Filmmaker gets up close and personal with Fleischer

Nathaniel Kahn achieved critical success and a 2004 Oscar nomination for his documentary, “My Architect” — a personal story about his relationship with his father, Louis Kahn, the much acclaimed modernist architect who braved travails such as a facial deformity and artistic angst before his death in 1974.

So what was the filmmaker to do for an encore? Kahn said he found himself drawn to yet another great artist who also had to overcome physical affliction and career challenges, albeit of a different sort.

Kahn’s short documentary, “Two Hands” — which has also been nominated for an Oscar — spotlights pianist Leon Fleischer, who lost the use of his right hand to a neurological disorder when he was 37 (see main story). The lyrical, 18-minute film describes Fleischer’s determination to reinvent himself as a teacher and conductor, his relentless search for a cure and his triumphant return to the concert stage after finding a cure for his ailment in his 70s.

Kahn, 44, admits that the movie metaphorically continues his own search for a father figure. “It was like getting close to someone who, like my father, struggled yet kept going, and who made art his life, which has been a great window for me,” the director said by phone from his Philadelphia home. “I couldn’t ask my father about life and art and adversity because he was dead. But I knew I could ask Leon those questions.”

Easier said than done. The 78-year-old Fleischer didn’t like to speak about his past troubles, although he agreed to participate in Kahn’s film immediately after viewing “My Architect” a year-and-a-half ago. “I’m a very private person, but I admired Nathaniel’s talent and his sensitivity,” Fleischer told The Journal.

“There was a kind of reserve with Leon,” Kahn said of his interviews with the pianist. To bypass this reticence, Kahn said he decided to mostly depict the pianist in extreme close-up, “because with the zoom lens you can really explore somebody’s face, feel what they feel and see the look in their eyes.”

His goal was to capture subtle changes in expression, such as the slightest grimace or furrowing of Fleischer’s eyebrows.

Although Kahn shot hours of footage, he believed the short documentary format would best depict Fleischer’s life journey in a dramatic arc.

“A film is more like a novel, whereas a short is more like a poem,” the director explained. “In a short, you don’t build up the layers the way you might in a feature film. You explore a few themes very precisely, so brevity is crucial. You must suggest things and use images to achieve an emotional punch.”

For example, when the pianist describes the traumatic loss of the use of his hand, Kahn uses jump cuts showing Fleischer talking to enhance his sense of agitation (and also the send of moving forward in time), rather than cut to related images. Myriad close-ups of Fleischer’s hands — clasping, playing the piano, waving in conversation — reveal the hand as a kind of character in the film.

A slow-motion image of Fleischer’s fingers unfurling, as he serenely performs, is perhaps the most crucial image in the movie.

“The entire short builds to the point where you see that hand, which has been immobilized for more than 30 years, finally able to open and play,” Kahn said.The piece Fleischer performs in that scene is Bach’s transcendent “Sheep May Safely Graze.” Close-ups show the artist’s hands covered with age spots, yet completely in control of the keyboard.

“In some ways, the piece is Leon’s theme song,” Kahn said. “It’s a work he’s played throughout this life, yet when he plays it now, you can hear behind it years of struggle, of desire and, finally, peace.”