Music Saved My Life
Documentary. Running time: 39 min. Our star rating (1-5): 5
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Canadian director Malcolm Clarke’s Oscar winning short documentary could just as well have been named The Lady Who Laughs, or The Incredible Cock-eyed Optimist. Ms. Alice Sommer-Herz has found it possible to laugh anywhere—and she is a Holocaust survivor, indeed at the time the oldest living one, as well as the world’s oldest pianist. Throughout the film we see her sure fingers playing selections from Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and others.
The subtitle is well chosen, because in two senses it did save her life. She grew up in Prague where her intellectual parents were friends of Mahler and Kafka. The latter even took her and her sister on walks during which he would tell them stories. She grew up to become a well-known pianist, married a violinist, and bore a son. Her idyllic life ended when the Nazis invaded the country and began rounding up Jews. First they took her father and mother, then her husband, and in 1943 she and her son were sent to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp where the Nazis showed the world the prisoners were being well treated. She was selected because of her great musical talent. Giving over 100 recitals, she played all of Chopin’s études from memory for the inmates—and she says, also for many of the guards who would stand near the hall and listen.
She says that the music made life possible even in such dire circumstances. . It was not just entertainment. Music was for her a religion. “Music was God,” she declares.
She is joined in her London apartment by two somewhat younger friends, one an actress and the other a cellist. Fellow prisoners with her, they expand upon their experiences at Theresienstadt, adding considerably to the movie. They visit Alice each week. Not only did the three friends survive the Holocaust, bust so did her son, who grew up to follow in the footsteps of his mother, he traveling the world with his cello.
Through the years reporters have sought her out, including some from Germany. When the latter worry that she might hate them, she assures them that she does not. “I never hate,” she says, “Hatred breeds only hatred.” She sums up her optimistic outlook on life when she declares, “Every day in life is beautiful, every day that we are here, that we can speak about everything. It’s beautiful. “Interesting? Yes No?”
Interesting, yes. In the Genesis account of the Patriarch Abraham, God calls him and Sarah to be a blessing, as well as to receive one. The Lady in No. 6, a daughter of Abraham, certainly has been that. She is gone now, having died at the age of 110, too soon to have witnessed this film being awarded its well-deserved Oscar, but through this film she continues to be a blessing. Be sure to see this film, now available on Netflix.
Note: There is a wonderful Czech feature film mostly set in Theresienstadt, The Last Butterfly (Poslední motýl). One of my favorite foreign language films, it stars Tom Courtney as a French mime arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the camp to direct a group of children in a production of Hansel and Gretel. This, like the above film, is one you will not forget! Click onto the title to see my review.