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‘A Short Film About Killing’: The movie that brought an end to the Polish death penalty

The most intellectually challenging film I have ever seen about capital punishment. Definitely a must-see. DPN review and YouTube trailer available in our 'Films & Documentaries' section — DPN editor

As far as European cinema goes, there are few figures quite admired in critical circles as the inimitable Krzysztof Kieślowski. Known for his Dekalog series of 1989, as well as The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colours trilogy, Kieślowski embodied everything so extraordinary about the power of European cinema and that of his native Poland in turn.

In fact, one of Kieślowski’s films possessed an extraordinary facet of actually changing Polish law, the ever-controversial death penalty. His 1988 work A Short Film About Killing is a haunting yet fascinating examination of the human condition and the kind of moral ambiguity that surrounds its titular act.

The film ended up being expanded to become the fifth part of his television series Dekalog and focuses on the lives of three individuals, the drifter Jacek, the lawyer Piotr and the taxi driver Waldemar, whose paths cross in a moment of tragic fate, with the former brutally murdering the latter in an act of sheer violence.

'An admittedly bleak picture of the human experience'


What follows is a harrowing exploration of the consequences of such an act, with Piotr being appointed as Jacek’s defence and thus grappling with the moral implications of what his client has done. Kieślowski invites his audience to challenge their opinions of what justice and retribution ought to be while painting an admittedly bleak picture of the human experience.

He asks whether an act of violence ought to be met with yet further violence and whether such a vicious cycle of justice is morally right. There’s a banality to the film that makes it all the more sickening, but such emotional responses only seek to further prompt the audience to question their preconceived facets of morality.

As the stark realism of the film begins to hit home, A Short Film About Killing delivers a condemning indictment on the death penalty and the immoralism of state-ordered violence. Through the internal battle of Piotr and the affectless portrayal of Jacek, Kieślowski exposes the kind of contradictions present in the Polish legal system that allow violent acts to be undertaken in the name of justice.

A nationwide debate about the morality of capital punishment


The premiere of the film in Poland was followed by a nationwide debate about the morality of capital punishment, and it was perceived as something of a moral statement despite never explicitly addressing such issues within the narrative. The public’s view was that a murder by an individual and a murder by the state are not equal in terms of their moral value, and A Short Film About Killing was seen as pivotal in the abolition of the death penalty in Poland.

Kieślowski’s film is, therefore, a vital piece of European cinema, one that comments on the fragility of our morality and exposes the possibility of both good and evil within all of us. As with all the best films, A Short Film About Killing asks its audience difficult questions and dives into the true complexities of human life.

Source: faroutmagazine.co.uk, Thomas Leatham, February 10, 2024

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