ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
As the first Gulf War was ending in 1991, Norman Lebrecht, a British commentator on classical music, was about to fly from Liverpool to Los Angeles. “There was a war on another continent, and it gave me an overwhelming sense of fragility,” he says. “I had an idea about lives being unsettled by larger historic events. And the particular idea I had was: What if a man is so close to another person that they have an almost symbiotic connection—and that person suddenly disappears? How do you continue your life with only half a functioning self? You can lose a part of yourself and spend your whole life looking for it.” As he continued to think about this idea over the coming years, it developed into his first novel, The Song of Names. The two halves of one soul that Lebrecht created in the novel were Martin, son of a modest music publisher, Gilbert Simmonds, and a Polish Jewish violin prodigy, Dovidl Rapoport, that Martin’s father invites to live in their home. “The day before Dovidl came along, if you asked Martin what he was, he would have said ‘ordinary,’” says Lebrecht. “When Dovidl arrives, Martin’s ordinariness ceases. When Dovidl disappears, Martin suffers two losses: the loss of his father, which he blames on Dovidl, and the loss of whatever lit Martin up from the inside and made him feel not ordinary. All this lives within Martin as slow-burning anger, the hope against hope that something will be resolved and that when it’s resolved, there will be rage.”
For Lebrecht, The Song of Names is about coping with loss. “It’s something that happens to all of us in our lives,” he says. “Do we then allow loss to paralyze us? Do we allow loss to leave us living half lives or half-hearted lives? Or are we able to, in some way or another, adjust to loss, and find a way to overcome that thing, however terrible it is?”
As THE SONG OF NAMES is set within the world of music and musicians, producer Robert Lantos saw François Girard (THE RED VIOLIN, THIRTY TWO SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD) as an ideal director. “This film lives or dies on the emotional impact of its music,” says Lantos. “I thought it wouldn’t be enough to have a terrific film director who just left the music to the composer. It had to be someone who is as familiar with the language of classical music as he is with the language of cinema, so he could work with a composer from a place of knowledge and conviction. And that led me to François. He directs opera, theatre, and Cirque du Soleil shows. I doubt there are many other filmmakers in the world who are as comfortable and familiar with classical music as he is.”
Despite his passion for music, Girard didn’t want the film’s emphasis to be on music and the artistic temperament, as he felt it had been in Lebrecht’s novel: “Music is a very important vehicle in tackling this story, but to me this is not a film about music,” he says. “This is an intimate story of two brothers, in which the undercurrents of the Holocaust and the memory of those that disappeared, gradually emerges. I made sure at all times that the music was always serving that, and never the reverse.”
Six actors play the principal roles of Martin and Dovidl, in different stages of their lives: as boys, adolescents, and middle-aged adults (Tim Roth and Clive Owen). “We’re following characters from 9 to 55, which turns out to be my age and pretty much Clive and Tim’s age,” says Girard. “The first period in the script goes from age 9 to about 21. You can't have the same actor play 9 and 21. You need a child and then a young man. And then, when you connect with the characters 35 years later, you need yet another pair of actors.” Finding the right mix was a big challenge for Girard and casting directors Kirsty Kinnear, Susie Figgis, and Pam Dixon. “If you have Tim Roth and Clive Owen, you have to find the middle Tim and Clive and then the young ones,” says Girard. “Whenever we moved a piece, the whole puzzle would shift. It took us more than a year to make sure we were making the right casting choices.” The casting of these roles was pivotal, because the impact of Martin’s quest to find Dovidl rests on the depth of the relationship forged between the boys in their early years as evoked in the film. “I did everything possible to invest in that relationship with love,” says Girard. “Love would be the key word. That way, the disappearance of Dovidl would be that much more charged.”
Luke Doyle, who plays Dovidl from age 9 to 13, is a violin prodigy himself, but unlike the other members of the cast, he was cast for his experience as a virtuoso violinist, and had no prior experience as an actor. “If a young person is already in touch with his emotions performing music, you can expect that he will be able to express his emotions with acting,” says Girard. The director eventually found a musical process for communicating with Doyle, which sometimes meant literally conducting him: “I’d give him a tempo, give him a flow, much like a conductor does with musicians, using my body and my arms to keep the rhythms of the text flowing through a scene. And Luke, being the brilliant young artist he is, reacted to that really well.”
Luke Doyle found young Dovidl to be a fascinating character to play. “There are not too many people out there who are like Dovidl,” he says. “He never does anything boring, and that always makes him the center of attention. His arrogance and confidence is quite gravitational. At the same time he can sometimes be quite selfish, and doesn’t really care about others.” Doyle also perceives hidden vulnerability in Dovidl: “In the first few scenes, it feels as if Martin is the one who can’t control his emotions, but as the story progresses and the two get to know each other, the tables turn and you begin to realize that it’s actually Dovidl who can’t control his emotions, and for good reason.”
Misha Handley plays young Martin, who at first sees Dovidl as an unwanted invader in his house. “When Dovidl comes into his room and they are alone for the first time, Martin tries to establish dominance, but Dovidl just naturally takes up the space,” says Handley. “He is clearly better than Martin at most things. The two despise each other after that first contact, especially on Martin’s side, but after certain events, the bond forms, and they become incredibly close, like blood brothers.” Handley recognized that underneath Martin’s exterior, there are more complicated feelings brewing. “You take another look and you realize there is this darkness in the background. Martin loves Dovidl, but at the same time there’s this hatred, there’s this jealousy.”
When we meet Dovidl at 17, as Jonah Hauer-King begins to play him, he has lived in the UK for quite a few years and he’s assimilating with his surroundings and his new family. “He has begun the journey, consciously or subconsciously, away from his Polish-Jewish identity,” says Hauer-King. “ It’s a time of great change because a lot of his identity was connected to his parents and to his family and the mystery surrounding what happened to them.” By this point in the story a very specific dynamic has been formed in Dovidl and Martin’s relationship. “Dovidl is talented, flamboyant, precocious, self-centered, and ambitious, and Martin is the one who tries to keep him grounded and act as a rock. They are both playing roles within that brotherhood. Dovidl doesn’t articulate it much, but I think he has a huge love and respect for Martin for putting up with him, as he can be quite difficult to be around.”
Gerran Howell, who takes over the role of Martin at 17, believes Martin is content to play his deferential role. Dovidl is the genius and Martin is the admirer,” says Howell. “Martin sees himself as quite a boring person with not much of an outlook or freedom in his life. When Dovidl came along, he turned everything on its head. He was everything Martin wanted to be. They kind of fill each other’s things that they’re missing. But when Dovidl disappears, Martin is left to pick up the pieces and wonder what he’s meant to do next.”
At the point we first encounter the adult Martin (Tim Roth), he is coasting through an essentially dull and passionless life. “Martin is living in a crumbling house with his wife, with not much money in the bank,” says Roth. “His foster brother Dovidl, who was his best friend, vanished on him 35 years before. All of that comes tumbling back when he catches wind that Dovidl might still be around. That charges up his life again, and he goes looking for him.” From that moment on, Martin’s quest to find Dovidl becomes the force driving the film’s narrative. “When Martin sees the first clue, his passion is awakened,” says Girard. “It transforms him from a state of drifting around to being driven by a mission.”
In the novel, both Dovidl and Martin’s families are Jewish, but Roth suggested that Martin not be Jewish. “For people on the outside, it’s a hidden world,” says Roth. “If Martin is Jewish, he would already know where to look, in a sense. So I think it gives me more to explore.” Screenwriter Jeffrey Caine liked Roth’s idea. “It adds another strand to the film,” says Caine. “It gives Martin another cause for resentment. Not only is this kid now his father's golden boy, they also have to live a kosher life.”
During the decades since the two men had last seen each other, Dovidl has changed drastically from the young man Martin once knew. “There is a huge gap in the story,” says Clive Owen, who plays the adult version of Dovidl. “There is a world, a life that’s happened that we don’t see, that we never see because his life has changed so dramatically. Their coming together is hugely important because Martin has spent his entire life wondering why this guy just disappeared without a word when they were very close and had done so much together. Dovidl made a decision 35 years ago to create a new life and now he has to face up to the past.”
Catherine McCormack portrays Martin’s wife Helen. “Helen is very much in love with Martin, as he is with her,” says McCormack. “But Martin’s obsession with understanding and finding out where his friend went has taken over his life. He really needs to find the answers and for Helen that’s very difficult because she has a secret herself in relation to Dovidl. But, beyond that, it’s causing problems in their marriage because she feels like there’s a third person, a presence that is not physically there, but is always a part of their everyday language. And she’s tired of it. She feels she’s in a marriage with three people.”
Martin’s quest for Dovidl begins when, while judging a competition, he recognizes a unique stylistic flourish used by a young violinist, Peter Stemp (Max Macmillan), that could only have been taught to the boy by Dovidl. While the novel could reveal in words what Martin was thinking, screenwriter Jeffrey Caine did not feel there was a way to convey this vital piece of information to a film audience. Instead, Caine invented a physical action: Stemp slowly applies rosin to his bow (something no concert violinist would do on stage) and delicately kisses the block of rosin. As we eventually learn, the cake of rosin had a profound meaning for Dovidl, as it was a parting gift from his father, the last time he saw him. While it’s unstated in the film, this reverent gesture is something Dovidl would have constantly witnessed growing up in an Orthodox home, where holy objects like the siddur (prayer book), mezuzah on doorpost, tallis (prayer shawl), are traditionally kissed as a symbol of loyalty to Judaism and God. This simple gesture with the rosin ties Dovidl simultaneously to his father, family, and Jewish identity.
Years after Dovidl’s disappearance, young Peter Stemp takes Martin to meet Billy (Richard Bremmer), the street violinist from whom he picked up Dovidl’s gesture. Billy tells Martin that Dovidl told him in 1951 that he was going home to “play for the ashes.” These words mean nothing to Billy, but are enough to convince Martin that Dovidl left London for Poland. Martin flies to Warsaw and seeks out Weschler, a once-dashing virtuoso violinist whom Martin and Dovidl had known when they were young. Martin finds the now decrepit Weschler, listless and unresponsive, in a lunatic asylum. While Martin is unable to get Weschler to remember him, a nurse informs Martin that Weschler is visited once a year by a woman.
Martin tracks down the woman, Anna Wozniak (Magdalena Cielecka), who was Dovidl’s lover during his brief stay in Poland. Anna tells Martin that Dovidl twice played a special song on his violin, which he never allowed her to hear: once for Weschler in the asylum, and another time on the field where the Treblinka Death Camp once stood. Dovidl referred to his Treblinka performance as “playing for the ashes.” Anna takes Martin to Treblinka, where there is now a memorial garden, filled with hundreds of stone slabs. Afterwards, Anna tells Martin where Dovidl went after he left Poland.
THE SONG OF NAMES was the first feature film to receive permission to shoot on the Treblinka memorial. Eight hundred thousand or more people were killed on that site in a period of nine months. “I’ve spent my adult life avoiding going to extermination camps,” says Lantos, the son of Holocaust survivors. “I don’t think most people would want to go to hell on earth. I didn’t want to and I never would have if I weren’t making this film, but the alternative would have been to build it somewhere in a field, and I really didn’t want to do that. I thought it was essential that we film there.”
At the center of Treblinka is a large irregular shaped rock, engraved with two words, in several languages: “Never Again.” Says Lantos: “For me, those two words encapsulate the most important reason a film like this needs to be made.” Everyone involved in the film shared this conviction. “One problem in society now is the general amnesia,” says Girard. “Fifty percent of people under thirty don’t even know what the word Holocaust means, and those who do know what the word means, you can be certain wouldn’t be able to explain much. So it’s definitely a mission for this film to keep that memory alive, to keep those events meaningful and resonant.” Screenwriter Caine, whose parents died in the Holocaust, says: “I deplore genocide wherever it occurs and to whomever it occurs. I’m with the Armenians, the Tutsis, the people Pol Pot murdered in Cambodia, and whoever might be genetically or racially cleansed tomorrow. Whatever words people use to describe it, this is a process that’s ongoing in the human mind, and this film isn’t going to eradicate it. But the more aware we all are of that thing in human beings that makes them act like this, the better. We have to know about it in order to recognize what the dangers are for the human race.”
Before shooting, François Girard visited the Treblinka Memorial, along with actress Magdalena Cielecka and production designer François Seguin. “It was a very emotional experience,” says Girard. “We entered and for two hours we didn’t say a single word. There was nothing to say.” The experience affected Girard deeply and caused him to make an important change in the scene.
“In the script the characters were talking as they walked there, and this no longer seemed right. I went back and worked with Jeffrey Caine so that Martin and Anna would remain silent.”
The core of the film’s story is the titular “Song of Names,” a recitation of the names of all who perished at Treblinka, set to music. It is through this song, chanted in a London synagogue by an Orthodox Rebbe (Daniel Mutlu), that Dovidl finally hears what befell his family at Treblinka. It’s significant that the names are not simply recited, but are sung like a prayer. “Music is a language, and it is probably the most powerful of all languages because it goes across borders with no need for translations,” says Girard. “It talks to the heart with no intermediaries, and it says things that words can’t say, because it’s a place where we meet and that no other medium can provide.” Soon after learning the fate of his family through “The Song of Names,” Dovidl, who had once renounced his religion, goes to the opposite extreme and dedicates his life to Orthodox Judaism. He also pledges to write a violin version of “The Song of Names.”
The practice of remembrance through sung prayers is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition back to ancient times. The specific idea of “The Song of Names” on which the film is based was conceived by author Norman Lebrecht. “The Song of Names” and the violin theme heard in the movie is an original work by composer Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) based on traditional modes. Drawing on his own experience from growing up in the synagogue, Shore spent two years studying the cantorial tradition using early recorded audio but particularly recordings from the 1950s, when the song is first heard in the film. Shore received particular guidance in recapturing the Jewish liturgical tradition by famed conductor/educator Judith Clurman and Bruce Ruben, who is Cantor of the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. Girard maintains that Shore’s contribution went beyond music. “Howard was a contributor to the script, because there are a lot of ideas that I developed and discussed with him, which were ultimately implemented into the script,” says Girard. “For instance, the final concert, where you have a converging of Dovidl’s three performances of ‘The Song of Names’—with Weschler, at Treblinka, and on stage—as well as first hearing the Rebbe sing it, that was something I brought to the script and Howard embraced.”
By the time that Dovidl plays “The Song of Names” at the end, he has long shed the idea of performing for fame and fortune. “By that moment, it’s not so much about Dovidl demonstrating virtuosity, it’s more of a spiritual evocation,” says Girard. “His music has become a vehicle of something bigger. There’s no fame, no money, no individuality, no ego involved. It’s all about honoring the memory of those who had disappeared.” All the same, Dovidl’s great gifts have not left him. “‘The Song of Names’ is a virtuoso piece,” says Shore, “to be played by a master musician.”
All the violin parts in the performance of “The Song of Names,” as well as young Dovidl’s virtuoso performances of such pieces as Henryk Wieniawski’s “Variations on an Original Theme, Opus 15” (audition) and Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice #9 and #24 (with Jozef in the bomb shelter) are performed by internationally acclaimed violinist Ray Chen. “Ray worked very closely with me,” says Shore. “He delved into ‘The Song of Names’ with his heart and soul and created something that was really timeless.” Daniel Mutlu, Senior Cantor at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, sang the part of the Rebbe live on camera. “That scene could only be recorded live on set says Shore. Daniel had to perform it and feel the pain.” Shore’s soundtrack for the film weaves melodic elements of “The Song of Names” from the film’s opening minutes until the song’s reprise in the end credits. “I try to create a complete work when I write for a film,” he says.
Unlike Luke Doyle, Clive Owen and Jonah Hauer-King had no prior training with the violin, and had to go through extensive training with British violinist Oliver Nelson to make them appear convincingly like violin masters. “We put hours and hours and hours of work in,” says Owen. “It was tough work because I was trying to do something that somebody would spend thirty years honing and getting as good as it should be. And I just had a couple of months. But François promised me that whatever happened he would make me look brilliant on the violin. So I trusted him and I put as much work in as I possibly could and then with great help from Ollie, he seemed to be happy.” Hauer-King says that the particular training he received was project specific. “I’m very good at playing one song, and nothing else,” he says. “But it was a really great challenge and I enjoyed it.”
Principal photography for THE SONG OF NAMES took place over nine weeks in late 2018, starting with five days in London, followed by seven weeks of location and studio work in Budapest, Hungary, and a final week of location work in Montreal. Budapest can pass for many cities, but it has very distinctive Austro-Hungarian architecture that needed to be adapted by the Production Designer François Seguin (BROOKLYN) and his team to stand in for English locations. There were several occasions where quite substantial set builds were also required, notably the sand-bagged entrance to a World War II air raid shelter. The concert hall used for both the 1951 and 1986 scenes was the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, an Art Nouveau concert hall in Budapest located within Hungary’s most prestigious music school.
Although THE SONG OF NAMES is profoundly connected to the memory of those who perished during the Holocaust, there is actually very little direct portrayal of those events. “One reason I agreed to direct this film is that it deals with the Holocaust without looking at it straight in the eye,” says Girard. “I don’t think I could have done that. Watching THE SONG OF NAMES is like taking a walk on a volcano that is apparently quiet with its gardens and paths, but deep under there’s red lava that’s burning. We’re looking at the Holocaust from the small end of the telescope, at characters who suffered the consequences of it, and through their eyes and through their lives, we evoke the tragedy.”
The story of THE SONG OF NAMES illustrates how the brutal forces of war and genocide can leave indelible marks on those who manage to survive those scourges. Still, while the story passes through unimaginable darkness, it doesn’t end on a note of utter hopelessness. “There is a message in this story, that the things we lose, we don’t always lose,” says Lebrecht. “Things that we think are lost forever are deeply embedded inside us, and if we have the tenacity to go and look for them, we can start to understand loss as not total. We are able to build on what is left behind and move on.”