We Want the Light

We Want the Light (2-DVD set) Image
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television film by Christopher Nupen and his Allegro Films team which investigates the fruitful but complex relationship between the Jews and German music.

The title, We Want the Light!, is taken from a poem by a 12-year-old girl, Eva Pickova, written in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Her words also provide the climax of the film - in a setting for two choruses and orchestra by the emigé composer Franz Waxman, in his work The Song of Terezin.

... even in the very, very difficult times music made me really happy
Alice Sommer Herz

It is a film about many things. It is about freedom and captivity, about emancipation, acculturation and assimilation; it is about the roles played by Moses and Felix Mendelssohn in the dream of fruitful, unproblematic integration of the Jews into German society after their liberation from the ghettos; it is about Richard Wagner, his ferociously anti-Semitic essay Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music) and his influence on the thinking of the Third Reich but, most of all, it is a film about how much music can mean to people, even in the direst of circumstances, or particularly in the direst of circumstances.

The film ends with the telling testimonies of three concentration camp survivors, chief among them Alice Sommer Herz who is now 104 years old and who played more than 100 concerts in the Theresienstadt camp.

Many people find her deeply inspiring, not just because she has survived, in incredibly good shape, to the age of a hundred and four (she practises the piano for two and a half hours every day), it is her quiet dignity and her courage in the face of appalling suffering that touches people. She lost her husband in Dachau six weeks before the end of the war and has recently had to bear the loss of her son, a fine cellist named Raphael Sommer, who was with her in the concentration camp from the age of six.

Amazingly, it is not the suffering and the tragedy that shine through her testimony but the depth of her perception, her understanding, her faith in music and her extraordinary wisdom. Alice Sommer Herz says that she has never hated and never will. She says also that she is an optimist and that these two things together explain her longevity. Her dearly loved twin sister was a pessimist, she says, which is why she died at the age of 70, “Of this I am sure. If you are a pessimist the whole organism is in a tension all the time”. She adds that she is an optimist in all things except one, “People don’t learn,” she says. “They don’t learn”.

  AWARDS: Winner of the Jewish Cultural Award for Film and Television, 2004. Winner, Best Editing, New York Film and Television Festival, 2004. Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik. Broadcast on BBC television on Holocaust Memorial Day 2004 and 2005. Critic's Choice or Pick of the Day in six national British Newspapers.  

Related details

Alice Sommer Herz is convinced that it was music which kept her, and many others, alive in those unimaginable circumstances and, listening to her experiences and convictions today, one cannot but believe it.

In the film, she plays part of a Schubert impromptu, filmed when she was 98 years old, and her son, Raphael, plays part of Ernest Bloch’s Méditation Hébraïque, recorded shortly before he died. These are two of the film’s most touching moments.

The film also contains music by Mahler, Bach, Schoenberg, Bruch, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Wagner performed by The Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne, The Cologne Opera Chorus and The Cologne Cathedral Children’s Choir, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

We have made twenty-five television productions with Vladimir Ashkenazy since Allegro Films was formed and enjoyed every minute of the journey because our artist is not only a great musician but an impressive human being. The level of our film is elevated by his presence and his dedicated and sensitive contribution.

The DVD is in three parts. Part one is our one-hour film called We Want the Light!. It ends with a statement by Alice Sommer Herz about what music has meant to her through her hundred years and her extraordinary range of experiences. It is a statement that cries out for music, so the DVD then continues with nearly all of the music from the film, not as background music, as most of it is in the film, but in vision, shot and edited in such a way as to make it a reflection and a remembrance of the themes which have been touched on in the film, but this time without any words.

Since the subject is so vast the third section consists of four hours of additional interviews which go deeper into the subject than could ever be achieved in one hour on television. The interviewees are Evgeny Kissin, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Zubin Mehta, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Toby Perlman, Michael Haas, Elyakim Ha’etzni, Norman Lebrecht, Margaret Brearley, Paul Lawrence Rose, Leon Botstein, Daniel Barenboim, Yirmiyahu Yovel, Uri Toeplitz, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Jaques Stroumsa and Alice Sommer Herz.

This third section starts with Evgeny Kissin playing the slow movement of Brahms’s F minor Piano Sonata, opus 5, and with him giving his personal thoughts about why music, the most abstract of all the arts, seems paradoxically, to be the one that goes most directly into people’s hearts. He also recites a poem in Yiddish by Jankev Glatsteyn called, simply, Mozart, which neatly encapsulates one of the themes of our film.

The interviews end with Alice Sommer Herz reflecting on what she has learned in her long and eventful life. Again, the character of her closing words calls for music and so the DVD ends with Evgeny Kissin playing the same early Brahms piece, but with no poem and no words because, as Vladimir Ashkenazy says in his interview, music takes over where words leave off. To my ears at least, Evgeny Kissin plays this inspired piece by the young Brahms more beautifully than anything that one could begin to imagine from just reading the music off the page.

That is one of the magics of music and one of the reasons why it can mean so much to so many people.

DVD Extra features

This DVD also includes a personal introduction by Christopher Nupen the writer, producer and director of the film.