A FILM COMMENTARY ON THE 2014 ACADEMY AWARD WINNING DOCUMENTARY, "THE LADY IN #6”
By Mountain Shadow Director, John Bennison
In his early-20th century existentialist novel, The Castle, Franz Kafka tells the story of someone known only as ‘K,’ whose single purpose in life is to gain access to some mysterious authority, for some unknown reason, and who resides behind the impregnable walls and parapets of some monolith. Understood as being more than simply the frustrations that come with any anonymous human bureaucratic institution, the protagonist’s endless, fruitless efforts seem to convey the senseless futility, meaninglessness and banality of life.
Kafka died before finishing the novel, and one might conclude that in a story that appeared to have no real resolution, the uncompleted work may be inconsequential. But some author’s notes left behind suggested the protagonist in the story would himself only finally receive notification from the castle when he was on his deathbed. The long-awaited message would simply advise him that he could continue to reside and work in the nearby village that he would never be allowed to call his own.
I thought of this bleak and sour portrayal of life when I learned of Alice Herz-Sommers, while viewing Malcom Clarke’s Oscar-winning Live Short Documentary, “The Lady in #6.” In listening to her life story, she relates how some of the greatest minds living in Prague when she was growing up were family friends. Franz Kafka himself would tell Alice and her sister stories.
How vastly different from his novels were those stories, I wondered? Or how vastly different was his view of life than the indefatigable optimism expressed by the concert pianist and holocaust survivor, who recently died at the age of 110. What seems to have been there from the very start for Alice, I wondered; enabling her to achieve far more than sheer survival and longevity?
Her perfect life disintegrated before her eyes as first her father, then her mother, then her husband were all deported to the concentration camps and death; following the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. She and her son would only survive when they were deported in 1943, because of the music she had to offer those authorities that were as alien as those in Kafka’s castle. Even Terezin, the special camp filled with Jewish artists and created by the Nazis for propaganda purposes to disguise their genocidal actions, was as dark and ludicrous as anything an existentialist novel could depict.
To this day, one of her aged friends who herself survived Terezin puts it bluntly, “We were dancing under the gallows.” In response, Alice counters, “But even the bad is beautiful, if you know where to look for it.”
“Everything in life is good and bad,” she says. “I look on the good side.” How can she do that? “A lot of German journalists come and want to speak with me,” she says. “Before they enter my room they ask, ‘Are we allowed to enter your room? Do you not hate us?’ So my answer is I never hate, I never hate. Hatred breeds only hatred.”
While she calls music the place of the soul and divinity itself, with the capacity to transport, she does not forget nor flee from the bitter stanzas of her life’s opus. It is as if she has never had to forgive those unspeakable acts that befell her, because she has never given hate a home, that would then require such a monumental task.
Shortly before her death recently Alice told an interviewer, “I think I am in my last days but it doesn’t really matter because I have had such a beautiful life. And life is beautiful, love is beautiful, nature and music are beautiful. Everything we experience is a gift, a present we should cherish and pass on to those we love.”