Inspired by Socialist Poland’s demons, the directors Maciej Pieprzyca and Marcin Koszałka brought the dark legends back to life in two absorbing psychological thrillers. “I’m a killer” and “Red Spider” take us back to the country’s grim 70’s and 60’s to explore the sources of human evil.
“I’m a killer” by Maciej Pieprzyca is set in 70’s Poland, a country ruled by communism and its propaganda-machines, aiming to create an illusion of an ideal world. A series of brutal murders disrupts these efforts. The killer, who is pronounced Silesian Vampire, prowls around Silesia hunting down and murdering young women. The “ideal world” cannot suffer such a scratch and the authorities quickly mobilize militia to trace him. The investigation is handed over to a young officer- Janusz Jasiński- ambitious and excited to take up the biggest challenge of his career.
Soon after, Wieslaw Kalicki is arrested and accused of the crimes. The lead comes from his wife (masterfully played by Agata Kulesza), who denounces him hoping for 1 million rewards. Jasiński becomes a superstar- he is the talk of the town, a national hero, attracting the attention of media and sympathy of authorities. The thing is, he still has to find evidence against the suspect. And this goes badly. The more glory falls on the young officer, the less important the truth is. The authorities are entranced, lavishing presents on Jasinski- a new apartment, a color TV (something of a rarity back then). He also begins a love affair with a young girl, who is, as it will soon turn out, striving for a passport to leave the country.
His life could not be better, seems on the outside, but the conscience starts drilling Jasiński. He finds himself torn between the virtues of his new, luxurious life and a backbone which does not entirely allow him to send Kalicki to death.
This engaging thriller includes some brilliant performances such as the main character played by a lesser known to the Polish audience Mirosław Haniszewski as well as Arkadiusz Jakubik, in the role of Kalicki.
The film honestly portrays life under the communistic rule and the concerns of the society. It takes us in the world of the authorities’ tools and tricks and their competence in exacting the obedience of citizens, at their great personal costs.
Another famous serial murderer was subject to the film “Red Spider” released in 2016, just one year after “I’m a killer”. This time the story centers around the vampire of Cracow and is helmed by Marcin Koszałka, known to the Polish audience mostly as a documentary director. His beautifully photographed feature debut includes some hypnotizing aerial photography, like the drone shot of an illuminated amusement park in one of the first sequences of the film.
Again we find ourselves in communistic Poland (this time of the 60’s), shaken by a series of brutal murders committed with a hammer. A young sport-swimmer, Karol Kot, accidentally traces the killer in the mentioned amusement park and decides to confront him. The assassin turns out to be a decent and reserved veterinarian. The two get connected by their fascination with murder, or rather, Karol’s fascination with his new idol. The boy starts following in his steps, eventually turning himself over to the authorities as the “Red Spider”.
The film remains ambiguous about the young man’s motivation to take responsibility for the murders. Neither the political era nor family life provides a possible lead to the grounds of his decision. The director wants us to look for them beyond the perceivable.
It may leave some of the viewers a little unsatisfied by the end. We never see any hesitation of the main character, because we also do not see him making choices. We just watch him committing desperate acts, not able to delve into his psychology. This economy of expression makes us arrive at the end of the film feeling we could go for more.
As a point of interest: although the films are entirely different, they contain few similar points- a detective who gets rewarded after capturing the most dangerous criminal of his times, a conviction of the wrong person. Also, the ending, where we see a portrait of the deceased and where one life is saved in exchange for another.