Krzysztof Kieslowski

Poland, 1987 – 1988



Guilt and punishment / Murderer and the victim


Death penalty issue / Justice


Author: Wiktor Figiel

Source: http://www.edukacjafilmowa.pl/materialy-edukacyjne/scenariusze-zajec/item/1098-kr%C3%B3tki-film-o-zabijaniu
Capital Punishment in the Light of the Film Language on the Basis of A Short Film About Killing
Time: 3 lessons + screening
A suggestion of an introduction to the lesson: In a society saturated with images, the visual items become privileged in discovering, researching, and also presenting ethical dilemmas. When thinking about the ethical subjects in films (in cinema), most often we think about specific protagonists coping with moral dilemmas on the screen. Almost automatically we look for a story involving tough moral decisions. We are thinking about a story — the contents of a given movie. Basing on A Short Film About Killing we will attempt to go beyond the contents and have an ‘ethical’ look at the other, formal, elements of the film.
When watching the film by Kieślowski, we will pose a question whether the chosen elements of the film language play the role of an ethical comment/argument. We will think whether such means as the light or camera movements (and other) contain a commentary, whether they are an assessment of the reality.
The teacher shortly presents the key information about the director [5], s/he may also give handouts to the students.
The students have a short discussion, initiated by teacher’s questions: Were you moved by anything in this film, were you angered, shocked? What questions did you pose to yourselves during the screening? Why did you pose them?
The teacher projects on the wall/screen [6] four photos (next to one another) of the main protagonists, in order of their appearance in the film: the taxi driver Waldemar Rakowski (Jan Tesarz), Jacek Łazar (Mirosław Baka), attorney Piotr Balicki (Krzysztof Globisz), worker (Artur Barciś).
The students analyse the film narration. They answer the questions: From whose point of view is the story told? Is it told by one of the characters in the movie, and outside observer, or maybe there is no one telling it? Which elements of the film facilitate answering the question, which make it more difficult?
The students are divided into three- or four-person groups and they get worksheets for A Short Film About Killing: the film as a description, the film as an evaluation (see: attachment). The teacher may assign the chosen means of expression to a given group. E.g. Group A — dialogues, light/colours; Group B — sound/music and camera work, etc.
The students discuss their suggestions and comment on the ideas of others.
The teacher sums the lesson up. S/he grades students for their work during the lesson. S/he presents a short comment concerning the movie by K. Kieślowski. The screening of A Short Film About Killing was a shock because of its timing. Year 1988 was in Poland the period of a heated debate concerning the pros and cons of capital punishment. The critics and the audience had treated the film by Kieślowski as an important contribution to the dispute, as an argument against — according to most reviewers — the ‘judicial murder’. The work by Kieślowski is often compared to a short but desperate cry. One should also notice and appreciate the clear inspiration with a documentary movie.

Analyse the chosen means of expression in the film and decide which of them (or which aspects of a given means of expression) are of descriptive character, and which are judgemental about the world presented in the film.
Some examples of students’ answers are presented in the boxes below.

Reviews Group A

Written by
The title of the movie draws an equals sign between a premeditated murder and a killing by law. (…) Rebellion against evil paradoxically is coupled here with sympathy for the both sides: victim and executioner. Lack of judgment does not equal ethical relativity. Just the opposite: entire reality presented in the movie is full of evil. Objection to death penalty, disapproval of complete condemnation of a man, a light wandering in the darkness – after bouncing back from the bottom of determinism all this leads (the film maker who never revealed his religious attitude) – back to faith.
Tadeusz Sobolewski, Wszyscy jesteśmy mordercami? (We are all murderers?), “Kino” (Cinema) 1989, no. 8
“I know one thing: A Short Film About Killing is a masterpiece. It is one of those striking movies whose pictures will keep you captivated. There is Dostoyevski in it.”

Claude-Marie Tremois [Telerama, no. 1983, 1988]
“A shocking movie (A Short Film About Killing). Shocking and at the same time untrue… It is impossible to perceive it in any other way than as a voice in the discussion on death penalty. At most it is an impression on that topic, which lacks any other values – apart from the artistic ones.”

Andrzej Szmak [Przegląd Tygodniowy (Weekly Review), 12/1988]

Reviews Group B

Written by

“I think it is superb. (…) The detailed character, earnestness, focus with which the movie follows the murderer and victim at the same time, minute after minute up to his execution, ensure depiction of that versatility and also mystery of the human nature that characterizes art (…) and which is rarely present in cinema, occasionally in the works of some Bunuel or Bergman” – a critic (Zygmunt Kaluzynski) wrote in “Polityka” (Policy).

Analyse the chosen means of expression in the film and decide which of them (or which aspects of a given means of expression) are of descriptive character, and which are judgemental about the world presented in the film.

Some examples of students’ answers are presented in the boxes below.


Conversations of characters playing supporting roles; dialogues between the protagonists and the
bit playing characters (although these are difficult to assess explicitly — the other means of expression), may suggest that “there is more to it than meets the eye” (e.g. conversation between Łazar and the artist).
What the attorney says during the exam (a critical assessment of the preventive function of a punishment, quoting Karl Marx); what the attorney says during his last conversation with Jacek Łazar (“I shall never say »now«”) — a protest against ‘heartless’ mechanisms of justice
the heroes (the cast, how they play, actions, motivations) The plot focuses on three protagonists, whose lives get entangled together, as if by a coincidence.
The motivations for their actions are of secondary importance — they have no influence on the events; in case of Łazar we learn about them at the end of the movie, as part of the discussion before the execution.
The role of light/colour This seems to be the most important part of the commentary, assessing the world presented in the film. The dominating colour is brownish green (is it a rotting world, a nightmare), the picture is often vignetted, darkened (what shall we make of the darkening?). There are unnatural, extreme low angle shots. On the one hand — dirt, neutral shots in the scene of the killing (a random cyclist, a horse, a train) go towards naturalism, on the other — the gloom suggests a Kafka-style nightmare, claustrophoby. It is rather a created, judged world (by Sławomir Idziak
and Krzysztof Kieślowski), not a ‘registered’ one.
Music/sound The key scenes (killing of the taxi driver, execution of Łazar) have been presented in a naturalistic way as far as the sound is concerned. However, in the second part of the taxi-driver’s killing scene, after Łazar says „Jesus…” (guilty conscience?), there is some non-diegetic music. A clear presence of non-diegetic music in the film suggests a commenting attitude, judging of the world presented in the film. For example the first scenes are accompanied by unnerving music that overwhelms the viewer; it is mainly the music that stirs unease in the viewers, makes them afraid of the reality they view.

Camera work

The camera follows the heroes closely, observes their actions closely, it is ‘cool’, ‘detailed’. In the killing scenes we may call it naturalistic.
Meaning (symbolism) of a chosen scene — the opening scene, the closing scene Both seem to comment on the reality. Ruthlessness, stupidity, lack of sensitivity of children at an anonymous tower blocks housing estate; helplessness of the attorney after the death sentence has been carried out.



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