Last week, the world celebrated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The date, Jan. 27, is now formally recognized as Holocaust Remembrance Day. With more than one million people murdered at Auschwitz, the camp is inarguably the poster child for the scale of Nazi atrocities during WWII.
The 2015 film Son of Saul, by Hungarian director Lazlo Nemes, is perhaps the most vivid and haunting depiction of the atmosphere there. It chronicled the experiences of a man forced to serve in the sonderkommandos, (slave-labor units made up of Jews who were tasked with disposing bodies in mass graves, among other things) and his quest to give his son a proper Jewish burial. It was a gripping and emotionally pummeling drama.
Treblinka, located just outside Warsaw, was the second deadliest of the Nazi concentration camps. Between 700,000 and 900,000 people, virtually all of them Jews, were killed in the gas chambers there. In order to document the thousands of the dead, a small group of Jewish elders composed a song to remember their names and committed it to memory. The performance of the song was said to take five full days.
That is the song referenced in The Song of Names, a film about a Jewish violin prodigy named David Eli Rapoport whose family was sent to Treblinka while he was studying music in London when war broke out. The film is a fictionalization, based on the 2002 novel by Norman Lebrecht, but it feels akin to any number of true Holocaust survivor tales. It opens on Friday areawide.
The film begins in 1951, the night of a debut concert by Rapoport (Jonah Hauer-King), a rapturous private recording of whom had met with enthusiastic critical acclaim in the classical music world. But the 21-year-old Rapoport, for reasons unknown, misses the concert and then disappears from London.
Thirty-five years later, Martin Simmonds (Tim Roth) picks up the trail of his lost adopted brother and goes searching for him, a quest that takes him across England, Poland and the United States. When he finds David (Clive Owen), he has radically changed, having become a devout practitioner of Orthodox Judaism, though he had renounced his faith in the presence of Martin as a young man.
The thrust of the film is Simmonds' search for Rapoport, intercut with vignettes from their boyhood, and it lacks a certain investigative thrill. Moreover, the two child actors (Luke Doyle and Misha Handley) have neither the script, direction nor the chemistry to enliven their scenes with the sort of specificity (awkward sexual energy) or trajectory (the refutation of Jewish stereotypes) that we saw in Jojo Rabbit, another WWII film with a childhood friendship at its center. While some are more touching than others, these brief scene-lets are often generic.
But when the older David finally explains why he missed the concert, and the abrupt change in the direction of his life based on a chance encounter, the film's final act — and David's final performance — rescues earlier narrative bumps. Though its context is mournful, the film's central story is about a complicated relationship colored by jealousy, anger, forgiveness, redemption, grief and peace.
Aided and abetted by the compositions of Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings), Canadian director Francois Girard has added another classical music film to his already substantial resume. He is perhaps best known for his biopic 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould, about the Canadian classical pianist, but local audiences might more readily remember The Red Violin, the 1998 drama which won an Oscar for Best Original Score. Extra props here to Clive Owen. Though he's only in the final 30 minutes of the film, he worked tirelessly with a private violin instructor to prepare, which facilitated the graceful editing of the finale.