Polish composer and pianist Wojciech Kilar passed away today at the age of 81. Most cinephiles know him best for his memorable scores for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) directed by Francis Ford Coppola and The Pianist (2002) directed by Roman Polanski. One of my personal favorite pieces Kilar composed is a concert work partially used for the finale of Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998). It’s a heart-achingly beautiful yet apocalyptic piece underscoring the scene when Truman finally “escapes” in a small boat in search of his own destiny. Kilar’s music accentuates the emotional complexity of the finale with simple harmonic chords peacefully inhaling and exhaling as if breathing. It’s impossible to listen without reflecting on its innate beauty.
I remember falling in love with this piece of music from the moment I saw it. Kilar’s music heard in The Truman Show is a snippet from a larger concert work entitled “Requiem Father Kolbe” which was composed for symphony orchestra in 1994. On the CD the cue is entitled “Father Kolbe’s Preaching.” But who was Father Kolbe? I had to know the inspiration behind such heavenly music!
Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar who selflessly provided shelter to more than two-thousand Polish Jews upon the outbreak of World War II. In 1941 he was arrested; Kolbe helped provide shelter to more than two thousand Polish Jews after the outbreak of World War II before being apprehended by the German Gestapo and ultimately sent to the concentration camp in Auschwitz. Toward the end of 1941, a deputy camp commander randomly selected ten men to be placed in an underground bunker to be starved to death. One of the men sentenced to die, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, “My wife! My children!” Father Kolbe stood up and proclaimed, “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.” The switch was allowed and Kolbe took Gajowniczek’s place in the hole.
While their bodies slowly rotted away in their cell, Father Kolbe led Mass celebrations every day, sang hymns, and prayed with the other men condemned to die. After two weeks of severe dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards wanted the bunker emptied and cleaned so they removed Kolbe and injected him with carbolic acid. Witnesses present at the injection say he raised his arm and calmly waited for the injection.
What become of Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man whom Kolbe voluntarily replaced in the starvation bunker? He was liberated from Auschwitz and passed away on March 13, 1995 at the age of 94. Shortly before his death, Gajowniczek proclaimed that “so long as he… has breath in his lungs, he would consider it his duty to tell people about the heroic act of love by Maximilian Kolbe.”
Father Kolbe was beatified for his martyrdom on October 17, 1971.