No movie director could make up a story like this.
A little Jewish boy from Czestochowa, Poland, plays the violin with such virtuosity that a nobleman makes him a gift of a priceless Stradivarius, which he uses to bedazzle the composer Johannes Brahms.
But when he grows up, becoming one of the great classical musicians of his day, the violin that has come to bear his name is stolen. He never sees it again.
Unbroken, the man flees to Palestine before World War II, founds the national orchestra, rescues hundreds of Jewish musicians from certain death in Nazi Europe and is hailed as a hero before he dies.
Fifty years later, his beloved violin surfaces when the man who stole it makes a deathbed confession. The instrument is sold twice and finally acquired by superstar Jewish performer for a jaw-dropping $4 million.
That same man returns to Czestochowa, where it all began, to perform the previous owner’s favorite concerto by — you guessed it — Brahms.
Truth is stranger than fiction.
That’s the synopsis of “The Return of the Violin” a true-to-life motion picture and part of the week one lineup of the 2013 JFilm Festival.
With the Holocaust as a backdrop, this expertly directed film by Haim Hecht traces the journey of a Stradivarius — made in 1713 by the legendary Italian artisan, Antonio Stradivari — while telling the story of the people whose lives it changed:
•Bronislaw Huberman, the Jewish prodigy from Chestochowa who became a maestro on the violin. In the shadow of the Nazi threat, Huberman fought back by establishing the Palaestine Philharmonic Orchestra (later the Israel Philharmonic) in 1936, he staffed the orchestra with the finest musicians in Europe, literally saving them from death. His instrument, the Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius, which bears his name as well as that of a previous owner, would be stolen twice in his lifetime, the second, and final, time from Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1936.
• Joshua Bell — One of the leading virtuosos in classical music today, Bell, who had played the Strad once before, learned in 2001 that it was about to be sold to a German collector. The passionate young musician couldn’t let that happen. He sold his own 1732 Strad for $2 million then put it toward the purchase price of Huberman’s instrument.
Care to know how he feels about the violin? When he took it out of its case at the Czestochowa press conference, prior to his landmark performance, Bell refused requests to even touch it.
“Only people I trust,” he said. “It’s like your baby.”
With a run time of 65-minutes this film will keep you riveted, weeping and celebrating for every second. The Holocaust was a story of tragedy, but it all led to countless stories of triumph of the human spirit. This movie tells one such story. “The Return of the Violin” will be shown Friday, April 12, 11 a.m. at Rodef Shalom Congregation. Bell, who is performing this week with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, will be on hand for a Q&A session after the film.
• • •
“Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir” This documentary examines the life of the celebrated — and notorious — filmmaker through in-depth interviews conducted by his longtime friend and producing partner, Andrew Braunsberg.
Polanski, who has been happily married to the actress Emmanuelle Seigner for 24 years, notes “the paradoxical way life operates,” and that it just may have been the string of tragedies and controversies he has endured that ultimately led him to a life of contentment.
Polanski recounts, in heartbreaking detail, his experiences as a child in Warsaw and the Krakow Ghetto during World War II, including the murder of his pregnant mother by Nazis, and watching his father being marched off to the camps. It was those childhood memories that inspired several scenes in his 2002 film “The Pianist.”
“I relived it in the movie,” he said.
After the loss of both parents, Polanski was taken to live with a Catholic family in Krakow, “a stone’s throw from Auschwitz,” where he was first introduced to the cinema.
The documentary then traces Polanski’s film career, from its beginnings in horror films, to his award-winning movies “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby.”
The filmmaker recounts his marriage to actress Sharon Tate, who, like his own mother, was pregnant when, in 1968, Charles Manson murdered her in Los Angeles. Polanski calls Tate’s murder “the greatest tragedy” of his life.
“I was not myself for years,” he said.
The film examines the 1977 scandal in which Polanski pled guilty to having sex with a minor, and the subsequent court dealings and proceedings that ultimately led him to flee the United States as a sort of fugitive, but it never asks the question that is the elephant in the room: why did he have an affair with a minor?
(Sunday, April 14, 3:15 p.m., The Manor Theater, 1729 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill.)
Also screening in week one:
• A.K.A. Doc Pomus: The story of Brooklyn-born Jerome Felder, a polio victim who became a successful blues singer and songwriter. (Saturday, April 13, 7 p.m., Manor. Theater, 99 minutes)
• Out in the Dark: An Israeli/Palestinian film about two gay men who fall in love in a sensual border-crossing romance that becomes a suspenseful thriller with a gritty visual palette that heightens the sense of urgency.
“Out in the Dark” is not just a love story; the title takes on another meaning as the story unfolds. Be prepared for sensual love scenes as well as heartbreaking events for the lovers who live near each other but are worlds apart, separated by a fence and the politics that take over their story.
(Saturday, April 13, 9 p.m., and Thursday, April 18, 7:30 p.m. Manor Theater, 96 minutes; Director Michael Mayer to speak following the April 18 screening.)
• Ameer Got His Gun: Eighteen-year-old Ameer wishes to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by volunteering in the Israeli military — even though he is a Muslim Arab. (Sunday, April 14, 6 p.m., Manor Theater, 58 minutes)
• Wunderkinder: A powerful story of three children in the small Ukrainian town of Poltava in 1941, the young musical prodigies — two Jewish, one German — have their friendship tested when the Nazis invade. (Monday, April 15, 7 p.m., Hollywood Theater in Dormont, 96 minutes)
• My Australia: Ten-year old Tadek fantasizes about Australia from his poor neighborhood in 1960s Poland. His older brother involves him in an anti-Semitic gang. When they are arrested, their mother reveals that though raised as Catholics, they are in fact Jews. (Sunday, April 14, 1 p.m., Manor Theater, 100 minutes)
• Fill the Void: In a Chasidic family from Tel Aviv, a young woman must make a decision that will affect her life and that of her family forever. Although there are prayers, traditional music, and religious ceremonies, in the end this is a universal story of a man and a woman looking for happiness. (Monday, April 15, 7:30 p.m., Manor Theater, 90 minutes)
• Sonny Boy: A black emigrant from Surinam to the Netherlands falls in love with an older Dutch woman. Together, they give clandestine assistance to Jews as the Nazis close in. Based on a Dutch best-seller by Annejet van der Zijl. (Tuesday, April 16, 7 p.m. Seton Hill University, Reeves Auditorium, 130 minutes)
• Defiant Requiem: An astonishing look back at the story of young Czech conductor Rafael Schächter who, while imprisoned in Terezin, led a makeshift choir of 150 fellow inmates in performing Verdi’s “Requiem.” (Wednesday, April 17, 7 p.m., Manor Theater, 85 minutes)
• A Bottle in the Gaza Sea: Tal, a 17-year-old French teenager who has moved to Israel with her family, writes a letter expressing her hopes for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Her brother throws the bottle into the sea near Gaza, where young Palestinian, Naim, finds it. The two begin a relationship that might be only a few miles apart, but represents a great chasm. (Wednesday, April 17, 8 p.m., Carnegie Mellon University, McConomy Auditorium, 99 minutes)
(Toby Tabachnick and Angela Leibowicz contributed to this story.)