Classical Music under the Swastika – The Maestro and the Cellist in Auschwitz

DW Transtel | 68 4955
1 x 60 min / 1 x 90 min

Why was classical music so important to the German dictator Adolf Hitler and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels? The stories of the persecuted Jewish cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who cooperated with the Nazis to a certain degree, provide insights into the musical life of the German dictatorship between 1933 and 1945.

The film’s main protagonists are two people who represent musical culture during the Nazi era in very different ways: Celebrity conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler and a cellist in the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch. On the one hand, a world-famous conductor who wielded great influence with Hitler and his cronies. On the other, a young German Jewish woman imprisoned at Auschwitz, who only survived because of her musical talent. Both were affected by the Nazi dictatorship: Furtwängler opted to stay in Germany and was courted by the Nazis. For Lasker-Wallfisch however, her cello was the only thing protecting her from the brutality of everyday life in the concentration camp. Classical music, which they both loved, was performed by the Berlin Philharmonic but could also be heard at Nazi party rallies in Nuremberg and in concentration camps such as Auschwitz. Why did gifted artists like Furtwängler cooperate with the Nazi regime? Why was music played in the death camps? And how did this affect the victims’ view of music?

German music was used to legitimate the supremacy of the Third Reich on the world stage and distract from the Nazis’ wrongdoings. As well as Beethoven, Bach and Bruckner, Richard Wagner enjoyed a particularly high status as Hitler’s favorite composer. Hitler was very conscious of the power of music; his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels controlled all musical life in Nazi Germany, where Jewish artists no longer had a place. The Berlin Philharmonic was rebranded as the “Reich’s Orchestra“.

Interview partners in this music documentary by Christian Berger include the conductors Daniel Barenboim and Christian Thielemann, Wilhelm Furtwängler’s children and of course the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, now almost 100 years old. Her recollections are the most poignant and moving. Archive footage restored and colorized especially for the film brings these stories to life and bears witness to a dramatic period in history.

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