The Confession, movie theme from “Death and the Maiden”
The start of Wojciech Kilar’s fruitful collaboration with director Roman Polański, for whom the composer would later write music to The Ninth Gate (1999) and The Pianist (2002) The thriller Death and the Maiden juxtaposes the past with the present: the protagonist, Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver), was imprisoned, blindfolded and tortured by the dictatorship in a South American country, and now lives with her husband, a lawyer, in the middle of nowhere. One day, as the husband (Stuart Wilson) is returning home, his car breaks down. He gets a lift from a helpful doctor (Ben Kingsley), whose voice Paulina recognizes as that of her torturer. Thus begins a psychodrama of interrogations and a trial staged at home, a process full of tension involving these three protagonists.
The musical piece from which Polański took the film's title plays an important dramatic and symbolic role – Schubert’s famous string quartet had accompanied Paulina while she was raped during her imprisonment. The music, according to her torturer, was to soothe the victim’s nerves. The first movement of the Schubert quartet is heard five times (performed by the Amadeus Quartet): in a scene in a concert hall at the film's beginning and end, a passage from the cassette deck in the car, then twice in a row halfway through the film: when Paulina interrogates the doctor (shot inside the house) and shortly after, when she has a stormy argument with her husband (shot from outside, with muted music). A cassette found in the alleged rapist’s car is part of the evidence in the trial, Schubert’s biography provides a background in the dialogue, while his music still proves an effective tool of torture – on the basis of conditioned reflex.
Understandably, Kilar’s task was by means easy in this context. Ultimately, he decided to write three pieces. The first, Paulina’s Theme, is divided into two parts: a lyrical theme with a singing motif played by flute and oboe against backing strings, and a dramatic theme in which we hear n ensemble of harpsichord, harp and percussion, with tremolos and military rhythm of snare drums. This theme appears twice, in scenes illustrating two periods from Paulina’s life: present happiness with her husband, in supper preparations and a bedroom scene, and fear of the past at the sight of the doctor’s anxiety-inducing car. It is no coincidence that when the former prisoner drives the car towards a precipice, we hear only the theme's second part, with low strings evoking a mood of threat.
The second piece, Confession, appears twice in the second part of the film. It is in fact an arrangement of the first theme, though this time the main melody is carried by misterioso violins. It is a simple motif based on seconds and thirds, repeated again and again in various transpositions. With its broad strings, the instrumentation sounds far more Hollywood-like than Kilar’s soundtracks to Krzysztof Zanussi films.
Finally, the third piece, Roberto’s Last Chance, builds up a mood of expectation by means of repeated viola and piano chords, a simple timpani rhythm then the sound of muted trumpets. Next, the narrative is taken up by woodwinds and more and more strings, developing a motif comprising descending minor seconds. The conclusion is marked by a return of the percussion – this time, with snare drum and solo xylophone – French horns instead of trumpets, piano and string quintet. When it comes to orchestration and transformations, this is one of Kilar’s most interesting film compositions, though it is not heard in its entirety in Polański’s work. The film ends in a concert hall, where Paulina and her husband listen to the Schubert string quartet of the title. Paulina stares at the doctor, sitting with his family in the balcony, and he glances back at her.