Starting with 1985's No End, composer Zbigniew Preisner was one of Krzysztof Kieslowski's closest collaborators — he worked on all of the director's films until Kieslowski's death in 1996, with several of their collaborations actually revolving around the world of music. (The duo even created a fake Dutch composer, Van den Budenmayer, to whom they could attribute some of Preisner's big, symphonic works.) Here, Preisner discusses his collaboration with Kieslowski and the massive musical undertaking of Dekalog.
How did you approach creating the music for Dekalog, especially since the project could be seen as 10 separate short films? Was it important to maintain musical unity across the series?
My idea was to compose different music for each of the 10 episodes. The connecting element was the theme appearing at the beginning of each episode. It wasn’t easy, because the series wasn’t shot from the first episode to the last. But this allowed me to create a leitmotif that was universal and worked across the whole series, [but] each episode had a guiding musical spirit that imposed a particular musical climate.
Can you describe your process of working with Kieslowski? It seems that music began to play a larger role in his films after he met you.
My cooperation with Kieslowski was very close. There are many examples of such cooperation as ours in the film world: Fellini and Nino Rota, Sergio Leone and Morricone, Hitchcock and Herrmann. Each good director knows the role of music in a film, knows what to expect from music and doesn’t need to know how the composer works. It all depends on trust, as well as on the director knowing the emotions he wants to achieve in the film. Film music, in my opinion, shouldn’t be an illustration of what we can see on the screen but should play a metaphysical role. It’s a dramatic axis in the movie.
Dekalog actually uses silence very well. There’s very little music in its climactic scenes. For example, much of Dekalog: Five (A Short Film About Killing) is unnervingly quiet.
The most important music in film is silence. But to “listen” to the silence, you need to play something before and after the silence. Of course, that doesn’t apply to American productions. The more American films I watch, the more I have the impression that directors are afraid of silence, as they forget that silence is the best music. [It’s as if they] don’t believe in what they do. So if people make love in a film, the music plays their love; if they kill, the music also kills. Sometimes there is five seconds of silence and that’s all. We worked in a completely different way. We believed music gave such emotions that afterward, we could experience what Simone Weil called “the absolute silence” — that is the greatest music in the movie.
What were your own musical influences? Was Poland open to Western music when you were growing up?
When I was growing up, Western music was almost unavailable in Poland. But ironically, Fellini movies were very popular in Poland because [his films] weren’t about politics. That’s where I saw how important the music in a film could be. So I can say that my inspiration was the collaboration between Nino Rota and Fellini. I don’t mean the musical style but the way music was used in the film and its force. The Dekalog was my answer to that inspiration.
I’m intrigued by the religious and choral nature of your scores. It is my understanding that Poland wasn’t as suspicious of religion and religious music as, say, the U.S.S.R. was.
The U.S.S.R. had nothing to do with religious music, [but] choral music in the U.S.S.R. was used a lot during the Second World War as one of the elements that supported soldiers. The human voice is the best instrument. It has the biggest personality and great power. And it has one additional value: lyrics. A voice used in a film in a good way, but not overused, gives great emotions. Often in our films the voice was a narrator, as in The Double Life of Veronique or Three Colors: Blue.
Was Requiem for My Friend, released in honor of Kieslowski after his death, always conceived of as a tribute to him? I have heard that it was originally intended to be a new narrative work that you and he were going to be working on.
The album Requiem for My Friend has two parts. The first one — Requiem — was composed during a few days after Krzysztof’s death and accompanied him on his last journey. The second part is a concert called Life. Some parts of that Krzysztof knew because we were working on a concert that we planned to perform in Athens. Krzysztof wanted to create and direct concerts when he decided that he did not want to make films anymore. I regret that it didn’t happen.