The genius’ big sister (Chopin, not Armitage)
In 1999, Annabel Capper took a tiny role playing Ludwika Jędrzejewiczowa (née Chopin), the elder sister of Fryderyk Chopin, in The Strange Case of Delfina Potocka, again working with prolific director Tony Palmer, who specializes in music films. This post is divided into three parts: an introduction to the film, a discussion of Ms. Capper’s work, and my own opinion of the film.
[Should it help in the reading of this piece: Potocka is pronounced po-TOTZ-ka, Czernicka is pronounced chair-NITZ-ka, and Ludwika is pronounced lewd-VI-ka.]
I. The Strange Case of Paulina Czernicka
Like Brahms and the Little Singing girls, Palmer offers another composer biopic, but a strange one, too. Superficially, it’s not even about Potocka! Instead, it concerns an incident that occurred in Poland in the immediate wake of World War II, when an obscure scholar and distant relative / descendant of Delfina Potocka (a student and admirer of Chopin, the woman to whom he dedicated a famous waltz) by the name of Paulina Czernicka alleged herself to be in possession of new, previously unknown letters between Chopin and Potocka. (The known letters had been edited by Adam Żółtowski and published in a collection of correspondence entitled Listy do Delfiny Potockiej in Poznań in three volumes that appeared from 1930 to 1938). Potocka was interesting as a talented pianist in her own right (the pianist Potocka in the film is portrayed by Valentina Igoshina, an important younger interpreter of Chopin’s works and a beautiful young woman) and composer (though none of her work survives), and as the interlocutor of a series of important Romantic-era artists and intellectuals. Because of Potocka’s cultural significance, the letters Czernika produced were interesting for their shock value. In them, Chopin admitted to a sexual liaison with Potocka, made a series of questionable and nonsensical remarks about the artists of his day, and topped it all off with a number of antisemitic remarks about his publishers.
(At left, an 1849 daguerrotype of Chopin. I couldn’t find any images of Czernicka.) Czernicka’s story is a sad one; had she been able to produce originals of these letters, it would have been a sensation, but she had only copies and photographs, and indeed could not produce the latter when pressed. She is thought to have committed suicide on the anniversary of Chopin’s death in 1949. I say “thought” because — as the film thematizes — plenty of reasons can be cited that the content of these letters and the letters themselves were inconvenient to the emerging Polish state under the supervision of its Russian “liberators,” and the film implies strongly that Czernicka was murdered — silenced! — because her letters offered a picture of the legendary composer that could have been a piece of sand in the gears of the new Polish state. You can read about the merits of Czernicka’s case at Polish wikipedia (I have read this only in machine translation); although some scholars appear to have been willing to consider the possibility that the first fragments Czernicka produced were authentic but that later pieces, which appeared as she ended up under increasing pressure, must have been forged, scholarly consensus today concludes on the basis of errors in idiom and other inconsistencies that the texts were complete forgeries. Tiny pieces of these texts are still frequently quoted in Chopin biographies, much to the consternation of mainstream historians and musicologists.
In Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography (Yale UP, 2005), John C. Tibbetts describes this film as “one of the seminal documents in composer biographies” (p. 253 — snippets available on Google Books, where you can also read a more detailed plot synopsis; he means, presumably, in twentieth-century film), though it is not one of Palmer’s more well-known works, apparently. He points out the artistic significance of the major problem that most viewers will identify immediately upon watching the film: it is impossible to tell from the film what about the subject he portrays is true and what is false — not just in terms of history, but also in terms of the action of the film. In the sequences involving Czernicka, we can’t tell if the film portrays actual events or Czernicka’s delusions about them. To enhance the interpretive difficulties, Palmer casts the same actress (the distinguished Penelope Wilton) as both Potocka and Czernicka, and other actors as well appear in dual roles as figures from the nineteenth century and the years 1945-49, to the point that in the closing scene (Chopin’s burial in Père Lachaise cemetery) the centuries are interspersed and we can’t really tell if the dialogue concerns the nineteenth century, the twentieth, or the standpoint of the viewer. But this is not historiography, it’s film making, and the strategy the viewer is supposed to pursue in evaluating historical claims seems to be intended to include the serious consideration of information that is demonstrably fictitious. As Tibbetts notes, constant image distortion, accomplished through backlighting and employment of wide angle lens shots in the narrative sequences of the film, contributes to the impression that Palmer wishes to tell us that the only thing that is “real” in his films is the music itself, performances of which are always shot in a hyper-real mood (p. 260). Tibbetts identifies Palmer’s fundamental motivating question as “what does music mean?” (p. 253). The answer to that question, here, seems to be about the non-meaning of music in the face of main force, or rather, the destruction of the artistic and creative, sensitive individual at the hands of the state. The use of actors and the sequence of scenes ask the viewer to compare Chopin’s status in response to the November Uprising of 1830-31 (the Wielka Emigracja), always far away from home and constantly sick and at the mercy of his wealthy and stylish patrons as a result, with Czernicka’s suppression, discrediting and (the film suggests) ultimate death as a consequence of the cultural politics of the postwar Polish state, an initial puppet of the Soviet Union in one of the most dangerous phases of the Cold War. The film thus apparently wants us to compare Chopin and Czernicka, rather than Potocka and Czernicka, as the casting choice implies, and indeed, Potocka, like the vast majority of the nineteenth-century characters in the film, hardly gets to speak at all.
II. Annabel Capper as Ludwika, and other pleasant surprises
A contemporary painting of Ludwika Jędrzejewiczowa (1807-55), née Chopin. If you’ll click the link above you’ll learn about the importance Ludwika played in the nineteenth-century cultural scene in Warsaw. Tradition reports that she and her mother taught the young Chopin to play the piano.
Anyway, you probably only really wanted to learn about Capper. This time her role is credited, although as with her work as Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, it is an extremely short appearance. The character herself appears in a few scenes of Chopin’s childhood, and then not again until Chopin’s death, where she is present (as is historically verifiable) at his deathbed, and played by Ms. Capper. We see her seated, turning her head toward the entering doctor, and then present throughout the deathbed scene (all my caps):
The other woman present above is Delfina Potocka herself (Penelope Wilton), who is said to have sung to Chopin at his deathbed. As the scene continues, the film gives us a brief, very emotional closeup of Ludwika’s face, and the contrast here to the mischief and sexual energy of Elisabeth von Herzogenberg couldn’t be greater. We have a sober, intensely involved older sister watching the death of her genius brother — gloomy and sorrowful, but never maudlin.
Chopin dies, it is assumed by most authorities today, of tuberculosis (claims about cystic fibrosis seem improbable to me given that he lived to the age of 39, which even today is considered a median outcome for a cystic fibrosis patient in the U.S.), and at the end he is coughing up a lot of blood. Ludwika says nothing, but as Chopin chokes every more weakly, we see Ludwika’s body responding in a sympathetic tremor, almost as if she is coughing with him. I liked this acting choice a lot — not least because when someone I know coughs I often find myself coughing in response. High verisimilitude here, and very subtle.
At the end of the scene, Chopin asks for paper to write his dying wish (to have his body opened so as to make sure he would not be buried alive. This particular fear — that one would be buried alive and not be able to get out of the coffin — was high on the list of concerns all over Europe during the Victorian era). Ludwika rises in response to give him some paper and a quill pen.
And that was it. Again, I’d clip it for you if you liked, but it is an extremely short scene, if moving. Capper really has the ideal face and body for the woman of the nineteenth-century drama, I think. Not slight, and strongly emotive without overdoing it. Her marked facial features help her out a great deal here, as they point and frame the emotions that cross her face.
Other notable things about this film: the charming, nostalgic portrayal of Polish Wigilia (Christmas Eve) traditions:
The Chopin family share opłatek (Christmas wafers) broken off by their mother, Justyna (Tatiana Goncharenko), although these wafers don’t look like the ones I’m familiar with. Children, from left: Alisa Strenicova (Ludwika); George Pinnegar (Fryderyk); Ksusya Dragaltchuk (Emilia); and Shevtzova Dasha (Izabela).
Another nice job from Ms. Capper, albeit a brief one. I’d really like to see more of her at one go. The showreel stuff we can see has her playing abrasive roles but I’d love to see her in something where she can show her smoother side.
III. And the film?
As a critical viewer with a bent for art, I wanted to enjoy it and did on some level. Rhys is really attractive and effective as Chopin; his appearance, his acting, and his voice-overs of Chopin’s letters are all convincing, though one wishes, given the fictional quality of those letters, that one could have heard some fictional responses from Delfina Potocka as well. (I mean, as long as we’re making up history, we might as well do it in an egalitarian way. This is a really masculine film. Women mostly look nice and don’t say much.) Valentina Igoshina makes it fun to watch the screen while listening to excerpts from Chopin’s major works. The vignettes of the past are well-filmed and pleasant to watch (despite some recycling of footage from the Brahms film). Potential viewers should be aware that some graphic depictions of sex are included, though not as many as in the Brahms film. And of course, you can’t beat this tragic story about Chopin for tearjerk value. The film does an effective job of making it simultaneously melancholic and light, so that the viewer is not overloaded by negative emotion, but gets a sense of the emotional energies of the mid-nineteenth century and the transitory quality of life — an explanation, if you will, of why so much sad Romantic music is nonetheless performed with a light touch, as Igoshina’s renderings evidence.
In the end, though, I’m not thrilled with this work as either a history or a biography. Penelope Wilton’s strong performance in it notwithstanding, problems come for me with the twentieth-century pieces of the film, and then with the apparently intended historical parallel. In general I’m bugged by poor historical research when it’s so easy to obtain reliable information. A lot of what we see in Palmer’s Brahms film also represents historically questionable conclusions — but it still relies on actual historical data actually created by the people who purported to create them, such as Brahms’ claims in his letters, that have to be taken seriously at the base of it, even if their creators are biased or lying. For instance, the only source for the information that Brahms spent his teen years playing in Hamburg brothels and houses of ill repute — which are notorious in Hamburg — is Brahms. So even if we can prove he’s lying, nonetheless he is at least telling the story of his own life, and we can assume that he is reporting accurately on what he believes or claims to have happened or at least on what he wishes his reader to believe about him. That’s a bit harder to argue in this case, where the film often seems to make up elements that have nothing at all to do with the historical record. As far as I’ve been able to discover from my office (use of the university library’s electronic resources — so I am not looking at the primary sources either, admittedly, but am reporting based on reliable scholarly research and judicious weighing of scholarly conclusions made by those who have) Chopin’s heart was never “in exile in France,” as is stated at the beginning of the film. It was not buried with him in France; his sister smuggled it back into Poland when she returned after the funeral. (This practice was common with the hearts of Polish patriots abroad during the Great Emigration and many of those whose bodies rest elsewhere literally have their hearts belonging to Poland.) Ludwika kept it for awhile but then gave it to the Holy Cross Church of Warsaw, which interred it in 1882. The common story — available in all kinds of sources both scholarly and popular — is that except for a short period during the war, it has been housed there ever since. So the only question is what happened during WWII. If we dig a little deeper, we find that the German war criminal Erich von dem Bach-Zeleweski (or an officer under his command) is credited with having rescued it from destruction when the cathedral was damaged during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Bach-Zelewski regifted it to the Polish people in a propaganda event shortly afterwards. During the ceremony, the local archbishop was able to secret the heart in his robes and store it at an undefined location for the duration of the war. The last bit is a story that’s told around Warsaw, apparently, but even if we limit our tale to the easily verifiable point that Bach-Zeleweski or his minion rescued the heart, the story doesn’t wash. Who would have sent the heart as far away as to France, or in fact tried to move anything so valuable in that time period? The last year of the war was nothing but chaotic and destructive. We’d have to assume that it would not be a Pole, but someone with better connections — 85% of the city of Warsaw had been destroyed by the end of the — and local people were focused on survival. It couldn’t have been Bach-Zelewski himself. He was in Warsaw in 1944 in the first place because he was tasked with putting down the Uprising, which he accomplished by embracing a strategy that led to the death of over 150,000 Polish civilians, for which he was decorated by the Third Reich. Then he went to Budapest where he was involved in organizing the Final Solution in Hungary. Then he was deployed as an SS commander in Pomerania until February 1945, after which he went into hiding until he was captured on August 1, 1945. He was never in France. The National Socialist period is one of the most heavily documented phases of twentieth-century history; literally tens of thousands of scholars study and document it. This is a story that would be easy to check. And what does the story really gain from assigning the heart to an exile in France? It’s a dumb thing to lie about. (Photo: current location of Chopin’s heart, in a pillar in the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. Here in 1999.)
There are other things in the story as the film tells us that are obscure and that would have benefited from clarification, were we supposed to believe the parallel between the authoritarian states that is being pushed on us. The photo at right is of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (1894-1980), editor of Życie Literackie in Poznań from 1945-46 — the scholar that Czernicka approaches to get her “letters” published, her chief accuser in the trial conducted against her in the film, and thus the most easily identifiable villain of the story as the film tells it. Played in the film by John Shrapnel, Iwaszkiewicz was an important twentieth-century Polish cultural figure, whose most important creative works were published before WWII. After the war he became a pro-Soviet intellectual, and was repeatedly president of the Polish Writers’ Union and a member of the Polish Parliament. Pro-Soviet, certainly, and possibly just as evil as the film makes him look. I can’t read enough Polish via translation pages to figure this out. But I want to know for sure, and the problematic depiction of so many other things — their uncertain truth status — calls even the things that are supposed to be true about history in this film into question for me. And surely making up crimes obscures both the moral status and the artistic impact of depictions of actual ones? That’s Servetus’s opinion, anyway. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to the creation of historical fictions to make a point — it’s just that I think that the points they make can be more powerful if the fictions are closer to the historical record as opposed to undercutting any meaning they purport to have by inserting them in the wrong places — i.e., precisely in the places where the moral lessons, which seem still, even in our postmodern world, to rely on some notion of a relationship to “what actually happened,” are supposed to be drawn.
Even if we assume that the film tells the story the way it does in order to make a point — opening with a fake restoration of the heart as a way to make clear the cultural stakes of portrayals of Chopin in postwar Poland, both for everyday people, for the Soviets, and for the Communist government they put in place — such a misrepresentation is problematic in a film that represents itself as a composer bio, and hence historical. The Cold War is still so politically charged as a topic of representation that no purpose that I can see is served by the way that the film elevates what is essentially a conspiracy theory to the level of historical fact. This film is like Oliver Stone on speed (and lots of people think Oliver Stone is already on speed). As many people who are still alive will attest, the postwar authoritarian regime in Poland and its Soviet overlords were bad enough in real life that no one needs to invent conspiracy theories about them in order to make a point about the repression of creative people in the communist states of eastern Europe in the twentieth century — even if they lend themselves well to such tales. Similarly, given the intense strain in any comparison of the repression of Poland by the Russians in 1830 and the repression of Poland by the Soviets in 1945 — and the film never tells the viewer how exactly Chopin was oppressed in his day, or what events led to his (apparently voluntary) exile from his homeland — it is hard to see what point can be made via this comparison about the role of the artist under political repression, because Czernicka was by no stretch of the imagination an artist, just someone who got caught up in the general cultural fascination with Chopin, and perhaps in the sudden mood of rapid change in ’45, when a folk hero who’d been erased under the National Socialists could now function again in his traditional position. So she’s not — like Chopin, perhaps — someone whose art put her in the wrong place at the wrong time. But if she’s not an artist, she doesn’t appear to have a political stance, either. Indeed, it’s hard to read — as the film almost forces us to do if we are to accept the parallel it’s pushing — Czernicka as someone who really wanted to damage Chopin’s reputation or make him unsuitable as a cultural poster child for the new Polish state, because it’s hard to see what her motive for that could possibly have been. She seems a lot more like someone who wanted to make her own claim to fame than a true danger to the state. Now, the action of authoritarian states in repressing non-existent, imagined danger is something that’s commonly acknowledged in the secondary literature about them. Their combined secret polices spent centuries of valuable man-hours pursuing people who were at most nuisances. But the fact of Czernika’s (alleged) persecution at the hands of the Polish state doesn’t make any statements about art. Her fate is sad, and worth remembering — but not as a mirror for Chopin, whose narrative I find mostly incidental to her story. It’s an unfortunate additional consequence of the story that the viewer doesn’t really see what it is about Chopin’s actual influence during his lifetime made him not only a danger to his Polish state, but also such a durable and risky figure for memorializing an entire century after his death.
As a music film with lots of ear-candy accompanied by gorgeous shots of a beautiful musician; as a historical film about the sorrow and light of the nineteenth century, sure. As either a document about Poland in the twentieth century, a discussion of why the figure of Chopin precisely was such a problem in 1945, or even as a broader statement about the effects of authoritarian politics on individual artists, I just don’t buy it. If Palmer’s films are about “what music means,” as Tibbetts claims, this one unfortunately doesn’t tell us. But the music is good. And if you are someone for whom music doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything, who can abstract sound from its historical and political context, you will probably like this film. In the moments when I was enjoying it, that is what I was doing.