Two documentaries in this year’s Atlanta Jewish Film Festival address the role of classical music in the decisions, destinies and fates of European Jews during the Third Reich. They examine the complexities and consequences as seen through the lives and acts of two musical personalities, famed violin virtuoso Bronisław Huberman and pianist-conductor Rafael Schächter.
The two films, both released in 2012 and each 85 minutes long, are complementary in that each represents only a piece of the larger complexities facing Jews in Germany, Czechoslovakia and other countries during the 12 years between Hitler’s rise to power and the end of World War II. Each touches most strongly on a different part of the era, but both are essential to an understanding of the doubts and uncertainties, the warnings to escape the growing oppression and the ultimately futile hope that Nazism would just blow over and go away.
“Orchestra of Exiles” — screening February 6 at 2:30 p.m. at GTC Merchants Walk, February 7 at 6:50 p.m. at Regal Atlantic Station and February 17 at 11:25 a.m. at Lefont Sandy Springs — is the earlier story historically. It tells of Polish violinist Huberman, from his beginning as child prodigy in the late 19th century through his founding of the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936, the orchestra that later would become the Israel Philharmonic.
Huberman’s musical career at first insulated him from the realities of world affairs. But during his early 30s, the horrors of World War I ignited his socio-political concerns: an affinity for pan-Europeanism and a strong interest in the power of music to empower and unite humanity. In 1929 at age 47, he performed in the British mandate of Palestine and fell in love with the audiences there. When Hitler came to power in 1933 and immediately began firing Jews from German cultural institutions, Huberman quickly saw the dangers to come. He refused to perform in Germany, canceling his scheduled concerts and declining new invitations.
Huberman returned to Palestine to perform again the next year, to enthusiastic response. It was there that he became inspired to establish a world-class orchestra made of the best Jewish musicians from Europe. It would be not only a promotion of Zionism and his pan-European ideals, but a safe haven from the expanding threat of Hitler’s regime, not only for German Jews but for those from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Austria. He auditioned musicians for two years. Through great effort and despite many hurdles, the Palestine Philharmonic made its debut in late December 1936.
“Defiant Requiem” — screening February 4 at 2:50 p.m. at UA Tara, February 13 at 7:45 p.m. and February 14 at 2:35 p.m. at Lefont Sandy Springs — picks up three years later, after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, with the story of Rafael Schächter, a pianist and conductor who was interned at Terezinstadt in 1941. There he began secretly rehearsing by rote a chorus of prisoners. He also became obsessed with the idea of having them learn and perform Verdi’s monumental “Requiem,” as a subversive act of defiance toward their Nazi captors.
Schächter led 16 performances of the “Requiem,” though members of the chorus over time were shipped off to their deaths in other concentration camps and their numbers dwindled. After the final performance, in front of an inspecting delegation from the International Red Cross, Schächter was sent to Auschwitz, where he died.
The film opens, however, with preparations for a contemporary memorial concert of the “Requiem,” led by conductor Murry Sidlin, in the same Theresienstadt building where Schächter’s chorus of prisoners performed. This, and testimonies from surviving members of his Theresienstadt chorus, are interwoven with the storyline.
There is also an allied live concert and dramatic presentation of “Defiant Requiem,” which was performed at Symphony Hall in October, led by Sidlin, which featured a full performance of Verdi’s “Requiem” with chorus and orchestra, plus narration, clips of Nazi propaganda movies and, as in the film, video commentary from surviving chorus members. To be perfectly honest, the film tells the compelling story more revealingly, emotively and with better pace than the longer, intermission-less live event.
It’s best to see these films in historical sequence if possible: “Orchestra of Exiles” first, then “Defiant Requiem.” That makes clear first the context of social uncertainty as the Nazis rose to power, and secondly the ultimate horrors that resulted. Together, through these films, we ask ourselves how we each would have responded to the events of those days, without the hindsight we enjoy. More to the point: do we really understand well enough not to let it happen again, in our own time? That remains for us to ponder as well.