A Short Film About Killing

The logic of Kieslowski’s films is affective, rather than (as is often argued) spiritual. A Short Film About Killing (1987), an expanded version of Episode 5 (“Thou shalt not kill”) of Kieslowski’s Decalogue, is nearly unbearable, due to the intensity with which it forces us to contemplate murder. First, a young man, Jacek (Miroslaw Baka) kills a taxi driver (Jan Tesarz) for no apparent reason; then, the legal apparatus, with full procedural regularity, executes Jacek. Jacek’s idealistic attorney (Krzysztof Globisz) can do nothing to stop the execution; this makes him feel like an accessory to (judicial) murder. In both cases, the audience feels implicated in the killings — just as the lawyer does in the second case — simply because we are there to watch.

The film, I said, forces us to contemplate murder. Contemplate is precisely the word I want here, as it implies a stance of disinterested observation: using disinterested precisely in the Kantian sense. A “judgment of taste,” Kant says, “is merely contemplative, i.e. it is a judgment that is indifferent to the existence of the object.” Taste operates “by means of a liking or disliking devoid of all interest. The object of such a liking is called beautiful.” While it might seem bizarre to use such old-fashioned (and unpleasantly high-toned) words as “taste” and “beautiful” to describe so viscerally disturbing an experience as that of watching A Short Film About Killing, I believe that the connotations are entirely apt. For there is something almost perversely aesthetic (and aestheticist) about the way that Kieslowski presents us with an ethical deadlock or dilemma.

This is because Kieslowski presents murder precisely as something that we cannot be interested in. Defining the notion of interest — the state that is incompatible with aesthetic contemplation — Kant notes that “to will something and to have a liking for its existence i.e. to take an interest in it, are identical.” But the murders in the film are actions that we cannot will or desire. They happen, and we see them, and we are unable to escape their traumatic impact. But we also cannot identify with these killings — or with the killers. We cannot make an imaginative leap of comprehension. Jacek is too much of a blank; we feel his alienation, but we cannot understand his motives. And the Law is too bureaucratic, too impersonal and distant; before the coldness of its procedures, we cannot extract any edifying sentiment of vengeance, or deterrence, or exemplary rigor, or even justice done. Both killings appear to us as utterly arbitrary, which is part of what makes them so excruciating — and which is why we cannot will them, cannot assume their burden as our own. But this impossibility, this impotence of the will, is itself the reason why our mere contemplation is tinged with an unbearable complicity. We are accessories after the fact.

A Short Film About Killing

Let me be more specific: more formally specific. A Short Film About Killing is meticulously stylized. Nearly all the outdoor scenes are shot with a greenish/yellowish filter, which gives the surroundings — the urban tenements and shopping streets and public squares, but also the natural scenery, foliage, underbrush and a lake, where Jacek’s murder of the cab driver takes place — a sickly, feverish cast. During these scenes, the sky is always overcast. Often portions of the frame are cut off, made black, by an intervening body or architectural detail. Sometimes the frame actually seems unusually dark around the edges, as if the heavy oppressiveness of an oncoming storm were about to decimate our vision.

(The only time we see bright sunlight, and natural green, is at the very end of the film, when the lawyer stops his car in the middle of nowhere, overcome by the horror of the execution he has just witnessed. There’s a gleam of brightness flashing in the distance, that we can’t quite resolve, and that seems shockingly incongruous, out of whack with everything that’s come before. This is the one and only moment of “objective irony” in the entire film).

The indoor scenes, meanwhile, are dominated by formal, bureaucratic architecture. We see a lot of the law courts, and (in the latter part of the film) of the prison with its numerous locks and gates and narrow corridors and confined rooms. The interiors are clean, although sometimes soiled. At one point, before the murder, Jacek is sitting in a cafe, drinking coffee and eating a cream puff. Seeing some young girls looking into the cafe window from outside, he uses his spoon to flick a piece of cream puff on the window, where it remains in an ugly smear. He smiles after doing this, and the kids on the other side of the glass smile back. This is one of the few moments in the film where Jacek smiles, and seems happy. (Another time is when, sitting on a highway overpass, he drops a small rock, or block of cement, onto the roadway below. We hear sounds of horns and squealing brakes, but we don’t see what happened).

Soiling, and petty vandalism, and creating inconvenience, are repeated motifs throughout the film. At the very beginning, we see a close-up of a dead rat in a puddle. Shortly thereafter, we see a cat that has been hanged in a little noose (preparing us for Jacek’s hanging at the climax of the film). There are also casual incidents of violence in the background; in one early sequence, as Jacek wanders aimlessly through town, two young men are viciously beating up a third in a doorway in the distance.

The first time we see the taxi driver, he is assaulted by a large carpet that someone throws out of an upper-story window, and that barely misses him. The driver likes to mess with people’s dogs; he corrupts one by feeding it when it is sitting faithfully in place; he frightens another, so that it breaks from its owner’s leash and runs away, by honking his horn at it. The taxi driver also takes a somewhat sadistic glee in leaving people shivering in the cold or the rain, when he could easily have picked them up. And he is something of a dirty old man; he leeringly propositions a young woman who is working at an outdoor stall nearby his cab. She turns him down, walking away without saying anything. It later turns out that she is Jacek’s girlfriend; he offers her a joyride in the very taxi whose driver had propositioned her earlier, and that he has stolen after the murder.

I’ve been cataloguing details of what might be thought of as signs of a society in decline — one where codes of morality, and even simple norms of politeness and civility, have ceased to function. But I think it is way too easy to thereby see Kielowski as a social conservative (or, alternatively, as a Zizekian, observing and mourning the “decline of symbolic efficiency”). For I think that, in the world of A Short Film About Killing, these unpleasant exchanges (up to and including the killings themselves) are not primarily signs of the decline of the social: to the contrary, they are precisely, and positively, what constitutes the social. They are forms (however weird and perverse and unpleasant they might seem) of contact, interaction, and disalienation; they are what binds an otherwise isolated individual to others — and to the collectivity (present in this film mostly in the form of the State institutions of police, law courts, and prisons) as well. In a sick and distressing, but nonetheless entirely valid, sense, Jacek’s murder of the taxi driver is the one moment when he does establish an intimate relationship with another person. (This is one of the stark differences between Jacek’s act of murder, and his equally harrowing execution, at the hands of the State, at the end of the film).

A Short Film About Killing

If Kieslowski retreats from politics in the Decalogue and in his subsequent films, if A Short Film About Killing, made in the waning days of “actually existing socialism,” says so little about that social system in particular (everything in the film could just as easily happen, much the same way, in an economically depressed capitalist society and state), if Kieslowski seems to reject politics altogether, in order to focus on supposedly more “universal” concerns (ones which are generally described as moral or ethical, and as spiritual or religious) — then this movement is still founded upon a bleak and critical view of the social, one that is not dissolved away by any sort of move to more “individual” concerns. This is another way of saying what I said at the very beginning: that Kieslowski’s films are affective rather than spiritual, and that they remain curiously and singularly aestheticized, even at the most abstract level of their universalizing ethical concerns. Affect is never internal, never just bottled up inside; it always involves a sort of transfer, from one person (persona, character) to another, and from the persons on screen to the persons in the audience, watching the film.

This brings us right back to Kieslowski’s great, much-celebrated theme of mysterious connections, alternative destinies, and chance encounters that yet seem fated. The way that acts of aggression, and of acting out — in their range from vandalism, through impoliteness and physical aggression, and all the way to murder — institute and embody the social all throughout A Short Film About Killing is only the flip side of this theme. For Kieslowski, these mysterious connections (together with the institutions that emulate them in a stiflingly formalized way) are the warp and woof of the social. They are also the stuff of cinema, reflecting and answering to the ways that images (or people and places) are brought together through editing. Kieslowski’s incessant cross-cutting between Jacek, the taxi driver, and the lawyer, before the murder takes place, and before they have even met (though they pass one another without recognition a number of times, which is itself an expression of Kieslowski’s vision of mysterious connections) — this cross-cutting itself creates the bond between the three of them. It is as if they are all fated to meet so catastrophically because the filmmaker has edited their scenes together — rather than the reverse. This is yet another way of approaching Kieslowski’s aestheticism: he discovers or creates patterns that have no intrinsic meaning — that do not appeal to any particular interest, or desire — aside from the fact that they are simply there.

A Short Film About Killing operates through a strange (or unexpected) principle of dispersion. For the first half of the film, we don’t really know (aside from the hints provided by the title, or by other prior knowledge we have brought to the movie) what is going to happen, or how the seemingly random incidents and encounters that we witness will fit together. Kieslowski ignores, or evades, the usual narrative structures of cause and effect. He dwells on things, and incidents, simply on account of their sheer materiality. It takes a good amount of screen time for the taxi driver just to wash his car, before he starts driving around in search of passengers. Later, there is a long sequence of shots in the course of which Jacek is just waiting around; he sees a policeman walking up and down the street, and evidently doesn’t want to do anything (take action, though we do not yet know what sort of action it will be) as long as the cop is around. Finally a police vehicle comes by and picks up the lonely cop; it is only after this that Jacek takes a long rope out from his pack, and coils it up, tests it, and cuts it to suitable length for what, we only find out subsequently will be an act of murder.

Time is empty, filled with disparate and seemingly random incidents: it isn’t even a time of anticipation, because we don’t know what any of the characters are waiting for (or even if they are anticipating and waiting). Did Jacek plan to murder someone when he put the rope into his briefcase? Is he planning the murder (despite the randomness of the victim) when he coils that rope? How clear or vague are his plans, his desires? We cannot know this, and we cannot even be sure that Jacek himself knows this. The film is filled with affect, but this affect is ambient and impersonal, it circulates, it doesn’t remain fixed in anyone’s head. And this is why we cannot “identify”, even negatively, with any of the characters, which in turn is why our stance towards the film, however intense and uncomfortable, never takes the form of “interest.” Kieslowski almost brutally elides those portions of the narrative that might create identification or interest; he cuts directly from the shot in which Jacek shows the stolen car to his girlfriend, and proposes that they escape into the mountains, to a shot of the judges rising after having delivered their verdict (which, we only learn subsequently, is a condemnation to death). Pursuit, arrest, confession, and trial — the meat of most crime movies — are entirely absent from A Short Film About Killing.

The murder of the taxi driver doesn’t occur until midway through the film, after we have been adrift in the maze (or miasma) of cross-cuts and seemingly unrelated, but thickly described, incidents. The murder itself takes up five minutes or so of screen time, This, of course, is part of what makes it so excruciating — by sparing us none of the details, and none of the length, Kieslowski wants us to feel the momentousness, and the horror, of actually taking a human life. But the sequence is also remarkably physical and material in its emphasis — Kieslowski concentrates o the body, rather than the soul. Jacek strangles the man with his rope, then bludgeons him, then drags his body from the car… but the man still will not die, so that Jacek has to pummel him with a large rock. We cannot see the driver’s face for the latter part of this sequence, because Jacek has covered it with a handkerchief. But this absence of reciprocity — we can’t see the face of the dying man, we like Jacek do not look him in the eyes — only makes things worse, since it turns the still-living taxi driver into a thing that nonetheless continues to live and move, or at least to squirm spasmodically: no longer a person, but not yet peacefully inert. We see blood ooze through the handkerchief — just as later on, when Jacek is hanged, we see the shit that his body expelled with its last movements. These displays of a coarse, impersonal vitality at the very moment of death are more horrifying than any look into the anguished face of the victim might be — precisely because they spasms, events, with which we cannot identify, that we cannot assimilate into ourselves.

A phrase like “the aestheticization of death” is usually applied disparagingly, in reference to something like Quentin Tarantion’s staging a mass bloodbath for laughs, as if it were an MGM musical (I am thinking, of course, of a scene towards the end of Kill Bill part I). But Kieslowski offers us an aestheticization of death and killing — in the precise Kantian terms of disinterest that I have been trying to describe — that has an entirely opposite valency. Death here is a singularity, because it cannot be exchanged, or compared, or rendered equivalent to anything else. Not even to another death: which is why, and how, A Short Film About Killing condemns the death penalty. I suppose one can see this as Christian (New Testament vs. Old, suspension of the Law), if one wishes; perhaps that is how Kieslowski himself saw it. But more important to me is just the very physical and material — and also aesthetic — way that Kieslowski rejects the logic of equivalence that lies at the heart of “actually existing” socialism and capitalism alike.

5 thoughts on “A Short Film About Killing”

  1. He dwells on things, and incidents, simply on account of their sheer materiality.

    I think you’re absolutely right however in Eastern Europe we saw this as a critique of the ”muddy materiality” of the concretely-existing socialism with not only its yucky visual drabness but also its, erm, spiritual drabness. Time endlessly stretching…nothing ever happening… a bureaucratic but also material swamp. Kieslowski’s is clearly a post-Apocalyptic world, abandoned by God, in which ”the damage is alredy done” (k-punk) – no wonder that modern Apocalypse movies like CHILDREN OF MEN use that same Kieslowski palette.

    But interesting to note that my experience of reading Dostoyevski, for many years, has always been VISCERAL as opposed to psychological, even though Dostoyevski gets ”deep into psychology”, so that Kieslowski’s affective reading of Crime and Punishment matches my experience of the book – deep disturbance on the gut level.

  2. would you actually apply the phrase ‘aestheticization of death’ disparagingly to Tarantino’s Kill Bill? I would like to know what you think of Tarantino’s Aesthetics in this ‘Age of Aesthetics’ (and I know that you are not such a fan of his work).

  3. I recently discussed my great great grandmother’s use of the term “disinterested” on one of the legal forms she filed claiming pension benefits from the death of her husband in the Civil War. It’s in her handwriting so I don’t think it’s a term she got from a lawyer. She didn’t have one. She used the term to describe the testimony, tendered by her brother and by her brother-in-law, vouching for the authenticity of her Prussian marriage.

    The word “disinterested”, in fact, jars a bit when you read the document, partly because her brother and her brother-in-law were patently anything but disinterested. They both had injuries from the war for which they could claim pensions. Their losses, however, were minor compared to hers. She presented two soldiers in her initial declaration who actually and truthfully witnessed her Prussian wedding, yet because they were relatives their claim to have no interest in the disposition of her declaration was not deemed adequate. And so she had to file a claim in which she argued that her witnesses had been “disinterested”. Three years elapsed before her claim was finally settled, but only after she re-married and her second husband acknowledged the validity of her prior marriage and agreed to make her four children his wards. His submission also required two witnesses to the second marriage who were not relatives and the benefits were awarded only on behalf of the children and not the widow. It appears that, had her first marriage been performed in the United States, the pension benefits would have been awarded to the widow on the basis of her initial declaration. Aesthetically speaking, her use of the term “disinterested” might have served to provide something resembling a bandaid, but somehow I don’t think it would have healed the wound she suffered in the war. Her suffering was on display for three years before a remedy was finally supplied.

    I think it’s fascinating that the welfare state in America began during the Great Depression, when the last veterans of the Civil War, and their pension benefits, expired. The Spanish-American War and World War I briefly revived the welfare state created by Civil War pensions, but American involvement in WWI only lasted about a year. The Great Depression and a second world war were required to replace the social infrastructure produced by the Civil War. Demographically, I think something similar is occurring now. The system of veteran’s benefits produced by WWII has lapsed now that the youngest WWII veterans are octagenarians. Viet Nam and Gulf War I provided partial replenishment, but not enough on their own to preserve the system’s periodic resonance.

    Eighty years separated the Civil War from the American Revolution. Another eighty years elapsed between the Civil War and World War II. The next ten or fifteen years are going to be hairy. Things are apt to get ugly before they get pretty again.

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