Kieslowski’s fifth installment of his Dekalog series, Dekalog 5: “Thou shalt not kill.”, is an intense, sometimes unbearable, depiction of the horror of killing. The story follows three characters who are initially separate but whose paths not unexpectedly cross as the film develops. There is little contextual background concerning the characters, but as the story proceeds, we get an idea of their psychological profiles.
- Piotr is a young lawyer who is telling the story in connection with an interview for a prominent law firm. He is clean-cut, intelligent, sensitive, and committed to the highest ideals of justice. Early on in his storytelling, he reveals his strongly-held convictions opposing capital punishment.
- The taxi driver is a middle-aged man who lives in the housing complex that links all the episodes of Dekalog. As he goes about his daily activities, he is seen to be a mean-spirited, unsympathetic character, who refuses to pick up fares who might inconvenience him, leers at pretty young girls, and finds amusement in scaring little dogs by honking his horn at them.
- Jacek is an angry and alienated twenty-year-old who is aimlessly wandering about the city looking for and causing trouble wherever he goes. He throws rocks through car windshields on the freeway, scares away birds from bird-feeders, and roughs up weaker individuals when noone else is looking.
It doesn’t take long for the viewer to suspect that Jacek is going to commit a murder, and he soon chooses the hapless taxi driver as his victim. The murder scene is not brief, as it is in most films, but excruciatingly long and brutal, and it takes some time for the bludgeoned taxi driver to die. Jacek is inhuman and remorseless throughout. But we are still only halfway through the film, and another murder will occupy the second half.
Soon enough, Jacek is duly arrested and convicted of the crime, and despite the efforts of his earnest defense attorney, Piotr, Jacek is sentenced to death. The rest of the film depicts the equally inhuman machinations of the government legal and punitive system as it prepares for and executes the second murder: the execution of Jacek.
The brutality of the execution sequences has led many reviewers to view the film as primarily a statement against capital punishment. But Kieslowski has objected to this characterisation: it’s not against capital punishment per se, he says, it’s against killing, categorically. And to emphasize this distinction, scenarists Piesiewicz and Kieslowski have departed from the usual depiction of murder, which focuses on the victim – the injury, the suffering, the death. In this film, instead, the focus is on the brutality of the killer and the killing, irrespective of the alleged innocence of the victim. To emphasize this focus, the victim of each of the two killings is far from being a sympathetic character. In the first half of the film, a repugnant character, the taxi driver, is killed by Jacek. We are forced to face up to the wrongfulness of this act, no matter how unlikable the victim. In the second half of the film, the focus is on the societal killing-machine that carries out capital punishment. But unlike many films opposed to capital punishment which depict the victimization and wrongful execution of an essentially innocent man who was the victim of circumstances, there is absolutely no doubt or qualification about the guilt of Jacek. He is infinitely more objectionable than the taxi driver. And yet he is a human being, just as the taxi driver was. Piotr is granted a final half hour in Jacek’s cell just prior to his execution, and he learns a little more about Jacek. There is some suggestion revealed in this scene that Jacek’s recollections of his beloved younger sister, who had been run over and killed five years earlier, set him off in a murderous rage when he happened to see the taxi driver leering at a young woman. But this is neither an explanation nor a justification of Jacek’s heinous act – it only reminds us of the pervasiveness of human weakness and vulnerability.
Although the emphasis on the essential inhumanity of the killing, itself, and away from the suffering of the victim distills the argument against killing, it also make the film less compelling as a story and more cerebral. This is because the moral conundrum that underlies this episode is centered on the social-thinking Piotr, rather than on the other two self-interested characters, the taxi driver and Jacek. Thus depending on your tastes, you may find that this more-distancing narrative style either weakens or strengthens the argument.
Of course, almost everyone would say that he or she is generally opposed to killing, but the issue becomes more cloudy to them when the subject of punishing vicious killers is raised. How is social order to be maintained in this age of declining values? In the outer narrative Piotr remarks to his legal interviewers,
“People ask themselves whether what they do has a meaning. The meaning is becoming increasingly evasive.. . . there’s a decline in criteria, values.”So how should society react to this degenerative social condition, a condition that produces minor sinners like of the taxi driver and major sinners like Jacek? Should it merely take revenge by punishing those people who have lost their way, who have lost their values? Or should it do something to help restore those lost values? Certainly the penal machinery that carries out Jacek’s execution is as valueless and inhuman as Jacek, himself. This does not support social values, but further devalues society. This carrying out of “justice” is merely an act of animalistic revenge, and there is no convincing evidence that executions have a deterrent effect on homicides. So what is the payoff derived from capital punishment? Piotr asks rhetorically,
“For whom does the law avenge? In the name of the innocent? Do the innocent make the rules?”In this case the rules are made by the vengeful, and they are not the innocent. In fact even if it were some day to be shown that capital punishment did have some deterrent effect, it would still be wrong for the state to engage in killing. Taking life is not an act that should be condoned by any truly civilized society, a society in which our actions are held to be meaningful. In fact, participation in the killing of any animals for any reason, such as for eating meat, is unworthy of the truly civilized individual.