God's Fiddler: Jascha Heifetz
This poignant documentary about legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz captures the brilliance of his music while charting his rise to fame in the world of music. Concurrently, it also reminds viewers just how enigmatic Heifetz was as a human being. He was a perfectionist when it came to his music skills, and bottled up his emotions. A music critic criticized Heifetz for being so cold during his performances, but as evident by the footage of Heifetz in God’s Fiddler, the critic clearly had no sensitivity toward music because he didn’t truly listen to music and feel the emotions built into it. That review made him quite depressed almost to the extent of committing suicide. Obviously, he had a fervent passion for music.
It would have been less confusing to those unfamiliar with him, though, had director Peter Rosen provided his background information at the very inception of the film, and then focused on some intriguing aspect of his life in depth. Everyone has basically two kinds of lives: their public life front-stage and their private life backstage. God’s Fiddler only illuminates Heifetz’s life front-stage while showing glimmers of what he was like behind the curtain so-to-speak. The factual information that you hear from a variety of interviewees, such as musician Itzhak Perlman and some of his former students, still doesn’t shed enough light on Heifetz’s life. By the end of the film, you might feel moved by his passion for music, but hungry for more revealing or at least a little profound insight that would make this documentary a whole lot more memorable rather than underwhelming.
Into the Abyss
Ten years ago, in a small Texas town, homeless teen Michael James Perry and his friend, Jason Burkett, decided to steal the belonging to Sandra Stotler, the mother of their acquaintance, Adam. Michael killed Sandra, and when Adam arrived home with a friend, Jeremy Richardson, Michael and Jason lure them into the woods where they kill them as well. Jason received a life sentence while Michael was given the death penalty. His interview takes place merely eight days before his execution. This profoundly moving documentary tackles the thoughts and feelings surrounding many individuals from the different sides of the case.
Director Werner Herzog opposes the death penalty, but never lets that opinion get in the way of his questioning. He interviews Michael, Jason, Jason’s wife, Jason’s incarcerated father, Jason’s brother, Sandra’s daughter, the prison chaplain, and executioner. Herzog wisely doesn’t bombard the audience with facts surrounding the case right away because they’re not as important as the human beings—good or bad—involved in the case. There’s much more to the case than meets the eye which is what makes it so fascinating and even unpredictable. You’d never guess what Jason and his wife manage to accomplish together while just being allowed to hold hands. It’s impossible to effectively describe the emotions that a former executioner goes through as he vividly recalls what it was like to execute death penalty inmates, and why he ended up quitting his job. Good luck if you try not to cry during his interview, or during the interview with Sandra’s daughter. Fortunately, Herzog keeps his distance from his interviewees by focusing the attention solely on them, which is no easy feat given the difficult subject matters that they’re willing to openly discuss. By not delving explicitly into the pros and cons of the death penalty or by not investigating the case itself, Herzog allows you, as an intelligent member of the audience, to gather your own conclusions which leaves plenty remove for debate and discussion. By the end of this powerful documentary, you’ll never look at the death penalty the same way again.