Be or feel guilty, “The Song of Names” (Canada/Hungary, 2019, 1h 53min )

The Song of Names

Sometimes a film is slow and instead of being annoyed by its sluggish pace you can immerse yourself in it like into a sleepy river. This was one of the many feelings I felt while watching The Song of Names. Another was the excitement of an explorer upon rediscovering known scenes. Being a native of Budapest and not knowing in advance that a lot of this film was shot in my city I was a bit shocked and doubtful the first time I noticed a familiar street corner. Once I confirmed it was where I thought it was I kept an eye open throughout the movie what other places I recognize and was rewarded with the recurring setting of  3-4 other sites . At the same time I was self-conscious that it may not be the best sign for a movie if I am more excited about where it was shot than what was happening in it. 

The plot evoked yet another feeling in me: curiosity about its historical accuracy. The movie is based on the novel by the same tile, written by Norman Lebrecht. I tried to research whether the core concept is true or not. Sorry, spoilers ahead: were the names of the people murdered in Treblinka memorized by survivors and whether this list was put to song?  As far as I can tell. while it is a beautiful idea, but has no factual basis. The strongest, most heart-wrenching  scene in the movie is when we and the protagonist first hear the actual song: a confirmation that his family was indeed on the list of people killed. It is all fictional though.

A key sentence to understanding the psyche of several characters is: “You don’t have to be guilty to feel guilty.” It is uttered by a Polish woman who was made to feel guilty for the fate of the Jews, even though she was too young to take part of it in any way. Similarly, the genius violinist feels survival guilt for having survived the Holocaust, while his first family was slaughtered. Even his (almost step-)brother feels guilty for something he had no fault at: his father’s death. His anger at his stepi(sh) brother is more prominent though than his guilty feeling. This is a hard lesson for anyone to learn or unlearn: not to feel guilty we are not and cannot be guilty of. 

I loved the story, the locations, but was less sure about the casting and some of the actors’ performances. The two main characters were played by 3 actors each, one for each age: kid, teen, adult. Young Dovid, the violinist prodigy was played really well by Luke Doyle, who never acted before. He was already an accomplished violinist beforehand, so what he had to learn was acting, speaking English with a Polish accent, a  few words of Yiddish and playing new violin pieces. I enjoyed reading this background article about him. 

The adult version of him, played by one of the stars of the movie, Clive Owen, didn’t have a chance to shine, so he didn’t. He had very little screentime, his face was covered for all of  it with a not too realistic fake beard and his character was short on lines. So yes, he did manage to cast sharp looks or look saddened, but it was not enough to carry the movie. The adult version of his friend was played by Tim Roth, who I consider a great actor, but in this one I don’t think he applied all his acting chops. He did a proper job, but was not too convincing.

There is an old Jewish story according to which at the beginning of Creation all creatures could sing. Later this ability was taken away and was given back only to birds and to humans. Birds sing only to praise God. The story ends with stating that when people sing they are supposed to follow the example of birds and sing only for the same reasons they do. Another spoiler coming up: after the anti-hero returned to his ancestors faith he had cast away of that part of his identity that played music in public. I suspect he believed that he found himself incapable of praising God through his violin because of his grief. Concluding that if he cannot do it in the way his religion prescribed it is better to give it up altogether. I do not agree with his choice, considering that he was really good at it and could have used his talents to praise God with his talents. On the other hand I understand that it is a sacrifice that helped him to cope with his survival guilt. How would you cope with survival guilt?

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