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 the bubonic plague. As an adult, she lived through the height of the cold war in a communist country, under suspicion as a party nonmember and a Jew. Zuzana Rusickova, 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 Rusickova, 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 Rusickova’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 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 pulled out an Agatha Christie mystery and began 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.