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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