Zycie za zycie. Maksymilian Kolbe

Wojciech Kilar

" I regard Zycie a Zycie as the best score Wojchiech Kilar has ever written, a work well deserving a prominent place in a ´Polish film music´ canon. "

Written by Joep de Bruijn - Review of the regular release

Wocjiech Kilar was a religious person and often reflected this in musical compositions. In classical music it inspired him to write wonderful works such as Missa Pro Pace, Exodus and Angelus, of which he claimed Angelus was his first real religious work. In film music, when working with Krystof Zanussi, some of these collaborations dealt with a question of faith (Iluminacja for one, on the verge of the composer´ transformation), while others were devoted to religiously inspired scores; From a Far Country (1981), Życie za życie - Maksymilian Kolbe (1991) and Our God’s Brother (1997). Despite recycling an musical idea from his relgious work Bogurodzica for From a Far Country, it is by large the most musically accessible of these three, but is on equal terms in their musical quallities. In the 1970s Kilar had a sudden realisation of a stronger growing religious belief, which resulted in saying farewell to his inventive period of sonorism, resulting in a simplification of his musical language. It does not say this has not led to less inspiring works, but some of his musical character certainly was lost, even though it is not difficult to find minor to larger moments of ´revival´.

Życie za życie - Maksymilian Kolbe (Life for Life: Maximilian Kolbe) is a 1991 Polish-German co-production about the life and death of the priest Maximilian Kolbe. He was sent to the concentration camp Auschwitz in the Second World War, for hiding Jewish people. One of the prisoners called Jan, escaped the camp, resulting in the Nazis sentencing ten prisoners to starve to death. Kolbe decides to spare the life of one of the prisoners, taking his place, providing comfort to the remaining prisoners by preaching. The film does not provide for a linear biopic narrative, instead its focus lies on the escaped prisoner Jan, who finds himself inflicted in his attempts to forget his horrifying experiences in the camp, while he seeks out people who know him, becoming gradually more fascinated by Kolbe. From that flashback structure we learn about Kolbe and see how his amiable and noble deeds affect the prisoners in turmoil.

Musically, the score that Kilar wrote is a brilliant piece of minimalism. He uses a rhythmic pattern by a harp and piano, overlaid by cellos and violins playing a repeated series of chords. Later into the score, the deeper sound of the contrabass replaces the strings and cellos, giving a greater emotional depth to the theme, also dismissing piano and harp. In hearing the complete score, you will notice the composer switches the series of pitches once in a while, which only adds the sheer excellence. It represents the core of the score, a constantly moving, almost, requiem for Father Kolbe.

The second theme I would call the preaching theme for Kolbe. It features an awe-inspiring melody for the string section, supported by the rhythmic piano pattern. Unlike the series of strings chords that dominate the score, the melody and performance of this is much more liberating and provides a deeply spiritual sense. The theme only appears three times; the first time muddled under a minute long scene where Kolbe preaches his brothers, the second time clearly heard in a childhood memory, with his mother, and the third time as the end credits roll.

Father's Kolbe Preaching is a perfect example of a popularised opinion of Kilar, often cited, through the use in the film The Truman Show. There it serves as musical theme in culmination of the free will of its main character. The theme is indeed a very moving piece and befitting for such a scene, and I can see why many have been stunned by its use. Similar to the single original cue he composed to Polanski´ The Pianist, even Dracula, which I think is brilliant, nonetheless are unfortunate ´English language film´ examples that have received a disproportionate amount of attention and undeserved citing, burying the enormously rich heritage of the composer. I am aware that, as I am writing this, I am actually fuelling it. I more strongly connect with the efforts of turning the score into the wonderfully constructed symphonic poem called Requiem Father Kolbe, included in various classical work releases. Kilar was hesitant of constructing this piece, nonetheless he agreed, resulting in a perfect representation of the score. The piece attracted praise from a wider audience, but unfortunately never had the same impact as it had in in its relatively insignificant use in The Truman Show.

The third theme is for Brother Anselm, one of the strongest believers and witnesses of profoundness acts by Kolbe, who ultimately rejoices siding the pope in the beautification of Saint Maximilian. It uses the familiar chords from the score, now played by a solo celesta and is roughly 30 seconds long. I could only hear it once in the film, the first bit of music 24 minutes into the film. The scene for which it is used feels like an isolated, magical moment, rather than something appointed to a character such as Brother Anselm. However, it does provide the introduction to minimalism that is to follow. The cd includes a second version (track 9), which is a more reflective and mature performance, unused in the film. Had it not been for the cd release, I would never have appointed this to Brother Anselm as a theme. For Requiem Father Kolbe the lighter celesta take, as used in the film, re-occurs twice.

As said, Życie za życie is a film with flashback narrative. Within this kind of narrative there are a lot of intercuts between scenes of Kolbe in the camp, his past, the discoveries of Jan aligned with the situation of Kolbe and long after his death. Kilar underscores this with mostly rather sparse pieces of music, usually in the average range of a minute, up to two minutes at most. Within this film, the cleverly constructed minimalism, is evidently helping in providing a sense of movement and of progression for the drama. It is one the strongest qualities of Kilar that is a perfect match for this film. The mixing of score within the film fluctuates, but overall takes on an increasingly more dramatic and prominent role. I especially love the sequences that segue into Kolbe' status quo in the camp, in which the strings become encompassing necessities of spiritualism and sadness.

Father's Kolbe Preaching theme only occurs three times in the film, but its function is problematic. More than the emotive stringed minimalism, if that´s even possible, this theme is the overpowering religious representation of Kolbe. During a small speech to his fellow brothers, its use is incredibly understated, buried deeply under his own words. Unless you already know the theme, this introduction might just as well pass by unnoticed. In the second statement, supporting the flashback with his mother, its profound quality is very impressive, despite being just over a minute. The third statement is preceded by the Beatification cue. It features the harp and piano rhythmic pattern, which Kilar gives a final, but now prominent and loud series of statements, underscoring Jan seeing how Kolbe is finally being sainted on television, kneeling and becomes a true believer himself. It segues into the final rendition of the preaching theme, in which its captivating melody begins the moment the end credits roll. Interestingly, given the limited time and moments to develop in the film, this concluding statement is even heard in a shortened version, whereas a complete version, like track 9, would provide the best possible closure.

The music to Życie za życie may not fully work as it should in the frame for which it was written, but I find it impressive nonetheless. Obviously, to understand the ideas behind Kilar´ efforts, seeing the film and hearing the score as a listening experience, as presented by Jade records, is highly recommended. Secondly, the symphonic poem (Requiem Father Kolbe) offers a spectacular representation of the score, which actually is a rather unsophisticated mix of several cues heard on the Jade release. On the other hand, it is appreciated that two pieces were released on the Warsaw to Hollywood release by Milan, but I urge people to pursue the other two options. The score release by Jade is still available on the second-hand market, but prices range from 30 euros to insanely higher prices, which is unfortunate, to say the least. It truly deserves an accessible and reasonably priced re-release. Luckily, the brilliant Requiem Father Kolbe is found on numerous, widely available releases, tied in with other classical works, and becomes highly recommended.

I regard Życie za życie - Maksymilian Kolbe as the best score Wojchiech Kilar has ever written, a work well deserving a prominent place in a ´Polish film music´ canon.

Track listinhg
1 Father Maximilian/Vater Maximilian/Père Maximiliane 8:09
2 Brother Anselm/Bruder Anselm/Frère Anselme 0:26
3 Father's Kolbe Preaching/Die Predigt Von Pater Kolbe/La Prédication du Père Kolbe 2:31
4 Auschwitz's Dungeon/Die Zelle In Auschwitz/La Cellule D'Auschwitz 2:27
5 The Ascent To The Calvary/Ausritt Der Kavallerie/La Montée Au Calvaire 1:18
6 Childhood's Remembrance/Erinnerung Der Kindheit/Souvenirs D'enfance 4:37
7 Brtoher Anselm/Bruder Anselm/Frère Anselme 0:26
8 Beatification/Seligkeit/Béatification 1:48
9 Saint Maximilian/Heiliger Maximilian/Saint Maximilien 2:42
10 Exodus (For Orchestra And Mixed Choir 1979-1981) Recorded 16-18 September 1985 In The Center Of Aris In Katowice
Conductor – Antoni Wit

Total Duration: 47:10

(written 22-10-2019)
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Released by

Jade (regular release 1991)