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Toronto Jewish Film Festival Review: The Rhapsody

June 15, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2022 Toronto Jewish Film Festival runs from June 9th to 26th, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Filmmaker David Hoffert’s years-in-the-making documentary The Rhapsody recounts the life story of Leo Spellman (born Leon Szpilman), a Polish-Canadian Holocaust survivor and composer who finally gained recognition in his late-nineties with the recording of Rhapsody: 1939-1945, a soaring piece of music that he wrote in a German displaced persons camp in 1947.

Spellman brought the sheet music with him as he emigrated to Canada in the subsequent years and set up a new life in Toronto, including raising a family and becoming a band leader, all while trying to put his past behind him. The music remained hidden in a suitcase in his garage for five decades until the late 1990s when Spellman was approached by the Holocaust Museum in Washington, who came into contact with him through his first cousin Władysław Szpilman (whose own life story became the inspiration for the Oscar-winning 2002 movie The Pianist).

The museum was seeking music for a conference of survivors and their families, and the composition was performed publicly for the first time in Washington in 2000. The film mainly follows Leo and his family as they work with Canadian musician Paul Hoffert (the filmmaker’s father) to record a CD of Rhapsody: 1939-1945, building up to a live performance as part of Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival at Harbourfront Centre in 2012, that Leo attended before his death a few months later.

The film also encompasses his family’s posthumous discovery of the diary that he kept, offering a historically significant document of his harrowing near-death experiences during the war and how he managed to survive, including a tense story about hiding behind the wall in an apartment with Nazi soldiers in the other room. These diary entries become integral to fleshing out Leo’s story in the film, and are brought to life through a mix of shadowy reenactments and animated sequences that are narrated by Stephen Fry, reading aloud from the pages.

A documentary project that has kept expanding in length over many years (starting with the Vision TV special Leo Spellman’s Rhapsody: In Concert featuring footage from the Toronto performance), and has finally been completed now, Hoffert’s film feels a bit scrappy in its construction at times. Some of the recreations occasionally veer into overwrought territory, and can be a distraction from a story that is already compelling enough on its own.

But at its heart is an emotional story about survival, and the remarkable piece of music that Spellman left behind to help tell his story. Some of the film’s most poignant moments come at the end when his family returns to visit Ostrowiec, the Polish town where Spellman evaded capture by the Nazis, bringing the generational impact of the Holocaust full circle.

Screenings:

Wednesday, June 15th – 7:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

The film is also available to stream virtually from June 16th to June 26th across Ontario.

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