uwzględnij wielkość liter
dokładna fraza
zawarta fraza
You are in:
Tradition / Reception / Reception of Chopin / Chopin in films



Chopin goes to the movies


Films about Chopin 

Chopin's music in films


Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir and The Spy Who Loved Me from the Bond series - the first a shocking animation about war trauma and the second, cheerful pop culture; Daft Punk's Electroma and Peter Weir's The Truman Show- niche sci-fi and a work by one of the most outstanding authors of contemporary cinema.  It would be hard to count how many films have used Chopin's music. There are close to 300 titles in the largest internet film database, IMDb, under "Frédéric Chopin", and we can find another dozen or so through links. And even this list is far from complete. Only a few Polish films were listed, although there are about 50 such full-length feature films.

First and foremost, this is due to the fact that film portals reflect almost entirely the contents of ending credits. When these do not contain information about the music citations, the film won't be listed (although it should be noted that only recently has inclusion of music citations become a norm),.  Secondly, the notion of a citation is not strictly defined.  Frequently a work ends up on a sound track as a transposed arrangement, vaguely reminiscent of its original, or even as a distant allusion, requiring an "instinctive" knowledge of the original to recognize it.  Discerning such references is made even more difficult by the surprising situational contexts in which they show up. Are these references still citations?  Polish films, which are addressed to a public whose knowledge of Chopin is presumably absorbed with one's mother's milk, frequently prompt the asking of this question, for which there is no single, correct answer. Despite this, I would like to look at selected films in which Chopin's music was evoked in any form, ponder the objectives served, as well as explore related ideas in the films.

There are films in which works of Chopin must appear.  His music is present when his life and creativity are a film's subject - in biographical films, both feature films and documentaries. But in the decisive majority of films his music is not self-evident. It was chosen to say something that would be difficult to say differently, its utililization does not always say something wise or revealing.  To the contrary: films often make trite use of his music, as it does with works of frequently cited composers. Chopin belongs to an elite group of artists who are well-represented in the cinema, in that most mass-oriented art, and to its enormous viewing public, an audience they couldn't dream of in life.  Nevertheless, this popularity comes at an excessive price: from his life's work, only that which was known and liked is chosen, and only fragments are used. Even worse, that music may serve as a modest sound background, further obscured by dialogues and acoustic effects.  Despite this, every case of reaching out to classical music demonstrates at least some faith in its vitality, and in its permanent capacity to establish contact with viewers and move them emotionally. Chopin's music still circulates in culture. Polish and non-Polish films continue to bear witness to this circulation.


Films about Chopin

Creativity should take precedence, since it is the reason for which the artist's life instills interest. Nevertheless, cinema is not well suited to analyzing or describing the creative process, although it fits perfectly in telling a story about life or fantasizing about it. 

Chopin's life, after minor touch ups, was ideally suited to a film hero, a favorite of Paris salons, associated with one of the greatest shockers of the era - George Sand, whose life ended prematurely in illness. Such a melodramatic formula was used to portray the composer in the first biographical film devoted to him, the Italian Chopin e George Sand by Alberto Degli Abbati (1910).  Not much is known of it, since the copy was lost, as was another one, this time a German film Nocturno der Liebe by Carl Boese (Nocturne of Love, 1918).  Nevertheless, the later French film La Valse de l'adieu by Henry Roussel (also known in Poland by the more suggestive title Miłość i łzy Chopina - The Love and Tears of Chopin, 1927), though still silent, survived intact. The story concerns Chopin's broken engagement with Maria Wodzińska, the relationship was the only historically confirmed fact in the entire film.

The sentimental mood, which the very titles of the cited films betray, was later also regarded to be the most suitable.  Another Farewell Waltz, produced by Géza von Bolvary and Albert Valentino in two language versions, German and French (Abschiedswalzer/La Chanson de l'adieu, 1934), ushers in the sound chapter of Chopin's biographical film history.  Here, Chopin's life was treated even more freely than in the prior film. Though it would seem impossible, creators of the next version of the composer's biography outbid this achievement. The main hero of the Charles Vidor's famous American melodrama A Song to Remember (1944) did not have much in common with his original, while the supporting roles had even less resemblance to their originals.  Romantically busy with Sand, Chopin forgets about his homeland in need, but his Polish friends,  Professor Elsner and Konstancja Gładkowska, arriving from the tormented country, nevertheless manage to prod his conscience.  The artist gives a concert for the benefit of his countrymen forced into emigration after the failed November uprising and immediately dies. In earlier French films, Chopin's Polishness was not particularly emphasized.  Hardly surprising, since the French acknowledged him as their own artist, just as we do.  The intrusive presence of the patriotic theme in the American film can be easily explained by the times when it was produced. There was a war underway, during which all Hollywood movies, in  rather oblique ways, strengthened the morale of the nation and its allies, but for obvious reasons this film did not make it to occupied Poland .

In the twenty year period between the great wars, Polish cinematographers did not succeed in making a film about Chopin, though plans were made.  They returned after WWII's changed conditions. Aleksander Ford's Młodość Chopina (The Youth of Chopin 1952) was produced after years of preparation.  Given the then existing conditions, it was a super production. The passage of time now permits a gentler treatment of the insistent ideology of the composer's character as a timeless debtor of native folklore in the era bound by the doctrine of socialist realism.  In exchange, we are now more inclined to appreciate the particular care in producing the film, especially in the interpretation of its musical aspects.  Comparing the full charm of Chopin performed by Czesław Wołłejko with other, roughly-hewn heroes of social realism films, reveals that the composer was given particular favor by not forcefully squeezing him into then existing propagandized role models.

Whatever one thinks of it, The Youth of Chopin attempted to "desentimentalize" Chopin and to place him in the context of the era (admittedly somewhat falsified).  No later feature film followed this track, though at the same time Chopin was never talked about in such a touchingly nonchalant manner towards historical truth, as in Vidor's A Song to Remember. 

In 1991, two extremely different portraits of the artist were released: the French film La Note bleue by Andrzej Żuławski and the British Impromptu by James Lapine. Żuławski's unsettling work - in which dialogues were composed entirely from statements fixed in writing of Chopin, Sand and others - were rigorously faithful to the facts.  Still, this was a meditation about creation, about being an artist, and about Polishness. Janusz Olejniczak, in the leading role, created the most expressive and most suffering of all the screen Chopins.  In Żuławski's film, with the help of music he comes more into contact with himself and his personal demons than with the surroundings.  Yet the demons are held back in the British Chopin starring Hugh Grant: Impromptu resembles a romantic comedy, though intelligent. The climate of this film was a refreshing surprise for the Polish movie goer. 

Jerzy Antczak, so far the director of the latest film biography of Chopin to date, titled Chopin. Pragnienie miłości (Chopin. Desire for Love, 2002) returned to a more conventional tone. The style of the film was conventional, based on costly Hollywood costume performances.  On the other hand the title hero doesn't resemble his earlier screen personifications: he remains admittedly a brilliant artist (and patriot of course), though he became a repulsive person - picky, infantile, egocentric feeding off close friends and relatives..

Chopin - as one of the main figures or a secondary figure - showed up in several dozen other films, including films for television. More than ephemeral truth about his personality, we can expect them to provide us hypotheses, convincing or not, shaped by the time of producing the film, its addressees and the movie genre.  This also applies to the document form, which is used to provide information to the viewer, which, after all, is never entirely neutral.  It is difficult to be inspired by the several Polish documentaries devoted to Chopin's fate. These films were produced according to one of two formulas, either they focused on places where the composer lived, creating a cult atmosphere, or they were histories of the Chopin Competitions, places where his cult and the impact of his creativity thrive. 



Chopin's music in films

Films about Chopin are not the only surviving memory of him.  His memory shows up in yet another... much more interesting way, by evoking his music.

In all likelihood, one can already presume that pianists playing along in silent movies made use of his works.  Many years after sound was introduced, a film was produced that maintains a trace of this. The plot of Robert Siodmak' s American thriller, Spiral Staircase (1945), takes place at the beginning of the XX century and begins with a scene from a silent movie: the pianist illustrating the film with a fragment of the Waltz in A minor,  and a moment later, smoothly progresses to Beethoven's Sonata Pathetique;  this connection was also in rather bad taste of the period. 

Usually however, Chopin's music is to suggest the sophistication of those who perform it, or listen to it, frequently going together with their high social status.  The aristocratic bourgeois or intellectual salon is the typical interior where this music is at home. Examples are numerous: Luchino Visconti's The Innocent (1976) and the scandalous Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodomy by Pier Pasolo Pasolini (1975) make one aware of just how much these salons could differ from each other. The association of Chopin's music with prestige perversely sounds like the already mentioned The Spy Who Loved Me by Lewis Gilbert (1977), a story about the adventures of agent 007.  Here a demonic criminal who's planning the extermination of mankind, turns out to be a music lover. Besides Chopin's Nocturne in D-flat Major, along with the would-be tyrant, we also hear Bach and Mozart, so our composer is ensured select company.  In order to change the register: in the very musical The Barber of Siberia by Nikita Mikhalkov (1988), this same nocturne accompanies the grotesque scene between an old general who arrives in a courting, his adjutant, and the main heroine. She sits at the piano to calm down the situation which has spun out of control, and to prevent the dramatic consequences which soon take place.  Though it is not certain whether the heroine is playing from a score or from memory, this scene means that Chopin's music comprised a deeply internalized component of culture of the higher social levels. The Chopin episode from the Miloš Forman's, Ragtime (1981) has a similar significance: a black musician, in order to prove to a family of white factory owners that he's capable of reading musical scores, places several measures from musical scores lying on their piano.  He plays a fragment of the Prelude in A minor, which prompts the idea for the ragtime improvisation.


Nevertheless, Chopin was not appropriated by nostalgic stories from the distant past. Two French films take us to the not so distance past, in which Chopin's works were arranged in such a way that they barely resemble the original though, in exchange, they find their place in the lives of ordinary, even common heroes.  Ettore Scola's film Le Bal (1983) is a curious panorama of the fate of France over a past half-century, told entirely through music. In the part played out in the 1930s, there is a dance to a typical "Parisian" waltz where it is rather hard to detect the Waltz in C-sharp Minor.  In turn, Angnes Varda's beautiful film Jacquot de Nantes (1990) features an episode with a swinging saxophone player who lightly entertains guests in a provincial restaurant full of post-war euphoria and Americans seemingly everywhere. Two delighted boys comment on his performance. They know that it's something well known, not likely for the saxophone, and that it's beautiful, but they can't guess they're listening to a nocturne by Chopin.

The cinema reaches for such varied works of Chopin and introduces them in such different contexts, that no generalization will cover all the meanings which it is capable of bringing out. Sometimes it is a life-giving strength, allowing for survival (as in Roman Polanski's The Pianist,  2002), incarnate lyricism (as in The Truman Show by Peter Weir, 1998), but it is also something else, difficult to grasp - as in the Israeli Waltz with Bashir by Ari Folman (2008). The title waltz is a demented "dance" by an Israeli solider seized by a murderous trance, accompanied by the  Waltz in  C- sharp Minor.  This same one, mentioned earlier in Scola's Le Bal expressed the pure joy of life.

If anything distinctly differentiates the status of Chopin's music in our national cinema from international cinema, it is precisely that Polish film creators have to take into account a certain risk.. Starting in the second half of the XIX century, his music functioned as an emblem of patriotism in the public media.  Discerning the artistic, marginalized values of Chopin heritage, which yielded to fatal misrepresentation, their acceptance by the public, is not easy.

Hence, it might seem that the patriotic connotations were what the artistic work of our "fourth poet" had to offer cinema of the 1930s, which urgently needed music in connection with the introduction of sound. Yet film examples of using Chopin's works in the "homeland" sense are surprisingly few.  Films of a historical, patriotic nature - Wierna rzeka (Faithful River) by Leonard Buczkowski and Józef Lejtes' Róża (The Rose), both from 1936, belong to the few examples.  In public life, Chopin's music was continually politicized, particularly that with distinct national characteristics, polonaises, mazurkas, and also, as an exception, the "Revolutionary" Etude. This practice survived more than one change in power and more than one political system.


Perhaps for the reason that he was so popularized in official life, that authors of pre-war films rarely reached for distinct "national" works of Chopin, while the genre which drew the most profusely from Chopin was pure melodrama in the "psychological", not the patriotic version.  Of the four melodramas in which Chopin's works were used, as many as three were adaptations of bestsellers by Helena Mniszkówna: the second, a sound version of  Trędowata (The Social Leper, 1936) directed by Juliusz Gardan, Henryk Szaro's Ordynat Michorowski (Entailer Michorowski, 1937) and Gehenna (Through Hell, 1938) by Michał Waszyński.  The fourth was Granica (The Limit, 1938) by Józef Lejtes (1938), based on a novel by Zofia Nałkowska.  The film, in which Chopin's music was used with the greatest scale, nevertheless, remains The Social Leper.  Along with patriotic films, melodramas from the 1930s plunged Chopin's music into national-sentimental kitsch.


During WWII, our cinematography stopped functioning. Polish films were produced only outside the borders of the occupied country and they used the formula dictated by war circumstances: materials documenting the combat trail were held together by means of a feeble, invented story line. Such was the film  Mp. Adama i Ewy by Michał Waszyński (1944), which featured a lengthy dance scene to the Polonaise in A Major performed by a theater group acting alongside the Anders Army.  The convention of the soldier's film categorically did not contribute to searching for new applications for Chopin's music.  As would turn out, the post-war situation in Polish did not contribute to this either. 


Right after the war, film artists could not, nor did they intend to revolutionize cinema.  Awareness of the end of a certain era rather inclined them to sustain at least some of its forms, despite the cataclysm.  Such a thread of the bygone culture, which the war not only left intact, but even reinforced, was the fixed tradition of how Chopin's music was received. 

Despite this, contrary to what could be expected, applying works of our greatest composer in the post-war reality was not a foolproof pass to the screen.  This is demonstrated by the fates of the only film directed by Andrzej Panufnik - a short film impression called Ballade in F minor (1945), put together with photos of the devastated Warsaw, registered soon after its liberation. Some of the shots were also used in the original version of Leonard Buczkowski's Zakazane piosenki (Forbidden Songs, 1946), in a lengthy sequence with Chopin's song  The Leaves are Falling in the background. The Ballade in F Minor was never allowed to be shown, and the sequence with this song was cut from Forbidden Songs.  


Taking advantage of Chopin for propaganda needs did not start during the occupation nor did it end with it.  After the war the official cult of his works was to serve legitimization of the new authorities, a sign of which was the film biography The Youth of Chopin. Later, citations to serious music were nearly abandoned because the character roles which could make any use of it disappeared from the cinema for some time.  They were replaced by common heroes that settle for mass songs and folk dances.  Only the pre-war engineer from the film Not Far from Warsaw by Maria Kaniewska (1954), whiled away his loneliness by playing  Chopin's  "Raindrop" Prelude on his piano - though possessing a piano had become an incriminating circumstance by then.


A new generation came into the cinema in the mid-50s, later called the Polish school.  These artists aimed at remaking cinema from the start, as Andrzej Wajda put it. A step in this direction was review of the language which cinema spoke up to that time and which would be radically rejected. Nevertheless, the rejection did not mean music elimination, for if it did, then Chopin would have to disappear completely from films of the time. Though he did not, his music was used in a new way. Wajda cited it in Kanal (1956) and Popiół i diament (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958), Andrzej Munk - in  Zezowate szczęście (Bad Luck, 1960). In Ashes and Diamonds, the grotesquely played Polonaise in A Major crowns a drunken banquet.  The previously binding taboo was weakened through this fallen Polonaise. Never before had Chopin's music, a national sanctity, gotten entangled in the machines of irony, not aimed at it, but rather at barren rituals, of which it had become a routine element. When these films entered the bloodstream of culture, a return to the good natured reading of Chopin long became, if not impossible, then problematic.


After films from the sphere of the Polish school around Chopin it became quieter. From 1960 to 1968, a period of distinct censure in the history of our cinema, his music was used in just two minor films: in Spotkanie w Bajce (Cafe from the Past, 1962) by Jan Rybkowski and Przerwany lot (Interrupted Flight, 1964) by Leonard Buczkowski. The noticeable retreat from Chopin was a sign of deeper and more fundamental processes: suppressing and renouncing the romantic tradition. As the center of gravity shifted from what is Polish to what is human, areas of our culture shifted as well. An exception was Wajda's Landscape After a Battle (1970), an indirect reaction to the shameful anti-semitic events of March 1968.  This film neither accuses Chopin's music, nor stands in its defense. The game was not being played out for this, rather for the degeneration of its official reception, which was based on decorating ordinary chauvinism.


In the 1970s it became clear that Chopin's music needed urgent rescue, due to the long-term "overdose", since it had begun to function as an insignificant platitude. 

Not all attempts undertaken in the 1970s were successful from this viewpoint.  Chopin's works showed up regularly in every film of Krzysztof Zanussi - in Życie rodzinne (Family Life,  1971), Bilans kwartalny (A Woman's Decision, 1974) and Barwy ochronne (Camouflage, 1976). They were found in Edward Żebrowski's Szpital Przemienienia (Hospital of the Transfiguration, 1978), Feliks Falk's Szansa (Chance, 1979) and the television movie by Jerzy Sztwiertnia, Niedziela pewnego małżeństwa w mieście przemysłowym średniej wielkości (Sunday of a Man and Wife in a Medium Sized Industrial Town, 1977) - the most interesting of them. The youth melodrama Con amore by Jan Batory (1976), a story of rivalry between two pianists participating in the Polish team for the Chopin Competition for a girl, became a chance to cite more than twenty works of Chopin, somewhat of a record.  Nevertheless, if these films are treated as an attempt to restore the works of Chopin to authentic life, it must be acknowledged a failure.


On the other hand, the rehabilitation of his music, undertaken in the second half of this decade within the "Cinema of Moral Anxiety", disregarded its patriotic interpretations, ignoring community interpretations in the search for new recipient contexts.  This was achieved by showing the music in action, revealing one's personal limitations, while gaining the motivation to overcome them. We owe two such figures to the cinema of these years: The first is a hero of one minor though important episode of Aktorzy prowincjonalni (Provincial Actors, 1978) by Agnieszka Holland; the second is the hero of Krzysztof Kieślowski's Amator (Camera Buff, 1979).


After  Provincial Actors and Camera Buff, Chopin's life and works once again briefly stopped inspiring filmmakers. In the sixteen month period that lapsed between the conclusion of August agreements and the imposition of martial law, production began on many outstanding films.  Some of them made it to the screen before December '81, others never would. Independent of how their fate played out (premieres were scattered across the decade, as late as 1989), Chopin's music could not be heard in any of them.


The history of our cinematography of the 1980s was not the most successful, though several significant films were produced in this period. Unfortunately, Chopin's music was used almost entirely in the remaining ones, frequently entertaining. Warranting distinction, however, is Bodensee by Janusz Zoarski (1985). This story about a German internment camp on the Swiss border reveals a new concept: our compatriots calculatingly flirt with other nationals, employing literary and musical heritage of the romanticists to achieve this.


At the turn of 1989, this grotesque tone started to intensify. In Piotr Szulkin's films - Femina (1990) and Ubu, The King (2003) some works of Chopin (especially representing the heroic genre) functioned as a mechanism of cultural compulsion. The Polonaise A-flat Major in Filip Bajon's The Spring to Come (2001) was used in a similar role.  In recent years, light and entertaining cinema has been using Chopin's music, while not depicting his creativity, except for the bizarre, admittedly (Stanisław Tym's Ryś, 2007).   Besides this, after 2000, Chopin's works ended up in two important films in this context: Jan Jakub Kolski's Pornografia (Pornography 2003), and a year earlier, Dzień świra (The Day of the Freak) by Marek Koterski.

In Pornography, Chopin's small masterpiece - Prelude in E Minor - is just a beautiful appearance, a signal of longing for the order irrevocably lost through the war.  The musical provocation of Pornography is based on dethroning Chopin's music through the ragtime melodic pattern - something inferior, trivial, and ultimately, infinitely more significant for the hero's biography.


On the other hand, the hero in The Day of the Freak, is someone we find contemporary. His spiritual lineage goes back to romantic tradition, put into motion by himself, though in an unsettling manner. This applies especially to Chopin's works, present here in a best of like set: ... "Revolutionary" Etude, Prelude in E Minor and the Funeral March (part III of the Sonata in  B-flat Minor).  In the block where he lives and which he hates, music becomes not only a tool of acoustic violence, but morphization of the ubiquitous compulsion. The Funeral March helps create one of the most unforgettable sequences of the movie, in which various romantic themes are intertwined, even though this is not among the "classic" works, it is a legacy interpreted after the fact by later generations. The hero gives a symbolic funeral to his generation, intelligent persons "killed" in battle with the daily frustration.  His funeral speech (recited by a thirteen-syllable verse) is teeming with obscenities.  The obscenities also include the tacky, aggressively pop arrangement of the Funeral March, and even - its presence itself, which importunately seals its fate.


It is easier for our cinema to show the problems of romantic legacy than to give an account of Chopin's light side. But we keep on hearing Chopin, and how to say it, we need this in its unadulterated form. It turns out that Polish cinema is helpless in expressing this sentiment aside from two attempts at the end of the 70s (Provincial Actors and Camera Buff), since the times of good-natured Forbidden Songs, it has not come up with an idea for regaining his music, seized by the rapacious official culture of the time and system. It seems that in order to be on the safe side, a filmmaker may summon a work of Chopin without protecting himself with being ironic, only if he is a foreigner or makes a film with the foreign viewer in mind.


Iwona Sowińska

English translation: Philip Stoeckle




Start : About us : Editorial staff : Contact : Site map
Copyright by TIFC 2008. Realizacja Rotos.