The lawyer (and future Polish senator) Krzysztof Piesiewicz met the director Krzysztof Kieślowski while the latter was shooting a documentary on the courts under Polish martial law. Piesiewicz, who would go on to co-write Kieślowski’s most internationally acclaimed films, including Dekalog (The Decalogue, 1989), urged the director to abandon the project: “you can’t see the real drama in a courtroom because everyone is playing a role. The real drama is spontaneous.” (1) Given this fact, it is unsurprising that the chapter of the Dekalog most closely related to Piesiewicz’s previous profession and previous work with Kieślowski (Bez konca/No End, 1985), the capital punishment-focused Dekalog, pięć (The Decalogue 5), elides the courtroom proceedings entirely. After a four-minute-plus scene depicting the teenager Jacek (Miroslaw Baka)’s murder of a taxi driver (Jan Tesarz), the film cuts to a panel of judges. They rise. Jacek leans over the shoulder of Piotr (Krzusztof Globisz), his lawyer, and asks, “Does that mean its over?” “It’s over”, Piotr responds. Kieślowski andPiesiewicz are uninterested in the processes linking two acts of killing. They instead explore the broader relationships between them.
This approach is consistent with Kieślowski’s stated aims. Unlike his friend and contemporary Agnieszka Holland, who made explicitly political films about Poland, Kieślowski actively avoided the openly political in his fiction films: “Even when my films were about people involved in politics, I always tried to find out what sort of people they were. The political environment only formed a background.” (2) Despite early plans to set Dekalog in the world of politics, Kieślowski and Piesiewicz claimed they were uninterested in politics when they wrote the films; they sought to produce “psychological films” “about life” (3).
Yet Kieślowski was most excited by the cycle’s explicitly political film, The Decalogue 5. When looking for funding, he approached the Ministry of Arts and Culture. He told them he would make two films for them cheaply provided that one was The Decalogue 5, which he “really wanted to make” (4). Kieślowski often denied that he intended to make a strong political statement even with this film (5). At other times, however, he described it as a film “against capital punishment as a form of violence” (6). The Decalogue 5 can be easily paired with the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”, extending its conventionally recognised scope beyond acts of individuals to acts of the state.
Critics accused Kieślowski of being insincere when he said he did not want to motivate anyone to action (7). In hindsight, Kieślowski may have been wise. The film is more interesting for its questions than for its weak argument against the death penalty.As a political statement, the film can feel dated and the moral ambiguities seem less affecting than those in other parts of Dekalog.
The Decalogue 5 is ineffective as propaganda. While Kieślowski sought to tell psychological and personal stories, that of The Decalogue 5 is clearly designed to combat the death penalty. The fact that both murder victims are unlikable potentially undermines this political statement, and Jacek’s explanation for his actions is weak. While one feels sorry for Jacek when he pathetically announces that he does not want to die, he seems to deserve some punishment.Lesser films provide better cases, igniting intuitions that the death penalty is unjust. While The Life of David Gale (Alan Parker, 2003) is poorly made and seems unable to grasp the legal problems with its primary case, I have met more people who had visceral reactions to that film than The Decalogue 5.
The Decalogue 5 instead initially appears to be a conventional morality play. The characters are less complex than in some of Kieślowski’s other works. There is a clear hero and a clear villain. Prior to the killing, Jacek drops a rock on a car, pushes a man into a urinal and otherwise engages in debauchery. Elsewhere, Piotr gives righteous speeches on justice in oral interviews prior to his admittance to the bar. Cinematographer (and frequent collaborator with other giants of Polish cinema like Andrzej Wadja and Krzysztof Zanussi) Slawomir Idziak’s famous green lenses cast Jacek’s actions in an ugly, almost yellow light (8). The taxi driver, whose brief stop at the apartment complex links this section of Dekalog less closely to the building than any other installment, is also shot in green in these early scenes. He lives in the same world of drudgery as Jacek and does not act well in it. While he initially wins the audience over by feeding a dog, he teases another, hits on young women and drives away from fares. These actions clearly imply that the taxi driver deserves to be punished, raising questions about the validity of Jacek’s ugly actions. Indeed, Piotr’s righteous hero raises similar questions when rehearsing arguments against capital punishment, suggesting that broader justifications such as recompense and deterrence do not apply to capital punishment. These speeches are shot conventionally. As Piotr explains that he wants to be a lawyer to understand people he would not otherwise meet, his life is not infected by drudgery. He remains righteous.
The film, however, lacks the clear victors present in a conventional morality play. Piotr is an ineffectual hero without a clearly identified enemy. His experiences surrounding the deaths of two unsympathetic victims raise interesting questions about responsibility in circumstances beyond one’s control that remain interesting outside the context of the capital punishment debate. When he defies convention to ask the presiding judge if another lawyer would have saved Jacek, Piotr is told that he is blameless as both a lawyer and a human being, but that they could have asked for another judge. No one seems to be in favour of capital punishment. Even the judge seems opposed. Just as no one supported martial law in Bez konca, even those who keep the capital punishment structure functioning do not support it. To the extent that there is injustice, it is impersonal. The argument targets a system, suggesting that a public policy remains in place that helps no one.
Interestingly, however, there is a sense of responsibility in this impersonal structure that is not present in the more individuated primary psychological story about life. Notably, the judge takes responsibility for what happens to Jacek at the same time that he deems the verdict inevitable, raising questions about determinacy and the responsibility for both deaths that Kieślowski frequently raised in interviews. This pairing of determinism and political responsibility for an outcome with no clear supporters is in line with Kieślowski’s views. Hethinks we are largely determined by factors beyond our control and this may have an effect on the degree to which we are responsible for our actions. But he does not think this defence is available to those in power: “If you work in politics, or in any other public sphere, you’re publicly responsible. It can’t be helped.” (9) While Jacek use of his sister’s death as an excuse for his actions comes off as weak, Kieślowski at least gestures towards absolving him of some responsibility due to factors beyond his control. The judge receives no such reprieve.
In its extended form, Krótki film o zabijaniu (A Short Film About Killing, 1988), was not particularly successful at the Polish box office, but was critically adored. One contemporary critic noted that “the theaters are empty” during Kieślowski’s films, especially Krótki film o zabijaniu (10). Yet the film was one of the most celebrated motion pictures of 1988, winning the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes and the European Film Award for Best Film (the “Felix”). It remains one of his most lauded films. Today, The Decalogue 5 stands out as the most political film in the Dekalog and the one that is perhaps least committed to the apartment complex structure. The pairing of the taxi driver and Jacek’s deaths clearly raises questions about the death penalty, but Jacek’s sociopathy does not provide everyone with clear answers to those questions. To the extent that The Decalogue 5 serves as an argument, the clear culpability of Jacek suggests that there are few, if any, cases where the death penalty is appropriate. Yet those who do not accept Kieślowski’s arguments against personal responsibility andPiotr’s theoretical arguments against the death penalty are unlikely to be moved by the personal story of Jacek. The narrative of The Decalogue 5 alone does not provide a strong argument against capital punishment, though the pairing of Jacek and the taxi driver’s misdeed and following deaths does at least raise questions.
While often remembered as a strong statement of liberal humanist opposition to the death penalty, The Decalogue 5 works better as a provocation about the difficulties would-be heroes face in a system supported by no one (echoing concerns in Bez konca). It raises broader questions about responsibility in circumstances outside of one’s control rather than provide as an emotional argument against the death penalty.
- Judy Stone, “Heaven: An Interview with Krzysztof Piesiewicz”, The Decalogue: Special Edition, DVD, Booklet, Facets Video, 2003.
- Danusia Stok (ed.), Kieślowski on Kieślowski, Faber and Faber, London and Boston, 1993, p. 144.
- “On the Set of The Decalogue”, 1988, The Decalogue: Special Edition, Featurette.
- Stok, p. 153.
- For instance, in a press conference on the television show, 100 Pytan Do… (100 Questions For…), Kieślowski denied “that film has any motivational power at all” and said this was not a film against capital punishment, but “a film against killing”. See “Kieslowski Meets the Press”, 1988, The Decalogue: Special Edition.
- Stok, p. 166.
- “Kieslowski Meets the Press.”
- The director describes the result in the following fashion: “Green is supposed to be the colour of spring, the colour of hope, but if you put a green filter on the camera, the world becomes much crueller, duller and emptier”. Stok, p. 161.
- Stok, p. 149.
- “Kieslowski Meets the Press.”
Dekalog, pięć/The Decalogue 5 (1989 Poland 57 mins)
Prod Co: Telewizja Polska/Zespole Filmowym “Tor” Prod: Ryszard Chutkovski Dir: Krzsysztof Kieślowski Scr: Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Krzsysztof Kieślowski Phot: Slawomir Idziak Ed: Ewa Smal Prod Des: Halina Dobrowolska Mus: Zbigniew Preisner
Cast: Lazar Jacek, Krzysztof Globisz, Jan Tesarz, Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, Barbara Dziekan