Krysztof Kieslowski, Thou Shalt Not Kill

The first shot is of a dead rat in a murky puddle. It is followed by a shot of a cat that has just been hung by a gang of children. Eventually, we realize that the animals represent the fates of two of the film’s characters: one is senselessly murdered and the other is killed by the state for his actions. The title of Krysztof Kieslowski’s film, Thou Shalt Not Kill, 1988, is bluntly explanatory. Its emphasis is on two violent acts, one condoned and one condemned by the state. They are not mere pretexts on which to base a film; they do not trigger a police story, a whodunit, or a series of subsequent actions. They represent nothing beyond themselves—two frighteningly brutal events.

The film begins by following the paths of three separate characters. A disturbed man, in his early twenties, wanders around a Polish city, enveloped in a sort of violent haze, the reasons for which are unclear. A sadistic taxi driver, nearly comically repugnant, appears next, followed by an idealistic lawyer who has just passed his bar exam. After drawing these narrative lines, Kieslowski quickly connects them: the young man murders the cab driver, and the state appoints the lawyer to represent him at his trial.

The killing of the cab driver and the execution of his murderer are excruciatingly blunt. Both are characterized by a series of clumsy, inept actions. The cabbie is, in turn, strangled around the neck and mouth, pummeled with a tire iron, and smashed in the face with a rock before he finally expires. Later, when the prisoner starts to struggle, just before his sentence is to be carried out, the various steps which have been minutely planned by the prison authorities come completely unravelled. His death seems more like a mugging in a parking lot than a systematic rendering of justice by a higher moral authority.

Kieslowski’s reductive narrative style helps account for the film’s almost physical effect on the spectator. For example, the transition from the initial murder to the scene of the killer in jail awaiting his own death is accomplished by a surprisingly brief courtroom scene in which the young man is pronounced guilty and sentenced. The elision of what might be expected to follow such a horrific act, i.e., the explication of the crime through the police or trial process, reinforces the similarities between the two events. The investigation of the first murder does not produce a rational justification or mitigating circumstances. It merely produces another act that mirrors itself.

Thou Shalt Not Kill depicts the instability of moral authority, as represented by the state. There is no doubt that the state is “correct” in pronouncing the young man guilty. There is no possibility of the wrong man being executed. Furthermore, the person he murders is portrayed without the slightest hint of compassion. Yet it is the moral certainty that informs the young man’s punishment that is shocking. The implication is that such certainty can provide the excuse for any type of act - that anything can be rationalized and justified by the powers of regulation.

Michael Tarantino