The Van den Budenmayer connection


Three Colours: Red.

Van den Budenmayer was a Dutch composer. He was born in 1755 and died in 1803. We know what he looked like from the engraved portrait that appears on recordings of his music but his first name has never been revealed. The most pertinent thing to know about him is that he never existed at all outside a handful of films, being the invention of director Krzysztof Kieslowski and soundtrack composer Zbigniew Preisner. A composer invented to enrich a scenario isn’t usually worth mentioning but Van den Budenmayer is a cinematic rarity, a recurrent presence in four different films, only two of which have any internal connection to each other. This is a common technique in literary fiction—writers love to invent details which turn up in otherwise unconnected stories or novels—but it’s uncommon in cinema.

Dekalog 9 (1988)


The first mention of the composer’s name occurs in the penultimate story of the Dekalog cycle, a drama about a surgeon (Piotr Machalica) who suspects his wife is having an affair. One of the surgeon’s patients is a young woman who tells him that her potential singing career has been compromised by her heart condition. During the course of their conversation she mentions favourite composers: Bach, Mahler and Van den Budenmayer. The surgeon, curious about the latter, is subsequently shown listening to a recording by the composer when the wife’s lover happens to call on the phone. The musical theme, which is reprised throughout the film, thereby becomes linked with the episode’s theme of infidelity. And since Preisner himself wrote this music, some tonal continuity is maintained with with the scores for the other films in the cycle. Dekalog was Preisner’s first soundtrack work for Kieslowski, a collaboration that continued with the following feature films.

The Double Life of Veronique (1991)


Kieslowski’s first feature made outside Poland connects his Polish years with the final films of the Three Colours Trilogy in a story that begins in Poland before moving to France. The music of Van den Budenmayer links these episodes via the lives of two more young women, both played by Irene Jacob, who share similar interests and histories. What’s notable here is that the predicament of the young woman in Dekalog 9—a weak heart endangering a potential singing career—is shared by Weronika in Poland and Veronique in France.

In the Polish sequence, Weronika passes an audition to sing in concert as a soloist with an orchestra, the composition she sings being another piece by Van den Budenmayer although we don’t know this until later on. This is where Kieslowski and Preisner’s invention is transformed from an expedient story detail to an actual character. The composition is never named in the film but the soundtrack album gives us two versions of the same piece, complete with a name and catalogue number: Concerto En Mi Mineur (SBI 152)—Version De 1798 and Concerto En Mi Mineur (SBI 152)—Version De 1802.

In the French section of the film Veronique is a teacher at a junior school where she takes the music class. An early view inside one of these classes shows her chalking the name of the composer on a blackboard together with the years he was alive. “He was only recently discovered,” Veronique tells the children, before she listens to them play a Portsmouth Sinfonia version of the piece we heard earlier.

Three Colours: Blue (1993)


Music is a central element in the first film of the Three Colours trilogy, with Julie (Juliette Binoche) haunted by memories of an unfinished composition by her husband, an internationally famous composer who died with their daughter in a car crash. Julie eventually feels compelled to help her husband’s friend, Olivier (Benoît Régent), complete the composition which turns out to be based on a Purcell-like funeral theme by Van den Budenmayer.

Three Colours: Red (1994)


Everything comes full circle in the final part of the trilogy, with fashion model Valentine (Irene Jacob again) listening to the music from Dekalog 9 in a record shop, a piece which the Red soundtrack album has titled as Do Not Take Another Man’s Wife. This is doubly significant for a very tangled story since Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the retired judge that Valentine meets, was betrayed by his girlfriend years before in a predicament mirrored by that of a legal student (and future judge) who lives near Valentine. The embittered Kern spends all his time listening to his neighbours’ phone conversations with a scanner; he also likes Van den Budenmayer’s music enough to have an album lying around although we never see him listening to it. We do, however, hear the Dekalog theme when Kern is alone in his house. (The camera lingers briefly on the composer’s portrait but it’s left to eagle-eyed viewers to make sense of that “…ayer” on the album cover.) The later scene in the record shop seems superfluous at first but I take it as a sign of the growing friendship between Valentine and Kern, especially after Valentine has melted Kern’s cynicism enough for him to tell her about his past. I only spotted the connection with Dekalog 9 after watching all these films again, also the connection between Kern and the surgeon, both of whom are victims of infidelity who eavesdrop on phone conversations.


It’s tempting to construct an elaborate explanation for all of this—parallel time-stream, Borgesian game—but the simplest rationale, beyond the mere pleasures of pastiche, would be that inventing a composer allowed Zbigniew Preisner to imitate older musical styles which were still in keeping with his own compositions. The Dekalog theme may have originated elsewhere but it doesn’t sound at odds with the beautiful bolero that Preisner composed for Red. Kieslowski and screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz (who co-wrote all of these films) evidently loved constructing patterns and finding connections between their characters; Dekalog is like Joyce’s Dubliners crossed with the “Wandering Rocks” chapter of Ulysses. In these intricate scenarios Van den Budenmayer and his music become yet more tiles added to the mosaic.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The car in the snow
Dekalog posters by Ewa Bajek-Wein

Weekend links 626


Czech poster for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist. Art and design by Miroslav Pechánek, 1972.

• “Acknowledgements are not part of the novel; in fact, they break the spell the author has spent 200 or more pages weaving. We should take a book on its merits, knowing as little about the author as possible. As one reader put it to me, ‘the end of a book is time for thinking about the book, not for an acceptance speech’.” John Self on dedications and acknowledgements.

• Mixes of the week: a Power Ambient mix by A Strangely Isolated Place, and a mix for The Wire by Nexcyia.

• At Spoon & Tamago: 3D-scanned stones create vessel for human-made interventions.

Weeks turned into months. Slowly it dawned on me that I was performing the role of Boswell for a man who might be: a) a put-on maestro or arcane troll; b) a fiction writer slash performance artist; or c) a lunatic. But by his own admission King had tagged me with a familiar spirit. Whether or not he was telling the truth was irrelevant at this point. I could feel something squatting on my soul. I needed to see what it was.

Kent Russell on looking for demons in a disenchanted world

• A trailer for Mad God, Phil Tippett’s 30-years-in-the-making animated feature.

• New music: Vesta by Azu Tiwaline, and Right, Right, Right by Nils Frahm.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Max Hattler Day.

• “Marcel Duchamp was not a thief.”

• RIP Jean-Louis Trintignant.

Demons Of Rage (1972) by Nik Raicevic | Shall Come Forth The Demons (1991?) by Yuri Morozov | Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light (2011) by Earth

The Desert of the Tartars


The Desert of the Tartars (1976), an Italian film directed by Valerio Zurlini, is another of those cinematic works whose description in books would leave me tantalised and frustrated. A brief entry would tell you that the film existed but when would you ever get to see it? Last week I finally got to see this one thanks to a recent restoration via a French blu-ray disc which, for once, had English subtitles.


Zurlini’s film is an adaptation of The Tartar Steppe, the most popular of Dino Buzzati’s novels, and for a long time the only book of his that you could easily find in English. I often feel a little hypocritical when it comes to Buzzati. I’ve been telling people for years to look out for his strange stories—the phrase was used as a subtitle for a Calder & Boyars edition of Catastrophe—even though the translated collections were all out of print. The Tartar Steppe has been reprinted more than most yet I still haven’t read it. I’ll be correcting this now I’ve seen the film. Buzzati’s story concerns a young soldier, Lieutenant Drogo, being posted to a distant border fortress where a small company of soldiers awaits a barbarian invasion which they believe will come from the surrounding desert. All the soldiers are eager to experience the thrill of battle yet the invasion has so far refused to arrive. Matters are complicated when officers who were determined to stay are sent back home while Drogo, who says he was posted there by mistake, finds the place impossible to leave. A Cavafy poem, Waiting for the Barbarians, is credited as an inspiration for this, but the spectre of Franz Kafka haunts any story with a deferred or inaccessible resolution, and in that respect Buzzati’s novel, which was published in 1940, may be one of the first to learn from the example set by The Castle.


Jean-Louis Bertucelli and André G. Brunelin wrote the screenplay which was apparently criticised for not doing justice to Buzzati’s story. I can’t comment, obviously, but it wouldn’t be the first time the subtleties of a novel have been lost in the translation to the screen. Faithful or not, I was happy to be watching the thing at all, and besides which, familiarity with the source material can sometimes blind you to the other qualities of an adaptation. The film has a minimal score by Ennio Morricone, and an impressive cast that includes Philippe Noiret, Fernando Rey, Jean-Louis Trintignant and a dubbed Max von Sydow.


It also looks fantastic, with photography by Luciano Tovoli and spectacular locations in the Iranian desert. The ancient Bam citadel at Arg-e Bam in southern Iran provided the location for the Bastiani fortress, a massive and exceptionally photogenic ruin. A note at the end of the restored print tells us that the citadel and surrounding area was devastated in 2003 by an earthquake that claimed 26,000 lives and levelled the place. The citadel has since been rebuilt, so the film also serves now as a record of its former appearance.


As for Buzzati, it’s still a mystery why his books haven’t been made more widely available in English but matters improved recently with the republication of Catastrophe and Other Stories. He was also an accomplished artist whose illustrations are deserving of more attention. Some of these were featured at 50 Watts a few years ago, together with samples from his book-length graphic adaptation of the Orpheus myth, Poem Strip, from 1969.

Weekend links 442


Orgasm Addict (1977). Design by Malcolm Garrett; collage by Linder.

• RIP Pete Shelley, Buzzcock and Homosapien. Shelley is celebrated for being in the vanguard of Britain’s punk movement, of course. (Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch was the UK’s first independent single.) But he also loved Can, recorded an album of electronic drones (Sky Yen), and in 1983 successfully blended home-computer graphics with his own brand of superior electronic pop music. Related: Malcolm Garrett’s Buzzcocks band logo at Fonts In Use; B’dum, B’dum: Tony Wilson in 1978 talking to Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto about Buzzcocks and Magazine.

• Winter demands ghost stories so Adam Scovell suggests 10 great winter ghost films. Related: Alexandra Heller-Nicholas presents an A–Z of Women’s Horror Filmmaking.

Carey Dunne on the rise of underground LSD guides for psychotherapy. Related: “Psychedelics change the perception of time,” says Shayla Love.

• Ex-Neu! guitarist Michael Rother receives the box-set treatment early next year when the Groenland label reissues his early solo albums.

Jodorowsky, an exhibition devoted to the writer and director, will be staged at El Museo del Barrio, New York, from February next year.

• “From Georges Méliès to Bill and Ted, movie hells remain seriously in hock to the Judeo-Christian playbook,” says Anne Billson.

The Owl’s Legacy, Chris Marker’s 13-part documentary series on Greek culture, receives its debut DVD release.

Topic II (1989), a short film by Pascal Baes of pixilated dancers in the night streets of Prague.

• Mix of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 274 by Koray Kantarcioglu.

• We are the first humans to hear the winds of the planet Mars.

• Patrick Magee reads The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Jean-Louis Trintignant Day.

• Mongolian biker rock: Wolf Totem by The HU.

The Quietus albums of the year.

Hell (2001) by Techno Animal ft. Dälek | Hell’s Winter (2011) by Earth | Hell A (2017) by The Bug vs. Earth