Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Me (1996/2009)

by | Jan 4, 2010 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Me (1996/2009)

Documentary by Sheila Hayman
Performances by: Steven Isserlis, Daniel Hope, Asaf Levy, Larry Todd
Studio: BBC-TV [Distrib. by Harmonia mundi]
Video: 16:9 color
Audio: PCM stereo
Extras: None
Length: 59 minutes
Rating: *****

This is a fascinating hour program written and directed by a descendant of Felix Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny, and the sort of thing which you would probably never see from American TV, even PBS. It would be of interest to any music lover and also to those with any interest in WWII history and the unbelievable things the Nazi regime did in their efforts to rid their so-called Aryan society of Jews.

In addition to cellist Isserlis and violinists Hope and Levy, Norman Lebrecht and several other music experts speak about Mendelssohn’s interesting family background and how his mixture of various cultural elements was expressed in some of his music. The Nazi propaganda machine had a difficult challenge when it came to eradicating Mendelssohn’s music due to his being Jewish, since his music was tremendously popular in Germany.  His Wedding March was used at most ceremonies until 1934, and since Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was  a most popular play, his music for it was highly regarded. Evidently the book Wagner had written after Mendelssohn’s death excoriating his music had not been taken to heart by most Germans. There is also discussion about Mendelssohn being responsible for the revival of J.S. Bach, who at Mendelssohn’s time had been almost forgotten.

The tangled tale of the conversion of Felix’s father from Jewish to Protestant is only the beginning of the feeling of many of Mendelssohn’s descendents of “not quite belonging,” wherever they were.  Hayman’s father, who she interviews in the film, didn’t even realize he was Jewish until the Nazi racist agenda began to appear.  During his life he had also been Catholic and Muslim – on a continual search.  The illustrations of the Nazi “scientific” charts showing how Jewish a person might be depending on the various intermarriages of ancestors, are shocking and amazing. They even had a catalog of photos of facial characteristics that identified Jews.  Hayman asks her father whether he has Jewish earlobes, and he replies he never noticed.  

The documentary is well shot and balanced for variety. Hayman had to find images to accompany the detailed discussions of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music and of that music on the soundtrack. She creatively used footage of a group of small children chasing one another thru the woods – one little girl with wings and a boy with a donkey’s head. The comments about the composer are clear and informative without sounding pedantic, and the whole documentary uses an intelligent approach that is most watchable. The transfer looks good. The film is both about the unique art of Felix Mendelssohn – who beat out even Mozart in the child prodigy game – and the connection with him shared by his descendants, as well as the inability of the Third Reich to stop the German peoples’ love of Mendelssohn’s music.

 – John Sunier

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