Decalogue V

This is possibly the most brutal film Krzysztof Kieslowski ever made. Organized around two painfully drawn-out death scenes, DEKALOG V confronts the subject of killing with a bluntness that reminds us of the finality of death. Kieslowski attains this bluntness (as he attained so much else as a storyteller) through the accumulation of small, potent details: I think of the recurring shots of the killer's hands as he sits in the back of a taxi, winding rope he will use to strangle the driver; the crushing sameness of the policemen's uniforms in the execution chamber. This film always leaves me shattered.

After I revisited DEKALOG V, I had an interesting exchange with a friend who'd seen the film a decade ago and remembered his strong dislike of it. He noted how similar its narrative structure was to that of Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, a film he finds deeply offensive. Both films are divided into two parts, the first being about the reckless violence carried out by individuals and the second about the orderly violence carried out by the state. By considering state violence last, my friend suggested, these films make it seem somehow worse, or at least damnably similar to "ordinary," thuggish violence. Kubrick's film has been read as a celebration of violence (or criminal behavior in general) as an expression of individual will, though I don't think anyone has ever interpreted Kieslowski's film that way. If anything, the film is like one of Kiarostami's educational films for young children. Look at these two forms of violence, the film proposes; then it asks, How are they alike? How are they different?

That's fair, my friend responded when I shared this analogy with him, but I don't know what I'm supposed to learn. I've chewed that over for a few days now, and I still don't know for certain what DEKALOG V teaches, apart from how capital punishment works. Still, I think there's something to be gained from thinking long and hard about the act of taking a human life, especially when so many movies ask us to regard murder as entertainment. More specifically, I think the movie asks us to decide for ourselves whether capital punishment is a just response to the crime of murder.