Film: Very Good
Genre: Documentary / WWII / Composers
Synopsis: Brisk examination of five Jewish and primarily German composers persecuted by the Nazi regime, and their unique stories which also function as introductions to the beautiful work deemed degenerate and banned by the Nazis, and forgotten by post-WWII Europe.
Special Features: n/a
James Murdoch and Simon Wynberg’s documentary on Jewish German composers who fled Nazi Germany could’ve been developed into a multi-part docu-series, but by synthesizing the specific chapters of five unique figures in contemporary music circa WWII, Exit: Music functions as a tight prelude to music once forbidden, forgotten, branded out of fashion, and in many cases, never performed.
The selected subjects have their own distinct stories: Paul Ben-Haim (nee Frankenburger) managed to resettle in Palestine, ultimately becoming an influential figure by igniting Israel’s classical music scene as composer, conductor, and producer; gifted violinist Adolf Busch gave a single performance in Berlin before leaving the city, repulsed by the rampant anti-Semitism, and refused to perform in Germany and later Austria; remarkably, pianist Walter Braunfels chose to stay in Germany, living in a peculiar state of exile and relative anonymity through the war; Erich Wolfgang Korngold barely managed to avoid death when he left Europe and accepted an offer from Warner Bros. to score The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and several classic period dramas until his passing in the late 1950s; and to avoid advancing Nazis, Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg moved city to city across the Soviet Union, was imprisoned by Stalin and freed after the dictator’s death, only to become forgotten – a dilemma that affected countless artists robbed of opportunities to grow, thrive, and influence future generations with their brilliance as musicians, composers, and conductors in Europe.
Host Simon Wynberg globe-trots across continents and revisits the cities, houses, and performance halls where the five lived, worked, and performed, and interviews surviving family members, and not dissimilar to David Attenborough (Human Planet, Life, Planet Earth), acts as an articulate host and educator.
Exit: Music’s goal is ostensibly a set-up to rediscover these masters, and a savvy promo for the ARC Ensemble, whose mandate is to seek out and perform forgotten music to ensure it lives, charms, moves, and influences future generations. The group’s immaculate renditions of chamber pieces are interwoven throughout the narrative, and as conductor James Conlon points out near the doc’s denouement, there are perhaps a hundred perfectly fine operas that have never been performed, and likely thousands of chamber, solo, and small orchestra pieces which await discovery.
The stories of the composers have bittersweet finales, partly because their postwar returns to Germany or Austria were affected by guilt, ire, and conflicting emotions in which former supporters and fans felt betrayed; composers who suffered under the Nazis and survived felt a distaste for the few that successfully fled to the U.S.; and the stark reality that tastes among postwar audiences for the Romantic style had begun to shift towards avant garde, thereby branding some works as passé.
Murdoch relies on a rich array of stills and archival clips, and the doc’s exceptionally brisk pace may bristle those wanting a greater emphasis on the music, but perhaps the restrained finale using the charming yet complex music by Jerzy Fitelberg is symbolic of the many brilliant musicians and composers whose work can be explored through recent recordings and biographies.
Exit: Music is currently running at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, and hopefully a video release with longer music extracts is in the works.
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review