Now that people who were children during the 1930s and early '40s are dying off, it's our last chance to get first-hand accounts of the madness of Nazi Germany. One captivating recent effort is a documentary made by Sheila Hayman and aired by the BBC last year, to mark the 200th anniversary of Felix Mendelssohn's birth.
The 59-minute film is provocatively titled Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Me. Because it is so short, the doc has to cover a lot of ground in a compressed time. Although the parallel is forced, Hayman uses Mendelssohn's -- and most Germans' -- love for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream as a counterpoint to the vilification of Jewish composers by Hitler's regime. Hayman also uses the themes of identity and transformation as metaphors for the Mendelssohn family's ongoing struggle with religious identity and Felix's desire to reconcile his notable Jewish ancestry with being baptized a Christian.
The story moves briskly back and forth between the 19th and 20th centuries, between Moses Mendelssohn, his grandson Felix and how, along with Jewish people themselves, any culture associated with Jews was marginalized in mid-1930s Germany, then segregated into groups like the Jewish Cultural Association. Non-Jews were not allowed to attend events and certain composers --- Wagner and Bruckner are cited -- could not be performed by Jews, and not listened to by Jews, in case the act of listening "polluted" the music. The next step was the concentration camp, where we get snippets of the propaganda films showing attentive residents of Teresin enjoying a performance of Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah (presumably before being ushered into the afterlife via gas chamber).
The documentary is rich in 20th century historical detail, thanks to the first-hand accounts from the Nazi era. One has to shake one's head at the depths of Nazi madness -- and remember that, if this could happen once, it could happen again, no matter how ridiculous the prospect seems.
Heyman's treatment of Felix Mendelssohn's history is a bit more sketchy, but there are many other good sources to turn to for that. We get interview time with a couple of scholars, as well as hearing snippets of music that include cellist Steven Isserlis and violinist Daniel Hope.
What would make a DVD such as this one worth buying, rather than viewing once, would be more music. I'm sure Hayman must've captured performances of full pieces of Mendelssohn's in the course of her filming. These performance could easily have been edited into bonus featurettes -- especially given that Isserlis and Hope are such compelling musicians.
Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Me is officially being released on DVD Jan. 26. Click on the image for details.
Coincidentally, Jan. 26 is the day Polish pianist-composer Ignaz Friedman died in 1948 (he was born in 1882). He was one of the great pianists of his day -- one source says he gave about 2,800 concerts around the world -- but some sort of acute nerve irritation forced him to retire in 1943. He managed to get out of Italy, where he had settled, in 1940, thanks to an invitation to do a concert tour in Australia.
Here he is on Cloumbia recordings made in the early 1930s, playing a Song Without Words (available on a Naxos Historical CD) also the Op. 16, No. 2 Scherzo, by Felix Mendelssohn: