[Review by Antony Stubbs]
[Writer: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz | Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski | Aired: 06/01/1990]
“Fire will attract more attention than any other cry for help.” – Jean-Michel Basquiat
This was tough.
But then again, perhaps it should be.
In undoubtedly the most famous (read: notorious) episode of the Dekalog (not least because of its theatrical expansion, A Short Film About Killing), Kieslowski seemed to want to put his innate humanism to the ultimate test. To this end he creates a harsh, bilious and hostile world as his canvas to some of the most brutal acts in film and television history.
In terms of its formal composition, “V” has often struck me as somewhat distinct from the rest of the series. Not only is Kieslowski rarely this cynical, but the aesthetic is designed to plunge the audience into an aggressive and pessimistic vortex, with its three major players either affected by or affecting the misanthropic atmosphere.
Kieslowski’s subsequently-frequent DOP Slawomir Idziak took the visual reigns for the episode, but could only be persuaded to participate after reading Kieslowski and Piesiewicz’ script if he could doctor the footage with a series of green filters that would darken the image, thereby nullifying any clear skies or light sources. It has been referred to in some circles as “a world swimming in piss”, and whether or not you agree with his artistic decision, it’s hard to deny its effect towards presenting a world bathed in nausea.
I for one am in two minds about it: whilst I appreciate the successful employment of so artificial an effect and feel it is highly appropriate to the subject matter, I also feel that the filters should perhaps have been reserved for its theatrical magnification where the visual result pays off on a broader scale, and that as mentioned earlier, it does feel odd for a single episode in a tightly-knit series to alter its visual dynamic so sharply, creating a slightly incongruous effect.
Which isn’t to say, of course, that the actual cinematography itself is at fault. Far from it. For all of its bitterness, “V” is a marvel to behold. Idziak uses handheld cameras throughout in the manner for which they are best employed: to create a nervous tension and sense of unpredictable energy. The risk one runs with handheld, of course, is that the result will appear amateurish, yet “V” looks as amazing in stills as it does in motion. This is largely thanks to the purposeful close-ups that humanise some of the work’s most repellent characters, and the emphasis on landscapes and environment.
Though this episode is arguably the most spatially divorced from the Warsaw tower block, it nevertheless works itself determinedly into several shots in the first half, such as the early shot in which it appears abstractly in the reflection of glass double-doors and when the taxi driver washes the vehicle at the taxi rank, where we’re treated to a then-innocuous shot from the back seat, the very site of the eventual first murder. Given “V”‘s estrangement from the interiors, the block’s unforgiving façade becomes more alien and imposing, and the sudden focus on the macabre dangling head on the windscreen serves as a grim foreshadow of the fates of both driver and passenger.
Plot-wise, “V” can be addressed quite simply: a young man kills another man. The state then kills him. Defence lawyer Piotr is caught in the middle. Simple enough, but the devil is in the details.
In both incarnations of the tale, screentime is divided very economically between the three leads: Jacek, the taxi driver and Piotr. Given Kieslowski’s eternal preoccupation with chance and fate, it’s only fitting that these three are thrust together by simple circumstance. Repeatedly, Kieslowski cuts directly from one participant to another, all the while relating subtle details to each other’s current position. This is best exemplified by the notion of the trio as pseudo-voyeurs: until their lives intertwine, all three observe or comment upon contemporary events whilst remaining somewhat separate in their social interactions. I’m reminded here of the skill with which Krzyzstof, Pawel and Irena are juggled in “I” [1×01], though I don’t feel “V”‘s characters represent Kieslowski.
Jacek walks the streets of Warsaw with a perpetual sense of discomfort. His actions are wildly schizophrenic: at one stage he deliberately scatters some pigeons to upset an old lady, at another he goes to a photolab to get his sister’s First Communion photo enlarged. He pushes a stranger into a public urinal just for smiling at him, and later amuses two young girls outside whilst sitting in a café. He drops a rock onto the motorway causing an unseen accident, yet seems interested in the opinions of the girl in the cinema box office.
With slight contextual backgrounds, we’re invited to gauge the characters’ psyches as the story develops, as this is especially true of Jacek. With this penduluming behaviour we begin to understand that Jacek has precious little emotional maturity; rather, he is steered in certain directions as his current emotion dictates. You get the impression that he might be just as likely to drop in unexpectedly on a close relative as he is to pick a fight with a homeless guy. His rudderlessness makes his act of murder all the more shocking: without precedent nor direct reasoning, his clumsy assassination suggests a desire for emotional revenge against whoever is unfortunate enough to be near him when his mood dial is at his most sadistic.
Enter the taxi driver. He is coarse, boorish and similarly attracted to mischief. He is given to similarly fascistic thinking as Jacek: he rewards a local dog with a sandwich his wife made, but later spooks two poodles with his car horn for his own amusement. He tries to look up the skirt of a young girl taking a delivery, and deliberately ignores a fare from the waiting Dorota and Andrzej (who have clearly come a long ways to repairing their relationship since “II” [1×02]), and another from two drunks. Until the crux of the story, he seems the crueller party. Yet it becomes apparent that for all the taxi driver’s dearth of social graces, he makes up for in his filtering of malice: that which Jacek crucially lacks.
Piotr’s journey is succinct yet dynamic. His oratory against the death penalty overlays the opening credits, such is its importance, and his ethical position is frequently expressed throughout as the street-level events in Warsaw develop. It is crucial that Piotr’s dialogue scenes with his superiors are intercut with Jacek’s actions, so that the latter’s behaviour is given an abstract perspective and ultimate consequence. Fundamentally, his spatial and intellectual detachment from the suffering working class gives his journey a sense of hope notably absent from the surrounding incidents, which makes his eventual helplessness in defending Jacek seem all the more tragic.
Despite the antagonism and dog-eat-dog atmosphere, nothing quite prepares you for the murder. Jacek precedes his act of aggression by binding his hand with rope. The symbolism of the act is close to Catholic penance, as it seems to cause Jacek pain even in his contemplation. We are not expected to fully understand his mindset, but even divorced of context it clearly suggests he is building towards some act of violence.
No matter how many times I see it, the expansive shot of an overcast sky (dare I say it, the heavens) over the taxi moments after Jacek leaves the café fills me with dread. As with “I” [1×01], we’re in omens territory again, as nature itself seems to want to intervene in the coming events. Jacek narrowly misses one taxi seconds before ‘our’ driver arrives to take his fare; that’s Kieslowski for you. Fate intervenes again, immediately, as Jacek denies two other citizens passage, alternating their destinations with his own as he gets onboard. The cab then takes flight, damn-near mirroring the previous driving shot under the foreboding sky.
Of course, who better to appear right now but Artur Barcis, in the role of a construction worker? Unusually, the taxi driver alters him to his presence, but once he has his bearings, he looks mournfully at Jacek and shakes his head. Like Krzyzstof (“I” [1×01]) and Anka (“IV” [1×04]) before him, Jacek directly acknowledges the man, and attempts to shift into darkness where he can’t be seen. Of course, Barcis’ character is an indirect mediator, and can only stand aside to let them drive away. The trap is set.
The sense of helplessness relayed to the audience runs parallel to Krzyzstof’s disinclination to view an ‘impossibility’ in “I” [1×01]. Though he hardly deserves what’s in store for him, the taxi driver is afforded a brief moment of redemption as he cheerfully stops for a procession of waving schoolkids. Given his acute connection to his sister’s memory, Jacek is forced to pause. Taking the unbeaten track, Jacek strikes, and thus begins the murder sequence that made the one in Torn Curtain seem swift and efficient. Kieslowski milks the confines for all they’re worth, as the driver is strangled, beaten, dragged from the car and bludgeoned with a rock (repeatedly in A Short Film About Killing), all the while pleading for his life. The only witnesses: a distant cyclist, a horse and a passing train.
The scene is as brutal and prolonged as you could ask for, and fundamentally, Jacek is no hero, nor is the taxi driver some villainous henchman by which we could ascribe some justification (Kieslowski would have rather died than make Rambo). Indeed, it’s uneasy to the point at which I wish the driver would die sooner just to curtail his agony, which makes me complicit at least insofar as wishing for the minimum of human torment. In its aftermath, bathed in fresh light, Jacek clumsily strips the car of some effects, eats the remaining sandwich and baulks at the children’s song on the radio, which he rips out and disposes of in a puddle.
We cut immediately to the trial. Kieslowski isn’t interested in some police procedural where a group of diverse detectives carry out a manhunt, that’s not where his heart lies. Jacek has been found, and is pronounced guilty. Jacek’s subsequent dialogue with Piotr makes it clear that absolutely no-one else was in his corner, and ultimately Piotr has failed in convincing the judge against the death penalty, despite a later claim that his argument was unmatched in its conviction.
The clock now ticks down towards Jacek’s execution, and I’m sure all he sees now is a sand timer. Piotr valiantly does his best to become something of father figure given his family’s inability to communicate their feelings towards him (the furnishing of a carton of cigarettes is the extent of their screened interaction). Piotr is Jacek’s true sole confidant in an inescapable penal machine that will hold him until his death.
What’s vital to understanding “V” is that Kieslowski hardly argues one killing is better than the other. He invests a great deal of effort in attempting to humanise Jacek before and after his wrenching act of brutality. Conversely, the justice system is refreshingly brief in their act of strangulation, but are at a remove from humanity in the almost humdrum nature of their indifference. A series of uniformed guards patrol the area, all as concerned for Jacek as a parasite is for its host. We’re invited to track along the grounds and corridors as the executioner goes about setting up the chamber with all the emotion of putting in time at the gym.
Within his last few moments, Jacek makes a confession: he and friend were directly responsible for his sister’s death five years before, in a meadow by a forest. “I was her favourite. She was mine, too.” He has no clear motive for his actions, but the guilt bearing down on his shoulders had to find some sort of release, even if it was to prove destructive. All he asks of Piotr is to speak to his mother again, return the photo to her and ask if he can be buried next to his father in the family plot. His actions can then be interpreted as an elaborate form of suicide, and suggests that even if we don’t possess souls there is still some sort of finality in allowing the dead to share the same soil.
A belligerent guard asks if Piotr is done talking to him, to which he claims he’ll never to ready to leave. Sure enough, his emotional appeal counts for nought as the guards simply intervene as and when they’re ready. In an image that might be considered comical were it not for the dire implications, Jacek is mobbed by guards as he is escorted from his cell, and marched towards his doom. The confines of the execution chamber are now complete with a priest, the sole representative of the church in the entire series: it’s interesting to note that a figure who embodies the tenets of the Bible, including, of course, the all-important “Thou shalt not kill” is an active participant in exactly that. Jacek is offered a cigarette; a pure formality, of course.
Piotr is true to his word: he’s not ready to leave, and bears witness to his demise, all the while conflicted and hurt. He was previously dismissed as being “too sentimental”, but surely caring too much is better than not caring at all.
Following the sentence, we are directed to a field, where a piercing light shines from afar. The camera pans by as Piotr sits in his car, venting his frustrations at a world that permits him to make an ostensible difference whilst simultaneously impeding his worth and purpose. We can only speculate that his location is the meadow by the forest that Jacek referred to, perhaps in the interests of making sense via connections. He seems oblivious to the light, the only glimmer of hope in the episode, perhaps relating to the prospect of his recent fatherhood. There is a light and it never goes out.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ That early image of the housing block reflected in the double doors that almost makes it looks picturesque.
+ Jacek’s complete indifference to a fight breaking out in the back alleys.
+ Jacek’s underarm POV: the second shot is increasingly jaundiced.
+ The genuinely warm smile to the kids outside when Jacek monkeys around in the café.
+ Jacek binding his hand with the rope under cover of a glass table. We’re not dealing with a career criminal here.
+ The startling image of Jacek in the wing mirror.
+ Piotr calling Jacek from the courtroom window.
+ The brief return of Artur Barcis after the Prosecutor congratulates Piotr on the birth of his son.
+ Jacek turning down the filtered cigarette.
+ The demented screaming of the executioner. God, it stays with you.
+ The remarkable under-feet shot.