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Dekalog 5 (1988)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1999

An astonishingly powerful, direct indictment of capital punishment, Dekalog 5 rates as one of Kieslowski's finest accomplishments. In modern day Warsaw, Jacek (Miroslaw Baka) is another of those luckless youths who drift through the city. From the surrounding countryside by birth, there is nothing for him here. Slightly better off is the overweight, middle-aged taxi driver (Jan Tesarz) who lives in a ubiquitous Dekalog apartment block. He enjoys freedom, a living wage and the power to ignore anyone he doesn't like the look of. Elsewhere, hoisted far above these two, lies Piotr (Krzysztof Globisz), a young and idealistic lawyer.

The paths of these three are destined to cross from the instant that Jacek makes a decision, if his actions can be described as anything so definitive. Wandering the streets he grows bored of shoving strangers into urinals and dropping stones onto passing vehicles. He fancies robbing someone, perhaps even murdering, and a taxi driver is an easy target. As the rotund cabbie cruises, carefully avoiding drunken fares and drawing malicious pleasure from scaring dogs, he eventually pulls up next to Jacek. With this lone passenger, he heads out of town; behind, Jacek fingers a cord, nervous yet controlled and determined.

If there is one theme that characterises Dekalog 5 it is the sheer banality of the events that come to pass. The film itself is split into two deaths, one legal, both dispassionate. In the first Jacek dispatches his victim in an extended and horrifying encounter, switching instruments while the air around him fills with wrenching choking noises. Symmetric, the legal process grinds onward in a relentless build-up to Jacek's sanctified execution. While his failed defence lawyer Piotr looks on, the ordered proceedings dissolve into a flurry of activity as the dirty deed is carried out. The questions, of which there are many, ricochet in Piotr's brain (and through Kieslowski's vision, in ours).

Fundamental to the concept of capital punishment is the belief that it is both just and that it acts as a deterrent. While the latter is a moot point, such laws also imply that the negation of an occasional innocent citizen balances against the greater good, that such mistakes are allowable. Fortunately Dekalog 5 doesn't opt for the easy option but instead presents a killer and a victim who are equally obnoxious. Neither of them displays many obvious redeeming features, though both can be charitable to those beneath them in the food chain (such as animals and children). Does this mean that they deserve to die? No. Even the vilest individual deserves some compassion, no matter how vague and motiveless their crimes. Ignore this simple humanity and we are no better than murderers ourselves.

On a technical note, Dekalog 5 brilliantly showcases the talent of Kieslowski for creating efficient and compelling drama. The tale presented by this film is stripped down to its bare essentials, shorn of background and character development yet obsessed with minutiae. As if through an elaborate construction of mirrors, the preparation of the murder equipment is presented in great detail in both cases. It all appears so ordinary and routine, yet the machinations conceal the extraordinary; death and its consequences. A favourable comparison can be made with the more recent Dead Man Walking yet Dekalog 5 is by far the more stark and moving an experience.


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