History is only as accurate as the information provided. Historians will gather information from photos, newspapers, documents, artifacts… diaries? Leo Spellman (born Leon Szpilman) is a Holocaust survivor and he kept a diary. It was a day-to-day account of his life and the other Jews around him, in the prison camp. It is accurate and extremely well written. The details are horrific and heartbreaking, it must’ve been very difficult to write down day after day, but he did. Leo realized as a young man, the importance of recording war crimes, tales of survival and about the innocent lives lost. Leo lived to 99 yrs. young, and his diary was found after his passing. Before he left this world, he left it with a piece of music – a Rhapsody about his experience during Nazi occupation and surviving the prison camp.
TV and Documentary guru, David Hoffert found Leo’s music interesting and his father, Paul Hoffert of Canadian classic Rock band Lighthouse wanted to help Leo record it. David found the piece of music fascinating, considering the origin and the composition of it, he wanted to document the event. David had filmed Leo’s Rhapsody being performed by a full orchestra at the Ashkenaz in Toronto. It is awe inspiring, will give you chills and is such and incredible piece, especially heard through an orchestra. The song is riveting, it unfolds much like a Thriller with a 3 Act structure and the happy ending is a reflection on the end of occupation and a celebration of liberty. David had finished the film, had started the edit but wanted to visit Leo Spellman’s home to interview his daughter. It was while he was at Leo’s home that the diary was discovered – in a drawer, inside a room of junk. It could have ended up in the trash but it turned out to be rich in history. Written in Polish, David Hoffert was intrigued enough to put the brakes on the edit and wait for the book to be translated.
Two years would go by before David would finally receive the last of the 180 pages to be translated. It changed the entire trajectory of the film but The Rhapsody remained at the core of the story and encapsulates the entire diary. A musical masterpiece and a standing ovation! The realistic animation depicts segments of the diary, giving you a perspective previously unseen. Emotional purge after a dark horror from a captive time. The film gives equal stage to Leo’s masterful composition and historic first-hand archives of what happened within the prison camp and surviving the end of the war. Absolutely the best documentary I’ve seen all year and worthy of International attention! The narration is enveloped with the spellbinding voice of Stephen Fry (V FOR VENDETTA, GOSFORD PARK). Leo Spellman is an incredible survivor, legendary music composer and a major contributor to history. RIP Leon Szpilman.
This soon to be celebrated documentary made its premiere at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF) at the Hot Docs Cinema on June 15.
I had the outstanding privilege of speaking to the brilliant mastermind behind The Rhapsody. The interview was inspiring, it was mesmerizing, heartbreaking and it was humbling. David has many gifts and filmmaking, music, writing, directing, editing, animation and producing are just a few that he utilized on the film and was able to talk about. Roll the tape!
HNMAG “You’ve worked in television for many years, did you immediately know there was an incredible story here?”
DAVID “I did know there was an incredible story but I didn’t know the half of it. I did know at the beginning, there was this 98 yr. old man, Leo Spellman, who was making a recording of a long lost piece of music that was written inside of a prison camp in 1947 – that alone is already a fantastic story. I also knew that he was a great character, he was charismatic, he was feisty and full of life even though he was 98. The original idea was to make a film on the recording of the CD with a few stories included. He didn’t talk much about what had happened to him during the war. It was already an amazing story but it turned out to be so much more.”
HNMAG “You threaded the music very well throughout the film. It almost seems like another character.”
DAVID “Exactly. One of the things I realized from the very beginning, is that Leo wrote his Rhapsody in 3 sections – the first section being the battle, which represents the invasion of Poland in 1939. The middle of the Rhapsody represents the suffering, the liquidation and the ghetto, along with 18-months of hiding. The finale represents the liberation. I knew from the beginning that his composition had an arc to it, which would lend itself to the film. We divided the film into a modern-day story, which begins with the recording of the CD, which eventually becomes the concert performance. It leads to the discovery of the diaries and travelling to Poland with the family. Mixing/intercutting that with the story of the war, which follows the Rhapsody. The Rhapsody really helped us to set the structure of the film, through a large part of it.”
David shared with me a very interesting fact about the diaries that might not be obvious in the film. He says, “I went into this film thinking it was about the recording of a CD and the Ashkenaz Festival, which is a big supporter of our film and a co-presenter at our premiere. That was going to be the film and we started working on the edit. It was a few months after the concert when Leo passed away – at almost 100 yrs. old. We were about 2 years into the project when we went to his house to interview his daughter and look through some of his memorabilia. That’s when we discovered the diaries. They weren’t amongst his memorabilia or photographs… they were in a drawer in a room, filled with junk. There was a very good chance the books would’ve been thrown out. They were small and written in Polish, they didn’t look very significant unless you recognized it. If it wasn’t for the making of this film, those diaries may never have been found. It changed the entire documentary. It took an additional 2 years to get the 180-page diary translated, so we took a break and awaited the translated pages, a few at a time. We were beyond the edge of our seats, waiting for the next installment until it was done.”
David also told me, there have only been a handful of diaries found around the world with this level of significance (Anne Frank). It’s a day-to-day recounting of 18-months, starting from the first day of going into hiding, until the day of liberation. To have a first-person account like that is very rare.
HNMAG “I think the film/diary is incredibly significant and these films stand to help us from repeating history. However, with what’s happening in the Ukraine, history seems to be repeating itself.”
DAVID “We’ve been thinking very strongly about that. When we found out we were premiering, it was almost the same time that the Ukraine war had started. We couldn’t help but notice parts of history repeating itself. We do feel that these films are important to be seen, in the hopes that people can learn from them. It’s quite sad to see things going on in the world, where people haven’t learned that lesson. It is the hope that this film will have a positive impact on people and deter repeated history.”
HNMAG “After its premiere at TJFF, where does the film go from there?”
DAVID “After booking the premiere, we’ve been getting requests every day for other festivals. We’re working with our team to roll out a plan for distribution. We really appreciate the positive feedback we’ve received from people that have had the opportunity to screen it. We really hope it will resonate with the public and so far, so good.”
HNMAG “When you first embarked on the project, did you have much support?”
DAVID “Like many documentaries, we had our ups and downs, struggles and triumphs. From a filmmaker/producer perspective, we struggled to raise financing at every stage of filming. The first financial angel was the Ashkenaz Festival. Eric Stein is the head of the festival and was able to put a concert together very quickly because Leo was only a couple of months shy of turning 100. Normally, to put a concert like that together, it would take more time. The Ashkenaz really came through for us. We also needed to shoot it and Moses Znaimer and Zoomer came through for us there. We arranged to shoot the concert for Vision TV which meant that we could shoot it beautifully, utilizing 8 cameras. Every step of the way though, we were running out of money. Another interesting thing happened when we went over to Poland, it’s where we were able to get the Rzeszow Orchestra to perform the Rhapsody for the first time with a 75- piece orchestra. It was tremendous and I don’t think Leo could’ve ever imagined in his wildest dreams that it would’ve happened. Prior to the trip however, we were days away from leaving, we had raised enough funds but the orchestra still needed to get paid for us to film them. With only days to go before we leave, they informed us that we needed to pay each member 100 dollars if we filmed them. With only days to go before we left for Poland, Geddy Lee (singer and bass player for Rush) came through for us! He stepped in – his father is from the town of Ostrowiec. We were so thankful. There were a few other benefactors that had huge faith in the story.”
David also told me that once Stephen Fry (V For Vendetta, Gosford Park) heard about the project, he didn’t hesitate to do the narration. He was perfect for it.
HNMAG “Were you looking for a specific animator for this project?”
DAVID “I was looking for an animator and we met with Chris Landreth, Academy Award winner for his NFB short, Ryan. He gave us some good advice, some consulting and hooked us up with a couple of student animators while we were looking for a style. After all the initial process, I ended up doing the animation myself. I produced, wrote, directed, edited, did the animation and I’ll never do it again (laughing). In addition to making documentaries, I’m also an artist and was making the storyboards but wasn’t planning on doing it myself. People started liking my drawings, it snowballed from there and I took it upon myself. I’m pleased with it.”
HNMAG “When you were editing, was it always a 3-act structure?”
DAVID “I’ve been in this business a long time. I’ve produced and directed feature documentaries, have directed and edited hundreds of television shows and this was the most challenging. We probably didn’t change our idea for the basic structure but making it work was a challenge. Part of that was because the diaries were found at a certain point and they didn’t start until a few years into the war. There were a lot of logistical choices that had to be made in the editing room. We had the basic structure in the beginning but it required some fine tuning. I’m sure this has happened to other filmmakers in the past at some point – having unbelievable scenes that were left on the floor because it didn’t work with the flow of the story. The results seem to say that we made all the right choices. It’s exciting, it’s fun but it can drive you crazy (laughing).”
HNMAG “Is there any chance of a director’s cut coming out at a later date that might include those extra shots?”
DAVID “We have been considering, for historical purposes – the possibility of having a web archive that could have some deleted scenes, extra historical information that would allow the story to live on amongst people and historians.”
David forgot to mention that he also composes music for film, in addition to all the other hats. He confesses that he has many interests and when he does too much of one thing, he likes to switch it up for something else. Music is in David’s DNA, considering that his dad (Paul Hoffert) is the co-founder of the legendary Canadian Rock-band, Lighthouse. The Rhapsody will give you a new appreciation for the horrors of war and the rejuvenated need for peace in the world. An impeccable and astonishing piece of work!