A Catholic requiem in a concentration camp might sound like a problematic endeavor. So it was, but not necessarily for the reasons one might assume. It was actually the programming choice of a group of prisoners, led by a remarkable maestro. The story of the Terezin performances of Verdi’s Requiem and the subsequent on-site re-staging for survivors decades later are documented in Doug Shultz’s Defiant Requiem (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2012 DocuWeeks in New York and Los Angeles.
Verdi’s Requiem is a draining chorale work, in many ways. It would not seem like a natural piece of music to unwind with after a hard day of labor—slave labor to be more accurate. However, these were far from normal times for the Terezin (a.k.a. Theresienstadt) concentration camp captives. These Czech citizens had been swept up by the conquering National Socialists and held at Terezin until they were deported to a death camp. Nonetheless, many died at Terezin due to the inhuman conditions, but a determined young conductor harnessed the power of music to keep their spirits up.
Gathering those interested around an old upright providentially discovered in the basement of his barracks, Rafael Schächter started his make-shift chorus off with Czech popular songs and Smetana operas, but he eventually coaxed them into the Requiem. The key might have been his translation of Verdi’s Latin into Czech. As Murry Sidlin, the conductor of the commemorative Requiem concerts observes, the Requiem’s lyrics hold tremendous meaning for anyone unjustly denied their liberty and dignity. Rife with prophesies of judgment from above, Verdi’s opus is not just a requiem. It became a J’Accuse—an indictment of the National Socialist crimes so bold, only the International Red Cross inspectors could miss its significance.
Yes, the Requiem was performed at that Terezin, the concentration camp temporarily remodeled into a Potemkin village to fool the Red Cross. It was there that Sidlin brought members of Catholic University of America chorale ensemble and a full orchestra, for an emotional performance.
In fact, mounting Verdi’s Requiem and telling the story of Schächter has become a mission for Sidlin, who serves as the film’s musical director and one of its primary commentators. It is an important story, but the film also fosters a greater appreciation for Verdi’s work. Wisely, Shultz takes a rather traditional documentarian approach, largely approximating the shape of Sidlin’s music-with-historical-context concert presentations of the Requiem, filling in here and there with tastefully recreated scenes in the rehearsal cellar and some animated sequences adapted from surviving Terezin drawings. This is hardly the place to get experimental, after all.