The first of two reviews. The second can be found here.

In 1988, Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski and his co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz released Dekalog, a ten-episode TV miniseries explicating each of the Ten Commandments, that is acclaimed from virtually every corner as one of the essential masterpieces of world cinema. In the same year, the director produced two feature-length films adapted from two of the individual Dekalog episodes, telling expanded versions of the same stories, using alternate takes of the same material as well as footage shot expressly for the feature. The first of these, based on Dekalog: Five - "Thou Shalt Not Kill" - is A Short Film About Killing.

On the level of basic storytelling, the Dekalog episode and Short Film... are essentially identical: an obnoxious and cruel taxi driver named Rekowski (Jan Tesarz) drives around Warsaw tormenting people; the quiet, slightly less cruel Jacek (Miroslaw Baka) torments people a bit less, before hailing the driver's cab, directing him to a secluded road, and murdering him. At the same time, law student Piotr Balicki(Krzysztof Globisz) has just passed his bar exam. Some time later, Piotr defends Jacek unsuccessfully, the young man is sentenced to death, and the lawyer spends a few minutes before the execution listening to his client and serving as the last caring human face Jacek will ever see.

As anyone who's seen a Kieślowski film is well aware, the director cannot be reduced to the level of basic anything, of course. Which is why the difference between the two films is far more than just a simple matter of narrative expansion; they're fundamentally different experiences. I'm going to assume that the reader has seen Dekalog - and if you haven't, it is an absolute imperative that you take immediate steps to fix that - and formed her or his own opinions about the matter. As far as the Short Film goes, I found it to be far more character-based than the TV episode, and a bit less concerned with the esoteric moral element of the story - morality being the principal focus of the Dekalog series as a whole - and more on the physical and human aspect of the story.

This is fairly evident right from the start, for while Dekalog: Five begins with Piotr explaining, in voice-over, his considered opposition to the death penalty, the Short Film opens with three images of death: a smashed beetle, a drowned rat, and in a particularly grim shot that lingers for several seconds as the title and opening credits play out, a dead cat, hung by a group of schoolchildren who run away delighted by their cruelty. It's this shot of the cat - appearing nowhere in the Dekalog episode - that underlines everything that makes the Short Film independent and complete unto itself. There's probably no easier shorthand in the world than young people killing a cat to showcase the wanton immorality of committing murder just to see what it feels like; we never hear about fledgling serial killers torturing squirrels or ravens, always house cats. That's the view of murder that the Short Film is interested in: the raw, messy side, not the sterile kind that causes learnéd men to loudly debate ethics. It's for this reason that we meet the mean and earthy Jacek and Rekowski before the noble law student Piotr, who makes his first appearance more than five minutes into the film; a notable change, given how much more prominent his character is in the movie than the TV version.

For the most part, Short Film and the episode are different only in matters of degree: some shots are allowed to go a bit longer in one or the other, slightly different takes are sometimes used, there's a lot more footage of Piotr celebrating his bar exam and realising suddenly that he's going to have to build a future now. The chief substantial difference comes in the middle of the film (almost to the minute, in fact): the moment where Jacek kills Rekowski. This was already the dramatic centerpiece of Dekalog: Five, but it's expanded by at least a few minutes in the feature. At first, this is just a matter of the film having more room, and so there's some extra footage (about 30 seconds, surely no more than a minute) of Jacek fumbling with his crude garrote. The bigger change - for my money, the most important difference between the two films, in fact - is how Jacek finishes the deed. Having strangled Rekowski almost to death, the young man wraps his victim's head in a blanket and drags him a few feet out of the car. As the taxi driver moans (for his wife in Dekalog, for mercy in Short Film), Jacek grabs a big rock and-

Here's where the two diverge. In Dekalog, Jacek raises the rock, starts to drop it, hesitates, and brings it down. Cut. In Short Film, Jacek raises, the rock, we cut to a closer shot of his face as he hesitates in bringing it down; then cut to Rekowski's head, wrapped in the blanket, as Jacek removes the rock, and blood starts to pool up. Jacek brings the rock down again, and we cut back to the youth, as he raises the rock and smashes it down four or five more times. Cut back to Rekowski's head, positively oozing blood, for one more smash. The tremendous increase in explicit violence in the Short Film - this is, incidentally, one of the most sickening murders I've ever seen in a movie - is at least partially explained by the looser standards allowed to a feature over a TV show, but it also helps to make the film more visceral, while the episode, being as it is part of the supremely intellectual Dekalog is ultimately more reflective.

The point of all this is essentially the same: Kieślowski wants to make the most compelling argument he can against the death penalty (it's the only explicitly political story in the Dekalog, for what it's worth, though the director's previous films were often extremely political), suggesting that it is a depraved thing for any person to kill another, whether a disaffected individual like Jacek (who is given one of the most convincing "humanise the killer" scenes in all of cinema), or the impartial body of the state. Aiding him in making the claim that only a totally corrupt society could support institutionalised killing is his frequent cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, whose vision of Warsaw is one draped in foul orange tinting, achieved by putting colored gels directly on the camera, covering only a portion of the frame (so that only the top half will be rust-colored, or the bottom left corner, or everything but a square in the middle). The result is one of the ugliest movies ever made, and that's just exactly the way it should be: it takes place in an irredeemably ugly world.

It's maybe impossible to express just how powerful the film is, in either iteration; let it suffice to say Kieślowski made his argument so well that the Polish government did in fact put a temporary halt to all capital punishment after the film was released. It is at any rate a completely devastating film, and it's not hard to see why it was customarily regarded as the director's masterpiece until Dekalog became widely available outside of Poland in the early 1990s.