January 18, 2020

Haunting Portrait of a Jewish Prodigy in ‘The Song of Names’

Photo courtesy of “The Song of Names”

We Jews are a complicated people and a challenging new film validates the claim.

“The Song of Names” opens shortly before the outbreak of World War II, with Gilbert Simmonds, a London music publisher, inviting a 9-year-old violin prodigy from Poland to live in his home.

After some initial resentment, Simmonds’ son Martin bonds with the newcomer, named Dovidi Rappaport, and the two lads become as close as brothers.

They survive the war and Gilbert, recognizing Dovidi’s extraordinary talent, lavishes his attention on the boy and grooms him for his anticipated sensational debut in London. But on the evening of the premiere, Dovidi disappears — a calamity that bankrupts Gilbert  — who dies shortly thereafter.

The dual loss of his “brother” and father crushes Martin and for some 40 years he searches for Dovidi, finally tracking him down in a Chasidic quarter of London.

Martin is steered toward a small synagogue, whose rabbi, apprised of Martin’s search, opens his file of Polish Holocaust victims, including the entire Rappaport family, and mournfully sings out the names of the family members.

Much has been written and filmed about the Holocaust, but none has encapsulated the depth of the devastating tragedy of the Shoah as this single scene.

The film’s director, Francois Girard, and co-producer Robert Lantos spoke with the Journal at the recent Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles.

Girard, a non-Jewish French-Canadian, said he was particularly attracted to the film because of its emphasis on music. His previous movies include “The Red Violin” and “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.”

Producer Lantos was born into a Jewish family in Budapest in 1949 before moving to Canada with his parents. While still a student at McGill University in Montreal, he founded Alliance Communications Corp., which went on to become the country’s largest film and television production enterprise.

Asked what was the most difficult part in making the film, Girard said finding actors to portray each of the two principal characters: first as young boys, then adolescents and finally as mature adults. The adult leads are played by Clive Owen (Dovidi) and Tim Roth (Martin).

The film is based on Norman Lebrecht’s novel of the same name. Lebrecht is a well-known and highly regarded BBC and Wall Street Journal commentator on music, politics and culture. Lebrecht’s latest book is “Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947” (Scribner).

In it, he writes Jews made up only one quarter of 1 percent of the world’s population in 1847 and yet “they saw what others could not see.” Eventually, those “seers” ranged from Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Marcel Proust to Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, Arnold Schoenberg and Leonard Bernstein.

As the first of the “Breakthrough Jews,” Lebrecht designates Benjamin Disraeli, the (converted) British prime minister under Queen Victoria, who, according to Lebrecht, was “the first to stand up to the immemorial insults howled at them by the Christians.”

One expounder of such insults was a fellow Member of Parliament Daniel O’Connell, an Irish Catholic, who routinely denounced Disraeli as a descendant of the killers of Christ, to which Disraeli responded calmly: “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the Right Honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”

That moment, according to Lebrecht, marked the point in history when Jews “burst out of the ghetto, brimming with the bottled energies of two millennia.”

“The Song of Names” opens Dec. 25 at the Laemmle Royal in West Los Angeles, and on Jan. 3 at the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center 5 in Encino.