Come Oscar season, all cinephiles are ready to campaign for their favorite film. Are you Team Gravity or Team 12 Years a Slave? Jennifer Lawrence or Lupita Nyong’o? While movie fans have likely seen all the big nominees by this point, there are smaller categories where even some film enthusiasts may not be as well-versed. Leading up to the Oscars, EW will tell you all about one often-overlooked category: Best Documentary Short. Come back each day this week for a look at one of the nominees, and impress your Oscar party with your knowledge when the category appears on Sunday’s broadcast.
Today: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, directed by Malcolm Clarke
The real surprise of The Lady in Number 6 might be that Alice Herz Sommer’s story hadn’t been told before. A London concert pianist and oldest living survivor of the Holocaust, the film easily could have been depressing, but the optimistic Sommer’s account of her long, extraordinary life instead is at times thrilling, incredible, cheery and miraculous. The fact that at 109 she was still able to recall so many historical events and was willing to share her experiences is something to behold.
Director Malcolm Clarke’s interview with EW took place last week. Unfortunately, this past weekend Sommers passed away at the age of 110 — an inevitability Clarke knew he was facing when filming.
“We had to move very quickly, Clarke explained. “Alice was not young when I met her, I think she was 107 when I met her. Any 107 year old, even if they’re very healthy, they are clearly closer to the end of their life than the beginning of their life and so we wanted to get this woman on film while she was still healthy and sprightly and chipper. We did it as fast as we could. No one got paid, it was a labor of love for everyone, it was actually pretty much everyone who had worked on Prisoner of Paradise came back and gave their services, you know, gratis, so we could get the movie quickly and get her on film while she was still alive.”
Read on for more of EW’s Q&A with Clarke about the film.
I really enjoyed the movie.
That’s kind. In all candor, I’m a little bit bewildered by the kind of reception that it’s getting. And I think it’s hard because I haven’t seen it for a very long time. And Monday this week, there was a kind of a screening, here, in Montreal, and I… literally, the first time ever, I sat in front of my own movie and watched it like a member of the audience. Because it had been so long since I’d seen it so I had a little bit of a distance. And it was really only on Monday that I kind of, you know, I got it. [Laughs] When you’re in the process of making a film, and you’re looking at so many factors, obviously, one knows that you’re trying for a certain feel and a certain kind of emotional response, but you’re doing it from the point of view of being a professional filmmaker as opposed to being an audience member and, you know, you can’t ever really calibrate how people are going to react.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you found her originally?
I have a friend in New York, who is an older woman who is a retired concert pianist, and when I go to New York I often stay in her. And for several years she was, she would tell me about this lady, this other concert pianist who she knew in London, and she would say, look, you should really, really, just meet her. I think she’d make a terrific documentary. And I always found, you know, some clever way to politely dodge the issue because earlier, about, actually about 10 years ago, I made the film called Prisoner of Paradise, which was also nominated for an Academy Award, and it was a film about a very famous German actor and film director, Kurt Gerron, who was imprisoned in Theresienstadt, oddly enough the same camp as Alice, where he was forced by the Nazis to make a movie. Because he was like Spielberg in the camp. So when the Nazis discovered that he was in the camp, they said, let’s get Gerron to make a film to show the world what a wonderful place the concentration camps are. It was a propaganda film, a pro-Nazi propaganda film. And Gerron made this film, and he literally made the concentration camp look like a kind of 1940s version of Club Med. It was an amazing, amazing film that he made.
So we made a film about him and his experience in the camp and it was a tragic film. So for two years, two and a half years actually, I was deeply, deeply, kind of involved in Holocaust material. Every day, I would go to work, I’d go to my cutting room, and I’d look at footage that was just, awful. That was just, you know, disparaging and depressing and incredibly horrific. And in all candor, I did not want to go through that again. I’d done it. Once is enough in a lifetime. You know, the Holocaust is so unthinkably horrible so I figured, you know, I’ve done it, I think I made a pretty good film, I don’t need another Holocaust film in my life it’s too disparaging. So when I heard that Alice was not only a Holocaust survivor, but she was also at Theresienstadt, which was the camp I spent a lot of time at, and I shot there for a long time, it was like the last thing I needed in my life was another kind of repeat performance of the film I’d made several years before.
Finally I was making a trip to London and my friend found out about it, and she said, well, at least go and meet her, go and have a cup of tea with her. So I went to meet Alice, I spent a hour with her, and of course when you meet her, you kind of get it immediately. There was just no way when I walked out of that apartment that I could not figure out a way to make a film about her. She was, and remains, pretty remarkable. I mean, she’s like no one I’ve ever met. I mean, obviously, I made a film about the Holocaust and Theresienstadt, I must have met, certainly several hundred people who had experiences in the Holocaust. And they all have unique stories to tell and they’re all special in all kinds of ways. I’ve never met anyone like Alice.
How do you mean? What stuck out to you about her?
She’s quite different on so many levels. And the thing that was most striking about her. The thing that really convinced me in a nanosecond that I had to make this film was she didn’t carry any enmity, no pain, no tragedy. And it’s not that she hasn’t experienced these things, but she processed them so much differently to everyone else that I met. You know, who else in the world goes through the Holocaust, goes through a concentration camp, and comes out the other side and says, you know, sometimes I actually think I’m grateful to have been there? You know, because of the legends that she left. I mean, I don’t know anyone who’s grateful for the Holocaust. And she’s not saying it disingenuously; she’s saying it from a very kind of deep and profound place. Because she took something away from it which gave her strength and gave her, kind of forged who she is today, so you know, it was a very, it was a very, very compelling kind of assignment.
Was it easy to convince her to participate?
Oh, yeah. [Laughs] Because, you know, again, she’s not, there’s no guile in Alice, and when she says in the film, “I love people, I love talking to people, I like listening to,” it’s who she is, and it’s actually what keeps her alive. I think the fact that she’s sustained, by two things, by music, she still plays every day for 4 hours, she takes a huge amount of spiritual sustenance from the music that she plays and by kind of playing it in her hand even when she’s not playing it on the piano, and then she takes kind of intellectual and social sustenance from these people who come and visit her and talk to her and, you know, she absolutely adores nothing more than sitting in that armchair and chatting to people for hours on end. It just keeps her going. So the idea of a camera crew arriving on her doorstep was a little bit like the circus coming to town. She was interested in what we were doing, interested in the camera, where we were putting it, what we were doing, how we did our jobs. It was exciting for her and I think she loved it.
It was easy to see in the film how mentally sharp she still is, but was there any concern about basing it all on her recollections? Did you ever consider maybe looking into other points of view?
Well, the film was about Alice, so you know, we were, I mean. You know, she does have memory lapses. She’ll say, hang on a second, was that this year or that year? And in fact, there’s one slight inaccuracy. When she remembers going to a concert with her mother to see Gustav Mahler and I think she says she was, I can’t remember now, I mean, my memory’s lapsing, she said she was 7 or she was 9. She was off by a year, anyway. The Mahler symphony was premiered one year earlier. So she was one year younger than she said. But I think at the ripe old age of 110, and to be, you know, to be off by a year when it happened more than a century ago is allowable. [Laughs] We didn’t take her to task on it.
And has she seen the movie?
You know, I don’t know if she’s seen the movie. We dealt with Alice through her grandson, Ariel, who lives close to her in London. And he’s quite protective of her. And I think in fairness, I think quite rightly. He’s quite right to say, “Let’s just shield her from too many kind of emotional ups and downs….” Ariel has definitely seen the film and obviously we’ve asked him to show it to Alice but whether or not he’s actually done that, I don’t know for sure. I know that her two friends [in the film] have seen it because they came to the screening. We had a special screening in London, and they loved it. So I know that they have spoken to her about it, and they’re very enthusiastic about it which is nice.
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life is available to purchase online. It also has recently been acquired by Netflix, although no release date has been announced.
Read about the other Oscar-nominated Documentary Shorts here.