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

The car in the snow


Dekalog DVD.

Screen-shots from Kieslowski’s Dekalog 3, courtesy of my old Artificial Eye DVDs and the Arrow blu-ray set which arrived this morning. Watching the first couple of episodes on DVD earlier this week I was surprised to find that the picture quality was worse than I remembered—scratches and cue marks all over the place—and especially lacking after watching eight of Kieslowski’s other films in high-definition. I ought to have bought the Arrow collection when it was first released but it didn’t seem really necessary at the time. The picture quality of these restored films is so good I’m tempted to start again from the beginning when I’ve reached the end of the cycle, although going through the horrors of Dekalog 5 twice in one week would be a bit much.


Dekalog blu-ray.

Anyway, I recommend this set. (It’s also in the Criterion catalogue if you prefer their overpriced discs.) There’s been a spate of news and opinion pieces recently complaining about the current state of cinema, by which people mean American cinema since this is the only variety anyone is supposed to care about. With each fresh complaint all I can hear is John Lydon singing “Burn, Hollywood, burn”. It’s a big cinematic world out there, and “world cinema” is more than just a few shelves in an entertainment store.

• Further reading: “And So On”: Kieslowski’s Dekalog and the Metaphysics of the Everyday by Paul Coates.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Dekalog posters by Ewa Bajek-Wein

Dekalog posters by Ewa Bajek-Wein


One of the pleasures of our age of cultural plenitude is the opportunity to immerse yourself in entire filmographies. I did this recently with almost all of Wes Anderson’s films (I skipped Bottle Rocket, and I still haven’t seen Asteroid City); last week it was the turn of Krzysztof Kieslowski, with a run through four of his Polish films—The Scar, Camera Buff, Blind Chance and No End—followed by the final quartet of The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colours Trilogy. This week I’ll be working my way through Kieslowski’s Dekalog, a cycle of ten hour-long films that I’ve had on disc for years but not watched all the way through for some time.


Dekalog (or The Decalogue) is a series that Kieslowski made for Polish TV in 1988, although subsequent acclaim for the cycle (famously from Stanley Kubrick) has seen it treated as a work of cinema in its own right, albeit one that few people are likely to watch in a single sitting. Two of the films were also expanded to feature length and released individually as A Short Film About Love and A Short Film About Killing. Each film concerns different inhabitants of the same housing estate, with the problems they face (or that they create) being related to one of the Ten Commandments. None of the Commandments are named as such, we’re left to guess from the numbers which is which. I imagine this would have been more obvious to an audience in Poland where Catholicism remained a dominant presence despite the disapproval of the Communist authorities. I was dragged through the Catholic church as a child but I still couldn’t list all the Ten Commandments today without cheating. Kieslowski’s films aren’t as dourly moralistic as this structure might suggest. Ironic circumstance was one of his persistent themes, his characters usually find their desires thwarted or fulfilled in ways they didn’t anticipate at all. Fate, rather than the hand of God also plays a part, dramatically so in Blind Chance where we see three different futures for a young student running to catch a train.


Ewa Bajek-Wein’s posters turned up when I was searching for designs by Andrzej Pagowski, an artist responsible for many of the Polish posters for Kieslowski’s films, including the two Dekalog features. Bajek-Wein’s designs, created for a 2009 reissue of the cycle, continue the Polish tradition of original and unorthodox approaches to the cinema poster which extends in this case to the graphics as well as the artwork. Titles and other credits on 20th-century Polish posters were often casually hand-lettered, with the details pushed to the margins. The artwork here maintains the elusiveness of the theme; if you don’t know which number relates to which Commandment you’re left to guess from the picture. Films five and six are easy enough to decipher but I’ll be looking up the titles of the rest before I watch them again.



Continue reading “Dekalog posters by Ewa Bajek-Wein”

Weekend links 545


Colour wheel from The Natural System of Colours (1766) by Moses Harris.

• The Vatican’s favourite homosexual, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, receives the ludicrously expensive art-book treatment in a huge $22,000 study of the Sistine Chapel frescos. Thanks, but I’ll stick with Taschen’s XXL Tom of Finland collection which cost considerably less and contains larger penises. Related: How Taschen became the world’s most famous erotic publishers.

• “In a metaphorical sense, a book cover is also a frame around the text and a bridge between text and world.” Peter Mendelsund and David J. Alworth on what a book cover can do.

The Night Porter: Nazi porn or daring arthouse eroticism? Ryan Gilbey talks to director Liliana Cavani about a film that’s still more read about (and condemned) than seen.

What is important about reading [Walter] Benjamin’s texts written under the influence of drugs is how you can then read back into all his work much of this same “drug” mind-set; in his university student days, wrangling with Kant’s philosophy at great length, he famously stated, according to Scholem, that “a philosophy that does not include the possibility of soothsaying from coffee grounds and cannot explicate it cannot be a true philosophy.” That was in 1913, and Scholem adds that such an approach must be “recognized as possible from the connection of things.” Scholem recalled seeing on Benjamin’s desk a few years later a copy of Baudelaire’s Les paradis artificiels, and that long before Benjamin took any drugs, he spoke of “the expansion of human experience in hallucinations,” by no means to be confused with “illusions.” Kant, Benjamin said, “motivated an inferior experience.”

Michael Taussig on getting high with Benjamin and Burroughs

• “Utah monolith: Internet sleuths got there, but its origins are still a mystery.” The solution to the mystery—if there is one—will be inferior to the mystery itself.

After Beardsley (1981), a short animated film about Aubrey Beardsley by Chris James, is now available on YouTube in its complete form.

• Mix of the week: The Ivy-Strangled Path Vol. XXIII – An Ivy-Strangled Midwinter by David Colohan.

Charlie Huenemann on the Monas Hieroglyphica, Feynman diagrams, and the Voynich Manuscript.

Katy Kelleher on verdigris: the colour of oxidation, statues, and impermanence.

• A trailer for Athanor: The Alchemical Furnace, a documentary about Jan Svankmajer.

All doom and boom: what’s the heaviest music ever made?

• At Strange Flowers: Ludwig the Second first and last.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Krzysztof Kieslowski Day.

Ralph Steadman’s cultural highlights.

• RIP Daria Nicolodi.

Michael Angelo (1967) by The 23rd Turnoff | Nightporter (1980) by Japan | Verdigris (2020) by Roger Eno and Brian Eno

The mystery of trams


Chateau de Labonnecuyere (c. 1970s) by The Brothers Quay.

Trams are a recurrent feature in the early drawings of the Brothers Quay, and they’ve also appeared in the Quays’ earliest animated films and in some of their designs for the stage. I respond to this fetishisation on the deepest level having been born and raised on the Fylde coast of Lancashire, an area which was for many years the only place in Britain that kept its tramways after the rest of the country had given over the streets to buses and cars. Trams are so ingrained in my consciousness that I still dream about the trams of my childhood, many of which were rattling, streamlined things dating back to the 1930s. Manchester was tramless when I arrived in the city in 1982 but a few years later the council embarked on an ambitious and far-sighted scheme to return trams to the city’s streets. The first routes opened in 1991, and the network has been evolving ever since, pushing out of the centre along disused rail lines.


La Rue du Tramway (1938–1939) by Paul Delvaux.

The Quays aren’t alone in being attracted to this form of public transport. Trams haunt a certain type of oneiric European imagination, and I often wonder where the attraction lies. I think it’s something to do with their small scale and the way they remain bounded within the cities they serve. Trains have a romance and mythology of their own but are wide-ranging and far more common, as are buses whose presence on a city street is a reminder that the tram can be replaced. The Quays are Europhiles so they no doubt see the trams of the Continent as another feature of European city life that’s more arresting to American eyes. This post gathers some of the Quays’ uses together with other notable (and favourite) examples.


Tram nocturne (1950) by Paul Delvaux.

Several of the examples listed here are Belgian which either means that trams exercise the Belgian imagination more than that of other nations, or I happen to pay more attention to Belgian art. (Probably a little of both.) Paul Delvaux put trams into several paintings but seems to have been the only Surrealist to do so.



The trams that haunt my imagination are the cream-and-green vehicles that trundled for decades up and down the Fylde coast between Blackpool and Fleetwood. These machines used to run along the line at the end of the street I grew up in so there’s never been a day I can remember when I wasn’t aware of the tram—and of these vehicles in particular—as a viable mode of public transport. Looking at the websites of tram enthusiasts reveals the different names for each generation of Blackpool trams; so I now know that the bow-ended ones (which I always liked) are known as Brush Railcoaches, while the double-deckers are known as Balloons. None of these names were ever used by locals.


Back to Belgium, and the comics and illustrations drawn by the marvellous François Schuiten are filled with trams. I’ve written at length about the Obscure World mythos of Schuiten and Peeters so rather than repeat myself I’ll point to the mystery of Tram 81, a recurrent and unexplained presence in Schuiten’s work.


Nocturna Artificiala.


Nocturna Artificiala.

Trams for the Brothers Quay are the small European variety rather than the streetcars seen in some American cities. One of the brothers’ Black Drawings, Chateau de Labonnecuyere, features a pantographed vehicle that glides through their later animated films. The first of these, Nocturna Artificiala (1979), is a wordless masque involving the yearning relationship between the solitary puppet character and an empty, nocturnal tram. The film is an animated extension of Chateau de Labonnecuyere which not only features the drawing itself but also includes a unique moment where the tram glides through the vast cathedral seen in the background.


Leos Janacek: Intimate Excursions.


Leos Janacek: Intimate Excursions.

The power-line supports seen in Chateau de Labonnecuyere are a recurrent motif in the Quays’ works. They appear together with the Nocturna Artificiala tram in Leos Janacek: Intimate Excursions (1983), and may be glimpsed among the faded detritus in Street of Crocodiles (1986).





I don’t know what the Quays would make of the science-fiction scenario of Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon (2001) but the recurrent scenes of a nocturnal tram journey would probably appeal, especially since the tram in question is a Polish one. Mamoru Oshii is the director of many SF-oriented animations, not least The Ghost in the Shell (1995). Avalon was a surprise when it appeared (and then seemed to vanish all-too-quickly): a live-action drama concerning the players of a virtual reality game which can have lethal consequences for the contestants. The film was made in Poland with a Polish cast, and the scenes are heavily processed throughout, with everything given a sepia wash. Coming after The Matrix, Dark City et al, the virtual reality aspect wasn’t so much of a surprise but I loved the juxtaposition of a futuristic story in a run-down European setting. And the trams, of course. The dream-like atmosphere of the film’s mundane scenes brings everything back to Delvaux and his tram nocturnes.

I was going to add Tramway (1966) to this list, a short student film directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, but it’s not especially mysterious. It’s worth a look if you like Kieslowski, however, and may be watched here. If anyone has suggestions for other mysterious trams then please leave a comment.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Quay Brothers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Paul Delvaux: The Sleepwalker of Saint-Idesbald