The Nazi era and the Holocaust are such monumental subjects that any documentary filmmaker dealing with them is bound to feel daunted by the challenge. At the same time, we would be foolish to think that even the most serious moviegoer is breathlessly waiting for the next cinematic inquiry into Hitler’s perverse universe.
All the more reason to pay attention to a film which finds its way into this period through the experience of a single person — in this case, an extraordinary musician. The documentary “Orchestra of Exiles” implicitly proposes that through the drama of one life the larger moral landscape can be illuminated. Yet if Branislaw Huberman had only been one of the 20th century’s great violinists, I’m not at all sure Josh Aaronson would have made a film as humane and inspiring as this one.
Here is the story of a child prodigy from Poland, born in 1882, prodded by an ambitious father to assure the family’s fortunes, and who became a savior and visionary in the service of his Jewish brethren. That Huberman may well have been a more flawed human being than the film has time to capture hardly diminishes Aaronson’s accomplishment as screenwriter and director.
Aaronson has done something difficult in his documentary, integrating dramatic sequences from Huberman’s life into archival newsreel footage, historical photographs and talking head interviews. These scenes are played by actors who appear as characters in the violinist’s life. Several actors, including two children, play Huberman at different stages, while others embody historical figures well known to us. These sequences are impressed with period detail, humanize the main characters, and are never played for histrionics.