Karol Rathaus leaves behind his native Ternopil for Vienna and Berlin to become one of the leading voices of new generation of classical composers in Weimar Republic. The rise of the Nazis forces him to go to exile and to rebuild his cultural identity. Being stripped of his Austrian-Germanic identity, Rathaus is vacillating between his Jewish roots and the nostalgia for the Poland of his youth as he fights for his creative survival – the fight he eventually loses.
The documentary film “Discovering Karol Rathaus” follows the life of composer Karol Rathaus, who goes from being one of the most promising composers of his generation, at the forefront of new developments in concert, film and theater music in Weimar Berlin, to an obscure composition professor at a small urban college in New York City forgotten soon after his death. The main theme of the film is the human story of a supremely talented creative person reacting to suddenly changing life circumstances. This is a story of a brilliant and ambitious Polish speaking Galician Jew raising to the heights of fame in Weimar Berlin who suddenly becomes a hapless refugee trying to find footing in the new and fast changing world. The film will show how all aspects of his personality – his musical talent, his Jewishness, his Polish background and Viennese training become intertwined and affect the choices he makes.
What makes the personality of Karol Rathaus especially interesting is that through all the dislocations and perturbations, heartaches and disappointments, he always remained true to his moral and aesthetic principles. He never tried to fit in with the crowd. He never took part in whatever fad had taken hold in Berlin or elsewhere at any given time. The story of his fight for artistic survival, and his eventual failure, is the story of the artist trying to reinvent his identity while its different layers were being stripped away by the storms of history. We tell this story through the eyes of Sergei, an alumnus of Aaron Copland School of Music, which Rathaus helped to create. Bewildered by the fact that a composer of Rathaus caliber is so thoroughly forgotten even in the school he helped establish, Sergei takes it upon himself to dig into the personal and historical circumstances of Rathaus’ disappearance from world’s cultural conscience and to bring his name and music out of oblivion.
Film’s protagonist Sergei before interviewing June Rathaus (Karol’s daughter-in-law)
The film begins with Sergei establishing his starting point – vanishing of Rathaus from music history of 20th century. From this point on, the main arc of the story unfolds. It develops in a linear chronological manner – Sergei retraces Rathaus’ movements from his birthplace of Ternopol to Vienna, Berlin, Paris, and London. In each of these cities, Sergei meets a local host who guides him through the events of Rathaus’ life and places where these events happened. Through these encounters, Sergei witnesses the initial growth of various layers of Rathaus’ creative personality in Ternopol, Vienna and Berlin, and their gradual disintegration as he is forced to move to Paris, London and New York. As the story develops, Sergei observes Rathaus search for a new identity and his failed attempts to regain his footing in new social, political and cultural environments.
The story ends in New York, where it began. Sergei’s conversations with Rathaus’ students, Rathaus’ daughter-in-law and an expert on psychology of refugees uncover the picture of a man, who hides his inner bitterness at the failure to fulfill his life aspirations under a cheerful exterior of an enthusiastic teacher carrying out his teaching duties with characteristic integrity and devotion. More optimistically sounding Epilog gives hope for gradual return of Rathaus music. The Orchestra Now performs Rathaus’ music at the festival, preparations to which were shown in the beginning of the film. We also see Sergei conversing with musicians who perform Rathaus’ music and share Sergei’ conviction that this music deserves to be heard by modern audiences.