DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

The Reichsorchester – The Berlin Philharmonic and the Third Reich, Blu-ray (2012)

A fascinating look into the Berlin Philharmonic during the Nazi period of 1933-1945.

Published on November 4, 2012

The Reichsorchester – The Berlin Philharmonic and the Third Reich, Blu-ray (2012)

Director: Enrique Sanchez Lansch
Studio: ArtHaus Musik/C Major 1088 059 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 HD 1080p color & B&W
Audio: German PCM stereo
Subtitles: German, English, French Spanish, Korean
All regions
Extras: Footage of Furtwangler cond. The Prelude from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger at a company plant in 1942
Length: 90 minutes + 10 for bonus
Rating: ****

The Berlin Philharmonic, under its present conductor Simon Rattle, is touted by many critics as the finest symphony orchestra in the world today. The orchestra, founded as an independent cooperative in 1882, has a notable history. But one period has seemed to be a blind spot: 1933 to 1945. This excellent documentary attempts to remedy that.

The film doesn’t necessarily take sides, but tries to uncover the truth about the orchestra clearly having been the Nazis’ PR ambassador as well as Germany’s flagship orchestra during the war. Only two of the orchestra members at the time were still alive during the filming, and the director tracked down in the Virgin Islands the one remaining descendent of one of the four Jewish musicians who were forced out of the Philharmonic in 1934-35.

On one level one could lump the Philharmonic’s musicians together with the other German soldiers who after the war argued that they were “just doing their job,” or “just following orders.” But on another level the situation for many of them was more complex. The orchestra was almost bankrupt when Goebbels saw them as a useful tool for cultural propaganda and took over all financial responsibilities, while protecting the musicians from military duty, and offering them a lifestyle which few others had, right up to the end of the war. This was also when the four Jewish members had to leave, and those who remained who were part Jewish were in constant fear of their lives.

About 18% of the Philharmonic joined the Nazi party, but only three or four were hard line Nazis—one of whom even sometimes wore his uniform in the orchestra. The Philharmonic performed for Hitler’s annual birthday celebration (which he never attended) and all sorts of other events of the National Socialists. Most of the orchestra’s members just wanted to play their music and to continue to be protected from the awful goings-on around them. One of them testifies to seeing during a Philharmonic tour to Holland, the awful devastation, and realizing then what they had gotten into.

Another of their perks was their working with the finest conductor around, Wilhelm Furtwangler. He helped in protecting the part-Jewish members in the Philharmonic, but towards the end of the war when a violist failed to show up for a rehearsal, he made a big fuss which got the musician shot. Eventually the Philharmonie Hall of the orchestra was bombed and destroyed by the British and the orchestra was forced to perform in other venues around Berlin, always realizing that they might be bombed while they were performing.

When the war ended a few of the members committed suicide, mentioning their fear of the Russians who were on the scene first. The first conductor they had in the post-war era was accidentally killed by a U. S. soldier. They then had Celibidache and later (after he was de-Nazified) Furtwangler. It is curious that nowhere in the film is there any mention at all of Herbert von Karajan, who was Goring’s protege and had been named State Conductor by Hitler.

Questions of moral responsibility run thru the whole film. One chilling portion is when one of the remaining Philharmonic violinists mentions how at one point he was shown several valuable violins much better than the one he had and was told he could borrow any of them for this own use. He never questioned where the violins had come from. It was surprising the film was in 16:9 format, considering all the historical footage involved, and also that it has now been reissued on Blu-ray. (I believe its original release was in 2008.)

—John Sunier

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