GALO: To Mrs. Herz-Sommer, “music is God.” During WWII under Hitler’s regime, music was regarded as a privilege that was only for non-Jews, which is explored in the documentary as these events unfolded. Yet, from the guards at the camp to the Nazi families living in the same apartment as Mrs. Herz-Sommer before her deportation, her music managed to reach out to them past the politics and the brutal inequality that was enforced. Can you talk about Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s view of the humanizing power of music, and its ability to transcend and transform the reality around us?

NR: There are so many fantastic quotes in the film. Some of my favorites are, when she says, “I was born Jewish, but my religion is Beethoven,” and “just thinking about music makes me happy.” Or when Anita talks about how her father had said to her, “if you put all of this information inside your head, no one can ever take it away.” And, I think, to me music is clearly its own language that can be understood in any culture. There is a pureness to it, in its powers to touch you and in its powers to convey emotion. Music is truly the most universal language in the world. And when you have love for that language, anyone you meet in the world with a similar love becomes your brother or sister because of your shared passion.

GALO: The old footage used in the film, especially of concerts and the Brundibár children’s opera in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, is remarkable. I would say not many people know about the propaganda videos and the existence of such a camp and, as Mrs. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch mentioned, how macabre the entire situation of performing in such a place was. Can you talk about the importance of learning such a place existed as a façade of what really went on in these camps, and the process of finding the footage and its use in the film?

NR: The filmmaker, Malcolm Clarke, had actually been nominated for his film The Prisoner of Paradise (2002), which was actually about a filmmaker that the Nazis had taken to make films about how great the concentration camps were. So Malcolm had a lot of experience and, because of his research on that film, had a lot of access to incredible relationships and contacts and we were able to get that footage.

The one thing that people ask me about when they make comments on Facebook or YouTube, so many of them talk about the music [in the camps] — how it was a sham, and that it was forced and everything else, but the one thing you keep getting when you speak with people who were there is that the music basically transported you to before the war, to a time when you had hope and everything was fine. It was like a turbo charge to the spirit. Your spirit might be waning, you might be giving up, thinking that there’s no end in sight, you might be thinking that you’re going to die, you’re near starvation — and that experience of hearing the music fortified their resolve to not die, to continue. The experience of listening to the music, especially listening to the music in a group setting, the same way you go see a movie with hundreds of people, it can add to the experience. I think that to some extent, it was almost like a religious ceremony — that might not be the right expression but it helped strengthen everyone’s resolve and their spirit, and reenergized everybody to [keep] fighting.

GALO: Though everything was taken away from them, the women in the film, Mrs. Herz-Sommer, Mrs. Lasker-Wallfisch and Zdenka Fantlova are resilient and speak about these terrible experiences with such a profound grace. Mrs. Lasker-Wallfisch talks about the “second” life they received after the war that allowed them to see life anew, and Mrs. Fantlova, in the only moment in the film that tears well up in her eyes, resolutely says she is grateful for having had such an experience. Mrs. Herz-Sommer says every day in life is beautiful. What might we learn from this — what does this say about the magnitude of human strength?

NR: I think they are examples of what goes on inside our heads when we talk about the brain being such an untapped resource. I guess, to me, that is an example of what can happen when you can connect to your brain in a way that many of us can’t. I think they comment a couple of times about when young people today say “I’m bored” or “I’m unhappy.” Their springing point for unhappy is so extreme that it makes everything else look completely ridiculous. I had an experience about a year ago, a friend of mine got into a very bad car accident and I thought he was going to die. And I think all of us — what is that saying, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people?” I think if anything, those women are in that first category. The theme at the end is, “what’s important in life?” And as Zdenka says, very little. Money doesn’t matter, things don’t matter, just health and human relationships.

GALO: There’s been a lot written about Mrs. Herz-Sommer, but hearing her speak about her life herself is a privilege. You mention that she is 110 years young and she can teach us how to live longer and happier. She even found the silver lining when confronted with the death of her only son — she is grateful he didn’t suffer, and gives thanks for that every day. Can you explain why it’s so important to hear Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s story through her own words?

NR: Who else can answer that as well? I don’t know anyone. I don’t know who else could tell the story as well as she can.

GALO: What was your goal for the film when you set out to make it — what did you want audiences to take away from it?

NR: The one thing that makes me smile when I think about it — America is the home of self-improvement books and shows, about how to do this, and how to do that. And, quite often, these are so called-experts, which in some cases, they are talented. But if you watch this film, you will really be learning something, you will be learning how to live longer and happier. She’s 110-years-old now, with a big smile on her face. How can you doubt that everything she tells you is true? If you walk like a duck and talk like a duck, you’re a duck. So for a woman to be 110-years-old and smiling and saying all these things — you’re just thinking ‘wow.’

I’ll tell you a story; one question I asked her — I was wondering if there was something that she was eating that was helping her live so long, and I said, “Alice, if you don’t mind me asking, is there anything special that you eat?” And she goes, “no, I just have Meals on Wheels.” That’s a company that comes around and gives hot meals to old age pensioners. It’s not like she has an apple a day or has a glass of wine a day. It had nothing to do with her eating. She reads so many books — the brain is an energy generator, and stress is a killer. So if you’re able to somehow have this feedback system that allows you to live in such a happy place because you truly appreciate everything that you see — it just again shows that if we can connect the brain in all the right places, it will actually help us live longer and Alice is living proof of that.

The biggest challenge I have going forward is that I really want to try to get this film to be seen at schools. I think that the responses from the kids that have seen to it have been just amazing. They say things that just blow you away. At one of the screenings in Los Angeles, a father came with his kid. People weren’t quite sure whether they should bring kids, because of the nature of the Holocaust part of it. But this 10-year-old boy was so taken after watching the film that he took up the piano. I know all of us would enjoy the film, but it’s the kids — we’re all ruled in a world of corporations and big commercial projects, and it’s not easy to come across someone who is that amazing, who can make you go “wow.” One thing I would ask anyone to do is to literally share the story about this woman with as many people as possible, and watch the film. Meeting her has changed me. Now, when I have a major problem, I just think to myself, ‘what would Alice do?’ And it just gives you cause to take a breath and say, “what’s really important?” and try not to get all worked about it, because in the scheme of things, it’s not such a big, important thing.

 “The Lady in Number 6” is currently available for rent ($4.99) and purchase ($9.99) on Vimeo on demand, and has been recently acquired by Netflix, though the release date has yet to be announced. For more information about the film, please visit Tune in to ABC this Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 7e/4p to watch the Oscars.

Video Courtesy of The Lady in Number 6.

Cincopa WordPress plugin

Featured image: Deceased pianist and Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, the subject of Malcolm Clarke’s and Nick Reed’s Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Lady in Number 6.” Photo Courtesy of: Nick Reed/”Lady in Number 6.”