Fifth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill.
Krzysztof Kieslowski begins the fifth entry in The Decalogue depicting three characters who are initially separate, but whose paths not unexpectedly cross as the narrative progresses. By choosing to leave almost all contextualization out of the story as it opens, he is able to reveal needed information when it will be the most effective in terms of creating a certain sensibility with the viewer. In fact, this is Kieslowski’s most polemic entry thus far.
The director introduces the three main characters separately, using distinctive cinematography that uses almost no establishing shots in order to make the three men seem even more isolated. In fact, the extensive use of close-ups on each individual throughout the film serves to make the narrative seem more abstract, to make the characters seem less like individuals and more like types.
Jacek is a young man not quite twenty-one who is angry and seems alienated as he wanders the city, looking for and causing trouble wherever he goes. He drops a rock off a bridge and onto a car’s windshield as it drives underneath, causing an accident. He scares away pigeons who are being fed by an old lady, even as she asks him not to. Piotr is a young, handsome lawyer who is interviewing with a job at a prestigious law firm. He is firmly committed to the highest ideals of justice and stridently opposes the death penalty. And the taxi driver is a middle aged man who is mean spirited and unsympathetic. He leers at young girls, scares small dogs with his horn, and promises to wait for a couple only to drive away without them.
It doesn’t take long for one to realize that Jacek is going to commit a murder, which logically must be the taxi driver. The murder isn’t quick and easy as we often see it portrayed in entertainment; instead, Jacek strangles the man, beats him with a pipe, drags his body towards a body of water to dump it in, realizes the man is still alive, and then as the driver begs for his life, smashes his head with a large rock.
Cut to a year later. Piotr is serving as the defense attorney for Jacek, whereby they immediately lose their appeal to stave off the death penalty. The rest of the film portrays the cruelty and detachment of the state when implementing the harshest of all penalties.
Yet what separates this film from the typical polemic against the death penalty is the nature of both victims: neither is a sympathetic character. As an audience, we realize that the killing of the taxi driver I not justified even though he is presented as a bad person. And with no doubt about the guilt of Jacek from either the state or the viewer, an argument against capital punishment is automatically more difficult to make. Nevertheless, as we learn the first real information about Jacek just before he is taken to be hanged, that his young sister was killed by one of his friend’s with a tractor after he and Jacek spent the afternoon getting drunk when they were thirteen or so, he becomes more than just grist in the argument.
At the start of the film, Piotr mention that vales in Poland are declining, and thus as people ask themselves whether they are doing things of value, that definition is constantly shifting. What Kieslowski is trying to impart with this film, from my perspective, is to ask how society should respond to this shift, a shift that produces small sinners like the taxi driver and egregious ones like Jacek. Does it merely punish those who have lost their way, or does it try and restore those lost values to the individual in question? By depicting the machinery of the state to be just as valueless and inhuman as Jacek, his execution serves only to further erode the values of the society.
We often have arguments over the penal system here in America, asking whether it is for punishment or for rehabilitation. The state claims it’s the latter, but recidivism rates would argue that it is in fact the former. Even if it could be proven that the death penalty served as a deterrent, it still wouldn’t make executions moral. Instead, imagine if the resources for Jacek to seek counseling after his sister’s death had been in place. Perhaps he would have remained at home, as he speculated, and the murder never would have taken place. Or perhaps if the sort of moral society Piotr was lamenting the loss of would have existed enough that two thirteen year old boys wouldn’t have been getting drunk and driving a tractor. While the abstract nature of the story clashes with the intense characters of the previous four films, Kieslowski argues effectively here that killing itself is wrong and that a society who engages in killing as punishment is contributing to the problem of moral decay, not combating it.