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We Want The Light
With Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim, Evgeny Kissin, Zubin Mehta, Itzhak Perlman, and Pinchas Zuckerman. the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne, the Cologne Opera Chorus, the Cologne Cathedral Children's Choir plus three camp survivors: Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Jacques Stroumsa and Alice Sommer Herz and others.
Directed and written by Christopher Nupen.

All regions
DVD 2004
Allegro Films/ Christopher Nupen Films
BBC/OPUS ARTE OA CN0909 D [330:00]


Not long ago, Israeli soldiers stopped a Palestinian at a checkpoint and made him play his violin. The incident caused a furore because it touched a raw nerve: the SS made Jews in concentration camps play music too.

This remarkable film by Christopher Nupen seeks to understand the meaning of music in human experience through the prism of its role in relationships between Jews and Germans. It is more than a mere documentary: music plays an integral role in its evolution. As Vladimir Ashkenazy says "music takes over when words leave off". The director, Christopher Nupen adds in his introduction, which in itself is a masterclass in the art of filmed music, "film remembers the artistic personality better, more revealing and personal", for like poetry, it speaks as art, and is not purely literal.

The film begins with an extract from Mahler's Ninth Symphony, underlining the statement that Mahler represented Romanticism giving way to modernism, visions of beauty haunted by a nervous sense of foreboding. Arnold Schoenberg's anguished self-portrait stares out balefully. It is followed by Bach's St Matthews Passion/42. Alice Sommer Herz, a Theresienstadt survivor, glows with radiance as she speaks of Bach, "Bach is like the Bible, the music of humanity". Bach was the master of German music, and it was not mere coincidence that Bach's music was loved by Moses Mendelssohn,. Mendelssohn lived in liberal Prussia, and believed that reason led to tolerance and was the best route by which Jews and Germans could meet, and through which they could enter the mainstream of German life. Moses Mendelssohn did not convert, but his son did. As Leo Botstein, the eminent music scholar says, it was no insult to Judaism: he simply saw Christianity as an outgrowth of Judaism, more relevant for a modern age. When Fanny Mendelssohn was baptised, her father wrote that "the outward form of religion is historical, and like all human functions subject to change" What mattered to him was the spirituality and goodness inherent in all religions, adding, prophetically that Jesus was understood by few, including Christians, and followed by still fewer. It was no surprise therefore that Moses Mendelssohn's grandson was to be instrumental in reviving his grandfather's beloved Bach. On the eve of his revival of the St Matthew Passion, Felix Mendelssohn noted with glee that it was "a Jew boy" (meaning himself) who had brought back into the repertoire the most sublime work of Christian music.

Yet, like a counterpoint to this theme of spiritual goodness, ran the poison of anti-semitism. Wagner did not invent it, but his rhetoric gave form to inchoate ideas. Karl Marx, for example, identified capitalism and its failings as a product of Jewish intellectualism. Botstein says Wagner's writings were like "lighting a match in a room full of kerosene". The guiding motivation in Wagner's mind seems to have been envy – resentment of what he wanted which he felt was denied him. He railed against modernism and the middle classes, against what he saw were poisonous "modern" trends which he, too, blamed on Jews, regardless of logic. His creation of an alternative scheme of values sprang from this inherently negative sense of blind hate. In music, he extended his resentment to Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, indeed to Mendelssohn in particular, for he believed that Jews could not create spiritual music. Daniel Barenboim says that this illustrates the stupidity of anti-semitism. How, he wonders, can generalisations like race be used to define music? Wagner, he states emphatically, does not "own" music and that playing his game perpetuates the thrall of his ideas. Barenboim also makes the point that Wagner hated Mendelssohn's "lightness" and good nature. Shades, I think, of Alberich telling Hagen, "Hate the Happy!" as if goodness itself were suspect. Margaret Brearley states emphatically that Hitler based his ideas on Wagner and that German Christianity fuelled the ultra-Right. However, there is room for debate on this and fundamentally, dogmas of hate are inherently anti-Jesus, as Abraham Mendelssohn perceptively noted. Whatever sour psychosis created Wagner, the fact remains that he ended his rhetoric with the exhortation "Untergang": annihilation, though in what form he could not know.

Yet, how strong is the connection between conscious rhetoric and unconscious music making? Where does music come from? Can the hate attached to Wagner's music be redeemed by the power of the human spirit to prevail over evil? Ehud Gross, director of the Israel Philharmonic, said of the first public performance of Wagner in Israel that it was a declaration that Nazism had no right to hijack music for their own purposes. The film footage shows the conductor saying "Let the music speak for itself". Relatively few people left the hall – many applaud the music. The incident caused a political storm. Yirmiyahu Yovel, the Israeli scholar, says this might be because some people still believe that Wagner and the Bayreuth ethos are still worshipped. In the four hours of additional footage, Uri Töplitz, who played for thirty years with the Israel Philharmonic tells the original story behind the ban on performing Wagner. They had been due to play Meistersinger, but after Kristallnacht substituted Weber’s Oberon. The idea of a ban just evolved. But was the Holocaust a death of the spirit of music?

At this point the film shifts from the theoretical to direct, personal testimony from camp survivors. Alice Sommer Herz describes the nightmare of life in the ghetto, the deportation of her husband and her elderly mother, whom she last saw "all alone, a rucksack on her back". In her despair, she played her piano, even though the other tenants in her building were Nazis. When the time came when she too was deported, with her young son, one of the Nazis called and wished her well. "I am eternally grateful to you" he said, for the music had helped his family, too. Music saved her life, literally, for in Theresienstadt she became one of the musicians in the camp orchestra, playing over one hundred concerts. She said that even though she was starving, the idea of looking forward to playing music in the evening kept her happy and mentally healthy. At the age of 98, she still practised 2½ hours a day, every day.

Jacques Stroumsa arrived in camp and was asked to play a violin. He was astounded because he could not believe that music and the evil of concentration camps could coexist. But play he did, and everyone around was moved. The Nazi said he hoped Stroumsa would not die for he played so well. "I'm not planning to" said Stroumsa boldly. "You don't know", said the Nazi, "what a concentration camp is". The shock of this statement reverberated in my mind against the strains of the Mozart concerto Stroumsa played that fateful day. The film showed a peaceful country scene in summer, with blue skies and white clouds – the site of the death camp.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was the cellist in the camp orchestra, whose conductor and leader was Alma Rosé, niece of Mahler, and a great musician in her own right. She describes the "crazy group" of music they had to play, operettas and above all marches for the slave labourers. Once Josef Mengele visited and asked her to play Schumann's Traümerei.

Camp guards used to step in and listen on breaks from their work. Yet, Lasker-Wallfisch says, there was never any doubt that they could all be suddenly killed, and would leave the camp "as smoke". Alma Rosé was murdered in April 1944.

Then comes the music, the "Song of Terezin" by Franz Waxman, to a poem written by a 12 year old girl held prisoner. "Oh God, do not desert us in our pain. ... we seek a better world, we want to live, we want the light". It is an affirmation that even in the depths of such horror the human instinct is to overcome. The drawings of children in the camp are shown repeatedly: if they did not survive, their pictures did. Sommer Herz says that music in the camps was "proof that music can be magic, the most beautiful thing a person can experience. It helped me and it made my life beautiful even in very difficult times, and it made me happy". Quite the opposite of Wagner and his motivations.

After the film itself follows the music, now shown without commentary. This is a wonderful idea, because the listener can now meditate on what was said before, and "let the music speak". It is an exercise in contemplation. One section shows Jacqueline du Pré playing Bruch's Kol Nidrei, eternally preserved in youth. At the end, we see Sommer Herz again, her face dignified with the serenity that only comes to those who have resolved hatred. It is heart-breaking to realise that the Bloch Méditation Hébraïque is being played by her son, Raphael Sommer, who was with her in the camp, and who passed away himself in 2001.

Next follow four hours of additional interviews. I listened and took notes, for all were interesting, including those which one might call unscholarly, and several which directly contradict each other. There is some excellent material here which surprisingly didn't make it into the original film. Yirmiyahu Yovel, for example, says that what Wagner complains about in Jews, such as their "rootlessness" and envy, reflects himself, projected onto others. As a historian of ideas, Yovel's analysis of Wagner's politics, and its effect on Hitler is particularly perceptive. Wagner's idea of a teutonic prehistory is "fabricated narrative", wishful thinking, a past without evidence. Hitler only quoted the anti-semitism that reflected his own purposes. Wagner was bad enough and exaggerating his influence detracts from other sources of evil. Barenboim notes that anti-semitism exists even where there are no Jews: it fills an illogical need that is deeply insane. Lebrecht compares German nationalism to other nationalisms. Other states gained their identity by rebelling against oppressors, but Germany existed as three hundred disparate units, so nationalists there needed to define themselves by seeking an internal demon to struggle against. Some interviewees refer to an essential evil in the German race. One even says that those who do not hate Wagner must be getting a guilty kick from enjoying the shock value of the Holocaust, as if it were some kind of pornography. Botstein pinpoints the irony that Hitler liked children and dogs, and Bruckner rather than Wagner. Asked if abstract music can be political, he replies that music itself is neutral and can be shaped by external political needs. For example, Beethoven's personal politics were radical, yet he was turned into a "Sherman tank of conservatism" by those who wanted to demolish innovation. Music doesn't have a racial identity – Aaron Copland, the East Coast urban gay created music that helps define the image of the American West. If we were to eliminate all artists with politically incorrect ideas, we'd have little left.

But again, it is the camp survivors who speak with the greatest profundity. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch describes the horrors she endured in Belsen and Auschwitz yet insists "above all I am against hate". Speaking in German, she suddenly switches to English to spit out the word "hate". It is, she says, again reverting to German, "a poison that destroys all around it and those who practise it." Most dramatically, she says, it is people who have not experienced the camps, Americans especially who are the most "radical" in their views, as if they have some unconscious guilt and cannot "be caught forgiving". People who have been in camps as a rule do not seek "radical condemnation" because they have, more than anyone seen what human nature can descend to, and cannot indulge yet more hate. Despite the traumas of her own life, she sees parallels with refugees today, whom host countries reject, just as they rejected Jews in the 1930s. She eschews labels, for to her "music is music".

Alice Sommer Herz, born in 1903, loves Wagner's music, and calls him a genius, but his political ideas were the result of ignorance. She cannot understand why Hitler had so many followers but is generous enough to suggest reasons in mitigation. All people are a combination of good and bad; no one is "an angel". Asked how she had survived a life of extreme hardship, she says she was an optimist. Her twin sister was a pessimist and "tension" shortened her life. "Nature and music, that is my religion" she says, her face lighting up radiantly. Love is the centre of any human being: she glows with the memory of her beloved only son, who made her laugh in the ghetto when he sang songs from Brundibar. What has she learned from life? "I am grateful to my mother who wanted us to learn, to know, to be thankful for everything ..... seeing the sun, seeing a smile, hearing a nice word. Everything is a present to be thankful for".

After this words would not suffice. Evgeny Kissin then plays the andante espressivo from Brahms' F minor piano sonata, Op 5, a work of youth and optimism. His face and body language seem to express what Sommer Herz, Lasker-Wallfisch and Stroumsa mean.

Perhaps I have described too much, without analysis. But the impact of this DVD is such that it would be picky to comment on things like playing (which is very good). There is so much to ponder on. Here is proof of Mahler's statement that music exists other than "in the notes". Ultimately it links to something fundamental in the human spirit. There is a lot in these five and a half hours of viewing and listening to take on board, but it is an undertaking well worth the effort.

Anne Ozorio



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