No European director of recent years, not even Pedro Almodovar, has been as admired, at least by critics, as Krzysztof Kieslowski. Yet he had to wait many years for recognition outside Poland. The films that brought him into prominence were the Decalogue, loose commentaries on the Ten Commandments, originally made for Polish television. Each hour-long film was set within the same Warsaw suburb, and the whole project took 18 months to shoot. Two of them were extended by Kieslowski into features – A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. They illustrated “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not commit adultery”, and either would be candidates for my 100 best list.
I choose Killing because of the furore it caused in some circles. In Poland, the film was instrumental in the abolition of the death penalty. But not everybody admired it. At Cannes, it only received the minor Jury Prize; one juror called it a second-rate copy of an American film and another said that it should be banned outright.
Only myself and Henning Carlsen, the Danish director, supported it. We nominated it for Best Film – a choice of which its opponents approved, thinking it would have no chance of that award with the final jury. To everyone’s surprise, Kieslowski won.
The film is not easy to watch, being the story of a lumpen young man who kills a taxi driver and is caught, brought to trial, condemned to death and executed. Both deaths are dreadful; Kieslowski is clearly trying to tell us that both are morally repugnant. The taxi driver is battered with a stone and dies slowly, while the long-winded bureaucratic precision of the hanging was apparently so horrendous to film that Kieslowski’s team had to break off in the middle.
It should be emphasised, though, that the two most violent scenes are not lingered over. We see neither too little nor too much. They are there to shock us, but for a good reason. What makes them powerful is the rest of the film. It is shot by Slavomir Idziak with the aid of lowering, ochre-coloured filters that render the young man’s world like a purgatorial nightmare. Never has Warsaw and its environs looked so depressing.
The murderer has come from a bad home and his lack of education is palpable. He is a pathetic figure who would seem set for a life of tragedy. Not for a moment does the film let us off the hook, and the atmosphere it sustains is one of the most menacing I’ve encountered.
Most considering the work of this outstanding director would probably choose a film from his later Three Colours Trilogy, made largely in France. Brilliant as these were, his style became too refined, sometimes dominating the content. While it is almost impossible to conceive of Kieslowski making a bad film, in the Decalogue, and particularly in Killing, style and content were perfectly matched.