The Reichsorchester: The Berlin Philharmonic and the Third Reich, A film by Enrique Sánchez Lansch
(Originally published in The Berkshire Review for the Arts, November 12, 2009
Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Vorspiel
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor
recorded at an AEG Worker Concert, 1942
It may seem like bad manners to welcome the Berlin Philharmonic to New York by discussing a film which deals with the darkest period in its history, but I have no trouble pointing out that its creator’s neutral position leads to a fair, even sympathetic treatment of the orchestra and the survivors who tell the story through their personal experiences and perspectives. The humanity and culture of these gentlemen shine through, and through the political murk, the viewer can develop a vivid sense of what made this orchestra and the musicians in it unique. Enrique Sánchez Lansch’s Das Reichsorchester is entirely the product of a contemporary German mentality, reflecting the desire of a later generation to understand the many gradations of complicity and innocence, courage and fear, their grandparents could grasp as choices in a political system which left them few. The two surviving musicians from that time, violinist Hans Bastiaan and double-bass player Erich Hartmann are educated, thoughtful men, and their testimony reflects many years of difficult self-examination. Other stories are told by the children of deceased orchestra members. Das Reichsorchester includes substantial excerpts from films of the orchestra made under the Third Reich. These are enlightening in themselves—fascinating, in fact, and musically they are enough to make one wish the film were purely about music.
What could be more valuable than the segments of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth? Once I had gotten over my distaste for the Nazi pomp and the sight of Goebbels and his associates in the audience, not to mention the sad spectacle of Furtwängler’s discomfort in shaking Goebbels’ hand after the performance (He subsequently wiped his hand with a handkerchief…discreetly, even surreptitiously), I began to marvel at the visual record of Furtwängler conducting this key work in his repertoire. From observing his gestures closely one can get a sense of how he managed the marked tempo changes in the concluding sections of the “Ode to Joy.” As much as I admire Furtwängler’s approach to the Ninth, I have never, from listening to recordings, quite understood why he roiled up such a wild Dionysiac frenzy in the concluding bars. I found the excerpts in Das Reichsorchester (and, better, the complete 4’40” segment on YouTube) especially enlightening. The snippets of the Ninth were interspersed at several narrative points in the film, which is not helpful for musical purposes, however cinematically effective it may be. It’s a pity that Arthaus didn’t include this film on the disc along with the bonus performance of the Meistersinger Vorspiel. (The technical quality of the YouTube clip is mediocre at best.) There are many more fascinating films of the Berlin Philharmonic in action, including brilliant moments under Erich Kleiber and a surprisingly lively Eroica under Knappertsbusch.
Lansch actually sets his film going with fragment from a historical performance, Furtwängler’s unforgettable transition between the third and fourth movements of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The ambiguity and power of Furtwängler’s treatment is unmatched. Lansch’s dramatic exploitation of it brings out this ambiguity even more, creating a feeling of intense anxiety and never reaching the release of Beethoven’s triumphant fanfare. This is a brilliant evocation of the film’s dominant mood, but Furtwängler’s spell lingers throughout the film. Lansch surely understands that music of this strength can pull the viewer in disparate directions.
In fact, this schizoid discomfort is in perfect harmony with a theme which keeps recurring throughout the film: as a witness observed, the members of the orchestra were living in a sort of “musical bell jar” between 1933 and 1945. They enjoyed the security of state support, their own excellence as colleagues, the greatest of all conductors, elite status in society, as well as rare privileges, not the least of which was “uk” (from “unabkömmlich”) status, that is exemption from military service, which not even the Staatsoper could boast of. As things in Germany deteriorated in the last months of the war, and old men and twelve-year-old boys were called up, the musicians were the only able-bodied men riding the tram to work—carrying musical instruments, no less. (The Russian invaders were totally astonished by this.) After total war was declared, the Philharmonic was the only musical institution that was allowed to continue. After the destruction of the Philharmonie by British bombs on January 29, 1944, they played in a variety of locations around the city. The musicians considered that, in playing “good music,” they were doing their duty.
The orchestra’s insulation from Nazi-era society and the war was by no means complete. When the orchestra became a state entity in 1933, its four Jewish members had to leave. They left of their own accord, but the reason was obvious. Furtwängler was able to protect half-Jews and the husbands of Jews, but these people lived in constant fear. Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Tchaikovsky disappeared from the repertory. 18% of the players were party members at one time or another and for a variety of reasons. The hard core believers were few, but they stuck together. The others knew they had to be careful about what they said in their presence. Several of the musicians were issued fine instruments by Goebbels’ RMVP (Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda), the government office under which they worked, and the recipients did in fact wonder if these had been confiscated from Jewish owners. The Nazis understood the propaganda value to the great orchestra, and they were often sent on tour to Poland, Russia, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal, etc., where they made friends and learned something of how the rest of the world viewed Nazi Germany. They saw Rotterdam in ruins and hoped that the same would not be in store for them. Meanwhile they continued to make great music, whether for regular concerts, propaganda, the Führer’s birthday, workers’ concerts, or to restore the morale of the troops.
There was never any question of these orchestral players leaving and emigrating, although the four expelled Jews were highly successful in America and elsewhere (except for the great Szymon Goldberg, at least for a while, who spent most of the war in an internment camp in India). One of them returned to the Berlin Philharmonic in the 1950’s without much difficulty. The question of the the conductors is well-known and has been discussed at great length. Furtwängler left Germany for Switzerland in February 1945.
His successor was Leo Borchard, who led the orchestra in late May 1945 in a concert featuring previously forbidden music, like Mendelssohn’s Overutre to a Midsummer Night’s Dream and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Borchard’s tenure was cut short by an impulsive American bullet after the surrender. (Anton Webern was not alone.), and he was succeeded by Sergiu Celibidache. Still, the Philharmoniker awaited Furtwängler’s return, which eventually occurred after his denazification hearings. The film never mentions Karajan or his intrigues.
In Das Reichsorchester Enrique Sánchez Lansch has created an elegant documentary which runs the risk of being underestimated by its understated presentation. It is also clear that he has an innate feeling for music, and this has become a part of his technique. Above all, he has solved the essential problem of contemporary documentary, which is often weak on information, by providing a substantial amount of it—and previously unknown information to boot. What greater glory for a documentarian than to have accomplished original research? And that is what Señor Lansch can boast of. He found the subject while he was working on a film about Sir Simon Rattle’s childrens’ programs with the Berlin Philharmonic, “Rhythm is it!.” During the project he got to know the Philharmonic’s archivists, and they showed him a trove of unexplored documents, fresh material untouched even in by academics. As a result Das Reichsorchester goes far beyond most documentary films, which usually confine themselves to journalistic treatment of second hand sources. I can’t say that this is the first documentary to achieve real scholarly standards, but it certainly has accomplished that on a high level.
The enclosed booklet in English, French, and German with essays by Lansch provides valuable background, which will fill in a few missing details after you have seen the film. One thing that is not explained is the status of the soloists. In the film you will hear of various soloists, who were, it seems, under contract with the Philharmonic. Erich Röhn and Tibor de Machula were among them and can be heard, with great pleasure, in surviving recordings.
And I have not mentioned yet one crucial piece of the puzzle, which is worth knowing when you hear the Berlin Philharmonic today. They orchestra is an independent, for-profit corporation owned by the musicians, who are the employers of their conductors. Since their foundation in the 1880’s they have struggled to survive, and the hyperinflation of the 1920’s brought them to their knees. Hitler’s bailout came just in time, but it transformed the orchestra into a state entity. It didn’t change the quality of their work very much beyond limiting their repertory, but it’s not healthy for an orchestra to miss the best in new music. Still, the Berlin Philhamonic held out until the very end, and they recreated themselves through their own efforts. Seeking each other out through the rubble, they found that most were still alive and ready to make music. Hence we owe the existence of this incomparable orchestra to their own efforts at survival, and when we enjoy this unique pleasure today, we cannot forget that it is a direct descendent of the great orchestra of the Weimar Republic, when people flocked to hear Furtwängler make the classics new, as well as the new music that flourished then. In Berlin, musical life revolved around new music as much as in Paris or New York, and official National Socialist taste limited its scope severely. This, however, lies beyond the scope of this excellent film. Of contemporary music, we are treated only to the march Richard Strauss composed for the 1934 Olympics.