Dekalog V: Thou shalt not kill.
Dekalog V is the first segment in which the varying cinematographers Kieślowski utilized becomes extremely evident. Shot by Slawomir Idziak, the episode, especially in its first half, utilizes a heavy green and yellow tint which creates a feeling of unease, disgust, and even danger. He also uses a disorienting dark shade around the edges of the screen to bring focus to the characters’ facial expressions. This altered visual spectrum is a turning point in the series, and arguably in Kieślowski’s career as he would go on to incorporate color as a significant component of storytelling in his later films. The music in this episode also separates itself from the rest of the series, combining a sad, melodic piano theme with more ominous music in the darker situations.
This segment of the series is the first of which that was extended to become a feature length film, A Short Film About Killing. Independently of the series, the film was met with great acclaim, taking home several awards at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival, and often being recognized as the best independent work to come out of Dekalog. There are a few minor differences between the film and the episode, mostly just extended scenes, but the major story structure remains largely the same.
There are three central characters introduced early in Dekalog V: Jacek Łazar, (Mirosław Baka) a young man; Waldemar Rekowski (Jan Tesarz), a taxi driver; and Piotr Balicki (Krzysztof Globisz), a young and idealistic lawyer. At the opening of the episode, Piotr is discussing the nature of the law and what gives men the authority to dole out justice. His thoughts are used as voiceover (more so in the feature film) as Jacek and Waldemar are introduced. Kieślowski makes both Jacek and Waldemar appear as very unlikable characters in the film’s onset. One major theme in this segment is the idea of respective conscience and the concept that someone who seems like a bad person may become more sympathetic if their punishment seems too harsh or if more of their background is revealed.
Waldemar’s unpleasant nature is revealed through his lewd staring at attractive girls, and his refusal to pick up certain people in his cab, often for seemingly nonexistent reasons. Jacek is portrayed negatively when an old woman yells at him to leave because he might scare the pigeons away. Jacek proceeds to run at the pigeons and intentionally cause them to leave. This good judgement by a minor, elderly character is a pattern of Kieślowski’s. He shows a high level of sympathy and even reverence toward the elderly throughout his career.
Though he seems unpleasant, it is made clear that Jacek has a significant affection for children, though this is unexplained early on. He stares into a photography studio at images of young girls, before bringing in his own picture, also of a young girl, and asking them if they can blow it up for him. While he is sitting in a coffee shop (where Piotr also is, though the pair do not yet know each other), he spots some young girls playing outside and he playfully flings coffee at the window they are looking through. It’s the first time that Jacek seems to be happy in the episode. After he leaves the coffee shop, he gets into Waldemar’s taxi, refusing to share the ride with a pair of travelers going to the same destination that he is.
On the taxi ride, Barciś makes his first appearance. He is seen as a construction worker standing on the street at a traffic stop. As the taxi stops, Barciś seems to make eye contact with Jacek and then slowly shake his head as if pleading with him not to do what he is planning on doing. Jacek appears to register the event but then dismisses it just as quickly when they begin to drive again. When Jacek asks Waldemar to pull the cab over, he tries to strangle him with a rope that he has been carrying around. The murder scene is unusual, but well crafted, as it takes Jacek several minutes and a few different methods (ultimately hitting Waldemar over the head with a large rock) to successfully kill the man. It all takes place in broad daylight, and a cyclist even passes the car unknowingly as it is occurring. While Jacek is sitting in Waldemar’s taxi afterward, a kids song comes over the radio, and he proceeds to tear the entire radio out of the dashboard and throw it out of the car, yet again showing a significant sympathy for children.
Though the feature film takes more time to bridge the first and second half of the episode, the TV version essentially jumps, inexplicably, to a time when Jacek has been arrested and is being sentenced to his death. Piotr, incidentally, represents Jacek at his trial, and the young lawyer feels responsible for the occurrence. His guilt lies both in his inexperience as a lawyer, and his discovery that he was with Jacek in the coffee shop that day so he wonders if he could’ve prevented the murder to begin with. An older judge appeases this concern, though Piotr still seems eager to do something to change the outcome.
When Piotr and Jacek talk in the minutes leading up to the execution, Jacek urges Piotr to ask his mother if he can have the remaining of three cemetery plots that his family owns. One is occupied by his father, and it is revealed that the other houses his sister who died five years before in an accident in which Jacek was partly complicit. Through Jacek’s grief, Kieślowski establishes compassion for the young man who the audience just watched commit a brutal and seemingly motiveless crime. When the guards finally force Jacek to come with them for his execution, his final words to Piotr are “I don’t want to go”. In these moments, it is clear that Jacek is really just a young man who has made a grave mistake.
Dekalog V is amongst the most complex of the series, and every moment is filled with depth. Jacek’s execution is a somber moment, as a young man who was just struggling for his life, is left hanging and motionless. The cinematography combined with the often unclear and changing nature of each character makes it difficult to completely gain perspective of this segment after only one viewing. However, as it is unwrapped it continues to reveal unexpected tidbits of information. Maybe most importantly, it confronts controversial moral questions about the ethics of execution, and it truly makes the viewer confront the value of life, even if the person has done something detestable.