Genius is pure enigma. It has been called “an infinite capacity for taking pains,” but that quality describes drudgery too. There must be some inexplicable spark, some breath of the Divine that transforms mere technical perfection, simple virtuosity into something transcendent.
At least, that would seem to be one of the underlying messages of director Peter Rosen’s graceful new documentary, “God’s Fiddler: Jascha Heifetz.” One of the very first sentences spoken in the film, by fellow violinist Ivry Gitlis, refers to him as “this little Jewish boy from Vilna who played like God,” and Itzhak Perlman describes his shock when speaking with Heifetz, “I’m talking to God!”
For all his otherworldly qualities, Heifetz would seem in some ways an unlikely choice for a biographical documentary. His talent was rarely in dispute, his professional career was a long, skyward trajectory. His personal life, despite two marriages that ended in divorce, was never the stuff of tabloid gossip, and his manner was famously reserved, particularly while he played. (There is a memorably funny, malicious newspaper cartoon shown in the film that depicts him playing on an ice floe, an igloo and walrus behind him.)
And yet Rosen has managed to make a film that is surprisingly compelling, despite a protagonist who, at first glance, is something of an emotional blank slate. The fascination derives from a simple question: how does a boy like Heifetz get to be a boy like Heifetz?
Rosen cleverly begins his story as Heifetz is about to make the greatest leap of his career. Having moved with his family to America (by purest luck, just a half-step ahead of the Revolution) Heifetz is about to make his Carnegie Hall debut at 16. His success that night is legendary. (During the intermission, the great violinist Mischa Elman turned to his friend, the pianist Leopold Godowsky and said, “Isn’t hot in here?” Godowsky replied, “Not for pianists.”)
From that triumph his American career is a series of unbroken successes set against his growing rebellion against his suffocating parents. He begins to neglect practice and is getting by on sheer technique until a disastrous review of one of his New York recitals brings him painfully face-to-face with himself.
Only then does Rosen take us back to Vilna, the child Jascha and his no-less-extraordinary rise as a child prodigy. His father, also a violinist, would play to him in the cradle to silence the child’s crying and he would recall, “right out of the cradle I loved the sound of the violin.” He played in public for the first time at age 5. Not long after was brought to the major musical academy in St. Petersburg where — despite draconian quotas on Jews in the student body — he became the most famous pupil of Leopold Auer, probably the greatest violin teacher of his generation. Auer would deny that Heifetz was his pupil, saying modestly, “we all learned from him.”
Heifetz himself had the unusual capacity to learn from his rare setbacks and, as the film returns to America and that negative review, he takes the scolding to heart and revises himself as both musician and young man with memorable results. From there it was another six decades of more or less smooth sailing until his death in 1987.
Yet there are many unanswered questions, and Rosen explores them with candor. Heifetz was a home movie buff from an early age, so the visual record is a surprisingly rich one. Many of his students and near-contemporaries are still alive and surprisingly voluble. The debate over the alleged coldness of his playing style gets a brief but thorough workout, although Gitlis probably sums up the verdict when he barks, “Cold? Close your eyes . . . just listen to the sound.” There is a brief, amusing side note about Heifetz enthusiastic development of an electric car in the 1950s, “My contribution to fighting the smog,” and an excellent section on his ambiguous relationship with his students, to whom he could be alternately stern and forgiving, seemingly without explanation.
But there remains one area of Heifetz’s life that the film leaves suggestively, discreetly unexplored, his private life. His two marriages and three children are only discussed as the film nears its conclusion, and one is not startled to hear his lawyer say that Heifetz wrote his will in longhand, explicitly leaving nothing to his offspring. And although Rosen carefully avoids drawing attention to the obvious detail, viewers will inevitably find themselves recalling the virtuoso’s decision to cut himself off from his family when he reinvented himself in the 1920s.
Is this a clue to what it takes to be a genius? To wall oneself up behind one’s art? There is a striking photo of Heifetz late in the film that shows him in his middle years, seated awkwardly on a chair, holding his violin rather oddly, backed uncomfortably into a particularly narrow corner. It’s hard not to see that image and watch this film and wonder if the key is there somewhere.
Or maybe he was just touched by God.
“God’s Fiddler: Jascha Heifetz,” directed by Peter Rosen, opens Friday, Nov. 11 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.). For information, call (212) 255-2243, or go to www.quadcinema.com.