Defiant Requiem: Film Review

Defiant Requiem Poster - P 2013

Defiant Requiem Poster - P 2013

Prosaic doc about the Nazi era manages to stir viewers' emotions.

Popular Palm Springs documentary examines a concert at the Terezin concentration camp during World War II.

PALM SPRINGS — Several attendees at this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival observed how many of this year’s offerings dealt either with World War II and the suffering of the Jews or with Communist oppression of Eastern Europe during the Cold War era. This probably has something to do with the age of the Palm Springs audience as well as the passion of the filmmakers. One of the audience favorites this year in the first category was the documentary Defiant Requiem, a chronicle of the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia and the efforts of several prisoners to defy their Nazi captors. It’s not a terribly original or even inspired film, but there’s no denying its emotional appeal. Given the surfeit of films on this subject, however, Requiem doesn’t seem to have much of a theatrical future beyond the festival circuit.

Other films have investigated Terezin, which was the concentration camp trotted out by the Nazis when they wanted to deceive the world about their treatment of the Jews.  In one notorious incident in June 1944, the Germans invited the Red Cross to inspect the camp, which they dressed up for the occasion before shipping many of the inmates off to Auschwitz. Terezin did house a large number of creative artists and intellectuals, and this is what led to the extraordinary event recalled in the new film.

Rafael Schachter was a promising young Czech pianist and conductor who was sent to Terezin in 1941. While there, he organized musical performances, and he ultimately came up with the idea of training 150 singers to perform Verdi’s Requiem Mass. In these grim conditions, and with limited time for rehearsals, they managed to perform the Requiem 16 times for other prisoners. The final performance was on the day of the Red Cross visit, when SS officers joined the international brigade in the audience. Schachter and the prisoners hoped that their passionate performance of Verdi’s hymn to the dead would convey a subtle protest to the audience. It did not accomplish that purpose, but the performance has lived on in legend. Conductor Murry Sidlin learned about it several years ago, and he had the idea of re-creating that final concert around the world, culminating in a performance at the Terezin camp itself, which remains open to visitors today.

Eventually Sidlin teamed up with director Doug Shultz to film the memorial concert in Terezin with a renowned group of international singers and musicians. Schultz augmented the concert with interviews with several survivors of Terezin, along with a succinct history of the camp. It’s difficult not to be moved by the story, even though the film has many limitations. Bebe Neuwirth narrates the film with feeling, but the director relies far too heavily on her expository voice-over summary.

On the other hand, some of the simple but elegant animated sequences evoke the world of Terezin without relying on grisly newsreel footage. The interviews are well filmed, and the concert sequences build genuine intensity. While one wishes the film were a little less plodding, it still pays moving tribute to Schachter, a forgotten figure who failed to survive the war but embodied courage and commitment that continue to inspire.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival
Production: Partisan Pictures
Narrator: Bebe Neuwirth
Director-screenwriter: Doug Shultz
Producers: Peter Schnall, Doug Shultz
Executive producers: Peter Schnall, Whitney Johnston
Director of photography: Peter Schnall
Music director: Murry Sidlin
Editor: Mark Fason
No rating, 85 minutes