This extraordinary — and frequently moving — film from musical documentarian Christopher Nupen tackles the complex and daunting subject of music and musicians in the context of their impact on society at large, specifically dealing with the issue of Judaism and anti-Semitism in music.
To do this, the film has to set the stage for what happened in music and the arts in 19th century Germany — following the path of what was thought of an “enlightened” age that led to the concept of Jewish assimilation — something best expressed in the character of composer Felix Mendelssohn, a Jew whose father had baptized into the Christian faith. Mendelssohn’s position is put forth thus: “He viewed Protestantism to be the outgrowth of Judaism. So Judaism was rendered obsolete. So he was not himself caught by any kind of self reproach by being Jewish.” It was part of a dream of assimilation, of symbiosis, but one that failed because, as one speaker notes, “This symbiosis had taken place in our minds and not in the minds of other Germans.”
Enter Richard Wagner and his notorious pamphlet, Judaism in Music, a work that formed the cornerstone of anti-Semitism — “This text was written by an artist whose music and whose influence had come to stay. Richard Wagner articulated and gave weight to a new phase of anti-Semitism, based not on religious dogma, but on social, aesthetic and artistic criteria.” Anyone with a working knowledge of 19th century musical history is familiar with this and with the complex problem the pamphlet created (not in the least because it’s never entirely clear how much of Wagner’s bile was simple jealousy over the popularity of Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn).
The problem exists today when we try to reconcile — and we never fully can — Wagner’s musical and dramatic accomplishments with the man himself. From the Wagner conundrum, the film moves to the birth of Nazism, its relation to Wagner, and the impact of music as a wellspring of hope in the concentration camps. Much as with the dichotomous Wagner, man and artist, we’re faced with the strange, irreconcilable image of not just the beauty and power of music as both hope and counterpoint to unbelievably horrific events, but the question of the music-loving Nazis who put together Jewish orchestras in the camps.
It’s an immensely rich film about the indomitability of the human spirit that ought to be seen — held together by incredible interviews with survivors of these camps and the glory of the music that helped keep them going. While these brief notes cannot do justice to this film and its many components — including the concept of Gustav Mahler’s “nervous” early 20th Century music as a foreshadowing of what was to come — I can without reservation recommend seeing it.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke