To Alice Herz-Sommer, “music [was] God.” It was the religion by which she lived out her days. When times were dark, she preached the beauty of life without saying a word, sitting at her piano at the end of the world. And as the decades passed, she worshiped daily at the keys, the passerbys of her London flat privy to her devotion as it wafted out into the street.

Mrs. Herz-Sommer passed away last Sunday, February 23, 2014 at 110-years-old. The woman who believed that “even the bad is beautiful when you know what to look for” was also the oldest Holocaust survivor, and her optimism, goodwill to all, and love of music live on now not just in the people she loved, but through the Oscar-nominated documentary about her life, The Lady in Number 6.

Directed by Malcolm Clarke and produced by Nick Reed, the 38-minute documentary explores Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s life through interviews with her as well as two of her closest friends, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and Zdenka Fantlova, also survivors of the concentration camps. Along with the ardent testimonies of Mrs. Herz-Sommer and her friends, the film combines archival footage with a poignant score by Luc St. Pierre, that is, when she is not playing her piano.

The musical virtuoso was born in the year 1903 in Prague to a family that moved in well-connected circles, which included prominent people of the time such as Franz Kafka and Gustav Mahler. Taking to the piano at five and studying in a conservatory in her teenage years, the cheerful and self-assured Mrs. Herz-Sommer was a well-known concert pianist by the time she and her son were deported to Theresienstadt in 1943 — a Nazi concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic.

The Nazis populated Theresienstadt with the highly educated and the artistic, touting the prison as a model community in a show of propaganda. The Lady in Number 6 uses footage from a propaganda video made of the camp; a clip shows Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s then eight-year-old son singing in the camp’s children’s choir. Poised and enduring even in the bleakest of times, the easy-smiling woman was made to give concerts within the camp, and her rendition of Chopin from memory transported those who heard her play, from those imprisoned to the guards, to a place that existed “before.” Her musical ability saved her and her son from deportation to the death camps.

Producer Nick Reed was approached with Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s story, and not long afterward, he found himself in flat Number 6, listening to her speak. Reed, who was also an agent and has worked on films such as The Bourne Identity series, Meet the Parents and Moulin Rouge, was so inspired by the documentary category at the Academy Awards three years ago that he set out to create his own project “for [his] soul.” A former British Royal Navy pilot and current California resident, Reed spoke to GALO a few weeks ago about the film’s impact on its audiences, the making of the documentary, and the lauded pianist herself.

Editorial Note: The interview was conducted before Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s death; the interview has not been changed to reflect that.

GALO: How does Mrs. Herz-Sommer feel about the documentary, was there anything she specifically wanted people to take away from it from the beginning when approached with the request to make the film?

Nick Reed: I think it’s a little bit like when you’re an actor — some actors don’t like looking at their work, and some do. She has been the focus of lots of little stories and little films over the years, but no one really went into it in the depth that we did. She’s not someone who would talk about herself in that way, if that makes any sense.

GALO: How have you reacted to the documentary’s Oscar nomination — and what does it mean for the film to be recognized in this way for you?

NR: In my life, I’ve mostly been involved in mainstream feature films, where there are big budgets, where there are theatrical releases, and where there are people spending money to get you to see the film. And I decided, a couple of years ago, that I wanted to try to do a documentary about something great, and what I realized is that [with] documentaries — it’s not that people don’t care about them, but they don’t really fit into anybody’s [consciousness] — there’s no major publications or television [programs enthusiastic about them]. Maybe “frustrating” is a strong word, but it’s been a little disappointing not having had as many people see the film as possible, just because I think it’s such an amazing learning experience for anybody, whether you’re 10 or 100.

So the Academy Award, first and foremost, shares with the world that there are ordinary people out there doing amazing things, and says to children or college students that you really can achieve amazing things just by having an amazing willpower and spirit. So, the nomination to me is exciting because it gives the film an opportunity to now, at least, have a spotlight and people looking at it to share the word. And for me, of course, I am so proud of this movie and to ultimately have people learn something and experience something from watching the film; it’s a win-win for everybody.

GALO: From what I’ve read, the director, Malcolm Clarke, approached you with Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s story. She’s an incredible person all around, but what struck you the most on a personal level about her story to prompt you to go ahead with the film, and how was that further strengthened when you met her and spoke to her yourself?

NR: What happened was that after the Academy Awards were out three years ago, I had literally decided after the documentary section that I wanted to do a documentary. I called Malcolm the next day, and, as it happened, there had been talk about this woman, and the fact that the woman was that old; the fact that she had lived through the Holocaust; the fact that she was still playing the piano, spoke four languages, and had this incredible attitude, how could one not do that? There was a combination of things but that was it; it was a no-brainer.

Probably more important, when I met her, I imagined myself the way I would have felt had I met the Dalai Lama or Gandhi. She is so pure, and the things that she says, as you can see in the film, are so simple but so powerful, as all simple things are. I truly left thinking, ‘I’m not worthy.’ One of the conversations we had over dinner while filming was about how old people should do a much better job of being mentors to the young people, and one of my contentions was that we, especially in the West, do not seek out the experience and wisdom of old people enough. There’s this kind of split disconnect, we can mentor people in their late teens and 20s, but I think it’s most of us in the 30s and 40s that should be seeking out the experience and wisdom of old people.