In the documentary Orchestra of Exiles, screening on November 16 at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, the quixotic mission of a virtuoso violinist becomes a fresh drama from the ashes of the Holocaust. Huberman, a prodigy who played for the crowned heads of Europe, saw the storm clouds of Nazism gather when others would not. His plan was to recruit Jewish musicians, already ejected from their careers, to form an orchestra in the land then known as Palestine.
“One has to build a fist against anti-Semitism,” Huberman stated, as he auditioned musicians in Warsaw, Berlin, and Vienna in the mid-1930s. “A first-class orchestra will be this fist.” His unlikely invitation was bolstered by an astounding detail: Musical deity Arturo Toscanini would conduct the incipient Palestine Symphony Orchestra.
Fired equally by genius, arrogance, and compassion, Huberman stood firm against detractors who suggested this unpleasant business with the goose-stepping brown shirts would blow over. He pleaded with musicians that relocating to the Holy Land was not only a wise career move but might also save their lives.
Aronson, 60, a documentary filmmaker since 2000, is also a classical pianist. He first learned of Huberman from a fellow pianist, Dorit Straus, who has a weekend home in Rhinebeck. Straus, whose father was David Grunschlag, concert master of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (the new name for Huberman's group) for many years, was organizing a concert in Vienna to honor Huberman.
As Straus recounted Huberman’s historic achievements, Aronson recognized the story united his key passions: his own Jewish heritage, his love of classical music, and defiant nonconformity—a subject he’s explored in previous films about hearing-impaired children facing cochlear implants and about transgender people.
“It was just a life moment for me and it felt right,” Aronson says of his decision to commit the tale to film. It would take him three years.
First, the director had to play detective, locating letters and documents about Huberman, written in Polish and German, and scattered across Europe. Happily, Aronson’s subject was both eloquent and voluble. In addition to performing, he lectured frequently about his dream of a united Europe and his support for Zionism.
Where photos, music, and documents could not push forward the narrative, Aronson filmed lavish recreations, drawing on two decades of experience as a TV commercial and industrial film director. At one point, he envisioned an epic running four hours. But he excised subplots to bring the film in at 85 minutes, albeit reluctantly. “This was rich, golden material that covered the whole century,” says Aronson.
As his research advanced, Aronson recognized the flawed hero of his drama. While possessing immense fame in his era, Huberman was also a difficult and cold man, prone to intense periods of work that shut loved ones out. “There were a lot of warts in this guy that I didn’t go near,” Aronson says. But Huberman’s personal writings shed light on the reasons for his prickly character, offering what Aronson called “a very good sense of how he had been scarred by the [emotional] abuse of his father early on in his life.”
If he were starting this project again, Aronson said he would avoid grandiose depictions—some have called the film hagiography—in favor of a more complex portrait of Huberman, contradictions intact. Still, Orchestra of Exiles engagingly depicts a man who saved thousands of lives—and perhaps European music as well.
Orchestra of Exiles will be screened on November 16 at 7pm at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck. Director Josh Aronson and Bard College President Leon Botstein will host the screening. (845) 876-2515.