A harp­si­chordist who sur­vived the Holo­caust is get­ting her due from lo­cal film­mak­ers.

Zuzana Ruz­ick­ova, a 90-year-old Czech harp­si­chordist, gets some long-de­served grace notes from lo­cal film­mak­ers

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ANNE MIDGETTE anne.midgette@wash­post.com

She’s a mu­si­cal pi­o­neer, a grande dame of her coun­try’s mu­sic scene, the first per­son in the world to record the com­plete harp­si­chord mu­sic of Bach. As a teenager, she sur­vived both Auschwitz and Ber­gen-Belsen, where she con­tracted bubonic plague. As an adult, she lived through the height of the Cold War in a com­mu­nist coun­try, un­der sus­pi­cion as a Jew who wasn’t a party mem­ber. Zuzana Ruz­ick­ova, the Czech harp­si­chord player, is 90 years old. Her story sounds like a movie. Now, it is one.

“Zuzana: Mu­sic Is Life” is hav­ing its Wash­ing­ton pre­miere Sun­day at the Wash­ing­ton Jewish Film Fes­ti­val, with an ad­di­tional screen­ing Tues­day. It con­tains ex­ten­sive in­ter­view footage in which Ruz­ick­ova, in lilt­ing English, de­scribes her life mat­ter-of-factly, sit­ting at the ta­ble in her kitchen, which looks like a time cap­sule a few decades old. She is not un­emo­tional when de­scrib­ing, for in­stance, the death of her beloved cousin af­ter their re­union in Ber­gen-Belsen at the end of the war, but she is gen­er­ally com­posed, in coun­ter­point to the drama of her story.

“She has al­ways wel­comed the op­por­tu­nity to talk about her ex­pe­ri­ences to any­body who asked,” says Emily Vogl, who along with her hus­band, Frank, is one of the film’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers. “She thought it was her duty to in­form, as long as she could.”

In­ter­spersed through Ruz­ick­ova’s nar­ra­tive are snip­pets of mu­sic, some of which she plays her­self, on an old CD player held to­gether with tape.

With its mes­sage of per­se­ver­ance and ul­ti­mate tri­umph — a life lived well in mu­sic, through per­se­cu­tion to recog­ni­tion and, fi­nally, to po­lit­i­cal free­dom — the film is an in­ter­na­tional story. But it hap­pens to be, in a sense, a home­grown prod­uct. The Vogls live in Bethesda, as do Peter and Har­riet Gor­don Get­zels, the hus­band-and-wife team who di­rected the film.

And promi­nently fea­tured in the film, il­lus­trat­ing the harp­si­chord’s ap­peal to a new gen­er­a­tion, is the young harp­si­chordist Ma­han Es­fa­hani, a ris­ing star who, some years ago, de­cided that Ruz­ick­ova was the only mu­si­cian with whom he wanted to study, and whom he man­aged to talk into work­ing with him. Es­fa­hani also hap­pens to have grown up in Bethesda, where his fam­ily still lives.

It’s also a per­sonal story, in more ways than one. Frank Vogl is a cousin of Ruz­ick­ova’s, hav­ing met her as a child in Eng­land and hav­ing got­ten to know her, along with his wife, dur­ing the years he was a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent in Ger­many.

Ruz­ick­ova launched her ca­reer by win­ning the ARD com­pe­ti­tion in Mu­nich in 1956, a lit­tle more than a decade af­ter the camps (and the bubonic plague she con­tracted there) left her hands in such bad shape that her teacher, look­ing at them at their first post­war re­union, be­gan to cry. She con­tin­ued to con­cer­tize in Ger­many and other Euro­pean coun­tries, even though the com­mu­nist authorities looked at her askance. How­ever po­lit­i­cally sus­pect she may have been, they needed the for­eign cash her per­for­mances brought in. De­spite their “deep friend­ship,” Frank Vogl says, “I had no idea of what she had gone through, or was go­ing through un­der com­mu­nism.” It wasn’t un­til the 1990s, when an­other cousin con­ducted in­ter­views with Ruz­ick­ova, that Vogl read and learned the truth — and thought that there should be a movie.

Vogl was ac­tu­ally pitch­ing an­other film to the Get­zels, who are ac­claimed free­lance doc­u­men­tar­i­ans in a va­ri­ety of gen­res, when Zuzana’s story came up. On his way out the door, af­ter dis­cussing a film about cor­rup­tion that they hoped to work on to­gether, he men­tioned his cousin.

“Im­me­di­ately, Har­riet and I said, ‘We’ve got to make this film,’ ” Peter Get­zels says. “And we need to go right away. She was 87 at that point. Let’s find a way to get some funding and go do a set of in­ter­views. Let’s get her story in the can.”

It proved to be the first of sev­eral Prague trips, while the Vogls, who had al­ready es­tab­lished a small foun­da­tion to sup­port the work of Zuzana and her late hus­band, the ac­claimed Czech com­poser Vik­tor Kal­abis, learned on the fly how to be ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers. The film’s to­tal bud­get was about $500,000, and it might have been higher had Czech TV not stepped in as a col­lab­o­ra­tor, mak­ing avail­able an ex­ten­sive archive, in­clud­ing footage of Ruz­ick­ova play­ing in her hey­day.

The re­sult is a film that tells the story of 20th-cen­tury Czech his­tory and con­veys a sense of the harp­si­chord as a liv­ing in­stru­ment. The team’s goal was to fin­ish it by Zuzana’s 90th birth­day in Jan­uary, and that month they brought the nearly fin­ished film to Prague and screened it for her. Ruz­ick­ova’s health is said to be frag­ile, but the Get­zels de­scribe her as in­domitable.

“She has ail­ments,” Har­riet Get­zels says, “and then she has you over for tea, and af­ter an hour and a half, you’re kicked out the door be­cause some­one has come in with a 300-page mu­sic man­u­script they want her to look at. Then they’re kicked out be­cause a taxi is wait­ing to take her somewhere.”

Peter Get­zels de­scribes Ruz­ick­ova as “a force of na­ture” — al­beit with a tart edge. In the film, one of her stu­dents de­scribes the chal­lenge of play­ing for her. Dur­ing a les­son, if she wasn’t oc­cu­pied by the mu­sic, she would pull out an Agatha Christie mys­tery and be­gin read­ing.

“I couldn’t help but ask her, a year later, what it was with the Agatha Christie,” Har­riet Get­zels says. “She said, I think he got it wrong. I wasn’t read­ing Agatha Christie be­cause the stu­dent wasn’t play­ing well. But if he did play well, I’d put it down.”

In other words, Ruz­ick­ova was wait­ing to be as­ton­ished. Her story, which is un­der con­sid­er­a­tion for var­i­ous other fes­ti­vals, tele­vi­sion broad­casts and cin­e­matic dis­tri­bu­tion, is enough to make any­one put down a book, and lis­ten.

Zuzana: Mu­sic Is Life will be screened Sun­day and Tues­day as part of the Wash­ing­ton Jewish Film Fes­ti­val, which runs through May 28 at var­i­ous venues. For in­for­ma­tion, visit wjff.org.


Harp­si­chord player Zuzana Ruz­ick­ova is the sub­ject of “Zuzana: Mu­sic Is Life,” which has its pre­miere Sun­day at the Wash­ing­ton Jewish Film Fes­ti­val. The doc­u­men­tary was cre­ated by Bethesda-based film­mak­ers.

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