More views of – or before – Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
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The film was introduced by Dr Stanley Bill, from the Faculty of Modern and Mediaeval Languages at the University of Cambridge, who drew attention to two people who had been instrumental in its making : its cinematographer (Slawomir Idziak) and composer (Zbegniew Preisner, who has written for other films by Krzysztof Kieślowski*), the former for his use of filters in front of the lens, the latter for his self-taught style and beautiful melodies.
After A Short Film about Killing, some conversation took place with Dr Bill (and Andrew Atter) about the death penalty**. It appears that there is no definitive version of the film’s relevance to what happened in Poland : in one, it may have done no more than fitting in with the Zeitgeist, whereas, in the other (reported in the Festival’s leaflet), it was instrumental in creating it, first through a moratorium, then as part of a post-Soviet identification with, and desire to join, the EU.
Be that as it may… but is any perceived weakness in the film’s juxtaposition of state and individual killing just because one might assume that Jacek should previously have told Piotr what he does in the prison cell (as if it would, or could, have made a difference, as an exculpation for what had been done – please see below), whereas the fact is that (although the trial judge praises the speech) we do not ever hear what the latter said, in the former’s defence and against the death penalty, and for the failure to avoid the latter of which Piotr blames himself ?
If one knows about the law (as Kieślowski’s co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz also did), although we are told (by the prosecutor, in his narrative prior to the judgement being carried out ?) that the case had gone to appeal, and that a higher authority had not granted a pardon, it is extremely unlikely that a fledgling barrister such as such as Piotr (Krzysztof Globisz) would have handled those further stages : in fact, everything is consistent with what Jacek (Miroslaw Baka) tells him, that he asked for Piotr to be present, because the sole part of the judicial process that had registered with Jacek was his name being called from the court building just before he was driven away. A dual purpose is served, of course, not only that Piotr hears Jacek out, and wants to defy the inevitable, but that his being there point up the inhumanity and the horrible reality of the sentence : his opposition is symbolic, but what, when seeking admission as a barrister, he had said to the Bar committee about criminal penalties (not least capital ones) not being a deterrent is borne out by Jacek Łazar’s own case [does the name denote the word for ‘leper’, connote Lazarus in the New Testament ?].
The film, not just polemically (for we are free to make our own mind up), juxtaposes our notions of crime and punishment : as Dr Bill agrees, we are not a little reminded of Dostoyevsky (even if there seems to be more redemption in pre-Soviet Siberia than in Soviet-era Poland), and opinions may differ about what ‘sentimental’ means as a description. Piotr Balicki’s stance against the judicial machine may be emotional / polemical, but his defiance (as Christ’s is, before Pilate ?) is in words, not actions – maybe, on reflection, we are reminded of, and hope for, what happens in Kafka’s ‘In der Strafkolonie’, where the Explorer’s not so much disagreeing with as failing to endorse*** the Officer’s justification for fitting the punishment to the crime upsets the regime, albeit bloodily and crudely.
In handling and taking as its text Thou shalt not kill [better rendered as ‘murder’ ?], the film is tied to two dates, 17 March [1986 ?] and 27 April 1987, both of which link Jacek and Piotr – or, as we see him in his celebrations on that day, Piotrek (the diminutive by which his girlfriend calls him). With a different, though not wholly dissimilar, aesthetic of connectedness to that of James Joyce, commemorating 16 June 1904 in Ulysses****, A Short Film about Killing shows how, at the moment when Piotr’s reflections over coffee are being coloured by negativity at the thought of what he might have to bear in his professional life, Jacek, who has been cursed by the gypsy woman whom (in a catalogue of bad-mindedness, by him and others) he had rudely rejected, turns his mind to murder (heralded by sinister tones in Preisner’s score) :
The word ‘reflection’ is where we began the film, with the confusing image of a building seeming to rotate and twist as we see it in the glass of the door that Waldemar Rekowski (Jan Tesarz) opens and closes (maybe as Jacek’s own heart and soul are shown doing, as work is found around town for his idle hands, be it frightening the pigeons, or edging a stone forward, as if were just obeying gravity in an accident ?). And, as Dr Bill had mentioned that we might notice, in the cinematography can be seen occlusions of part of the frame*****, but also how the light on the buildings, even of the housing estate, becomes a sort of golden sepia, and the sky, particularly, seems perpetually that of sunset – culminating, after the killing, in a halo of bright sunlight, as if of some unholy transfiguration (in which we might identify Georg Büchner and his revolutionary play Woyzeck ?), before the sombre, washed tones of court-room and prison.
There are hints, here, at Jacek’s mental state, but maybe knowing of the events that had led to the death of his younger sister Marysia would not, as the law stood then in Poland, have afforded him the help of pleading diminished responsibility : Kieślowski does not dwell on the moment, but, when Jacek finds Beatka [with a name that seems to connote blessedness / saintliness, just coincidentally the girl who interested Waldemar and to whom he made a suggestive offer ?], his ideas about what they can do, now that he has acquired a car (and whoever exactly they are to each other), may have lucidity, but they betray that it is in fantasy that he has found a solution to their problems.
Think of capital punishment as a fit one as one may, or as a deterrent, but it may not have been a fit one here, where no one in Jacek’s place would have been contemplating the actual consequences of his actions.
People have claimed that, to A Short Film about Killing (Krótki film o zabijaniu) (1988), they prefer the hour-long version that forms part of Dekalog :— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) April 5, 2018
It's where I started, but I cannot agree with them - there is just too much going on to be limited to that length. pic.twitter.com/loobwqOgri
* As well as the Dies Irae for The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) (2013).
** Only abolished in the UK, and in living memory, by the efforts of Victor Gollancz, Arthur Koestler and other campaigners – however well known it may be that Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged, relatively few seem to know that this cessation was not merely something that happened (and by no means overnight).
*** Respectively, they are der Reisende and der Offizier : well Kafka knew how (as also in, for example, ‘Das Urteil’) to portray ego-states in all their fragility. So much so, that we almost easily credit that his own personality was of this kind, or else that he was always foreseeing crushing bureaucracies – as if, despite what Alan Bennett wishes to tell us in The Insurance Man, Kafka did not work as a lawyer for The Workers’ Accident Insurance Office. Or even foreshadowing Nazi horrors (as if what The Third Reich resorted to was scarcely unfamiliar to Eastern Europe ?).
**** Albeit one which is more akin to that of Michael Haneke’s films from The Seventh Continent (1989) onwards, or to that of Cloud Atlas (2012).
***** Over coffee with his girlfriend, and when she carries out a palm-reading (the service offered by the gypsy woman, but rejected), we see Piotr’s and her brows shielded by a dark bar at the top of the frame, as he tries to contemplate the future.
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)