Tadeusz Sobolewski | Playlist

I began listening to classical music thanks to the cinema. Talking about the early days, when I was still at school, my teachers of this music included, along with Krzysztof Penderecki, Wojciech Kilar. Kilar writing for Polish cinema – I have chosen a few film excerpts which show a side of Kilar slightly different from the one we know from his great hits, from the polonaises from Wajda films. This is Wojciech Kilar from the 1960s and 1980s, not serious or classical but wild, as it were.

The first film, one of my earliest moving experiences in Polish cinema, was Kazimierz Kutz’s No One Is Calling with Kilar’s first composition for Kutz. The two would later become inseparable artistic friends.

The beginning of No One Is Calling, with a young boy, Bożek, played by Henryk Boukołowski, travelling west on the roof of a repatriate train – the action takes place in 1945 – to begin a new life, was a polemic for the Polish Film School, with a cinema that spoke about futile sacrifice, about the pressure of history, about Poland’s defeat. This was a film about the beginning of life, about initiation of love in spite of history and politics. I really liked that at the time.

Kilar’s music in the introduction to No One Is Calling is completely wild, it resembles Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. These are huge, powerful musical beats bringing to mind pounding drums, a rite of some sorts. And this rite is a rite of love. Kilar travelled a long, very interesting way from No One Is Calling to Wajda’s Pan Tadeusz. From primordial wildness to religion and spirituality. He became an artist who believed, as he said in interviews, that music had a peaceful, spiritual, religious mission to accomplish, that music made the world a better place. But in No One Is Calling it bites into the world, like that twentysomething in the film, in a very brutal manner.

Every time I am on Krakowskie Przedmieście Street in central Warsaw, between the Church of the Holy Cross and the Copernicus monument, I am reminded of a scene from The Doll. We see Krakowskie Przedmieście in tsarist times, with people trying to warm their hands over a coal stove, and we hear the waltz On the Hills of Manchuria. And then Wokulski walks downhill towards Powiśle and enters a completely desolate, gruesome landscape. Kilar illustrates all this – Wokulski’s inner state and that of the whole world, as it were. He illustrates this with a single piercing, obsessively repeated note, which brings to mind the winding up of a music box or a mechanical doll. A mechanism that is, in fact, about to stop, that is slowing down.  But it also brings to mind groaning or sobbing. This is the motif on which Wojciech Jerzy Has’s whole film is based.

Today, when we watch The Doll, we see that it is a film about Poland as a country of squandered opportunities. This 1968 film is probably the only Polish costume drama in which we can see captivity so clearly, in which we see Russian signboards, inscriptions. In which we see a country full of wasted energy. Has, the director, translates this sense of waste into wasted energy of love. Into unfulfilled, bad love.

There is a beautiful line in the film, spoken by a widow of a Polish officer: "There are many crimes in this world, but the biggest crime of all is to kill love.’"This is what Has’s film is all about. And a music of obsession, destructive obsession, is exactly what Wojciech Kilar wrote.

When Krzysztof Penderecki heard Kilar’s Exodus for the first time, he said to the composer in a friendly fashion: "Nice. Like a kosher bolero.’"Kosher, because it is based on a Hasidic melody. Bolero, because it is an ecstatic rhythm rising to a point where it becomes almost unbearable. An ecstatic music. I heard Exodus for the first time in Krzysztof Zanussi’s 1992 film The Silent Touch; I had not heard it before as a concert piece. I thought it had been written especially for the film. It is true in a way, because Exodus is dedicated to Zanussi. This music simply makes the film explode. It is incredibly intense and leads to ecstasy, which combines the religious with the profoundly secular, corporeal, erotic.

Interestingly, this ecstatic, magnificent composition is used in Zanussi’s film in a paradoxical manner. I really like situations when music does not mean only what it means. When it means something else. Because this is a film about a lack of fulfilment. A film about the fact that greatness passes us by. That this brilliant composition, like perhaps a brilliant film for some directors, is not quite for their film. That it happens as if by chance, that it has been sent by someone. That it comes in a moment of inspiration and then inspiration goes away.

This magnificent piece, ecstatic-erotic as I have said, reminding me a bit of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, has that wild quality which is what I value most in Wojciech Kilar. We often associate this composer with a pious, sweet, nice gentleman. Yet it seems to me that in Kilar’s music, perhaps in Kilar himself, there is a well of huge energy which combines opposites. Like Exodus, which combines religious and erotic energy.

Tadeusz Sobolewski – film critic and journalist associated with the newspaper “Gazeta Wyborcza” and the journal “Kino”. Co-author and co-host (with Grażyna Torbicka) of the TV series Kocham Kino [I Love Cinema] and editor of the DVD series Polska Szkoła Dokumentu [Polish School of Documentary Cinema] published by the National Audiovisual Institute.