Never forget. These are the words that every Jew learns at a young age in our modern era. They signify a persistent vigilance and the vigorous act of remembrance. It is not enough to know that a thing happened, it must be remembered for it to be avoided in the future. This is the intent of these two simple words — never forget — which are carried in the bosom, placed there by a previously inconceivable horror. Even now, with markers appearing across the world bearing a similarity to the philosophies within the German Third Reich, remembering is more important than ever. Adapted from the 2001 Norman Lebrecht novel The Song of Names, director François Girard’s (The Red Violin) film tells a different kind of Holocaust survival story. Ordinarily these stories focus on the ones in the ghettos or camps, but Lebrecht’s tale is of a survivor and the weighted responsibility that surviving bears. It is, in the simplest terms, a beautiful, poignant expression of faith, family, and the persistence of a people.
Dovidl Rapoport (Luke Doyle) is a genius-level violinist in need of care and training, but whose Polish family cannot provide. Enter Gilbert Simmonds (Stanley Townsend), music lover and philanthropist, who offers to take in Dovidl, pay for his education, and ensure the continuation of his faith. At first, Gilbert’s son Martin (Misha Handley) is resistant to sharing his life with Dovidl. Through years of growing together, training together, and supporting one another, over time they become more than roommates, they become brothers. One night, Dovidl is set to perform in a concert funded by Gilbert, except Dovidl never shows and is never found. That is, until years later when adult Martin (Tim Roth) happens upon the first clue in over three decades, enabling him to try to unravel the mystery of Dovidl’s disappearance.
Having not read the original novel, this reviewer can’t speak to the differences in approach or focus. That said, the greatest strength coming from screenwriter Jeffery Caine’s (Goldeneye) work is its ability to instill within the audience a sense of longing akin to Martin’s quickly. We don’t know who any of these people are when the film begins, only that something or someone is lost without explanation and can only assume that pain is held in the present thanks to the editing of Michael Arcand (Tomorrow Never Dies) juxtaposing the younger against the older. As structured by Caine and led by an entrancing performance from Roth, the quest for answers consumes the audience, drawn in by the stories of the past so that the answers of the present carry equal weight for the audience and Martin. That’s an incredible feat and is worthy of praise by itself. Add in that Caine and Girard focus not just on the symbolism of faith, love, and loss, but on the human elements which get lost in wartime stories, and you have all the makings of superb drama.
Explaining the powerful nature of The Song of Names is difficult due to the inherently personal aspects of the story. This is not the first film to explore or examine the human condition during World War II, but its approach is singular in a variety of ways. For one, the tale jumps backward and forward in time. This is as much a means of maintaining mystery, as it is a tool for slowly building toward a climactic, emotionally-charged finale. Like another December release, Little Women, The Song of Names uses memory and remembrance as the catalyst for these jumps. Beginning with the moment in which Dovidl disappears, shown only from the perspective of the Simmonds and Martin’s girlfriend Helen (Marina Hambro), it then jumps to Martin as an adult, seemingly weighted by an uncertainty that’s haunted him for 35 years. As the story progresses, the audience begins to understand that it’s not just the unknowing that plagues Martin, but the inability to mourn properly. We cannot mourn a loss if we aren’t sure something’s been lost. This, of course, comes up in one of the flashbacks as something young Dovidl struggles with daily, as his faith won’t allow him to say Kaddish, a prayer of mourning to honor the deceased and affirm their relationship with Adonai, without confirmation of their death. He’s a child in London, his family simultaneously alive and dead somewhere in Poland. That’s a lot to bear for a child and Roth’s performance as adult Martin presents a similar weight which has held fast for decades.
Another way Names differentiates itself from other WW II stories is by opting to tell the story from the perspective of someone touched by war indirectly. It’s easy to forget that a war is happening — bombs dropping, bullets flying, people dying on all fronts violently and alone — when we’re not faced with it daily. As our main perspective, Martin (old and young) is the voice of someone unafraid and comfortable, someone who learns of the dangers of the world and begins to consider the complexity of wartime by seeing what it does to Dovidl, such as when an air raid in London forces the citizenry into shelters, but Dovidl pauses to observe the distant city mid-bombardment. Martin is terrified for his family and friend, yet Dovidl pauses to wonder if this is what his family saw. Then, inside, as everyone huddles in fear, Dovidl pulls out his violin, not playing for himself, but a mixture of reasons. On the surface, it’s to challenge rival violinist and fellow Pole Josef Weschler (Schwartz Zoltán) to see who’s most capable; but, underneath, it’s to help pull Josef out of his fear, to refocus, and pour their life-energy into the music. It’s a short sequence, yet life-affirming, as the shells become a distant memory and the music is all that remains. This last aspect is particularly important as the songs of the Jewish people are the first ways the stories and lessons of the culture were passed down from generation to generation. Music is what keeps the culture alive, even when its members are being slaughtered in camps or huddling for safety. So much of Names is done slowly, unfolding with each memory of the past or revelation of the present, that the significance of each choice, each conversation, each decision, each song reveals its emotionally shattering significance to surprising affect after being introduced with banality.
What is noticeably troublesome are tangential elements that suggest great meaning, and may possess them in the book, but fail to coalesce in the film in a meaningful way. As mentioned, the film explores the complexity of maintaining faith at a time when there appears to be no hope for humanity at all. This is present in a variety of ways within the film, from Dovidl’s acceptance of and separation from Judaism, the ethical questions surrounding war, and the ways we cope with loss, each serving as another piece in a vast emotional quilt wrapping around the story. However, the tangential elements, fragments of the original work, interrupt the strength of the finale. It’s not that the information is irrelevant, it’s that there’s no time to explore the significance of the disclosure. In one instance, the audience is presented with confirmation on a potential narrative suspicion. The confirmation in the final moments should be a bombshell, but it’s ignored. Similarly, the end of the film wraps up Martin and Dovidl’s story in a way that makes sense, yet fails to possess the emotional wallop the build-up so desperately wants the audience to feel. The novel, it seems, explores questions of faith as akin to fanaticism, but this is all but dropped in the film. Considering Girard and Caine’s approach of a more insular tale, this makes sense, but in trying to hew so closely to the novel, a weakness appears.
To the average movie-goer, The Song of Names is likely to feel like nearly every other World War II film they’ve seen, but to someone who’s part of the tribe, The Song of Names will feel like an amnesiac’s cure. There is a general malaise in society the world over, a society which seems content to blame their ills on a group of people far too used to being the scapegoat. Additionally, the further we go from 1945, the fewer living members of that period exist and, so with them will go their stories and remembrances of when the world came together to fight an evil previously unseen or heard of. With those lost stories come the warnings of ills growing more visible today. Though the interpersonal presentation within The Song of Names doesn’t end with the impact it may try to emulate from the novel, the rest of the film is an absolute wonder in how it simultaneously presents pain honestly while equally suggests a balm for it. Part of it is in the music crafted by composer Howard Shore (The Silence of the Lambs), played beautifully by actual violin virtuoso Luke Doyle and replicated by his older counterparts throughout the film, conveying the sorrow of lives lost and the comfort that the song will outlive them all and, in that, so shall they continue to live in our memories. The other part is in the act of the Kaddish, of which the film is in its totality. Though the names presented are few and their basis in reality trivial, the film is a tribute to the lives lost in the 1943 Warshaw Ghetto Uprising, the concentration camps, in Treblinka, and everywhere else the corporeal form was shunted off due to someone’s hate. Never forget.
In select theaters beginning December 25th, 2019.
In Charlotte, NC theaters beginning January 24th, 2020.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.