A stunning perspective of creating beauty in the midst of the worst ugliness imagined, the documentary “Defiant Requiem” is a true story of courage.
The film highlights the courageous artists in the Theresienstadt (Terezín) Concentration Camp during World War II. It’s also the incredible story of Rafael Schächter, the Czech conductor who eventually was arrested and sent to Terezín in 1941. Schächter put together a chorus of 150 prisoners and taught them the challenging Verdi’s “Requiem” using only one score and a single piano. Eventually, the work was performed 16 different times.
What makes this all the more amazing is that the inmates were suffering at the time. Typhus ravaged the overcrowded camp. Starving, sick laborers died from the hellish conditions of forced labor. And still the choir members gathered to practice for hours and find a kind of freedom in music.
The group’s final performance was part of a propaganda campaign directed by Nazi Otto Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. That concert was June 23, 1944, in the presence of SS officers from Berlin along with members of the International Red Cross. Eichmann and his team planned down to the last detail how to make Terezin appear to be a beautiful city where prisoners were treated wonderfully.
Even more incredible than the story itself, you get to hear testimony from some of the members of Schächter’s choir.
Along with footage of a Verdi concert held in the same cold, confined space, the Schächter story is told in parallel with the story of conductor Murry Sidlin who returned to Terezin to perform "Requiem" again, this time with some Terezin survivors in the audience.
The film, directed by Doug Shultz, focuses on the underground arts community Terezin, where inmates performed productions of all kinds. The posters themselves are a tribute to the human spirit and the importance of creativity and art to survival.
Throughout, snippets of the Verdi masterpiece are featured, which makes the film even more poignant. Especially stirring are scenes from the performance of Sidlin and his group, from the set-up to the concert itself.
Every year, it seems, this marvelous series reveals yet another facet of the Holocaust that renews the viewer’s faith and hope for humanity. This is one of the most powerful films that ever has been shown as part of this series. I had never heard of this profoundly moving story of Terezin, but you can be assured that I never will forget it.
In a marvelous addition to the film, the Augustana College music faculty will perform a recital of Terezin composers before the movie begins.