Rating: 3/5“There was something rather cut and dried and academic about it all,” concluded the review of a 1936 recital by master violinist Bronislaw Huberman. The same charge could be laid at the feet of Orchestra of Exiles, Josh Aronson’s documentary about Huberman and the formation of his Palestine Symphony Orchestra. With solid research and a deep respect for the subject matter, Orchestra of Exiles also features a series of fascinating interview subjects, none of whom are given time to really dig into the complex issues at hand. The documentary, full of actual photos and footage seamlessly interspersed with subdued reenactments, is ultimately a dry affair, focused on praise of its subject at the expense of more thought provoking details.
Bronislaw Huberman was a popular and highly respected violinist at the time National Socialism began to take hold in Germany in the early 1930s. A Jewish man who had lived in Germany and the surrounding area for many years, he recognized the scope of the threat, knew the situation was dire and spoke out. Frustratingly, he was usually met with silence. He gave concerts to help displaced and persecuted European Jews, only to find most of the citizenry indifferent.
It was then he formed the plan to organize what would be known as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, located in a primarily Jewish area of Palestine. Huberman hand-picked musicians in need of escape from Nazi persecution, saving those chosen from certain death. The Orchestra would act as international ambassador, publicizing the plight of European Jews. Most countries at the time would not take Jewish immigrants, plus the Nazi Party’s effective international propaganda campaign masked the menace enough to render it easy for apprehensive governments to imagine the Nazis could be controlled with a few conciliatory treaties. Humanizing and publicizing the situation was of incredible importance.
One gets an exceptional feel for who Huberman was in Orchestra of Exiles, for the paths his life took that brought him to a place where he would make such sacrifices and take such risks later in his life. Born in Poland, Huberman was an outstanding child prodigy pushed by the quintessential stage father. At age 8, the family moved to Berlin to allow him to study with the best teachers. After young Bronislaw received ecstatic reviews when performing as an opening act, his father immediately yanked him out of his studies, booked him into a lengthy series of performances and made the young 12-year-old responsible for his family’s financial welfare. But like so many child stars, as an adult he realized there was an emptiness to his celebrity life. The First World War prompted a change in him, a call to humanism and empathy that would define his later years.
Orchestra of Exiles’s biggest flaw is the forgoing of details in the service of deification of its subject. Much is glossed over in Huberman’s self-appointed job as savior, with narration declaring him fraught with despair at being unable to save as many Jews as he wanted, while reenactments contradict this as they show him dictating flippant letters with no concern beyond not having his time wasted with “second class” musicians. Instead of providing even one detail about the political situation of Palestine at the time, we see rank colonialism by interview subjects sniffing that the area was entirely without culture until the Europeans arrived.
Many of the interviewees, however, are exceptional, but sadly none are allowed to expand upon their points. Everything is edited into soundbites meant to enhance the story as Aronson wishes to tell it, and this is problematic, notably in the stories of two men: Wilhelm Furtwängler and Kurt Singer. Both men, while controversial, in their way attempted to help Jewish artists in Nazi Germany. Because Huberman took exception to these men, they are nearly vilified in the documentary, and there is an unseemly touch of schadenfreude that their attempts to help Jews failed while Huberman’s were successful.
In 1936, Huberman went on a whirlwind U.S. tour to raise the final funds for the Palestine Symphony Orchestra — the same tour where he gave that “academic” recital of April, 1936. Also during this tour, Bronislaw’s beloved Stradivarius was famously stolen, a detail mentioned in the documentary but then dropped without resolution, as many other anecdotes and ancillary characters are. Despite Orchestra of Exiles’s title, the film often veers into documentary about Bronislaw Huberman with the Orchestra as a secondary theme, just one of his many accomplishments. This split attention leaves the audience distracted with questions about unimportant details, rather than with a full picture of either the man or his orchestra.