2020 Film Essays

From Underground Jazz Clubs to Breaching Hollywood: Krzysztof Komeda and the Polish Sound

Krzysztof Komeda

In late 1968, somewhere in the Hollywood hills, Krzysztof Komeda suffered a head injury that would put him in a coma and, a few months later, end his life at the age of 37. What led to this tragic event is a mystery. One account is that Komeda fell in his home. Another is that he was in a car accident. The most dramatic is that Komeda was pushed during a friendly, drunken tussle with writer Marek Hłasko. 

No matter what account you choose to believe, the death of Poland’s most influential jazz musician cut short a career that would have otherwise printed the name “Krzysztof Komeda” on the same pages of film history as Bernard Herrmann or Ennio Morricone. I cannot help but see Komeda’s career at the time of his injury as a turning point, with the following phase — had he lived — just waiting to be named “The Hollywood Years.”

Rosemary’s Baby was released the summer of 1968, and the original score is just one of Komeda’s three masterworks for Roman Polanski alone. Throughout the decade leading up to his death, Komeda had been composing bizarre and enchanting music for directors like Andrzej Wajda, Henning Carlsen and Jerzy Skolimowski, among others. 

Skolimowski has said that he wanted to make his first film in order to have Komeda write the music. Such was the composer’s reputation in Poland, where he was not just a pioneer of the Polish jazz sound and respected by all his contemporaries, but a pioneer of European jazz as a whole — both as a pianist and a composer, though predominantly the latter.

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Krzysztof Komeda - Astigmatic

Born in 1931 as Krzysztof Trzciński, the iconic Polish composer eventually changed his stage name to “Komeda.” He started playing piano as a child, but for years of his adult life, Komeda’s passion was for medicine, receiving his diploma from the Academy of Medicine in 1956 in Poznań, where he was born. He became Krzysztof Komeda to hide his artistic life from his colleagues, saying “to have the status of doctor mattered to me very much at that time.” Influenced by the anti-Western propaganda of the Soviet machine, jazz was accused of being “imperialist poison” or “bourgeois decadence.” Seeking any victory, however small, the Soviet Union would criticise jazz enthusiasts for playing the music of persecuted Black Americans.

Jazz, in the style of the time, first appeared in Poland around the 1920s. Over the decades that followed, it developed through its various forms and went through periods of suppression and stigmatisation. After WWII — during which Polish jazz first stalled under the Nazi occupation — the transition to Soviet rule brought no significant change in political or cultural freedom. Nevertheless, in 1947, the influential jazz troupe Melomani (meaning ‘music lovers’) was beginning to form. At various points, its membership included Andrzej Trzaskowski — also a film music composer — and Komeda. Along with other clandestine jazz groups across Poland, Melomani was driven by non-conformity, freedom and modernity. 

Between 1949 and 1954, jazz and other forms of modern art were placed under severe restrictions following the Soviet government’s enforcement of “socialist realism,” a set of political standards that defined what was acceptable art. This period in Poland was called the “catacombs,” an extraordinary era of underground jazz where its practitioners were forced to play in secret in certain venues or even people’s homes.

Due to being cut off from the Western world, musicians relied on older styles of jazz music, typically Dixieland and swing. Polish jazz developed independently from its American counterpart, giving young people with no taste for traditional Polish sounds and musical structures an outlet for freedom that shaped their unique style. But soon after Stalin’s death in 1953, a cultural “thaw” slowly took place, and jazz was able to modernise.

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Krzysztof Komeda - Crazy Girl

The world opened up just enough for the newer American styles like hard bop, modal and free jazz to reach Polish musicians while Komeda was establishing himself at head of this ever-evolving movement. To trace Komeda’s style through his films, beginning with the Polanski shorts, is to follow two trajectories at once. One is the Polish jazz style as it experimented more and more with the form. The other is Komeda’s fiercely original sound, which, depending on the film, was a seamless union of jazz, both smooth and avant-garde, Slavic folk, romantic and early electronic music, and the aesthetics of the images created by the directors he collaborated with.

Yet another creative bloom following Stalin’s death was an impulse to relive Poland’s experience of WWII through cinema, the major example being Andrzej Wajda’s “Three War Films” trilogy. At the same time, the war was being considered less by young Poles wanting to embrace this post-war freedom, and certain Komeda-scored films defined what it was to desire music, sex, love and youth in peacetime — even if some of the buildings were still crumbling around them.

So, it was Wajda again who, in 1960, sketched the mood of the Polish youth with alarming craft. The empathy he had for the younger generation is not just evident in the film language of Innocent Sorcerers, but in his own expressed frustrations: “They [young people] were supposed to be part of Western Europe with the allies, not part of Soviet Russia!” 

The title theme to Innocent Sorcerers is a solemn prelude to the subsequent wanderings of the film’s hero. Komeda’s composed melancholy rings through the rippling piano and introductory melodies, and the leading motif, played by trumpeter Tomasz Stańko, to whom Komeda was a mentor, streaks the grey streets of a lively post-war Warsaw with dark but vibrant colour.

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Innocent Sorcerers Movie Film

In the same year, Janusz Morgenstern’s Goodbye, See You Tomorrow took up a similar story arc of a man and woman flirting their way through a Polish city. Wajda’s film is more classically skilful, but Morgenstern explores his city with more curiosity. The two characters frequent jazz clubs as much as they do the emptied, dystopian cathedrals or withering marketplaces of Gdansk. The Komeda score is fairly typical, except during a mesmerising in-film stage performance played with only arms and hands, like a puppet show without the puppets. Komeda begins with an overtly bluesy piano riff, but when the performance changes tempo, the music slips into a Slavic folk song, before finishing off with the blues again.

A handful of Komeda’s films feature these original, beautiful folk songs, all of which are cherished modern additions to the lineage of traditional music in Poland. The Law and the Fist from 1964, a western that adapts the genre using a unique story about bandits raiding one of the Recovered Territories, is remembered especially for its prized title song, “Nim wstanie dzień.” The song plays as the trucks roll into a deserted, newly Polish town — the Germans having been driven out — and it is one of the most moving sequences in Komeda’s body of work.

Whatever fame Komeda has outside of Poland and Polish jazz, his work with Polanski, specifically Rosemary’s Baby, and to a lesser extent Knife in the Water, is where it stems from. “Rosemary’s Lullaby,” also known as “Sleep Safe and Warm,” is now a jazz standard. Also, no ranking of the greatest jazz soundtracks would be credible without the inclusion of Komeda’s Knife in the Water. 

What all this obscures, however, is the brilliant idiosyncrasies of the music Komeda wrote for Cul-de-sac, perhaps an under-sung Polanski picture, whose success is dependent on the composer’s contribution. Each track is positioned at exactly the centre point on the bridge between Komeda’s two sounds: straight jazz and the ensuing experimentalism of the work he would go on to produce from around the time of Cul-de-sac’s 1966 release.

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Cul-de-sac Movie Film

Komeda quite conspicuously began to broaden his palette, dropping the obvious jazz set-up where possible. This could be viewed as a dramatic shift in style, but really the signs were there to begin with. This is true of the aforementioned performance scene in Goodbye, See You Tomorrow, as well as his work on the 1962 short film Cmentarz Remu, directed by Edward Etler, and the scat-ballad in Jerzy Stefan Stawiński’s Pingwin from 1965. The latter sounds like a female ghost humming a Komeda tune that she is recalling from her past life, doing wonders for the now familiar stylings of the streets and interiors of Warsaw.

In 1966, Komeda discovered the psychedelic spirit of his experimentation. This includes the release of his genre-expanding avant-jazz album Astigmatic, as well as his scores for Cul-de-sac, Carlsen’s Sult and Skolimowski’s Barrier. Komeda was now undeterred in his compulsions to experiment beyond free improvisation. Instead, he experimented with instrumentation, sound design, melody and song structure. At times, Komeda drew a fine line between cheesy and freakish, pop and psychosis.

Skolimowski’s Barrier and Le Départ are arguably the clearest examples of Komeda’s talent for matching the style of a filmmaker without side-lining his own instincts. Both films are fragmentary, individual scenes to be enjoyed one after the other instead of as a whole. This risks losing some of the momentum when Skolimowski falters, but Komeda unfailingly meets the disjointed rhythm step by step.

In Le Départ, for example, Skolimowski filmed what seems like a fashion show actually taking place, where the catwalk is the circumference of a pool planted in the middle of a shopping centre. Komeda’s response is “Le Défile,” which at first sounds like a tacky, lowbrow passage repeated over and over. But suddenly, as the models smile and strut through this strange scene, the song breaks into a free jazz wail similarly caught in repetition. These two refrains take turns twisting the surrealism of Skolimowski’s images into sensory chaos.

Le Départ Movie Film

Other notable mentions would be the collaborations with the aforementioned  Danish director Carlsen, which includes Sult, People Meet and Sweet Music Fills the Heart and Kattorna, all released a year apart. The first, which does not boast a particularly noteworthy Komeda score, is a Kafka-esque story of a never-ending search for money, and it is one of the best films about poverty and homelessness that does not rely on dry naturalism.

Having followed the progression of Komeda’s sound through his career, it becomes clear that “Rosemary’s Lullaby” in Rosemary’s Baby is a perfect synthesis of his previous work, particularly the songs for Pingwin, The Law and the Fist and Janusz Nasfeter’s Unloved. As Mia Farrow eventually gathers the courage to comfort her child, her lullaby carries the audience to the terrifying realisation that she has accepted her role as mother. The Slavic-style melody, within the context of Polanski’s urban horror classic, is possibly Komeda’s inarguable masterpiece within the form of film music. And there was nothing to suggest that this was the pinnacle of his artistry.

After the acclaim of Rosemary’s Baby, Komeda stayed in Los Angeles to work on the music for his next film, Riot, an outdated prison flick starring Jim Brown and Gene Hackman. The composer had to get used to his name being Americanised (“Christopher Komeda”) so as not to discomfort Western audiences, just as the title song in Riot is a worthwhile Americanisation of the quintessential Komeda ballad.

But there is one thread that, while not running through every film, can be traced through some of the eclectic pictures, including the shorts, for which Komeda composed the vital soundtracks. That is the melodies of his music being hummed or whistled by the characters in the film. These subtle moments are as if the character has accidentally caught the tune in their head, having received a psychic transmission from our side of the screen.

It is a metafictional motif that is as organic as the original sounds that lived in the head of one of film history’s greatest composers. Like being unable to keep yourself from humming a certain song, Krzysztof Komeda made sure that the films he scored would be unlikely to exist, with any real significance, without his response to the images he was provided.

Mark Seneviratne is a data analyst for an arts funding organisation and is based in Manchester, UK. He also writes for The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry, and will have a short story published for the first time in Not One of Us come October 2020. At university, he thought having a Michael Haneke poster made him edgy.