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While the music lasts

Among the few survivors of the Nazi extermination camps, there are apparently some who have never had a decent night’s sleep since. They can repress the nightmare during the day, but at night it comes back. Playing for Time (ITV) gave you a hint of what it must be like to live like that.

Written by Arthur Miller and directed by Daniel Mann, the film was clearly superior at most points to the famous series Holocaust, although it will probably have nothing like the same direct effect. The screening of Holocaust in West Germany was instrumental in staving off a proposed statue of limitations on Nazi war crimes, and thereby helped ensure at least the possibility that a few more doddering old killers might be brought to book.

One doesn’t have to believe in vengeance, merely in the rights of man, to see that the effect of Holocaust was thus a salutary one and something to be grateful for. Nevertheless the series, even when you allowed for the fact that the historical memories have to be simplified in order to be transmitted at all, was something of a cartoon. Playing for Time was a more complicated piece of work altogether.

Vanessa Redgrave played Fania Fénelon, a half-Jewish French cabaret star who was sent to Auschwitz and escaped the ovens by being selected to play in the camp orchestra. One of the orchestra’s tasks was to play up-tempo music while people were being worked to death. Another duty was to provide the SS officers in the camp with their culture ration.

The orchestra was part of the obscenity, like one of those harps in Hieronymus Bosch which have human beings threaded on the strings. And yet for those in the orchestra there were two hopes. One was to preserve some fragment of creative sanity for themselves and anyone else capable of appreciating it. The other was to live.

As presented by Miller’s script, Fania embodied the psychic torment of a decent human being who had been placed in the hideous moral fix of being allowed to choose life while other, equally innocent people were being wiped out by the thousand. Redgrave played the role with the passionate commitment you might have expected and with a range of nuance that reminded you, when you could draw breath, that she really is some kind of great actress.

Mentally, Fania reached the only possible conclusion, which was that the Nazis were the guilty ones and that any squalid choices the victims were forced to could not be regarded as their fault, even if the obligation to choose as well as possible remained. Unfortunately, as the look on her face well demonstrated, it is one thing to reach this sane conclusion and another thing to forgive yourself for it.

Another brilliant performance was by Jane Alexander as Alma Rose, the conductor of the orchestra. She was shown to believe, perfectly credibly, that if musical standards were not maintained, then Dr Mengele, who prided himself on his taste, would feed the entire orchestra to the waiting ovens. She therefore kept the orchestra members hard at rehearsal, even when they were swaying in their chairs from hunger. Every concert was like an audition, with the flames waiting if you failed.

At the moment there is an argument going on in the Press about just what Alma Rose’s strictness amounted to. A survivor of the orchestra claims that Alma saved all their lives and that it traduces her memory to show the orchestra members turning to Fania for a moral example. If what the survivor says is accurate — and it would be a very presumptuous onlooker who assumed that it was anything else — then to portray Alma as a harsh taskmaster and a fantasist would have been a criminally serious distortion of the historical record. But I’m bound to say that at least one viewer didn’t see Alma that way. She looked to me to embody decency just as Fania did, with the additional burden of embodying responsibility as well.

Most of the brutality happened just off screen. The main characters winced at it, and you guessed what it must be like because you knew them. The Nazis were portrayed as being like what they most certainly were — recognizably ordinary types that anyone who has not led a sheltered life must have lived beside in his own street while growing up.

Most of us know someone with a bee in his bonnet about racial superiority and someone else who would plainly relish the chance of throwing an old lady into a cesspool. The most penetrating thing ever said about the Nazis was said by the writer Jakov Lind, who said that there were no Nazis — by which he meant that a similar aberration is likely break out at any time, anywhere, the moment that the appropriate social conditions obtain.

There were screams in the night. The electrified fence zapped intermittently in the distance as yet another despairing soul took the only clean way out. Neither the writing nor the production poured it on. Instead, they poured it off. You had to deduce what Mengele got up to from the way the orchestra members strove so frantically to say the right thing in his presence.

This was a wise understatement, since any attempt at recounting the full horror of Mengele’s activities would have doomed itself and the whole film to failure. So ghastly a memory can’t be fully retained even in the mind of someone it happened to. Only Mengele could think of it and not go mad, since he had the advantage of having started off being mad already. If Paraguayan television takes the programme, he will be able to see himself.

Good art compresses the coal of truth into diamonds. Vanessa Redgrave’s performance in this superior film easily outweighs her political activities, but before glibly dismissing those I had better say why her position with regard to the Middle East has been so well worth despising.

She has backed the Palestinian cause at times when the declared policy of some of its most prominent leaders has been to destroy the State of Israel entirely. Since this could hardly be done without staging the Holocaust all over again, there has always been good reason to regard any outsider aligning himself with such a proposition as incurably frivolous, especially if you happen to believe that the Palestinian cause has a lot to it. Vanessa thinks life is like drama. But just when you think you have got her number, she brings drama to life.

18 January, 1981