, April 2008
It's not often the classical music world becomes a microcosm of human behaviour. But that is what Enrique Sanchez Lansch's documentary on the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra does.
How could millions of Germans be accomplices to the atrocities of the 1930s and '40s? How could they sweep so much of this under the rug afterward? Could we, in another time and another place, allow genocide and war to happen?
The answers are painful.
It took 60 years after the end of World War II for anyone to ask how the glorious Berlin Phil could have become the official propaganda orchestra for Adolf Hitler's Nazis. Only two members of the ensemble from that time were still living when Lansch began work on his doc: 93-year-old violinist Hans Bastiaan and 84-year-old bassist Erich Hartmann. Both give matter-of-fact accounts of how Berlin Philharmonic membership outweighed political unpleasantness.
Besides playing great music, orchestra members – those who hadn't been thrown out for being Jewish – enjoyed special privileges as the flagship organization in the Nazi propaganda machine. During the war, this meant having food, shelter and being exempt from military duty.
After watching this film, many people may find it difficult to enjoy Beethoven's Ode to Joy, knowing it graced the Führer's birthday concerts, usually conducted by the legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler.
These 90 minutes (plus a bonus track of Furtwängler conducting the orchestra at a munitions factory in 1942) are a squirm-inducing testament to how most of us look out for No. 1.
Except, in this instance, it comes with a better soundtrack.