Saturday, October 20, 2018

PFF ’18: I’m a Killer

During the 1970s, miscarriages of justice were commonplace occurrences in Socialist Poland. However, the stakes were particularly high for the police detective who quite possibly railroaded a (maybe) innocent man for the crimes of “The Silesian Vampire,” Poland’s first recorded serial killer. Questions remain decades later, which Marciej Pieprzyca explores in his thinly fictionalized I’m a Killer (trailer here), a selection of the 2018 Polish Film Festival in Los Angeles.

Living in pre-Solidarity Poland was grim enough without a serial killer stalking women. Despite the taunting letters the murderer sent to the police, the authorities did not give the case priority, until he killed the niece of the local Communist Party boss—or so many locals believed.

Regardless, junior detective Janusz Jasinski is brought in to lead the reorganized investigation shortly after her death. Frankly, he suspects he is being set up to be a scapegoat and he is probably right, but his try-anything approach actually produces a very credible suspect: bitter, wife-beating laborer Wieslaw Kalicki (a fictional analog of Zdzislaw Marchwicki).

There are plenty of reasons to dislike Kalicki and a fair amount of circumstantial evidence, but nothing hard and physical ties him to the murders. Of course, Jasinski’s task force has more than enough to bring him to trial under the old Communist regime, but the man stubbornly refuses to confess. The brazen score-settling of the witnesses called against him also troubles Jasinski, but his future depends on Kalicki’s conviction. Nevertheless, he starts visiting Kalicki, partly to provide some assistance to his family and partly to win the accused man’s trust—for his own sake.

In some ways, I’m a Killer is like the true-crime series Netflix cranks out on a weekly basis, but the Communist era setting makes everything more dangerous and dysfunctional. Pieprzyca clearly has ideas regarding Kalikci/Marchwicki’s guilt or lack thereof, but there is absolutely no ambiguity in his portrayal of the Communist-era legal system. Through the initially well-intentioned Jasinski, we see how power begets corruption, which breeds the cowardice and moral turpitude that will allow a profound injustice to proceed to its tragic end.

Miroslaw Haniszewski is quite remarkable as Jasinski, convincingly sliding down his slippery slope character-development arc, from relatable everyman plugger to sociopathic stooge. It is also almost as harrowing to watch Arkadiusz Jakubik’s Kalicki crumble from a defiant proletarian with thuggish inclinations to a completely hollow and broken man.

This is probably the worst the 1970s ever looked on film, but everything about the production has a convincingly true-to-life, tactile feel, thanks to the excellent work of production/set designer Joanna Anastazja Wojcik, costume designer Agata Culak, and the rest of the design team. After spending time in this grim milieu, viewers should be ready to get down on their knees and give thanks for Solidarity, Reagan, and Pope John Paul II. Very highly recommended, I’m a Killer screens today (10/20) and Wednesday (10/24), as part of this year’s Polish Film Festival in LA.