Doll

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2 Responses On A Short Film About Killing (1988)
Posted By Gamera2000 : July 17, 2017 2:22 am

Kieslowski for me is one of the great directors and the DECALOGUE an amazing achievement. Aside from his gift of being able to create narratives that almost fold on themselves (BLINE CHANCE, THREE COLORS TRILOGY), he used film to raise profound moral questions about the way in which people act. In a SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING he forces us to view the morality of the death penalty from the perspective of a brutal murder, that we see for ourselves.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 17, 2017 5:36 pm

Gamera2000: Well said!

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