Defiant Requiem is one of PBS’ best documentaries of 2013 and one of the best documentaries of 2013, period. If ever there was a work that proved the importance of supporting PBS, this documentary is it. The near ninety-minute program tells the story of a group of Jewish captives that used music as a means to tell the world of their mistreatment at the hands of the Nazis. It is a piece that will appeal not only to those with a love and respect for classical music, but also for anyone that has ever had or has any interest in the history of World War II. It is so deeply moving that it must be seen to understand and appreciate this.
As a bit of background for viewers, Verdi’s Requiem is one of the most beautiful yet intense works in the history of classical music. What makes this musical masterpiece by itself so interesting is that it was considered sacred music, despite the fact that Verdi himself was supposedly an agnostic. Its ten-part “Dies irae (Day of Wrath)” segment incorporates themes of mortality and judgment. These themes definitely are in contrast to Verdi’s own alleged beliefs. Put into the context used by the Jewish prisoners of the Terezin concentration camp, these themes take on a whole new meaning as they were sung towards the very individuals who treated them as less than humans. This was absolutely brilliant of fellow prisoner and composer Rafael Schachter to do. As audiences will learn through the course of the program, it was because of Schachter’s efforts that the Jewish prisoners at the camp were able to use their rehearsals and performance of the music as a source of strength both personally and as a people. It allowed the prisoners to confront their captors in the presence of the Red Cross without fear of retribution. This alone is deeply emotional. Whether one is an expert in music history, war history, or history in general, it will still leave any viewer deeply moved on a number of levels.
The music of Verdi’s Requiem is itself extremely moving and powerful. Once one understands the extent of its emotional influence, it makes the story told by the Terezin survivors that much more moving. The program features interviews with the survivors, and shows their reactions to the Requiem being performed for them and their families’ decades later at the very sight of the pain that took so many lives. The symbolism of the performance left barely a dry eye in the house during the performance. The sight of the survivors’ emotions will bring about certain emotions among viewers at home, too. The inclusion of archived pictures ties directly into the stories shared by the survivors. It brings everything into crystal clear view, expertly illustrating the horrors experienced by Jewish prisoners at Terezin.
Along with stories from the survivors of Terezin, Defiant Requiem also features re-enactments by professional actors. The re-enactments on the part of the actors in Defiant Requiem are on par with another of PBS’ major documentaries from earlier in 2013, The Abolitionists. It’s something that is being seen less and less frequently on certain other networks by comparison, making this documentary that much more impressive and necessary both inside and outside the classroom. It also makes PBS that much more important for those searching for educational programming, and that much more worth financially supporting with viewer contributions. If the archived pictures from Terezin made the story crystal clear, the re-enactments made them crystal clear at an Ultra High Def level, for lack of better comparison. As painful as it is to learn of what happened, these re-enactments, archived pictures, and performance of the Requiem help bring history alive. They help viewers of any age understand what happened within the walls of Terezin. All assembled together, everything included in this new documentary makes it one that crosses interests and in turn makes it one of the best documentaries of 2013. It will be available Tuesday, July 23rd and can be ordered online from PBS’ online store at http://www.shoppbs.org/product/index.jsp?productId=20427106&cp=&kw=defiant+requiem&origkw=Defiant+Requiem&sr=1.
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