Film Review: Orchestra of Exiles

Undoubtedly stirring documentary, marred by that seemingly inescapable, audience-non-trusting bane: the re-enactment.

From the horrifying ashes of the Holocaust, an enduring symbol of Jewish pride and achievement was forged, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Josh Aronson’s Orchestra of Exiles charts its genesis, which was the brainstorm of Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947), from the Nazi-overrun nations of Europe to the “Promised Land” of Palestine where the Jewish virtuoso refugees fled.

It’s a harrowing, inspiring story, and the details of Huberman’s life are fascinating as they spill forth, from his child prodigy years, playing before such as Johannes Brahms, to his rise to the top of the classical-music profession, to the darker days of Hitler’s takeover, with its devastating effects on Jewish musicians who were forbidden to play. The Israel Philharmonic, which was then known as the Palestine Philharmonic, finally came about in 1936, after an arduous, financially and politically challenged four-year process. During this time, Huberman was, in effect, playing God, deciding which musicians could join, and therefore gain legitimate access to leaving countries in which they’d almost certainly be sent to concentration camps.

Huberman’s legacy is such that Aronson seems to have had no problem securing interviews with today’s biggest classical-music names: Itzhak Perlman, Zubin Mehta, Pinchas Zukerman and Joshua Bell, as well a number of children of the original Philharmonic’s musicians, who are particularly insightful. The director does himself no favors, however, with a surfeit of extremely cheesy historical re-enactments. After you see documentary footage of the real Goebbels, it’s disconcerting, to say the least, to see some anonymous actor playing him, or even worse, having a “Toscanini” railing in rehearsal with repeated, cartoonish, bogus cries of “Por que miseria!”

Aronson also buries an important lead, by not following up with Joshua Bell about his prized Stradivarius violin which once belonged to Huberman. It’s a story which could make a film in itself, having been stolen twice from Huberman and then, after 50 years, turning up again via a deathbed confession by its thief, violinist Julian Altman. Bell eventually bought it for nearly $4 million.