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Film

Delving into the brutal world of state-sanctioned murder with Krzysztof Kieślowski

Earlier this year, the Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act of 2021 was proposed by Democrat representatives who want to make sure that capital punishment is off the table at the federal level. However, the death penalty is still a legal punitive measure in more than 27 American states and upwards of 50 countries. The debate surrounding the correct treatment of convicted criminals has been an incredibly divisive one, especially in countries like the United States where such policies disproportionately affect marginalised groups.

On December 7th, 1982, Charles Brooks Jr. became the first person to be executed by a lethal injection – a method developed by the US which was later picked up by other countries. Although studies indicate that the majority of wrongfully convicted prisoners on death row are Black, Brooks wasn’t one of them. He was in prison because he had teamed up with an accomplice and brutally killed a car mechanic named David Gregory in 1976. That is why many people felt that capital punishment was justified in his case, setting a precedent that resulted in the executions of 1,283 people until April of 2017.

Many movies have been made on the subject of capital punishment, including truly pioneering masterpieces such as Nagisa Ōshima’s Death by Hanging, but none of them have captured the gritty reality of the machinations of what Althusser called the ‘Repressive State Apparatus’ as well as Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1988 gem A Short Film About Killing. An expansion of an episode from his iconic series Dekalog, this overwhelmingly bleak meditation revolves around Jacek – a jarringly disillusioned young man who is sentenced to death after he violently and irrationally kills a taxi driver.

At first glance, the connections between Brooks (who later renamed himself as Shareef Ahmad Abdul-Rahim) and this avant-garde film from Poland seem tenuous. Of course, Kieślowski’s films was primarily a reaction to what was happening in his own country and ended up playing a vital part in the abolishment of the death penalty in Poland even though audiences felt that a comparison between a murder committed by an individual and legal executions by the state was extremely unfair. When I first watched A Short Film About Killing, I wasn’t aware of any of this. That’s probably why I immediately thought of Brooks and the excellent essay written by journalist Dick Reavis who was there with the inmate in his final moments.

The more I researched, the parallels between Jacek and Brooks seemed increasingly apparent to me. Apart from all the technical innovations that Kieślowski mastered, the greatest achievement of A Short Film About Killing is that it is universal in its depiction of human morality, crime and modern judicial systems despite the extremely specific milieu it evokes. It is certainly paradoxical that one of the most humane cinematic masterpieces of the 20th century is an unflinching descent into the bowels of violence, social decay and corrupt institutions but that is how I would categorise this particular investigation by Kieślowski. Through nightmarish visions of a dystopian society and absurd dramatic action, the Polish master constructs a cinematic thesis that is relevant to this day.

From the very beginning, A Short Film About Killing lulls the audience into a distorted interpretation of Warsaw which is littered with dead rats and whose streets are populated by kids who hang cats. There is no moral redemption for anyone who inhabits this world, with people wearing their ugliness on their sleeves. The incessant nihilism threatens to engulf you, with its visual translation often obscuring frames through the use of highly symbolic shadows. “I sense that the world is becoming more and more ugly,” Kieślowski explained. “I wanted to dirty this world. We used green filters that give this strange effect, allowing us to mask all that isn’t essential to the image”.

On the set of Krzysztof Kieslowski picture A Short Film About Killing. (Credit: Alamy)

Jacek drifts along these dirty streets, traumatised by the death of his younger sister who was run over by his drunk friend and rendered unstable by the absence of his father. We watch him as he engages in juvenile delinquency before he gets in a cab and strangles the driver (who is just as abhorrent as almost everyone else in the film), ultimately smashing his head in with a rock. Separated from the filth of this world is a young and idealistic lawyer called Piotr Balicki who still harbours a romantic view of the world and quotes Marx in his interview: “Since Cain, the world has neither been intimidated nor ameliorated by punishment.” A Short Film About Killing violently deconstructs that idealism while simultaneously calling for a reform (which did end up happening in Poland).

Despite all the bleak images and the social degeneracy that Kieślowski depicts, his vision of Jacek waiting for his execution is more human than most of the “life-affirming” cinematic products that are churned out year after year. The darkness that surrounds him gives way to reveal that underneath his external rage and after the heinous crime he committed, he is just a lost boy who isn’t even 21 but the state doesn’t care about any of that. Instead of focusing on the rehabilitation of a clearly disturbed individual who made the wrong decisions due to the lack of proper guidance, it passes a sentence to end his life in the blink of an eye.

Throughout the trial and even after it, Brooks maintained that he had accidentally fired that gun. Even though Reavis did not buy it, he told the journalist: “I know that I am not a cold-blooded killer. I know that I am not able to kill someone without compassion. I cannot identify with what happened because that was so, you know, it’s just like something you do while you’re asleep, the sleepwalkers that commit acts. They can’t feel what they would have felt had they been awake and committed a particular act.” A Short Film About Killing comes to the same conclusion but even that doesn’t matter, especially when compared to the clinical way in which the state carries out the same act that it condemned the convict for and assumes no moral responsibility for it.

The final moments of this particular project by Kieślowski will haunt me forever, of this much I am sure. It takes him just a few minutes to accurately translate the existential horror of being subjected to such a methodical murder by the government, with its army of officers and doctors and executioners to make sure that you don’t make it out alive. Jacek desperately clings onto his last cigarette which symbolises his exponentially decreasing life span as he is transformed into what Foucault described as a “docile body”. Kieślowski insists that no matter what the state officials say, there is no dignity in a death where people hold you down and you defecate in your pants.

Ironically, the British Medical Society rejected the use of lethal injections on these very grounds in 1953, claiming that it did not offer self-control and dignity to the executed inmates. At this point, it is painfully clear that there is no dignity involved in state-sanctioned murder irrespective of the selective lenses through which you look at the issue. As many countries are currently revising their stances on capital punishment, it is essential that we remember Brooks and rewatch A Short Film About Killing in order to take stock of the dark direction in which we are hurtling.

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