Playing For Time (1980)

Not just another World War II miniseries, “Playing for Time” has pedigree.  Based on a true story, the TV version was written by no less than Arthur Miller and directed by no less than Daniel Mann.  Arthur Miller did not sit himself down to write for any screen, big or small, that often!

It’s the casting of Vanessa Redgrave as a concentration camp survivor that is the wild card.  The movie was shown in 1980, just the time when Redgrave was trotting around the world with her pro-Palestinian views, therefore a bizarre choice to play Jewish here.  But, Redgrave is one of those actresses so convincing, so damn good and so full invested in her roles, that watching it decades later when the politics have subsided, that’s all that matters.  Perhaps she was cast for shock value or perhaps because of her skills.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.  We’re taking “Playing for Time” as an American miniseries and not as a Redgrave political platform. 

Furthermore, it turns out not to be the casting, but rather the script, that should be the center of discussion.  Gorgeously written, it goes to great lengths to not only defend the downtrodden, as expected, but to also bring a bit of character and, daresay, humanity, to the German characters.  This is Arthur Miller, not just any hack, so nothing is 100% crystal clear.  There is a lot to wonder and argue about, which is not something usually done when it comes to discussions of Auschwitz.  Normally, there is a clear division of good and evil, and though there is no attempt to blame the Jews and exonerate the Nazis, there is a lot of time devoted to how everyone is supposed to react to their various situations, Jews and Nazis alike, a very different and welcome take, especially from a miniseries, always so devoted to pulling tears instead of thoughts out of the head. 

Fania Fenelon (Vanessa Redgrave) is a noted French cabaret singer as the movie starts, even doing a number while Nazis hobnob in the club where she performs.  But, after a few seconds of documentary footage, Fania is in a crowded train car East, cooed over by everyone in there.  An elderly gentleman tells her, “Madame Fenelon, your music is the soul of Paris!”  Finally, it’s noted that they all may be on the train because they are Jewish, and Fania is only “half” and it’s never been a strong part of her identity.  At first, the group in the crowded train car is fairly nonchalant, playing chess, cracking jokes, but as times goes by, they start to get cagey and when the urine bucket is accidentally knocked over with no relive of an open window, it becomes dire. 

Their train finally stops at a concentration camp and the women are quickly shirked of their clothing and hair, despite still being totally confused about what is happening.  The haircutting scene is chilling.  The soundtrack has just the sound of dozens of unoiled shears going and screams from the outside.  Fania is then tattooed, noticing that some women are allowed to keep their hair.  It’s only Jews who are shaved, but for finding that out, she gets an extra smack from Frau Schmidt (Viveca Lindfors). 

During the trip, Fania befriended Marianne (Melanie Mayron), who assumes her crime is having a boyfriend in the Resistance.  “My boyfriend wouldn’t let me join because he said it was too dangerous,” she cries to Fania as they are huddled together in a cold prison house.  Fania discovers they are sleeping next to a dead woman and Marianne panics.  To calm her down, Fania rambles off a fairy tale as we see the crematorium at full blast.  Fania is part of the crew made to dispose of the remains.  Here’s where an author like Arthur Miller comes in handy.  He assumes we know the history of what happened, so it doesn’t take us an hour to get into the story.  All of this, including some very harsh documentary footage, has taken only about 15 minutes. 

“Does anyone know how to sing ‘Madame Butterfly’?” howls a guard.  Fania is taken to a room where other emaciated shaved women with yellow stars are playing musical instruments.  She walks in slowly and is cleaned up a bit and fed by Etalina (Robin Bartlett), who, along with Michou (Anna Levine) recognize her as a celebrity.  The conductor of the troupe is Alma Rose (Jane Alexander), described as “not a warm heart.” 

Haughty Alma, sporting a full mane of hair, enters and demands to hear Fania play the piano.  Nervously, Fania goes to the instrument, hesitant to touch the beloved keys, but soon able to both play and sing.  She’s tearing through the song, the music filling her again, much to the delight of the assembled all-female orchestra, when in comes Frau Mandel (Shirley Knight), looking more like an Andrews Sister than a Nazi, but she has the attitude right.  “Do you know any German music?” she asks Fania, who responds that she cannot join the orchestra unless her friend Marianne gets to join too.  Frau Mandel’s eyes pop out with anger, but Marianne gets to sing…really badly.  Not that the actress does it badly, the character.  So badly that we hear dogs barking outside (a bit of schtick this piece certainly doesn’t need).  “See that they get clean and send them to me at the depot,” Frau Mandel says as she leaves.  They are in! 

What we learn first is that this orchestra is pretty lousy.  But, for some reason, Frau Mandel treats them very well, bellowing that Fania should have warm boots and stay well-clothed to protect her voice.  It gets downright creepy when Frau Mandel bends down and puts the found warm boots on Fania’s feet.  The Frau either has a well-thought-out plan in mind or is a lot of bit lesbian.  The script right now doesn’t tell us, so it will be interesting to see which way it goes. 

“Why is it so loud?  This is not band music!  We are not playing against the wind!” Jane yells at the women.  “Music is the holiest activity of mankind,” she says and tries to scream musicality into them before bolting through them in disgust.  Etalina explains that they all know they are lousy and the fault really lies with Alma.  “We were just a marching band,” she says, made to play as prisoners went about their work duty, but culture-loving Alma started them on the classics.  “She’s a victim of her own pride,” Etalina says and everyone agrees, mainly because now the Germans love the orchestra, but they can only play three songs, which are starting to bore the people in charge.  Fania is convinced to orchestrate some new songs for them.

The girls tell Alma that Fania has agreed and Alma actually takes the news well.  They even share a laugh over having to do more German songs.  “I’d like to think I’m saving my life rather than pleasing the SS,” Fania notes, but Alma asks “do you think you can do one without the other?”  That knocks Fania down a bit.  There’s no copy paper, but they will get around that.  “We’re artists.  We can’t help that.  There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Alma says before dismissing Fania, as a way of justifying the work they are doing while so many others around them suffer. 

The first concert with Fania seems to go well.  They do the classics well enough and then Fania gets a French pop song as a solo. 

However, all is not harmonious among the orchestra members.  Etalina is the sassy one in the group, telling somehow-ravishing Elzvieta (Marisa Berenson) that “you can say the word…g.a.s.s.e.d.” when Elzvieta tries to get them to see their misery.  In fact, there’s even some rivalries.  They refer to some Polish women as “those bitches” and won’t even talk to them!  Fania rises above it all, saying she would share anything she has with the rest and would expect the same.  As much as they are women trying to get along in terrible conditions, they do try to have a bit of fun, betting Fania for details of fashionable Paris.  There’s talk about a group of women recently arrived from Holland who had beautiful curls and when asked where they are now, Etalina says they’ve most likely been gassed.  Fania tries to hush such talk.  “Why not say it?  We’ll be better prepared when our time comes,” Etalina argues, bringing that conversation to a dead halt. 

Fania collects the girls and sings “Stormy Weather” for them, letting Marianne take over.  She’s gotten better.  That makes everyone feel a bit more chipper(when a song as depressing as “Stormy Weather” can do that, you know you’re in trouble), but the next morning, the marching band section of the orchestra has to play for the camp workers as they are beaten.  Fania asks to watch, seeing and hearing the screams from the crematorium and all of the other awful horrors of the camp. 

Marianne remains a problem, refusing to see what is really going on in the camp, begging Fania to find her food and help her.  Fania tries to make the poor girl see the truth, but Marianne hides in the shell of a child.  Meanwhile, Etalina snaps that “we’ll need another 100 Years War before we get a score out of you” to Fania, though some defend Fania, saying it’s “hard work.”  That last line is tossed off casually, but if you think about it, it actually shows the lofty position these women are in.  They are in Auschwitz, no doubt about it, and could die at any minute, but they are more protected inside the rehearsal room than everyone else at the camp.  “Hard work” becomes relative in the struggle to keep mentally stable. 

The slow orchestrating process annoys Alma, who pulls Fania aside to ask why she can’t be faster.  She confesses that she was spat on that morning.  “I didn’t realize how much they must hate us,” Fania says, referring to everyone else in the camp who must see them as getting special treatment.  “Yes, of course, what did you expect?” clip Alma retorts, offering to send her back to the other barracks if she’s unhappy.  “I’m just not used to being hated like this,” Fania whines, but Alma snaps her out of it by telling her it’s a matter of life or death and Fania better get used to it.  The taskmaster in Alma is her way of surviving.  So, Vanessa madly orchestrates all through the night as the gruesome sounds of wailing captives, guns and sirens blare. 

When Marianne brings Fania a small crumb of food, Fania refuses it because she knows Marianne got it by letting a man have sex with her.  Marianne has started to develop a spine, saying bitingly that what she did for the food was no different than what the orchestra does for the Germans.  “It doesn’t matter anyway.  We won’t live to get out of here,” she says bitterly.  “What if we do live?…You’re treating  yourself like some mortal piece of meat,” Fania tells her, but they are both confused and desperate and no one has any sense of what is right or wrong anymore.  Fania does eat the scrap of food, though her face is contorted in confusion as she does and then she breaks down in tears, a hopelessness that is not helped by the sounds of machine guns outside. 

As Fania witnesses another convoy of women coming in, she’s overcome, but told by a carpenter to “live” so she can tell the story of it all to God.  As if that isn’t confusing enough to her, one of the girls comes into her bed to confess a crush she has one one of the others.  “You’re young, what else is there but love?” Fania tells her, ultra modern in her sensitivities. 

Contrary to what one might expect, when Fania is asked to sing specially for the Germans, in various languages, she does not shudder from it.  Instead, she concentrates on the song, usually keeping her eyes closed, and acts them beautifully.  No matter her situation, the music is always triumphant in her, always her personal bright spot.  “Did you ever hear anything more touching?” Frau Mandel asks head Nazi Dr. Mengele (Max Wright).  She then tells Fania to thank Dr. Mengele, and when Fania works up the nerve to actually do it, she interrupts the rest of the Nazis and tells them her real last name is “Goldstein.”  “You must learn to sing German songs,” Commandant Kramer (Clarence Felder) tells her, noting that it makes his work so much easier.  When the Nazis love you, they can be very king!  Frau Mandel asks Fania if she needs anything and has her people send away for toothbrushes.  Not only that, the whole orchestra gets goodies.

Marianne is the only one who sees Frau Mandel’s attentions to Fania as suspect.  When she even suggests that Fania would sleep with her for the perks, Fania is quick to shout back, “there’s no danger of that” and then goes back on the attack, since Marianne is busy whoring herself for anything she can get.  The argument goes deeper when Etalina remarks that Frau Mandel is actually beautiful.  The others are horrified, but not Fania.  “She is beautiful.  And she is human.  What disgusts me is that a woman who is so beautiful can be doing such things.  We are of the same species!” she snarls at everyone, but most of the crowd isn’t with her.  It’s an interesting point, but obviously a tough one to pull off in the middle of a concentration camp.

A drunken Marianne stumbles into the barracks to report that a doctor has told her none of them will ever be able to bear children because of the fear and the diet.  This sends Elzvieta to her knees praying (she’s Catholic), but Fania knows that Marianne is only acting the way she does out of sheer terror.  She tells Marianne that she can control her desire for food (which is what she’s trading sex for) if she learns to share what she has with all of the rest, and Marianne knows it’s true.

When the group’s cellist gets sick, Alma rushes to make sure she isn’t gassed, encountering Mala (Maud Adams), a Jewish woman who is a legend in the camp.  She was one of the camp’s first prisoners and managed to escape, buck naked, but when she was found, she managed to stay alive because she spoke so many languages and rose to the ranks of the camp’s head translator.  She and her boyfriend have supposedly even helped people escape.  Fania, in the middle of a particularly harsh rehearsal with Alma, questions Fania as to how Mala got so powerful.  “Mala is a miracle,” Alma says.  “She’s the hope of everyone here.  Even these Nazis somehow sense a glory within her.”  As Fania tried before with Frau Mandel’s beauty, this is another attempt to humanize the whole situation, finding hope wherever one can. 

The recital gets even uglier because Alma strikes Etalina for hitting a wrong note, which meets no one’s approval.  “If it weren’t for my name, they’d have burned them up long ago,” she tries justifying to Fania, asking her why everyone “resents” her so much.  Alma says that orchestra members throughout Germany and Austria are regularly slapped, and this should be no different, because they must “respect” her.  At the bottom of her toughness is her need to protect all of the women.  She tells Fania that as long as the Nazis are kept happy, they will all survive, so why shouldn’t she be tough?  “We can’t really wish to please them,” Fania says, but Alma argues against that.  “You have me wrong, Fania.  You think I fail to see…I refuse to see!” Alma continues.  By throwing herself into nothing but the music, she’s creating her own way of dealing with the truth around her.  She urges Fania to “create all the beauty you are capable of creating” and devote herself fully to her artistry in order to survive. 

Alma returns to the room with her own violin, going into a truly wondrous solo, tears coming to her eyes.  Certainly Fania recognizes how Alma’s music has become such a strong defense mechanism for her.  Of course, it’s quickly interrupted by Fraut Schmidt, who demands the Jews separate from the others.  Marianne gets herself and Fania exempted since they are only half Jewish as the others are trotted out for delousing.

Being half Jewish allows Fania and Marianne to remove half of their stars, which causes another argument in the barracks.  Fania, as always, roars the loudest.  She’s tired of the world being separated into groups and fed up with life.  Marianne retorts that “we’re also betraying the Catholics.  Our mothers were Catholic,” and then finds Fania resewing on the ripped half of her star. 

After being told 12,000 “angels” per day are being gassed, Fania finds Marianne again turning tricks and begs her to share, but Marianne refuses.  She remains alternately astonishingly unaware and yet extremely practical. 

The barracks are in turmoil because Mala has escaped with her boyfriend.  The orchestra members turn it into a romance fable and Elzvieta says, “let’s play something for them!”  They start a wedding march and everyone is briefly happy.  Just after, truckloads of non-Jewish Poles arrive, scaring the orchestra members, who can’t understand what the Nazis are doing.  Frau Mandel picks one child out of the lot and takes him away, much to the horror of the kid’s mother, who is ignored.  When Frau Mandel asks Alma why the girls are so upset, Alma says it’s because they all fear the Poles will be given their barracks.  Frau Mandel, giddy with delight over this kid, assures them no one from the barracks will be killed.  She leads the child around, cooing that she needs to take him to find new clothing.  “Work hard,” she chirps briskly as she leaves.  Once again, Giselle (Marcell Rosenblatt) is the voice of reason, but Alma insists they get back to rehearsing.  As they do, Frau Mandel is seeing playing with the child among burning clothing and the despair the camp grounds.  As if that’s not bad enough, Mala and her boyfriend have been caught and are publicly put to death while everyone watches.  The juxtapositions of all this so quickly is meant to be shocking, and it is.  One moment Frau Mandel is insisting they will be safe and the next she is nodding to have the chairs kicked out from under Mala and her boyfriend.  Hope and fear can barely be separated. 

During rehearsal one day, while Fania is playing the piano, it’s literally taken out from under her, newly taken to the officers quarters.  The Commandant also takes Greta (Grace Stover) from the orchestra to be a maid for his wife, and then places a whole host of other conditions on the women, who are being made to play for Dr. Mengele’s special patients, the insane, as an experiment on what music will do to them.  Frau Mandel makes the whole episode more uncomfortable by talking to Fania, who says they could use more food.  Apparently Alma has said extra rations “should be earned,” and though Fania agrees with her in front of everyone, Alma hauls her into her office to blast her again.  According to Alma, the girls don’t deserve it until they place a piece perfectly.  Again, the perfection of music is her best chance of survival, but of course she can’t make anyone else understand that.  Fania starts to cry, saying, “I’m merely trying to decide whether I wish to live.”  “Oh, come now Fania, no one dies if they can help it.  You must try to be more honest with yourself,” Alma cautions. 

A male cellist is brought over to train Etalina, who is reduced to schoolgirl giggles as he just leans the cello up against her.  Naturally, a moment of joy like that has to be trumped by more disaster.  Paulette (Verna Bloom) returns after her stint in the hospital to report that once the concert for Dr. Mengele’s patients is over, the patients are all being gassed.  Though Paulette is barely able to stand up, she insists on rehearsing, perhaps an actual convert to Alma’s way of thinking?

Etalina tells Fania that when they were playing outside, she saw her family coming in on a recent convoy (as the sounds of bullets and death pad the soundtrack).  “I wasn’t sure,” she says, breaking into hysterics.  “But what could you do?” Fania says, embracing her.  It’s a very stark moment.  There has been so much discussion over whether or not Fraul Mandel is human, but how has the humanity of these women changed?  “I have no answers anymore.  I’m living from minute to minute,” Fania tells Paulette, who asks her if she should have told the other patients about the immiment gassing.  Her transforming is becoming quite clear. 

As bombs clamor, hope rises that the war is ending.  Fania goes off to be alone and Elzvieta follows her.  “Everyone tries to tell you their troubles, don’t they?  You’re someone to trust, Fania.  Maybe it’s because you have no ideologies, just satisfied to be a prisoner.  One senses so much feeling in you,” Elzvieta notes, but in a praising demeanor.  It’s a short speech, but a very interesting one.  “I’m dying by inches and very well I know it,” Fania responds, proof that she hasn’t completely lost her self.  Elzvieta cries about her lost life.  “I only want one Jewish woman to understand,” she weeps, trying to equate her situation with theirs.  The truth is that they are all being handled so miserably, Jew or not.  Elzvieta begs for forgiveness, but Fania doesn’t know why she seeks it.  She’s done nothing to anyone personally.  “It’s meaningless.  I’m afraid nothing you can do will ever change that,” Fania says.  Okay, so maybe she has lost her self.  This is a powerful scene, well done by both actresses, who are so utterly confused by the situation that they don’t know whether life or death is the better option. 

Alma beams with delight in telling Fania, “I am going to be released!”  Apparently the Germans want her to tour for the troops.  Fania notes that she’ll be playing for the people who are keeping them prisoner, but Alma sees it merely as “playing for honorable men,” soldiers, not Nazis.  “Not all Germans are Nazis.  You’re nothing but a racist if you think so,” Alma says.  “The only Jew to play for the German army!  My head will explode,” Fania says at the lunacy of the whole situation, just as Frau Schmidt enters to offer her congratulations and to invite Alma to a farewell dinner.  There’s something very desperate about her offer, and Alma is flabbergasted, and Fania of course sees it.  Alma castigates her for being so negative and Fania can’t make her see the other side.  “You’re totally wrong about practically everything, but I must say, you probably saved us all, so I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Fania says to Alma.  “You can thank my refusal to despair,” she replies. 

The ladies are brought into their rehearsal room, given flowers and made to stand around a casket draped with a Nazi flag.  Dr. Mengele is there and so is Frau Mandel, with the baby.  They pull Fania oer to see the corpse, which of course belongs to Alma.  All of the women are made to file by and leave flowers on her body.  Dr. Mengele even kisses her violin and places it in the box with her.  It should be no surprise that Alma is dead, especially after a speech celebrating her ability to leave the concentration camp.

Fania tears off to find out what happened and Alma was poisoned at dinner.  They were never going to let her out!  Fania returns to the room to find Olga (Christine Baranski) conducting, and very badly.  She tries to grab the wand from Olga and a big battle ensues.  As Olga yowls “they want an Aryan to conduct,” Fania screams that Alma left it to her to conduct.  When I say battle, I mean battle, with hair-pulling, punching and the rest.  A plane swoops over the camp and Olga and her fellow non-Jews try to make the music continue while the Jews race to the window to watch.  Unfortunately, the plane upon which the latter built their hopes is shot down.  Quick freedom is not coming. 

They have a more pressing enemy.  Marianne returns one night with a fur stole, having gotten it “from the executioner,” the others rail.  “He killed Mala and others,” they say, but she cuts them off, asking “whose side do you think you are on?  Because if anybody is not sure, you are on the side of the executioners.  You go out.  You ask any prisoner in this camp.  They’ll be happy to tell you!”  Giselle wants Fania to argue this position, but Fania thinks Marianne is right.  Though she admits that nothing is their fault and that they are innocent, “we’ve changed.  We’ve learned a little something about the human ways…and it’s not good news.”  Fania sticks to her idea that even the Nazis are human, though Giselle doesn’t want herself equated with them.  The discussion is put on hold when Dr. Mengele arrives, and Olga offers to play for him.  Fania assures Dr. Mengele, who is petrified into silence by the sounds of the planes bombing around them, that the orchestra will do “our utmost” to honor the memory of Alma and play for him as planned.  It satisfies him enough and the girls agree, although Giselle tells her she hopes Fania will never have to beg again.  Alma’s idea about the music saving them is proving true.

Frau Mandel is the next visitor, asking for “Madame Butterly” by Fania and Marianne as the clutches the hat of her beloved little adopted boy.  “The greatness of a people has always depended on the sacrifices they are willing to make,” Frau Mandel tells Fania, saying she gave the boy “back.”  There’s a sacrifice: send the boy back to an almost certain death from his plush existence with her.  Skewed as it may be, it underlies the point Fania has been making over and over, that they are all humans.  Maybe good, maybe bad, but human, having feelings on some level.  I won’t deny it’s somewhat cheesy to have given Frau Mandel such an obvious little plot turn to show her humanity, but one can’t help but see that all-important point. 

As the Allies approach, the VIPs hustle to leave the camp, with Frau Mandel literally shooting a woman to get a spot on a departing truck.  Olga insists they rehearse, but the rest refuse.  “She finally gets an orchestra and the war has to end,” Etalina quips as Olga despairs over not being able to lead. 

It turns out Frau Mandel did not make it on a truck and she’s out of her mind the next morning.  “I seem to have lost it, the little hat,” she tears around weeping (referring to the adopted boy’s hat).  Elzvieta and Fania are pried apart, with Fania giving the other money because she says, “I’m not sure I want to live.”  Marianne is still on the make, trying to seduce the soldiers dragging them from the camp.  She even beats Fania with a piece of wood to stay in good with the soldiers, but the soldiers drop the girls as soon as they can, since the Russians are due any minute.  The camp survivors stuff themselves into a building of misery.  Some are dying, some are even giving birth.  Fania wants to give up, but the ladies won’t let her!  Prayers start up as everyone realizes the Germans are done and the Russians are there to save them. 

The Germans, Marianne with them, are put onto trucks and then pelted with rocks furiously by the survivors.  Fania, weak and ready to die, is carried to safety and then asked for a statement.  Given a recording device, she sings into it, in French, a song of victory and survival.  Music is the way to escape.

The movie itself, Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Alexander all won Emmy Awards.  It would be tough to deny how much the deserve it.  Vanessa’s performance as a woman with dwindling confidence in the face of utter confusion is one of her strongest, but I actually think the best performance is Jane’s.  It’s unflinching and unlikeable, but utterly real.  Never maudlin, never corny, always toeing the line exactly, it’s ideal.  They are all terrific, even Shirley Knight is as a Nazi! 

In less than three hours, “Playing for Time” manages to portray the entire Holocaust with a more intimate passion than its bigger and brassier World War II miniseries cousins.  It also dares to ask some very pointed questions and demands the viewer think about them.  In 1980, that was still possible.  In another ten years, forget it.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

Leave a Comment or Question