Maciej Pieprzyca directs an existential serial-killer drama in which a police investigator’s conscience is shaken to the core.
The themes of collusion between power and a bad conscience widen the interest of the Polish crime drama I’m a Killer (Jestem Morderca), take in the early 1970s just prior to the Solidarity Movement challenged 30 years of socialism and a stodgy Communist regime. Writer-director Maciej Pieprzyca delivers a side window on this pregnant moment in his natioon’s history in the story of an exuberant manhunt for Poland’s first official serial killer, which clears way to agonized doubts about whether they’ve caught the right person. Tersely written and acted, with moments of great tragic irony, it’s a classic think piece slipped into an accessible genre. Ultra-modern it’s not, but it’s still an enjoyable watch.
It would require a Polish audience to decide how deeply to see the movie as a metaphor for history (it won second prize and the best screenplay award at the latest Gdynia Film Festival). In any case, the ambitious young detective Janusz, who leads the investigation and becomes a servant to power in the process, is that timeless and universal character whose personal life shatters as his star rises. He’s energetically portrayed by the enthusiastic Miroslaw Haniszewski, bearing more than just a passing resemblance, bad hair and all, to actor Jerzy Radziwilowicz in Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble and Man of Iron, which are set in the same time. This is another connection to that seminal time, when the Soviet grip was loosening up and all the old certainties began to collapse. Yet the story is as much about the present as the past.
Pieprzyca (Life Feels Good), winner of the best director award in Shanghai, is no newcomer to the horrors of “the vampire of Zaglebie,” who murdered 14 women in an industrial town in southern Poland. He made a TV documentary of the same title in 1998 in which he interviewed numerous people involved in the case. His firm grasp of the facts lets him go beyond genre drama and put the tale in a wider socio-political context, one in which his detective hero is both controlled by power and a manipulator himself.
Janusz has a sixth sense for crimes and criminals and a pleasing ability to put his intelligence to work. He is also ambitious, and when he is appointed head of the third team of police to investigate the horrifying murders, he took the chance. Up until then, the media had given the crimes little attention, but the latest victim, the niece of the Communist party secretary, increases the pressure on him to find the killer.
His great team of detectives is hardly distinguishable, except for one particular rookie with a weak stomach and a strong sense of duty. The murders take place right under their nose — even during a sting operation they set up in a park. Janusz attempts a series of revolutionary techniques that cause heads shake: He consults an English criminologist to psychologically profile the murderer, offers a huge reward for information leading to his capture and even takes advantage of a newfangled invention called the computer to process the data at hand.
Although nothing appears to work, they eventually catch a bearded laborer called Kalicki (Arkadiusz Jakubik), who seems like he’s stepped out of a Dostoevsky novel. He has three small children, and his unfaithful wife is eager to turn him in to claim the reward. Grilling him day after day, Janusz ultimately gets him to sign a confession, yet even he isn’t convinced he’s the perpetrator. But at this point, he’s a national hero acclaimed for his brilliant police work, and he has the ear of top politicians. He’s also been promoted and has moved his family into a real house. In short, he has too much invested to let the suspect off, yet it bothers his conscience to send a man to his death on circumstantial evidence and unreliable testimony.
Haniszewski chronicles the heavy personal price Janusz pays in the last part of the film. Unable to resist the inhuman system and its lies, of which he has become very much a part, he sinks into alcoholism and dissipation. The brief, punchy sequences of his relationship with a young hairdresser who requires a passport speak worlds about how low he’s fallen. The story ends, appropriately, in the present day, with an ironic comment on how history remembers what it wants to.
The tech work of quality comes together to deliver a sombre colored world of bureaucracy and shadows.