aka: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
D: Malcolm Clarke / 39m
Born in Prague in 1903, Alice Herz grew up surrounded by the intelligentsia of the day, her parents’ cultural salon frequented by the likes of Franz Kafka (who would go for walks with Aiice and her twin sister, Mariana, and tell them stories) and Gustav Mahler. She learnt to play the piano at an early age and was encouraged to take it up as a career by another friend of the family, Artur Schnabel. She studied at the prestigious Prague German Conservatory of Music (where she was the youngest pupil), and there drew the attention of cellist Leopold Sommer. They married in 1931, and in 1937 had a son, Raphael. Alice gave recitals and performed in concerts until the Nazis took control of Prague and Jewish involvement in performances was curtailed. While several of her family members and friends fled to Israel, Alice remained in Prague to care for her mother who was very ill.
In July 1943, Alice was arrested and sent to Theresienstadt where her skills as a pianist were utilised in over one hundred concert performances, including those for the visiting Red Cross, as the Nazis strove to show that conditions were not as bad as the Allies suspected. Billeted with Raphael, he and Alice were liberated in 1945 (sadly, Leopold died of typhus in Dachau six weeks before it too was liberated). Rebuilding her life, she and Raphael emigrated to Israel in 1949 and were reunited with their family, including Mariana. There, Alice worked as a teacher at the Jerusalem Academy of Music until she decided to emigrate to England in 1986. In retirement she still played the piano for three hours every day, and remained an inspiration to everyone who knew her. Remarkably, she was a hundred and ten when she died in February 2014.
The key to Alice’s life, she always said, was optimism. She unfailingly looked for the good in life, even during the terrible years when she and Raphael were incarcerated in Theresienstadt. Like so many of her fellow concentration camp survivors – two of whom are featured in the movie – Alice’s positive attitude helped her to withstand the horror that surrounded her. She saw “the beauty in life” in almost everything, but particularly in music. For Alice, “music was magic”. It could raise her spirits and bring happiness in even the most terrible of situations or circumstances. With her unwavering memory for classical pieces, Alice could always retreat into her own mind, a place where even the Nazis couldn’t follow her. It’s inspiring to think that, despite where she was, she was perhaps freer than anyone could imagine.
This remarkable woman is the focus of an equally remarkable documentary short. The Lady in No 6 is a compelling, fascinating account of one woman’s lifelong love affair with music. Alice is seen at 109, still mobile, still playing the piano with wonderful dexterity, and still enjoying life with a vitality and energy that would put most thirty-somethings to shame. She’s always smiling and laughing, and her eyes – only slightly dulled by old age – twinkle with a mixture of mirth and sincerity that is surprisingly wistful when she sits in repose. Alice’s upbeat nature and lack of pessimism is a joy to behold, and when she talks about her love of music you can see that she’s transported by it. As she’s said in the past, “I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion”.
Wisely focusing on her passion for music for the most part – with an extended but emotive sidestep into World War II – Clarke deftly avoids any hint of sentimentality (as does Alice) and paints an engaging, winning portrait of a woman whose devotion to music has the effect of making the viewer wish they had even a tenth of Alice’s ability and commitment to her art. Testimony from one of her neighbours provides an idea of how much her morning recitals are enjoyed, and a reminiscence of her time at Theresienstadt reveals the same approval from some of the guards. It’s a wonderful affirmation of Alice and her dedication to her muse, that her playing has been able to cross social and ideological divides with such incredible efficacy.
Away from Alice and her contagious love affair with classical music, the movie paints a sobering yet hope-infused account of her time at Theresienstadt, with one of her friends recounting a particularly chilling account of an encounter with Josef Mengele. The focus shifts to take into account the resilience of those inmates who could see no other outcome but their own survival, and while Alice takes a back seat during these moments, it still serves to highlight the tenacity she must have had to endure (and to be so well-balanced in the aftermath of it all).
Visually as well, The Lady in No 6 is a treat, with Clarke’s assembly of various archival materials proving both eye-catching and memorable, his blending of the historical and the modern throwing each element into sharp relief. The post-production work is highly impressive, and so is the editing by co-writer Carl Freed, both of such a high standard that the movie has a precise, almost painterly feel to it, and the scenes of Alice in her flat feel entirely welcoming, not as if the audience is eavesdropping on her, but that she’s gladly invited everyone in… and couldn’t be more pleased for the intrusion.
Rating: 9/10 – a delightful and inspiring look at the life of an absolutely exceptional woman, The Lady in No 6 fully deserves its Oscar win and is one of the best documentary short movies of recent years; it’s a shame then that we get to spend such a short amount of time in Alice’s wonderful company.