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The Reichsorchester: The Berlin Philharmonic
The Reichsorchester The Berlin Philharmonic
Director: Enrique Sánchez Lansch
Genres: Indie & Art House, Educational, Musicals & Performing Arts, Documentary
NR     2008     1hr 30min

The film brings to life, in a manner as fascinating as it is sensitive, this chapter in the history of Germany and its capital Berlin, and explores the question: How does one tread the fine line between independence and in...  more »


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Movie Details

Director: Enrique Sánchez Lansch
Genres: Indie & Art House, Educational, Musicals & Performing Arts, Documentary
Sub-Genres: Indie & Art House, Educational, Musicals & Performing Arts, Documentary
Studio: Arthaus Musik
Format: DVD - Color,Widescreen - Subtitled
DVD Release Date: 02/26/2008
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/2007
Release Year: 2008
Run Time: 1hr 30min
Screens: Color,Widescreen
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 1
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: German
Subtitles: Japanese, Spanish, French, German, English

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Movie Reviews

Playing for Germany
Jim Shine | Dublin, Ireland | 02/24/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

""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."
The Art of Moral Compromise
Dean R. Brierly | Studio City, CA | 04/06/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"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."
Music over everything?
Ronald O. Pfaff | Amherstburg, Ontario | 05/12/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I thoroughly enjoyed the musical side of this DVD. It is gratifying (??) to learn that musicians are really "above" the "mundane" events that occurred just prior to and during WWII. I am not a "bleeding heart" but I do consider myself a "witness" to these poignant years. I am also a great admirer of Fürtwängler and believe that the maestro suffered immensely for the injustice that was done to members of the orchestra!!
I am sure that Bach-Haydn-Mozart and Beethoven had no idea to what demented purpose their immortal music was being utilized!!
Ronald O Pfaff"
Superb documentary of Berlin Philharmonic in Third Reich
Book Reviewer | San Francisco | 05/04/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I can only add my words of praise to everyone else. This documentary is a superb telling of the Berlin Philharmonic during the Third Reich. It doesn't gloss over, it doesn't condemn - it simply tells you what it was like and allows you to make your own decisions. I learned a great deal from this documentary that I hadn't realized before.

I do confess, however, to curiosity over why there is NO mention of von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic during the Third Reich. Of course, he wasn't the principal conductor - that was Furtwangler - but Karajan WAS a guest conductor during that period, plus, he was Goring's protege, Hitler had named him State Conductor, etc. It's simply curious that he was totally absent - they mentioned other guest conductors, etc., but never him. Oh, well, no matter. Even without him, this was a superb documentary which I enjoyed immensely and learned a great deal from."