‘The Song of Names,” the engrossing new film by François Girard that opens Dec. 25, centers on memories of the past and their effect on our actions in the present and future.
It’s an appropriate subject for film, an art form that has always had a particular affinity for the vividness with which remembrance haunts us. That affinity comes not only from the sheer intensity with which we experience the moving image projected on a huge screen (if we see a film properly). It is also the product of the ability of a talented director to burnish selected moments to a fine glow that makes them as real as the moment in which we view them.
Girard wields an additional weapon, one that is particularly effective in “Song,” the siren call of good music. The filmmaker, whose films include “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould,” “The Red Violin” and “Boychoir,” has extensive experience working with classical music in his films in addition to a distinguished reputation as an opera director. His feature films are astute in their pairing of music with recall, which is undoubtedly why Robert Lantos, one of the most prominent producers in Canadian film and a son of Holocaust survivors, asked him to direct the new film.
And it is also why Girard almost turned him down.
“To be completely honest, it was a good reason not to do it,” he said last week, laughing. Speaking by telephone from his office in Montreal, Girard explained, “I was hesitant because it was too much up my track. People always want you to repeat your successes. But I discovered the real meaning of the text and I joined a mission of remembrance.”
The text in question was Jeffrey Caine’s adaptation of the novel by classical music critic Norman Lebrecht. A labyrinthine excursion into the past, the book probes the puzzle of why Dovidl Rapaport, a brilliant Jewish-Polish violin prodigy, would walk away from his London concert debut, betraying his best friend Martin and Martin’s family, which had adopted him during World War II while his biological family was being subjected to the torments of the Shoah. Martin’s search for the key to the puzzle — and to Dovidl himself — goes on for 30 years, across Europe and as far as New York.
In the novel, this story is told in a linear fashion, but Caine had the clever idea of shuffling the narrative deck so that we move freely between the three-plus decades of the story.
“I totally endorsed that choice,” Girard said. “From the moment in the novel that Martin has a clue to Dovidl’s whereabouts, there’s six pages. Jeffrey took those six pages and made that the movie.”
The radical shift in structure moves the film from a potentially plodding detective story into an often dream-like rumination on survivor guilt, the fungibility of time and our responsibilities to the dead.
But as Girard noted, there were two more elements that needed to put in place for “The Song of Names” to work as a film.
The first was a traditional problem for narratives that cover decades: how do you cast three sets of actors — six in total — who are supposed to be the three faces of the film’s two central characters?
The solution, Girard explained, was disarmingly simple. Well, not simple exactly, but obvious. Sort of.
“That was my main battle, half of my work on this movie,” Girard said. “There are only two small scenes in the entire film in which neither Martin nor Dovidl appear, so the entire film is made out of those six actors. And the film ultimately is the story of these two guys.”
Distributors, he noted, want to see star names, and the oldest actors are the template on which the younger cast members will depend, so Girard first had to cast his adult leads.
When you have signed Tim Roth as Martin and Clive Owen as Dovidl, you have a pretty secure insurance policy. Of course, in a film with a complex narrative structure, it falls mainly on the director and the editor to maintain “a continuum of energy and the narrative thread,” as Girard said.
The second key to the film will come as no surprise to those who have seen Girard’s previous work. The story ultimately circles around a single piece of music, a dark, brooding song in which the names of those killed in Treblinka are sung, a mnemonic squarely in the oral tradition, ultimately transformed into an instrumental tour de force for Dovidl and the climax of the film.
Enter Howard Shore. Shore is a three-time Oscar winner for best score (for the three films in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), and has collaborated regularly and brilliantly with David Cronenberg, Peter Jackson and Martin Scorsese. More than that, he grew up with synagogue music.
“The pivotal scene in the film is the one in which the cantor [played by Daniel Mutlu of Central Synagogue] sings the names of the dead and Dovidl hears his family’s names read,” Shore said in a telephone interview last week. “To create that scene I had to go back to my childhood. The scene takes place in 1951. I was five then, and was just being brought into the synagogue by my father. I’d hear him sing, I’d hear the cantor sing, and on the High Holy Days we would have an entire choir of cantors drawn from the various Toronto congregations. So I had that sound in my ear from childhood.”
The collaboration between Shore and Girard turned out to be a particularly fortunate one. They shared ideas about shaping the song, from the a cappella we hear in the 1951 sequence, through various other iterations for solo violin. The culmination of the film’s narrative and emotional structure occurs when Girard builds a bravura sequence around the multiple versions, cross-cutting through time and the narrative to bind together the film’s thematic and musical elements.
“Everything else came out of that minute-and-a-half, like a DNA code,” Girard said.
The film’s DNA is profoundly shaped by a sequence shot in Treblinka. “The Song of Names” was the first feature film permitted to shoot at the death camp. Girard recalled the profound sense of responsibility that came with that milestone. After months of research, he arrived at Treblinka. Seeing the actual location he was surprised and moved to find a group of “some 300 students, dressed in white, playing guitars, picnicking.”
He said, “It was life, not death. The resilience of life.”
Inspired, he threw out the dialogue that had been written and filmed the scene of Dovidl playing his violin “to the dead” in an unadorned take, “just two actors and a small crew, no tricks.”
Girard paused and quietly added, “I expected to find darkness and instead I found light.”
And he brought that light to the film.
“The Song of Names,” directed by François Girard, opens Wednesday, Dec. 25 at Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston St., angelikafilmcener.com., and The Landmark at 57 West, 657 W. 57th St., landmarktheatres.com.