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DW documentary gets first International Emmy nomination

Nadine Wojcik
November 20, 2023

"Music under the Swastika" looks at why Hitler and the Nazis favored classical music, and how it saved Jewish cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch's life.

Black and white photo of Anita Lasker-Wallfisch playing cello.
Anita Lasker-Wallfisch played in an orchestra for young girls at the Auschwitz concentration campImage: Privat

When 17-year-old Anita Lasker-Wallfisch stood on the ramp to enter Auschwitz-Birkenau, she was certain that death awaited her.

It was December 1943, and she had already witnessed her parents being deported, then disappearing. "So this is now the last stop," Lasker-Wallfisch, now 98, recalls thinking during the "admission ceremony."

When an officer asked her what she used to do before being deported, she replied fearfully: "I played the cello." Moments later, she was approached by the leader of the newly founded concentration camp girls' orchestra, Alma Rose. "I was scared stiff, naked and Alma Rose asks me: 'Where and what did you study?' It was an insane conversation."

This and other stories of the Jewish cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who made a pact with the Nazis, provide an insight into German musical life from 1933 to 1945. All this is captured in the DW documentary "Music under the Swastika: The Maestro and the Cellist of Auschwitz."

This documentary has now been nominated under the "Arts Programming" category of the 51st International Emmy Awards that will be handed out on November 20 in New York. It is the first Emmy nomination in the history of DW.

The International Emmy Award is a television prize presented by the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences as part of the Emmy Awards. With the International Emmy Award, the organization annually honors the best television programs produced and broadcast outside the USA and is considered one of the most important television awards worldwide.

"Classical Music under the Swastika" shows why classical music was so important to Hitler and the Nazis. The 90-minute documentary by director Christian Berger was produced in the Culture and Documentaries department under the direction of Rolf Rische and Tim Klimeš. Frauke Sandig was the editor in charge and the film was produced by 3B-Produktion Berlin.

The cello saved her life

In an interview in the documentary written and directed by Christian Berger, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch recalls how the cello saved her life.

She was accepted into the 56-piece orchestra of the women's camp. "We were children and amateurs," she says.

Alma Rose, the niece of Jewish composer Gustav Mahler, who was labeled "degenerate" by the Nazis, arranged pieces for the ragtag musical troupe herself. Marches were especially in demand; the orchestra played for the workers at the gate of the women's camp each morning and evening, even in freezing cold weather.

A photo of Anita Lasker-Wallfisch as a very young girl sitting on the floor
Lasker-Wallfisch had already experienced the disappearance of family members when she arrived at AuschwitzImage: Privat

Although the cellist was spared from doing punitive manual labor, she did not feel safe. "They won't send us to the gas chamber only as long as they want music. It's just a reprieve!" she thought.

But why did the Nazis even bother to play music for the prisoners they murdered? "This mentality is so perverse that it's hard to comprehend, but it's essential: Music and the arts were used as part of the murder machine," Norman Lebrecht, a British music journalist, told DW. "And the whole of the musical establishment and the music profession in Germany either turned a blind eye or collaborated."

Two men playing the cello on a stage with a red curtain.
Raphael and Simon Wallfisch playing the cello at the premiere of the filmImage: Ronka Oberhammer/DW

Jewish musicians play for SS mass murderers

Lebrecht has been researching the role of classical music under the Nazis for many years. "Culture was one of the ways to justify Nazi rule in Germany" — it was a sort of cover for the Nazis, he said. "They could say, we are a cultural nation, we are a cultural people. You couldn't possibly suspect that we're doing something that was uncultural."

Hitler himself was aware of the power of music. "It is certain that music is to be addressed as the greatest shaper of feelings and sensations that move the mind," he told the NSDAP Party Congress in 1938.

The cynical reality was that, though Jewish composers and musicians were ostracized and murdered, Nazis such as concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele had classical music pieces played to them by Jews including Lasker-Wallfisch in Auschwitz.

Even Hitler's private record collection is said to have included recordings by Jewish musicians.

Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler shaking hands with Goebbels while other classical musicians watch.
Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler made a pact with the Nazis to save himself: He's shown here shaking hands with GoebbelsImage: DW

The DW music documentary addresses these contradictions and, for the first time, summarizes classical music events as they related to the Third Reich in their entirety.

The film's two main characters represent musical life under the Nazis in very different ways: Star conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler made a pact with the Nazis, while Lasker-Wallfisch survived thanks to her musical talent.

This dramatic period in history is brought to life through historical film footage that has been digitally restored and carefully colorized.

The documentary includes scenes of Hitler at the Bayreuth Festival, Furtwängler's birthday concert for the Führer, composer Richard Strauss at the opening of the 1936 Olympic Games, and footage of cellist Lasker-Wallfisch being interviewed by British journalists after the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she was deported shortly before the end of the war.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch speaking at a podium in the Bundestag in 2018
Lasker-Wallfisch spoke about antisemitism in the Bundestag in 2018Image: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa/picture alliance

At the documentary's premiere in Berlin on November 9, 2022, Anita's son, Raphael Wallfisch, told DW that it took years for their mother to reveal to her children what she had been through under the Nazis.

He also said that his mother was saddened and worried by the resurgence of antisemitism: "She believed that the Holocaust had taught lessons to the world and changed it forever, but that is unfortunately not the case."

Posters of the film "Klassik unterm Hakenkreuz" in a cinema, with people standing at tables next to the display.
'Music under the Swastika — The Maestro and the Cellist of Auschwitz' is available in German, English, Arabic, Spanish and HindiImage: Ronka Oberhammer/DW

"Every nationalist movement tries to spread an idea of ​​how a nation should be," said Simon Wallfisch after the film screening. The Nazis would have done everything to subject music to their ideology and to ban anything Jewish.

Even today, works by artists such as the composer Viktor Ullmann, who was killed in Auschwitz, receive too little attention, he added.

Lasker-Wallfisch: 'Music is untouchable'

Lasker-Wallfisch can still remember the day the camp was liberated very well. The then 19-year-old wanted the whole world to know about the atrocities committed against Jews. "What I was trying to describe was actually unbelievable. How do you describe Bergen-Belsen? You walk on corpses. It's impossible to describe."

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch with Christian Berger, DW editor
Anita Lasker-Wallfisch with Christian Berger, DW editorImage: Johannes Imdahl/DW

In 1946, the cellist emigrated to Britain. She did not visit Germany again until 1994. After decades of not speaking about what she had experienced, she has extensively discussed her experiences in recent years. In addition to giving numerous lectures, she also gave a speech on the topic of antisemitism at the German Bundestag in 2018.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch is not bitter and does not hold a grudge. Despite the unimaginable horrors she endured, one thing was always there for her: music. "They can't destroy it! Music is music," she said. "It's untouchable."

The DW documentary "Music under the Swastika The Maestro and the Cellist of Auschwitz" premiered on November 9, 2022 at the Delphi Filmpalast in Berlin. It is available on DW Documentary YouTube channels in German, English, Arabic, Spanish and Hindi.

This is an updated version of an article originally written in German to reflect the documentary's nomination for the International Emmy Awards that will be handed out on November 20, 2023.