Toward the end of Orchestra of Exiles, a talking head proclaims that Bronisław Huberman “saved [Jewish] culture” when he founded the Israel Philharmonic. What Huberman more succinctly preserved, however, was a lot of Jewish talent that could have easily been wiped out. Once a violin prodigy who could bring Brahms to tears with his own concertos, the Polish-born Huberman had an uneasy relationship with his exploitative father during his youth, and from then on became suspicious of others’ attempts to manipulate him by granting false power. Sensing the natural, disastrous end to early Nazism’s separate but unequal tactics toward Jews like himself, Huberman scoured Europe in the ‘30s for marginalized Semitic instrumentalists he could abscond with to Palestine. His organizing of the IPO in this manner made him a sort of Oskar Schindler of the bandstand; in fact, the final estimated tally of lives rescued by both men stands at well over 1,000, statistics offering rather tidy evidence that arts and industry are equally qualified to do humanitarian good.
Huberman’s illustrious and universally compelling life is no niche-market history, but its episodic nature poses a narrative challenge that Josh Aronson’s just barely feature-length documentary can’t quite surmount. In the film, the process of founding the IPO comprises a constellation of stories that lack an adequately centralized conflict, and myriad attempts at building tension feel arbitrarily contrived. (In one example, we hear of Huberman’s nail-biting anxiety when several of his musician’s passports are denied by British officials; after the refugees enter Palestine safely, however, the film half-heartedly continues the motif of struggle by describing the Middle Eastern country as all sand and no culture.) Huberman, as the central character, emerges as a fairly lucid historical construct through the wealth of biographical details offered; quick, intermittent sketches on other IPO musicians’ virtuosity, and the anti-Semitism they were forced to suffer in central Europe, appears anemic by comparison. The film meanwhile insists on illustrating many of its plot points rather dubiously with costumed dramatization, footage of which has been digitally filtered in drab grays and browns to imply antiquarian suffering.
The resulting tonal arrhythmia continually distances us from the documentary’s subject matter, and while the testimony and narration provide ample and specific proof of Huberman’s wit and generosity, his true legacy—his music—is spoken of only in passing generalizations. Very few moments of concert recordings on the soundtrack are allowed to go by without the distraction of plot-advancing voiceover, and fascinating discussions of the essential “Jewishness” of symphonic music are cut maddeningly short. “It’s very hard to hide one’s emotions behind the violin,” says one interviewee, who goes on to briefly describe the violin as a Semitic male’s instrument. But why is this? Allowing these curious and unfulfilled intellectual tangents to flourish may have enhanced the film’s argument in vital if abstract ways. As it is, Aronson rather conveniently touts Huberman as Jewish culture’s mid-20th-century savior without bothering to define what constitutes Jewish culture in the first place.