For most ordinary people, daily life under a repressive dictatorship would not present too many more problems than daily life in a democracy. Even for many in the arts, the difference would be minimal, even if the dictatorship was maximal. In a strange way, that seems to be the unintended message of Enrique Sanchez Lansch’s excellent new documentary, “The Reichsorchester: The Berlin Philharmonic and the Third Reich,” showing in the Museum of Modern Art’s annual “Kino!” series of new German films.
At the film’s outset, one of the elderly members of the Berlin Philharmonic, whose tenure with the orchestra goes back to the ‘40s, says calmly, “We were not a Nazi orchestra.” One expects this statement to be the prelude to a symphony of denial but, in fact, the point that he is making turns out to be subtler. He goes on to explain that while the orchestra, which was incorporated into Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machinery for the duration of the Nazi regime, certainly did the bidding of the nation’s rulers, and there were somewhere between 10 and 20 hard-core Nazi party members among its ranks, the vast majority of the musicians were indifferent to politics. They lived for the music, although they were attentive to the artistic damage done by Nazi strictures — the ban on Mendelssohn, Mahler and other “non-Aryan” composers, as well as the expulsion of Jewish colleagues from the orchestra in 1934.
But the musicians, by and large, remained silent. It was, as more than one of them admits today, the silence bred by fear, by guilt, by shame. They lived, after all, a comparatively privileged existence under the Nazis. They were exempt from military service even as the Wehrmacht was unraveling and the war staggering to a close. If their homes were destroyed in Allied bombings, they received apartments from the Ministry of Propaganda. They played almost the same music as before, were guided by the brilliant Wilhelm Furtwangler as they had been before and performed in Philharmonic Hall as before (until it was destroyed in a bombing raid).
Even for those who disapproved of the Nazis, it wasn’t a bad existence. Unless, of course, you were Jewish, as the film makes clear. It tells the story of cellist Joseph Schuster and violinist Szymon Goldberg, among others, who were fired from their jobs with the orchestra despite their great talents and forced to flee Germany for the United States, where they were fortunate enough to rebuild their lives.
Sanchez Lansch tells this story through an artful mix of testimony from retired orchestra members, diaries and journals, family members, home movies and newsreels. Structurally, “Reichsorchester” is a conventional piece of filmmaking, telling its story for the most part in a linear, chronological manner. But the filmmaker is a shrewd judge of his witnesses and has chosen his materials with great intelligence.
Despite its formal conservatism, the film is full of surprises. We learn that although the orchestra played a concert in honor of Hitler’s birthday every year, he never attended (particularly odd, given his well-publicized love of German music). As the war drew to its agonizing close, the musicians continued to rehearse and perform up to the very end, their last wartime concert occurring on April 16, 1945, only three weeks before V-E Day. And they picked up their instruments again, almost immediately after, meeting on May 16 and performing 10 days later, appropriately enough with a program of previously forbidden music.
There are a few questions that the film doesn’t answer. Was the Berlin Philharmonic forced to confine itself to all-German programs for the entire duration of the Third Reich? What was the role of the party members in the day-to-day governance of the orchestra? There isn’t nearly enough discussion of Furtwangler’s role in the orchestra’s difficult dance with Goebbels and the Nazis, and his de-Nazification is passed over briefly.
But these are minor flaws in an otherwise admirable film, a rare portrait of ordinary men and women responding (and sometimes ignoring) to extraordinary circumstances.
Kino! 2010: New Films from Germany begins its 31st annual run at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53rd St.) from April 21-30. “The Reichsorchester: The Berlin Philharmonic and the Third Reich,” directed by Enrique Sanchez Lansch, will be shown Saturday, April 24 at 5 p.m., with the director present, and Sunday, April 25 at 2:30 p.m. For more information, go to www.moma.org.
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