With his biopic Orchestra of Exiles, director Josh Aronson has done an at times awkward, but important, cut and paste job of history and biography.
By Joann Green Breuer.
His story might have been better told, but it must be told, and remembered. Bronislaw Huberman (1882–1947) was a violin prodigy as a child, a politically aware adolescent, and a social activist as an adult. His gifts were music, insight, perseverance, and persuasion. His legacy is a gift to generations: the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the culture it sustains.
With this biopic, Orchestra of Exiles, director Josh Aronson has done an at times awkward, but important, cut and paste job of history and biography. Archival footage is juxtaposed with obvious reenactments, the actual words of superb musicians and chilling political powers are spoken by obvious actors, a series of unevenly skilled narrators fill in historical and personal background, motivation, and time lapses. Yet the story holds and matters.
For the film’s magnetism, we have to credit first Huberman himself, and then the master musicians and their descendants who sit, earnest and humble, before Aronson’s camera. They speak, with admiration, gratitude, love, and awe, of their debt to Huberman.
One thousand out of six million does not seem like many. But as the insistent logic of Leon Botstein urges, it is everything to each of those thousand and to their progeny. Those thousand are the ones whom Huberman managed to extricate from Europe as Nazism and anti-Semitism made its murderous march against civilization. Huberman was a determined visionary. His vision was an orchestra in Palestine, an orchestra of Jewish master musicians.
We know he succeeded in realizing this vision. The drama is in the how and against what odds. The how remains partially mysterious to Aronson, and to us. The odds are manifest. Huberman’s quest is treacherous and unlikely. A demanding father, attenuated schooling, the Great War, depressions economical and psychological, a failed marriage, and the hostile spread of swastikas would deter any man of common sense. Huberman was indeed and in deed a man of uncommon sense.
His decisions of whom to choose for his musical chairs were based on auditions, on quality of musicianship, and orchestral needs. The consequences of his choices were of life or death. Huberman knew the bare facts, despite the force of the world’s doubts. The monumental responsibility did not deter him, but it pained him. He knew “In art there is no mercy, no compromise.” Huberman may have been a genius, but he was deeply human.
Then, when the musicians did make it to Palestine, forming a harmonic company of these (with reason) egoistic soloists demanded its own enigmatic structuring. Perhaps, as Botstein asserts, “God gives you extra courage,” but in the end, as he confesses, “Leadership matters.”
Central to the true pleasures of the film are the living musicians on camera. Pinchas Zuckerman, Itzak Perlman, Zubin Mehta, and Leonard Bernstein, offer words of grateful remembrance. Leon Botstein is the mature philosopher (“Humanity is the goal of art”). Joshua Bell, his childlike visage focused on his precious violin cradled in his lap, provides the emotional heart of the film and its surprising denouement.
We learn of heroes: Albert Einstein, Pablo Casals, Arturo Toscanini, Chaim Weizmann, and powerful but legalistic figures with alternate visions for Israel (Ben Gurion). Present as inevitable audible context throughout the film are symphonic motifs. Brahms is prominent. Phrasings from Bach to Glass move within and among scenes. Our senses heighten. We trust in Huberman’s mission with more than mere mind.
In one scene, Aronson’s camera closes in on Toni Grunshlag, daughter of one saved by Huberman. Her arthritic fingers press confidently on the keys of a grand piano. She sways, almost smiles. We breathe in time with the music of generations. We are kin of a cultural family. This, more than a single orchestra, is the fulfillment of Bronislaw Huberman’s vision.