Why Competitions (2011)

Poland / Germany

4.5*
Director:
Christine Jezior
Screenwriters:
Christine Jezior
Oskar Jezior
Directors of Photography:
Phillip Kaminiak
Theo Solnik

Running time: 78 minutes

Original title: Dlaczego konkurs

Ivo Pogorelić thinks a lot of himself. In 1980, after an unconventionally spirited performance at the revered International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, this young Yugoslavian pianist was eliminated from the contest – upon this announcement, members of the jury, including world-renowned pianist and former winner of the competition, Martha Argerich, resigned in protest. He became a sensation overnight and achieved much greater fame than the eventual winner of the competition that year, Đặng Thái Sơn.

The title asks (though without the question mark — Robert Zemeckis once remarked that no film ending in a question mark has ever done well at the box office, and therefore his own, very successful, Who Framed Roger Rabbit omitted this punctuation mark) what purpose these kinds of music competitions serve and the experts that are interviewed have very different opinions. Most of them agree, and point to Pogorelić’s subsequent career, that competitions do not ensure success for the winner. Of course, his case is a little different from the context of the other performers every year, and the film also looks at a range of other pianists to examine the validity of the experts’ statements.

Why Competitions is an insightful document of the world of competitive piano playing: using the quinquennial Chopin competition in Warsaw as a starting point, the filmmaker interviews all the major players, including many jurors past and present, and tries to piece together the varying opinions about and reactions to the jury’s decision in 1980. The film also looks at the decision in 1975 to award the first prize to the young Pole, Krystian Zimerman, instead of the Russian players who would receive the second, third and fourth prizes.

From these conversations with the different pianists, a range of political issues arises, for example we learn that Russian players, whatever their accomplishments at the competition, would not be allowed to perform outside the USSR afterwards. In the meantime, another player from outside the country – even Poland’s Zimerman – would have the opportunity to play around the world and establish a great career.

The human dimension of the jurors is also underlined and pianist Jeffrey Swann makes a very valid point when he states that the current system of points allows jurors to punish more than it rewards: A maximum of 25 points may be awarded, and often the jurors would give 16 or 17, but if they want to make a point by punishing a player because of style of appearance or whatever, they could give 0 (as happened with Pogorelić and many others), effectively ending that individual’s chances of going through to the next round. Lidia Grychtołówna, who is both a pianist and a juror, makes a similar point when she acknowledges: “At competitions, both candidates and jurors make mistakes. The difference is that jurors go unpunished.”

The more general question of the need for juries and competitions is also treated to some screen time, and Jeffrey Swann is particularly amused by the fact that he received 25 from one judge, while another gave him 0. The possible political motivations behind such decisions are cited, but one juror, Kazimierz Kord, warns us not to read too much into the disconnect between the audience’s reaction and the judges’ reaction to a piece: “Sometimes the public will applaud a performance anyway, even if they don’t understand the requirements [for interpreting Chopin].” I found this statement a little condescending, though perhaps well-intentioned.

But time and again the film comes back to the very vain, pouting Pogorelić, stroking a small dog on his lap, who claims that people are envious of his beauty and his talent, and while some might debate the latter, his claim that he is beautiful (or rather, “well-preserved […] Look: no wrinkles!”) will certainly generate some laughter. The only slightly frustrating part of the film was the otherwise agreeable Kevin Kenner who speaks for a long time in very American-inflected German before finally switching to his more natural mother tongue of English. I also would have preferred to see more of Martha Argerich, who contributes a single sentence to the discussion, or Krystian Zimerman, who is completely absent from the film.

Why Competitions manages to cram a lot of political, social and historical commentary into its 85 minutes and does so with a sense of rhythm and storytelling that is truly breathtaking, and without ever using a voice-over or explanatory text. It is a film whose theme is universal and whose specifics are always interesting.

A must-see.

Viewed at the Jihlava International Film Festival 2011

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