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The Reichsorchester: The Berlin Philharmonic and the Third Reich

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Overview

Of the millions who have enjoyed performances by the Berlin Philharmonic, few are aware of a dark and disturbing chapter from that orchestra's history. For the said symphony, the period of 1933 through 1945 remains inextricably intertwined with the rise of the Third Reich. That era witnessed the philharmonic, under the baton of Wilhelm Fürtwangler, culling financial support from the Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda and blasting out national socialist anthems as a mouthpiece for Adolf ...
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Overview

Of the millions who have enjoyed performances by the Berlin Philharmonic, few are aware of a dark and disturbing chapter from that orchestra's history. For the said symphony, the period of 1933 through 1945 remains inextricably intertwined with the rise of the Third Reich. That era witnessed the philharmonic, under the baton of Wilhelm Fürtwangler, culling financial support from the Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda and blasting out national socialist anthems as a mouthpiece for Adolf Hitler's Germany. In what might seem an unusual step, the Philharmonic opted to commemorate its 125th anniversary by formally acknowledging this controversial period with Enrique Sanchez Lansch's documentary The Reichsorchester: The Berlin Philharmonic and the Third Reich. The film hones in on the orchestra during the said era, and profiles the lives, personalities and destinies of its many individual members at that time. Throughout, Lansch returns time and again to a central idea: the fact that the performers (by virtue of their proximity to Nazi leadership) were encouraged to divest themselves of individual responsibility and accountability in favor of loyalty to the Reich and its principles. Lansch couples a substantial amount of archival footage with interviews with the surviving orchestra members to provide a unique window of insight into life in the Nazi era.
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Product Details

  • Release Date: 2/26/2008
  • UPC: 807280145397
  • Original Release: 2008
  • Rating:

  • Source: Arthaus Musik
  • Region Code: 0
  • Presentation: Subtitled
  • Time: 1:30:00
  • Format: DVD
  • Sales rank: 35,112

Cast & Crew

Performance Credits
The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Technical Credits
Enrique Sanchez Lansch Director, Screenwriter
Rainer Baumert Production Manager
Rolf Bergmann Editor
Pascal Capitolin Sound/Sound Designer
Dorothea Diekmann Editor
Fariba Nilchan Cinematographer
Ulli Pfau Producer
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Scene Index

Disc #1 -- The Reichsorchester: The Berlin Philharmonic and the Third Reich
1. The Philharmonic Declarde "Reichsorchester" [5:43]
2. Jewish Members of the Orchestra [8:36]
3. Political Takeover [4:15]
4. "Party Hacks" in the Orchestra [7:51]
5. Privileges [9:12]
6. Tours Abroad [8:52]
7. Bombs Falling on Berlin [6:48]
8. Berlin Frontlines: Philharmonic Plays On [6:05]
9. Final Months of the War [3:06]
10. Fresh Start and Denazification Process [6:45]
11. The Aftermath [11:29]
12. Finale, For Now [8:15]
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Menu

Disc #1 -- The Reichsorchester: The Berlin Philharmonic and the Third Reich
   Start Programme
   Select Title
   Bonus Track
      Start Film
   Subtitles
      English
      Deutsch
      Français
      Español
      Japanese
      Subtitles Off
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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2010

    The Art of Moral Compromise

    This documentary by Enrique Sánchez Lansch focuses on a fascinating and under-examined historical subject—how the Berlin Philharmonic, Germany’s preeminent orchestra, adapted itself to the political and cultural realities under the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945. The orchestra, known for its brilliant musicianship under the legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, had to toe the party line under Hitler’s rule, purging its Jewish members (four of the musicians were forced to leave) and allowing itself to be used for propaganda purposes in Germany and on foreign tours. Archival footage shows the orchestra playing at Nazi party conferences, before and after speeches by Hitler and Goebbels, and during the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin under the grim, watchful eyes of the military and political elite. In return for its cooperation, the Philharmonic was granted a number of special privileges. Its members were exempt from military service and enjoyed a higher standard of living than the general population, even during the last, desperate days of World War II. The musicians knew the political score, but didn’t protest for fear of losing their special status—not to mention their freedom. Running throughout the film is the question of individual and collective moral responsibility, but Lansch wisely lets the viewer decide to what degree the Philharmonic musicians compromised themselves. Lansch was able to interview two surviving members from the orchestra’s pre-1945 period, and both address this issue in guarded fashion. According to Hans Bastiaan, the musicians were like “children” when it came to their political thinking, while Erich Hartmann says, “We were only doing our jobs.” That last statement is particularly chilling, given the common postwar excuse by German military personnel to explain the Holocaust: “We were only following orders.” In addition to such firsthand accounts, Lansch includes interviews with relatives of Philharmonic musicians as well as period newsreel footage to create a brilliant and unmissable look at the uneasy relationship between art and politics during the 20th century’s darkest period.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2010

    A reviewer

    "Then all of a sudden the portrait of Mendelssohn vanished". Thus begins the Berlin Philharmonic's 12-year period under Nazi control. The Philharmonic had been owned by the musicians, but in early 1934 Josef Goebbels' propaganda ministry took over and the orchestra became part of the effort to promote the superiority of German culture. But as this fine documentary makes clear, it was never a "Nazi orchestra". There were a handful of committed Nazis who intimidated their colleagues, and the 4 Jewish members soon emigrated. As to the rest, some eventually joined the Nazi party, whether out of careerism or self-preservation, while the rest made sure not to rock the boat. And there were good reasons not to, aside from the political threat - they were, after all, the elite Berlin Philharmonic, with Furtwangler as their conductor who would want to give that up? When war broke out, the musicians were deemed essential in their propaganda role, and none was obliged to enter military service, even up to the very end. The story is told through the testimony of the last 2 surviving musicians, violinist Hans Bastiaan and double-bassist Erich Hartmann, and the sons and daughters of various others. Aside from the interviews there is footage of the orchestra in action, which can at times make very uncomfortable viewing - it's hard to enjoy Beethoven's 9th when the concert hall is decorated with swastikas and people such as Himmler are in the audience. What makes the film so good is the clearly focused and essentially dispassionate tone taken by director Enrique Sanchez Lansch. This is solely about the orchestra - the horrors of the war are seen only in the context of what the musicians experienced. The Holocaust is only glimpsed - for example, Bastiaan says that his violin came from the orchestra's collection but he never thought about who its previous owner may have been, or the son of another musician recalls how as a child he was baffled by hearing his father say that such-and-such was in a "concert camp". So there is no judgment, and the viewer is left to make up his or her own mind on what the musicians should or should not have done. In fact as the story progresses into the last days of the war it takes on something of a redemptive quality: with the closure of all Berlin's concert halls in September 1944, only the Philharmonic kept going, and the orchestra's role changed from mere propaganda tool to, as it were, comforter of a doomed city. "You wanted to live on through this imperishable music", as Bastiaan puts it there's a moving scene where he revisits the ruins of the Olympic Village, site of one of the last concerts when it was now filled with wounded soldiers - and we hear Beethoven again, the slow movement of the 5th symphony, and this time there's no bad taste in the mouth, just beauty. The Berliners played almost to the end - their last concert was April 14th, just 2 days before the Red Army began the final assault on the city. The end of the war isn't quite the end of the story - there is the process of recovery and denazification - and the first concert after the war, of course, began with Mendelssohn. This is an important documentary, not just for people interested in the orchestra or classical music in general (the bonus feature is a full performance of the Meistersinger prelude from 1942, Furtwangler conducting) but for anyone who wishes to understand something of how ordinary Germans could have let the Nazi madness last as long as it did.

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