The virtuoso concert violinist Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947) made his professional debut at 12. How virtuosic was he? In 1896, he played the Brahms Violin Concerto with a much-impressed composer in the audience. “He had the best right hand of anybody!” the violinist and violist Pinchas Zukerman declares in “Orchestra of Exiles.” Huberman’s sound, adds violinmaker Amnon Weinstein, was “very intensive, like he was going to eat the violin.”
Notable as Huberman’s playing was, he’s best remembered today for a different musical contribution. In 1936, he founded the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, the forerunner of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. “With Hitler firing the best musicians in Europe,” Huberman said, “it suddenly became clear to me that this was an extraordinary opportunity to give this wonderful audience in Palestine a first-class orchestra.”
Huberman recruited Jewish musicians from throughout Europe. With the help of Albert Einstein and Chaim Weizmann, who’d later become the first president of Israel, he raised money for the orchestra. He got no less a figure than Arturo Toscanini to conduct the first concert. Through his work forming the orchestra and subsequent efforts to get cultural refugees out of Europe, Huberman is credited with saving a thousand Jews from the Holocaust.
The story of Huberman and the Palestine Symphony offers rich, moving, and unfamiliar material — a trifecta for a documentary filmmaker. Writer-director Josh Aronson’s flaccid “Orchestra of Exiles” squanders the material’s promise.
Aronson approaches the story in several ways. He has interviews with talking heads. Besides Zukerman and Weinstein, they include the violinists Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell (who now owns Huberman’s Stradivarius); the Israel Philharmonic’s music director, Zubin Mehta; current IPO musicians; and descendants of the original Palestine Symphony members. He uses archival footage — sometimes dubiously. As the narrator talks about Huberman touring the United States and performing for royalty in the early years of the 20th century, we see a photograph of the New York skyline with the Empire State Building (built in the early 1930s) and footage of Queen Elizabeth (crowned six years after Huberman’s death). Aronson has actors reading contemporary texts. They do so with thick accents. It’s a hackneyed convention to convey foreignness. But it is a convention. Yet in reenactments he has the same actors speaking in foreign languages with subtitles. Mr. Authenticity, meet Mr. Inauthenticity.
Speaking of which, there are numerous reenactments. Alas, that fictional horse long ago left the factual barn. Many documentaries, maybe most, now employ them. They’re a bastardization of the documentary form, but they’re a prevalent bastardization. So the question becomes not whether they’re done but how.
In “Orchestra of Exiles,” they are not done well. Sometimes they’re just silly. We actually see the actor who plays Huberman tossing and turning in his sleep. Other times they’re insultingly inept. Both Wilhelm Furtwangler, the great conductor who cooperated with the Nazis, and Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, figure in the story. After seeing vivid black-and-white photographs and newsreel footage of them, we’re shown color reenactments with actors playing Furtwangler and Goebbels. Neither performer looking like the man he’s playing.
Rich in significance and dense with incident, the story of Huberman and the founding of the Palestine Symphony could easily inspire a fictional feature or a documentary. Maybe it could even be both at once? “Orchestra of Exiles” would indicate not.