Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing takes on a rather simple narrative to outline a much larger critique. In doing so, it projects a pronounced degree of pathos that could only result from the hard work and passion of such a visionary artist. Indeed, this film – particularly its final third – presents one of the most harrowing downward spirals that I have witnessed on film. It is an evaluation on shallow human assumption and overarching bleakness of the human condition that we all seem to take for granted. As an extension of a chapter from his Decalogue, Kieslowski takes this tendency, and magnifies it in the form of a few character studies, presented with the 90-minute frame of this film. The results are devastating.
The narrative begins with the introduction of three characters, who live completely separate lives. There is the young man, the bright, optimistic lawyer, and the middle-aged taxi driver; all three characters are troubled in their own ways. Inevitably, the “killing” occurs about halfway through the film; from that point, the story becomes progressively darker, as their own lives begin to merge tighter and tighter. What I love most about this film is the seemingly effortless ability that goes into projecting such individuals beyond the assumptions of caricature. Scenes that are presented in the initial half seem insignificant, yet shine a light on the essence of the individual that lies beyond the external. Our young man, for example, is consistently seen as someone who is cold, ruthless, possibly sadistic; yet a brief interaction between him and a couple of young girls says otherwise.
The filters used on the physical filming of this work provide a tremendous boost to its relevant mood. The caked-on darkness along the screen’s edges almost completely blackens the entire screen, leaving visible only a medium-sized portion in the very center. This darkening is nothing new, and is especially common among films of the silent era, but Kieslowski takes this aesthetic one step further. As viewers, there is always something we cannot see, some other part of the film’s “story” we aren’t receiving from explicit portrayal, and this darkness is a literal presentation of such a denial. It also strongly associates itself to a strong theme in the film; that is, a character’s tragic plunge into the dark side. Eventually, we are less distracted by this visual abnormality, and the unsettling events that unfold within the story itself are that much more pronounced.
Despite the anti-establishment message that is implied with the film’s jarring final scene, subtlety remains the norm in this film. With the exception of a brilliant interaction between two characters near the end, long-winded conversation is unnecessary. It is within a collection of brief interactions and visual symbolization that this movie pushes its themes across. Moreover, it is through emotions that it is felt; not with angst, but with true sadness and uncertainty toward a world that allows such things to happen. This film starts out bleak and only gets bleaker, but it is never heartless. A Short Film About Killing is, rather, a beautiful portrait of killing – the killing of genuine human compassion, the murder of the individual soul.