In the latest issue of Sight and Sound Tony Rayns presents a very comprehensive but surprisingly badly researched review of Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing. The critic brands the main character of the film (named in the credits as Muhammad) as 'unsympathetic’ and states that the director feels empathy for a jihadist. Then he goes on to give us details of his odd analysis. Rayns questions everything, going as far to say that Muhammad’s dreams of home is a sick fantasy, his only motivation being the desire to kill (or some other sinister impulse). He also refers to Muhammad’s counterparts as infidels, clearly giving us insight into the character’s psyche that the film itself doesn’t provide.
Skolimowski's film is a very subtle tale. It tells of an Arab man who kills a few Americans in an indeterminate desert in the Middle East. He is then taken for questioning and when water boarding turns out to be fruitless in gathering information from the individual, the main character is transported to a military base in Poland. During his rendition he manages to escape into the cold and hostile wilderness of Poland’s forests. While on the run he kills whoever stands in his way. The point Mr Rayns is missing in his analysis is that the main character is not portrayed as either good or evil; his acts although on many levels sinister do not receive any judgment from the director. The image of the main character is beyond the usual concepts of morality and is portrayed more as a force of nature.
Skolimowski fills his film with parallels, comparisons and juxtapositions. The heat of the Arabian desert is juxtaposed with the coldness of the Polish winter. American English is spoken by the military intelligence while Polish is the language of villagers and lumberjacks. To add to this lingual characteristic, the main character doesn’t say a single word throughout the film so that we are left to wonder: is it because he is morally superior or is it because he is culturally retarded?
There is a certain power structure that Skolimowski underlines throughout the film. For starters, the Americans make all the important decisions, most importantly about the lives of other people, while Poles are diminished to a role which allows them to kill... trees. The military decides how the operation of terrorist hunting is conducted even though the Poles inhabit the land; Polish people remain in the background, ignorant to unfolding events. They represent the lower industrial class, too passive to stop either the Americans or the terrorists. The process of intellectual industrial/ imperial power exploiting a disadvantaged nation of less educated and powerless folks takes us right back to the period of romanticism in Polish history.
Poland has a very long account of abuse experienced from neighbouring empires, in the proto-romanticist period the dominant authority being the Russian Empire. At that time Poland was linked with Russia via Tsar Alexander I, who ruled both countries while keeping their sovereignties separate. The Poles, who were initially very happy about the union, hoping to benefit economically and culturally, soon discovered that the Tsar wanted to dominate their country and turn it into a Russian province. In Essential Killing Skolimowski exposes a very similar dynamic between Poland and the USA.
Romanticism as a movement emphasised strong emotions as an authentic source of aesthetic experience. Trepidation, terror and awe were especially validated if experienced when confronting the sublime beauty of untamed nature. The natural world was fascinating and mystical for romantics just as it is for Muhammad when he finds himself on the run. As the story unfolds we learn that one of Muhammad’s most notable characteristics is the spontaneity in which he makes his decisions. Romantics treasured instinct over logic therefore the main character’s series of killings can be looked at as an extension of that sentiment: when absent of moral distinctions it goes beyond comprehension.
Essential Killing just like any other romantic piece has a tragic love story to tell. One part of it is presented in the flashbacks from the main character’s past. We see his wife and a child; Muhammad spends his days in careless joy when accompanied by his family. The second part of the love tale unfolds while the main character is on the lam. He meets a deaf woman who helps him recover and allows him to spend the night in her house. Her lack of hearing makes her more vulnerable and sensitive to qualities other people might not be able to see in Muhammad. Romantics focused on sensibility and the woman’s compassion and understanding certainly underlines this quality. Their encounter even though brief is filled with emotional subtext. We can see the woman longing for protection and Muhammad wanting to feel the warmth of a home again.
As Muhammad says goodbye to his saviour and rides away on a white horse, he re-enters the harsh realms of nature and by doing so dooms himself to a certain death. Just like other great romantic characters Muhammad is defeated by the grandeur of Gaia and dies without fulfilling either his love or plan of escape.
“Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling,” said Baudelaire. The martyrdom and Jesus-like appearance of the main character suggest that the romantic ideals survive in the Polish psyche up to this day. The country’s seemingly immortal fascination with Roman-Catholic symbolism is only another variant of the ‘feeling’ to which Baudelaire is referring. Just like the romantics, today’s Poland is unable to comprehend the powers that decide its place in the world and turn to their internal sensibilities, exhibited through the devoted faith in a Supreme Being. Skolimowski as much as he is enchanted by the idea, realises that there is only one way to end such a romantic tale – and it isn’t a happy ending.