Partisan Pictures and U.S. pubcaster PBS are teaming up to tell the story of an incredible artistic uprising in a Nazi concentration camp.
PBS will premiere the 85-minute doc, Defiant Requiem: Voices of Resistance, on April 7 at 10 p.m. EST.
The film recounts how a chorus of inmates at the Jewish concentration camp of Terezin – artists, musicians and poets led by conductor Raphael Schächter – performed a version of one of the world’s most powerful choral works, Verdi’s Requiem, before an audience of Nazi senior officers and members of the International Red Cross, as a message of condemnation of their captors.
Terezin, some 40 miles west of Prague, was converted into a “holding pen” for Czech Jews during World War II. The small town, built for a population of 6,000, grew to nearly 60,000 with the addition of the Jewish inmates. Under Schächter’s guidance, those inmates created works of artistic rebellion – with artists depicting the horrors around them on paper, playwrights creating plays with makeshift sets and costumes, composers writing new works, and scores of late-night lectures and concerts providing some sort of solace and communion for the imprisoned.
The culmination of this cultural rebellion came in the form of the Requiem, painstakingly learned from a single copy of a smuggled score. The work was performed 16 times for fellow prisoners, with a single piano as accompaniment.
Upon becoming aware of the artistic gathering at Terezin, Nazi officials orchestrated a visit from the International Red Cross to promote the concentration camp as a “self-governed Jewish city,” even documenting the town via the propaganda film, The Führer Gives a City to the Jews. By the time the choir performed the piece for the Nazi officials and the Red Cross representatives, their numbers had reduced from 150 to 60 due to deportations.
The film uses archival film, prisoners’ artwork, survivor recollections, recreations, and animation to recount the story. Filmmakers also revisited the site of the concert, some 60 years later, as conductor Murry Sidlin and a team of more than 160 singers and instrumentalists, including an orchestra from Prague, gather to perform Sidlin’s The Defiant Requiem, created to honor Schächter and the Terezin inmates.
For Partisan Pictures producer/founder Peter Schnall, the production took on added weight when he discovered during filming that his own great-grandmother had died while imprisoned at Terezin.
Defiant Requiem: Voices of Resistance is produced by Peter Schnall and Doug Shultz for Partisan Pictures, and directed by Shultz. Executive producers are Whitney Johnson and Schnall.