Crescendo, directed by Dror Zahavi, is a new feature film about young adult classical musicians – Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs – who are brought together to form an orchestra which will play a peace concert. There is a nice message – music can connect us across the divide. But it is not necessarily a feel-good film. There are difficult issues which are exposed. This is not an Israeli film per se. It is a German production, directed by an Israeli filmmaker, shot partially in Israel and Palestine, and mostly in the beautiful Austrian Alps.
The film begins as predictable and sentimental, with the young musicians having trouble communicating, since they are all suffering from preconceived notions about the “other.” After they undergo group dynamics exercises to get them to function together as a group, things begin to improve. At the same time, things become more complicated.
The story focuses on a few of the musicians and their issues. And there is the do-gooder from an international non-profit organization who is running the whole program. As the musicians share their stories, the German world-renowned conductor feels compelled to share something from his own dark past – his growing up knowing that his parents had both been doctors during the Nazi period who assisted in the mass murder of thousands of Jews at Buchenwald. We meet Ron, a promising Tel Aviv violinist, who is shockingly angry at the Palestinians whom he sees as terrorists. And we meet Leyla, a violinist, whose mother is against her participating in the international concert because the family will be considered collaborators since she is playing music with Israelis. In addition, we get to know Omar, a clarinetist from Qalqilya, who is offered a scholarship to study music in Frankfurt. He is also involved in a “forbidden love” affair with Shira, Jewish Israeli French horn player.
The story of the film is reminiscent of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Daniel Barenboim, that was comprised of musicians from Israel and from Arab countries. I heard this orchestra play at Carnegie Hall in New York City two years ago, and it was an uplifting experience. The audience applauded over and over again for the orchestra, both for their excellent renditions of classical music and for the very idea that they could play together.
Although the film purports to be evenhanded in expressing the “narrative” of both the Palestinians and the Israelis, it is heavily critical of Israel and the occupation of the West Bank. We see the difficulties and humiliations that the Palestinian musicians have to face at the checkpoints in order to arrive at the auditions which are being held in Tel Aviv. And we witness racial and nationalistic profiling against Palestinians who are seen as terrorists by the young Jews in the orchestra.
Without offering a spoiler, I will permit myself to say that the filmmaker is commenting on the fact that Jews and Germans have succeeded in building a bridge and living together in this post-Holocaust era. Does this imply that Israelis and Palestinians could also reach some sort of understanding, even after all the terrible atrocities which have been perpetrated by both sides against each other?