- Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
- Video Codec: AVC/MPEG-4
- Resolution: 1080i/60
- Audio Codec: PCM 2.0 Stereo
- Subtitles: French, English, Spanish, German, Korean
- Region: ABC (Region-Free)
- Rating: Not Rated
- Discs: 1 (1 x Blu-ray)
- Studio: Arthaus Musik
- Blu-ray Release Date: October 30, 2012
- List Price: $39.99
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Politicians and artists have often made for strange bedfellows. In this 2008 documentary, German filmmaker Enrique Sanchez Lansch has turned the cameras on the history of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from 1933 to 1945 when it played for Hitler’s Third Reich. The Reichsorchester, as it was termed then, went through its own sturm und drang when Jewish artists were summarily dismissed or “allowed” to pursue opportunities in other countries in advance of the infamous wave of “ethnic cleansing.” While relatively few members of the orchestra were Nazi party members, they held an undue influence over their colleagues who worked in constant fear of denunciation. Through interviews with the few surviving orchestra members, their descendants, and period film footage and photographs we get an evolving picture of the obvious conflicts that many of the musicians must have felt during those difficult times. As part of the Goebbels propaganda program, the orchestra frequently gave special concerts to support the Nazi social causes. The players also gave annual birthday concerts in Hitler’s honor (although he never attended them). This era also featured the Berlin Philharmonic as touring musical ambassadors to European countries that they eventually conquered in World War II. How could these artists, other than the Nazi party members, have accepted the terms under which they worked? Lansche found that the musicians did get some benefits such as a better standard of living and exemption from military service. Yet, in the words of the two original members that were interviewed, art trumped everything and they reconciled their discomfort with the Nazi regime when they played under such magnificent conductors as Wilhelm Furtwangler, Hans Knappertsbusch and Clemens Krauss.
Understandably, the picture quality varies widely with origin of the films. The modern day interview segments are crisp and clear while the original footage of the concerts is grainy and streaked. The editing job is masterful and the clips showing the destruction of war bring further poignancy to the proceedings.
The 2.0 LPCM soundtrack includes some original recordings of the concerts that were performed during this period. They are boxy monaural affairs but do convey a good sense of occasion. The interviews are consistent with today’s audio presentations.
As a bonus, Arthaus Musik includes rare 1942 footage of Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting the BPO in the Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. A brief but welcome snapshot of a musical legend in action.
The Definitive Word
Documentaries like The Reichsorchester are not easy watches. While we are spared the atrocities of war and the concentration camps, they are palpable behind the scenes of this film. It is interesting that filmmaker/director Lansch, himself a German, should turn his focus on this subject matter in the first place. In his essay in the accompanying booklet, Lansch was involved in a project with the present-day Berlin Philharmonic, when he discovered that this historic period, now 60 years in the past, had received relatively little attention. Viewers now get the best retelling of this important story that they are ever likely to see. In the end, images of destruction outside the concert hall occur simultaneously with the marvelous music produced in the concert hall. As we see original orchestra member, double-bass player Erich Hartmann, standing where the original Philharmonie Hall once stood, we get the ultimate message delivered by this film, in the words of its creator: “People who, rather than pointing an accusatorial finger, seek to learn lessons from the past and apply them to the future…Who perhaps ultimately ask themselves the questions: What would I have done in the same situation? As well as: What would I do today?”
Additional Screen Captures