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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Art of Moral Compromise, 6 April 2008
This documentary by Enrique Sánchez Lansch focuses on a fascinating and under-examined historical subject--how the Berlin Philharmonic, Germany's preeminent orchestra, adapted itself to the political and cultural realities under the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945. The orchestra, known for its brilliant musicianship under the legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, had to toe the party line under Hitler's rule, purging its Jewish members (four of the musicians were forced to leave) and allowing itself to be used for propaganda purposes in Germany and on foreign tours. Archival footage shows the orchestra playing at Nazi party conferences, before and after speeches by Hitler and Goebbels, and during the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin under the grim, watchful eyes of the military and political elite. In return for its cooperation, the Philharmonic was granted a number of special privileges. Its members were exempt from military service and enjoyed a higher standard of living than the general population, even during the last, desperate days of World War II. The musicians knew the political score, but didn't protest for fear of losing their special status--not to mention their freedom. Running throughout the film is the question of individual and collective moral responsibility, but Lansch wisely lets the viewer decide to what degree the Philharmonic musicians compromised themselves. Lansch was able to interview two surviving members from the orchestra's pre-1945 period, and both address this issue in guarded fashion. According to Hans Bastiaan, the musicians were like "children" when it came to their political thinking, while Erich Hartmann says, "We were only doing our jobs." That last statement is particularly chilling, given the common postwar excuse by German military personnel to explain the Holocaust: "We were only following orders." In addition to such firsthand accounts, Lansch includes interviews with relatives of Philharmonic musicians as well as period newsreel footage to create a brilliant and unmissable look at the uneasy relationship between art and politics during the 20th century's darkest period.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Playing for Germany, 24 Feb 2008
Jim Shine (Dublin, Ireland) - See all my reviews
"Then all of a sudden the portrait of Mendelssohn vanished". Thus begins the Berlin Philharmonic's 12-year period under Nazi control. The Philharmonic had been owned by the musicians, but in early 1934 Josef Goebbels' propaganda ministry took over and the orchestra became part of the effort to promote the superiority of German culture. But as this fine documentary makes clear, it was never a "Nazi orchestra". There were a handful of committed Nazis who intimidated their colleagues, and the 4 Jewish members soon emigrated. As to the rest, some eventually joined the Nazi party, whether out of careerism or self-preservation, while the rest made sure not to rock the boat. And there were good reasons not to, aside from the political threat - they were, after all, the elite Berlin Philharmonic, with Furtwangler as their conductor; who would want to give that up? When war broke out, the musicians were deemed essential in their propaganda role, and none was obliged to enter military service, even up to the very end.
The story is told through the testimony of the last 2 surviving musicians, violinist Hans Bastiaan and double-bassist Erich Hartmann, and the sons and daughters of various others. Aside from the interviews there is footage of the orchestra in action, which can at times make very uncomfortable viewing - it's hard to enjoy Beethoven's 9th when the concert hall is decorated with swastikas and people such as Himmler are in the audience. What makes the film so good is the clearly focused and essentially dispassionate tone taken by director Enrique Sanchez Lansch. This is solely about the orchestra - the horrors of the war are seen only in the context of what the musicians experienced. The Holocaust is only glimpsed - for example, Bastiaan says that his violin came from the orchestra's collection but he never thought about who its previous owner may have been, or the son of another musician recalls how as a child he was baffled by hearing his father say that such-and-such was in a "concert camp". So there is no judgment, and the viewer is left to make up his or her own mind on what the musicians should or should not have done. In fact as the story progresses into the last days of the war it takes on something of a redemptive quality: with the closure of all Berlin's concert halls in September 1944, only the Philharmonic kept going, and the orchestra's role changed from mere propaganda tool to, as it were, comforter of a doomed city. "You wanted to live on through this imperishable music", as Bastiaan puts it; there's a moving scene where he revisits the ruins of the Olympic Village, site of one of the last concerts when it was now filled with wounded soldiers - and we hear Beethoven again, the slow movement of the 5th symphony, and this time there's no bad taste in the mouth, just beauty. The Berliners played almost to the end - their last concert was April 14th, just 2 days before the Red Army began the final assault on the city. The end of the war isn't quite the end of the story - there is the process of recovery and denazification - and the first concert after the war, of course, began with Mendelssohn.
This is an important documentary, not just for people interested in the orchestra or classical music in general (the bonus feature is a full performance of the Meistersinger prelude from 1942, Furtwangler conducting) but for anyone who wishes to understand something of how ordinary Germans could have let the Nazi madness last as long as it did.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good documentary, 8 Jun 2008
We already knew how difficult it remains (after all these years) to what to think from Furtwangler's activities in wartime Germany.
The originality of this documentary is that it focus not on the conductor, but rather on the orchestra (Berliner Philharmoniker) itself.
And the result is that you get confused. Make no mistake: Enrique Sanchez Lansch work is very good throughout and you get a lot to think about (you certainly will want to repeat it at least once). But what you don't get is any help to make a judgement. You have to do so all by yourself and this is one of the biggest merits of this DVD.
So why not five stars? Well... it could never receive five stars, you know. As it is stated on the leaflet, this film should have been produced long ago. At time it was made only two wartime musicians remained alive. Their contribution was certainly revealing (Bastiaan was in his nineties!), but you would expect more.
Nevertheless this is a unique documentary. A must-have for all those interested on the Third Reich and classical music.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Bonfire of the Quavers, 26 Aug 2013
This review is from: The Reichsorchester (Berlin Philharmonic & Third Reich) (Berlin Philharmonic) (Arthaus: 108059) [Blu-ray] [2012] (Blu-ray)
This 2008 documentary is a masterpiece. You'll forget the world and its petty concerns for its duration. Its beginning will suck the air out of your lungs like a firestorm: accompanied by the transition into the Finale of the Beethoven Fifth (presumably it is the Furtwangler '43 performance Beethoven - Symphonies 5 & 7) cellist Erich Hartman (Berlin Philharmonic, Class of 1943) returns to the site of the Old Philharmonie (now a hideous, bunker-like row of apartments) while Hans Bastiaan (Berlin Philharmonic, Class of 1934) visits the 1936 Olympic Village (still in situ and ghostly at that - the wall-murals bring to mind the Palace of Ashurbanipal). Thereafter, the wider experience of the Berlin Philharmonic under the Third Reich is explored, both through the testimony of survivors and the children of key personnel, be they Jewish or otherwise. One can only hope that Syzmon Goldberg was interviewed before his death in 1991.

There is that Chinese adage: may you live in interesting times. Well, these guys can bear testimony to its power.

The most haunting scene of all is the footage of the cannon-fodder: the teenagers, wounded soldiers (yes, Waffen SS included) and old men in 1945 listening to the slow movement of the Beethoven Fifth. It is a good thing that the scene is not in colour as the mere sight of their eyes in the full panorama would surely turn one to stone like Medusa. Some of them had been blinded. Others have been blasted by shrapnel. Destiny is such a despot; one can sense these poor devils are trying to immerse themselves in this "imperishable music" (Bastiaan's words) in preparation for the Day of Reckoning. And who can begrudge them, these creatures of an hour caught up in a maelstrom not of their making and beyond their strength?

The conclusion is intensity itself: Bastiaan stares at the theatre of the Olympic Village; his eyes are not gazing at anything temporal; their focal point is sixty years distant. The nonagenarian tries to make a comment. Nothing is forthcoming. Oh yes indeed: the rest is silence.

Unless you are a keyboard warrior, I urge you not to judge these guys. We all know that the Berlin Philharmonic was used for propaganda purposes by the Nazis. Did it make any material difference to the war? How many T-34s were knocked out by their concerts? The answer is 'next to nothing'. Agreed: performing the Beethoven Ninth with the swastikas draped nearby is a sacrilege and Goebbels' real name was Legion. But what judgement should befall those rank-and-file members of the Berlin Philharmonic who plied their craft - a noble profession - while the trains rumbled into Auschwitz?

Neither Bastiaan nor Hartman is a hero. Not everyone is born a von Stauffenberg. But nor were these `Average Joes', as we will call then, Nazis in any way. If either of them had kicked up a fuss, they would have been handed over to the Gestapo or sent to the Eastern Front - and to what end? Beset by evil and suffering, the Berliners needed to hear their Bruckner, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and Bach. These musicians served their day. They lessened the suffering of good people. Moreover, I would echo the counsel of Schoenberg to Furtwanger: stay in Germany and make good music.

The one semi-criticism I can make of this masterpiece is that scant attention is paid to the conductors - yes, I know, the subject is the Berlin Philharmonic but information on Knappertsbusch, for instance, would have been interesting; he was no Nazi and yet he appeared in many of the PR films.

In short, this documentary is mesmerising stuff. There is nothing you can do today that is more of an imperative than tracking it down. Nor does the Law of Diminishing Returns apply.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting rarity, 2 Dec 2012
John Chandler (Melbourne, Australia) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Reichsorchester (Berlin Philharmonic & Third Reich) (Berlin Philharmonic) (Arthaus: 108059) [Blu-ray] [2012] (Blu-ray)
I had not come across this before and found it very intersting. Apart from some rare clips of Hitler and Göbbels making speeches it tells us a lot about music during the Third Reich. I watched it after watching two films about Solti and they fitted together very well. It is well constructed and edited and I enjoyed it very much.
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