Krzysztof Kieslowski is my favourite filmmaker. I’ve noted this many times, and I’ve often talked of him. I reviewed his Three Colours trilogy as part of my All-Time Favourites Series, and I’ve also written about some of his other films, including The Double Life of Veronique and, my favourite motion picture of all time, The Decalogue. So, now I’ve come to review two more masterpieces from the director’s catalogue, A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. Kieslowski adapted these 80 minute movies from shorter 50 minute films he included in Decalogue. Killing was adapted from Episode 5, and Love was adapted from Episode 6. They are and remain two of the most powerful films he’s ever directed.
A Short Film About Killing (1988)
The death penalty. You either think of it as something that sends cold criminals to their deserving grave. Or you see it as a pointless infliction of violence that serves no purpose. A lot of people have very split opinions on the subject. But Kieslowski’s opinion is clear here. He loathes it. And he tries to make us loathe it too.
The story unfolds slowly, cutting between three different people: a vagrant young man who walks the streets comitting petty acts of selfish cruelty; a sadistic taxi driver who ignorantly drives around picking up some passengers and dumping others; and a promising young lawyer who has just graduated. One afternoon, the taxi driver picks up the young man, Jacek, who has spent the entire afternoon mulling in his own dissatisfaction and spitefulness. Jacek leads the taxi driver into the middle of nowhere, then kills him, in a brutal murder scene that lasts about eight minutes. First he strangles him, then drags him down a hill and smashes his face in with a rock. There is no motive or reason for him to do so, but it has been apparent throughout the film that he’s been on the verge of it. Following this, the lawyer Piotr is assigned to defend him, but fails. He is sentenced to death by hanging. In the scenes that conclude the movie, we are given a curious shift of morality. Sure, killing is very wrong, whether the court appoints it or a young man senselessly does it, but Kieslowski gives the character of the man unexpected depth and meaning. As we learn of the circumstances from which he’s come, we feel more sympathetic for him, and when the inevitable killing scene finally arrives, we are moved to tears by how brutal the hanging is, and how disgustingly he’s treated.
So few films have managed to turn a protagonist into an antagonist and then into a protagonist again, but Kieslowski does it with ease. Jacek is a simple young man, and it is hinted he is slightly mentally retarded. His family have brought him only trouble, so now he is a loner and a stranger, unable to make friends with anyone because of his strange habits, spiteful attitude and carelessness for other people’s emotions. When he kills the driver, it is a disturbing, senseless and cruel act, but it is hardly Jacek’s fault. He’s simply one of those people who’s had an unfortunate upbringing, witnessed some terrible things, and has suffered mentally and emotionally due to it. Despite the dangerous things he does and the murder itself, he does not deserve to die. He’s a human, and no human deserves to die unwillingly. Criminals deserve to be punished, but killing them often seems pointless. There are of course some who are so dangerous that killing them is the only option, but Jacek is no heartless murderer. He’s a good person cursed with unfortunate circumstances. We genuinely feel sorry for him.
Krzysztof Kieslowski is one of those filmmakers who is a master of manipulating our emotions. He makes us feel whatever way he wants, and he does it so easily. His scripts are all masterfully written, his direction is pure brilliance, and the cinematography is always top-notch. He is a master storyteller; all of his stories are amazing and enthralling, and Killing is no exception. You will be moved, perhaps not to tears, but I can guarantee you will be, both emotionally and physically, in a different place when the film ends.
A Short Film About Love (1988)
Perhaps an even more impressive and emotional film than Killing, Love has more of a plot, and delves into it more fully. It is also a saddening and emotionally distraught tale, and is a suitable companion to the film that precedes it.
Love tells a story that has been passed down from generations of storytelling, presented in many, many films, from Rear Window to Disturbia. It is about a pleasant young man named Tomek who works at the bank, and spies through his binoculars a woman in the apartment across the courtyard from him. He often watches her, and examines her behavior. At first she seems like one of those carefree young women; she often has a male companion with her and Tomek sees them having sex one night. But when all’s said and done and the man has left, we see her for who she really is: a desperately, lonely, sad woman. One day, when she goes to the bank where Tomek works, he confronts her and reveals his secret: that he watches her, and wants her. But, alas, he is an awkward virgin and she is unimpressed. However, her growing desperation and loneliness mirrors his own and the two form a strange connection. She invites him over for sex, but when he prematurely ejaculates she ridicules him. Then the story takes a serious and disturbing turn. I’ll leave what happens next for you to discover.
Suffice it to say Kieslowski’s films, particularly Killing and Love, do a marvellous job of changing the film’s tone dramatically in the second half. Killing turns from a disturbing look at senseless murder to a critical indictment of the court system, just as Love turns from a sensitive story of unlikely romance to a disturbing examination of frail emotions and broken connections. Throughout all this, we are captivated. Kieslowski, as usual, has created an amazing story of life in Poland, whether you’re a murderer or a banker, a taxi driver or a lonely woman. I see a lot of similarities between Tomek and Jacek, the protagonist of Killing. They’re both shy, afraid young men disturbed by their circumstances, who attempt to make some connection but are saddened to discover it is pointless and will only hurt them. Just as the film’s perspective changes from Jacek to the lawyer’s in Killing, it changes from Tomek to the woman, Magda’s, in Love. It becomes her film in the second half; she is the one responsible for Tomek’s awful, broken state, and as much as she tries to find him and comfort him, she is still chilled and haunted by the fact that she was the one who did this to him.
All humans are frail… all of us have problems. This is what Kieslowski teaches us, with all his films but with these two in particular. He also teaches that if we don’t learn to confront our problems and put them behind them, we’ll end up in an even worse place. But of course, it is not the people’s fault in these films, at least, not entirely. Kieslowski’s two pictures are also a scathing indictment of the dark and unnatural effect society can have on some people who just aren’t prepared for what it has for them.
These are two of Kieslowski’s saddest stories, but they are also two of his most beautiful. They teach that, even in the most disastrous and sad of circumstances, beauty, reason and truth can prevail. There is always some phoenix rising from the ashes, and even when a film has the saddest of endings, there is always a poignant reason to sit for a while and contemplate how important the journey has been.
A Short Film About Killing: 10/10
A Short Film About Love: 10/10
What do you think of these films, if you’ve seen them? What’s your favourite Kieslowski film? Leave a comment below.