'I'm a Killer (Jestem Morderca)': Film Review | Shanghai 2017

I’M A KILLER-Still 1 -Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of the Shanghai Film Festival
An engrossing true-crime manhunt.

Maciej Pieprzyca directs an existential serial-killer drama in which a police investigator's conscience is shaken to the core.

The themes of collusion with power and a bad conscience broaden the interest of the Polish crime drama I'm a Killer (Jestem Morderca), set in the early 1970s just before the Solidarity Movement challenged 30 years of socialism and a stodgy Communist regime. Writer-director Maciej Pieprzyca offers a side window on this pregnant moment in his country's history in the story of an exuberant manhunt for Poland's first official serial killer, which gives way to anguished doubts about whether they've caught the right man. 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 take a Polish audience to decide how deeply to read the film as a metaphor for history (it won second prize and the best screenplay award at the last 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 played by the engaging Miroslaw Haniszewski, bearing more than 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 period. This is another link to that seminal time, when the Soviet grip was loosening up and all the old certainties started to waver. 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 allows him to go beyond genre drama and put the story in a broader socio-political context, one in which his detective hero is both manipulated 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 named head of the third team of police to investigate the gory murders, he jumps at 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 large team of detectives are barely distinguishable, apart from one 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 introduces a series of revolutionary techniques that make heads shake: He consults an English criminologist to psychologically profile the murderer, offers a big reward for information leading to his capture and even makes use of a newfangled invention called the computer to process the data at hand.

Although nothing seems to work, they finally catch a bearded laborer named Kalicki (Arkadiusz Jakubik), who looks 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 short, punchy scenes of his relationship to a young hairdresser who needs 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.

Quality tech work comes together to create a barely colored world of bureaucracy and shadows.

Production company: RE Studio in association with the Polish National Audiovisual Institute, TVP, Agora SA, Monternia, Silesia Film
Cast: Miroslaw Haniszewski, Arkadiusz Jakubik, Agata Kulesza, Magdalena Poplawska, Piotr Adamczyk, Karolina Staniec
Director, screenwriter: Maciej Pieprzyca
Producers: Renata Czarnkowska-Listos, Maria Golos
Director of photography: Pawel Dyllus
Production designer: Joanna Anastazja Wojcik
Costume designer: Agata Culak
Editor: Leszek Starzynski
Music: Bartosz Chajdecki
Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (competition)
117 minutes