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Movie Review: The Reichsorchester

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The Reichsorchester is a profoundly disturbing film for 21st Century sensibilities. It is the story of the world famous Berlin Philharmonic and its subjugation by Dr. Josef Goebbels during World War II. The Berlin Philharmonic today is considered one of, if not the, finest symphony orchestra performing. For all of its contemporary esteem, the orchestra had humble origins and its history in the Twentieth Century was a troubled one.

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1882 by a group of unhappy musicians who had recently left the Bilse Kapella of Berlin to form their own orchestra. As such, the newly formed Berlin Philharmonic was not a state-sponsored orchestra and was thus responsible for raising its own revenue. Quickly this renegade band became the finest orchestra in Europe. In spite of its success, the Berlin Philharmonic struggles financially.

That is, until 1933, when facing certain bankruptcy, the orchestra was saved by Dr. Josef Goebbels, Propaganda Minister for the newly installed National Socialists government. It was placed under the direction of the Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda to be used at the discretion of the Reichsminister. The Berlin Philharmonic thus became the “Reichsorchester.”

So important was the Reichsorchester considered that its members were afforded the privilege of being classified as Uk-Stellung. This meant that the orchestra members were considered indispensable and thus permanently excused form military service. This was considerable job security during a time when no such security was provided other government officials. This also meant that these musicians would be able to support their families in a comfort not possible for other German families. The Reichsorchester performed in Germany up to a few months prior to the end of the war.

And there is the rub. Director Enrique Sánchez Lansch (Rhythm is It!) plumbs the depths of this period in the orchestra’s history, interviewing surviving musicians and their families. A complex picture emerges of musicians wanting to play music and having to perform for the benefit of the most notorious political régime in modern history. This apparent moral conflict is dense with questions about responsibility, conspiracy, and blame. These questions loom large 70 years later for a group of musicians largely made up of people wanting only to play music, having had no political proclivities whatsoever.

Lansch carefully dissects the orchestra, identifying those Jews and part-Jewish members forced to leave, and the card-carrying Nazis who were also musicians. He is careful to point out that the orchestra was made up on non-party members and that not all of the party members were foaming-at-the-mouth fascists. In doing this, Lansch manages to avoid a wholesale history revision. Instead, he leaves the questions of responsibility to the viewer.

Central to the documentary are the conductors: Wilhelm Furtwangler, Beethoven specialist and great master of the orchestra; Hans Knappertsbusch, Wagner specialist and greatest Parsifal conductor; Richard Strauss, composer and conductor; Erich Kleiber, father of Carlos, keeper of the flame. Footage shows them all in action during the period. Oddly, very little of offered of Herbert von Karajan, the orchestra’s “conductor for life” who was as active as Furtwangler during the period. The orchestra’s post-war life is considered with the installation of its fiery conductor Sergiu Celibidache, who needless to say, was electrifying in his salad days.

The Reichsorchester softly questions the harshness of post-war denazification in the same way Jorg Friedrich’s The Fire – The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945 questioned the use of fire bombing German. Even 70 years on, there remains dense pathos on all sides.

Production Notes: 100 minutes. Format: Color, DVD-Video, Subtitled, Widescreen, NTSC. Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1. Number of discs: 1.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...