Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing (1988) was part of a discussion we were having in the course The Politics of Crime in 2008 to try to get under the idea of “random” crime. Most interpretations of this film focus on the apparently arbitrary nature of the protagonist’s murder of a taxi driver he does not know, and the mirroring of that murder in the depiction of his subsequent execution. There’s scandal in the fact that the apparatus of justice is not likely to make the viewer feel much easier about the death by hanging of the young criminal, Jacek (Miraslaw Baka). In the terms made prominent by biopolitical theories, Jacek’s death should appear as the ritualized legal death of a human with rights and responsibilities; but Kieslowski seems to attack the purported distinction between such a death and the “killing” of a body as nonhuman. Death with dignity at the hands of another, even if that other is the state, is played instead as a merely romantic notion, actually a contradiction in terms. Kieslowski makes this point in another, and if you think about it even more scandalous, way by portraying the taxi driver (Jan Tesarz) as such a cad that one is likely to feel most outrage on his behalf when, no longer able to take the sight of his sufferings, Jacek covers his face with a cloth. This conventionally dehumanizing, defacing gesture—as Jacek intends it to be—promptly increases the pathos and the difficulty, as though we were more prepared to defend the driver’s nameless and innocent body than his speaking and corrupt person. (A point made by Lucas Chan.) I believe this driver gains a name in the narrative—“Waldemar Rekowski”—only as the deceased in the trial.
These interesting reversals of certain biopolitical assumptions are well understood in the reception of the film (if not explicitly connected by critics to biopolitics). They leave aside the whole of the film before Jacek and the driver meet—a long stretch of aleatory scenes in which Jacek wanders the city and both Jacek and the driver perform strange acts of minor destruction: dropping a small rock into traffic from an overpass, or deliberately dividing a passerby from the dog she is walking, respectively, among other examples. These gestures appeared to us as intended magical gestures, pieces of reality testing in which the characters reveal, by reaching out of it concretely for a moment, the irrational fantasy of omnipotence in which they must always live. And where there’s omnipotence there is guilt, since if you’re omnipotent, why isn’t the world any better? This reversible, hazy egotism of unlimited aggressive power and unlimited responsibility may be another reading of the sepia miasma that permeates the film, achieved by a green filter, so they say. That atmosphere reminded us of the psychotic imagination of vigilante justice in the narrative of Pierre Rivière (I, Pierre Rivière, having slaughtered my mother, my sister, and my brother: A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century, ed. Michel Foucault, trans. Frank Jelinek [Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1982]). Eventually, the viewer understands that Jacek suffers from the kind of misfortune that disproportionately befalls the poor--the death of his kid sister, run over in the muddy ruts of his home village by a vehicle driven by his friend, in which he was himself a passenger: the sort of injustice for which no one is ever convictable. He feels not only grief but guilt; he goes to a photo shop with a picture of his sister and says, gently and apologetically, “I creased it.” (It may not be possible to erase the damage completely in a copy, he is told.)
Thus Jacek’s obsession with tiny mechanical possibilities that might (magically) add up to an overwhelming difference in the world. They belong to the series, “If he hadn’t had the last drink . . . if there had been more of a moon . . . if she hadn’t been tired . . .” It’s as if, after her death, it still was not too late for the world to be different. Jacek wills things to matter: he shouts at a bakery cashier that he wants that particular cream puff, not the one next to it (and why couldn’t it have been “the next one”? Why her and not another? Why, at other times, someone else and not me? So, the taxi driver plays the lottery). Plot is replaced by the characters’ associative testing of their sense of unbearable exigency against exaggerated dramas of agency, leading up to the existential act of murder.
As in Pierre Rivière, the final difference offered is Jacek’s suicidal sacrifice of himself. This outcome is not “random” but obviously entailed—only made easier by Jacek’s activating the machine that is the legal system, so that it can do its automated work. (Rivière also does this, as Foucault points out.) The machinic, abstract element makes it possible for the justice system to kill at all, and it is in this sense that it becomes quasi-automated that execution should be easier than murder, but it never becomes easy. The little acts of physical intervention into the world "take"--it does make a difference if you drop a stone from an overpass--but they can’t add up to the big difference hoped for, the exchange of death for life, sacrifice for redemption. Or perhaps Kieslowski thinks that offscreen--off the world screen, so to speak--they can. To the extent that this question can’t be answered in Kieslowski’s universe, he makes justice through law look merely mystified even as the still more mystical idea of justice through redemption remains possible. Kieslowski’s Christianity, like other dark versions, consists in the suspension (hanging) of this possibility over the miasmatic world. His view of the suspension of the film image is scarcely less mystical, as becomes clear when Jacek pauses at the window of the photographer, with its banal wedding and first communion portraits, as though it were a sacred place. Divided from it by glass, he enters, as he sees it, to submit his sister's body for restoration. He can’t see himself where we see him, hovering in Kieslowski’s frame. The alcove the images are in reflects the lightbox he is in, image himself. This fact itself furnishes at least the aesthetic substitution for grace, although only in the Kieslowski-universe. The division of labor between Kieslowski and his god: Kieslowski can arrange for things to happen and he can film them, but he can’t make them appear on film.