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Playing Chopin in conflict hot spots around the world
Film review

Playing Chopin in conflict hot spots around the world

by Tómas Atli Einarsson 3 min. 02.03.2023
Documentary shows three pianists performing their favourite composer at historically meaningful sites of their personal choice
Won Jae-Yeon performing Chopin on the border between South and North Korea, which remains closed 70 years after the war
Won Jae-Yeon performing Chopin on the border between South and North Korea, which remains closed 70 years after the war
Photo credit: Barnsteiner Film

Mass audiences consume Frederic Chopin's melancholy piano music every day in concert halls or through their earbuds to relax.

But ask three pianists, and Chopin fans, to perform the French-Polish composer's works in a location with personal and historical meaning for them, and the setting becomes a lot less genteel.

In Chopin - I am not Afraid of the Darkness, Leszek Możdżer, Won Jae-Yeon and Fares Marek Basmandij perform the master in, respectively, Auschwitz, the North-South Korean border and an explosion-ravaged Beirut.

And so, the one-hour documentary's subject isn’t just its namesake French-Polish rock star of the romantic age, but the constants of warfare and the human spirit. It is well worth the expedition to Echternach.

Each pianist opted for a clear connection with their own origin. Możdżer, who is Polish, chose Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the Nazis killed more than a million people - mainly Jews - during the war, on Polish ground. 

South Korea's Seung-il-gyo Bridge - which runs to North Korea - is Won's choice, as his country remains divided 70 years after the Korean War.  Basmandij, finally, opts for Beirut, ravaged by the 2020 explosion of a fertiliser silo due to poor maintenance - a fact widely blamed on rampant corruption. Beirut is also host to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

A short introduction to each pianist, all with their own connection to Chopin, and each interpreting their history, is followed by an exciting, but also personally nerve-wracking process of preparation. 

Możdżer must mentally prepare himself to fill the Nazi’s most brutally efficient concentration camp with music. Won, digging up old wounds, dreams of a united Korea. And Basmandij wrestles with his mixed heritage: like Chopin - who had a Polish mother and a French father - Basmadij is from a mixed background. Born to a Polish mother from a Syrian father, ‘I was never Polish enough or Arabic enough,’ he says in the film.

The personal angle provides a counterweight to the documentary's musical core  and, incidentally, also proves apt for Luxembourgish viewers, many of whom come from varied and interwoven backgrounds. Add to this a marked sense of historical continuity, with parallels being drawn between the Second World War, the Korean War and the Syrian Civil War and the film gets an urgency and weight that is usually reserved for war reporting. 

Chopin’s music becomes a way to get in touch with their past for each of the three musicians, who have felt the lingering effects of conflict in their own way. Możdżer understands the collossal undertaking of bringing a little humanity to Auschwitz; Won can’t help but feel his country’s recent wounds; Basmadij meets with refugees whose living conditions are horrendous.

Any one of the three concerts could make for an emotive film in and of themselves. But the way Chopin - I am not Afraid of the Darkness ties these up into a neat knot feels even more zeitgeist-ly, despite its short runtime. 

The build-up and eventual performance isn’t as much in service of Chopin, as it is a medium by which to experience the spirit of any one of these places. Short interviews with the concert audiences give as much away, and the final performances become weighty and impactful. 

Obviously great music aside, the documentary is also wonderfully shot. Often far more cinematic in look and feel than you’d expect from a documentary, it lends an epic scale to the film’s scope, the music in the grand scheme of things.

Luxembourg, nestled in the middle of Western Europe, can be a little insular at times, and Chopin: I am not Afraid of the Darkness proves a potent antidote to near-sightedness. This is a wonderful short documentary that doesn’t really have to make up for any shortcomings. With the Luxembourg City Film Fest just kicking off, the hour-long documentary is well worth the excursion to Echternach as a primer for more films of equally good calibre.

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