‘Zuzana: Music is Life’ to open 2017 Aspen Filmfest

"Zuzana: Music is Life" will screen Tuesday afternoon at Aspen Filmfest.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Zuzana: Music is Life’ at Aspen Filmfest

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2:30 p.m.

How much: $20 ($15 for Aspen Film members)

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

More info: The festival opens Monday night with a membership and volunteer preview party at the Annex Gallery (625 E. Hyman Ave.); Tuesday’s screening will be followed by a Q-and-A with ‘Zuzana’ co-directors Harriet and Peter Getzels;

Zuzana Ruzickova survived Nazi concentration camps as a child and endured adulthood under a totalitarian communist regime. She then rose to the heights of classical music to become a Czech national treasure and the first person to record Bach’s complete works for keyboard.

When she died last week at 90, she was hailed around the world as an extraordinary artist and a testament to the power of music.

Ruzickova tells her tragic and triumphant life story herself in the documentary “Zuzana: Music is Life,” which opens the 2017 Aspen Filmfest on Tuesday.

Filmmakers Harriet and Peter Getzels were on their way to Prague when they got the news of her passing. They were to meet Ruzickova there for the European premiere of the film and to observe the Jewish high holidays together. Instead, they took part in a national day of mourning and a celebration of Ruzickova’s inspirational life. Their film was broadcast nationally on Czech Republic television to honor Ruzickova.

“It’s very emotional for us, and now even more so,” Peter Getzels said last week, shortly after receiving news of Ruzickova’s death.

Their film follows the harpsichordist’s life from an idyllic and musical childhood in Prague to her horrific six years in concentration camps and labor camps. Ruzickova recalls her time in the Terezin labor camp, where her father and grandparents were killed, and her horrific experiences in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, where she contracted the bubonic plague. She was sent to the gas chambers in June 1944 ­— her life spared by the American D-Day invasion, which spurred the Nazis to send her to a labor camp instead.

“When people ask me how I was able to survive, I always say, ‘It was a hundred miracles,’” Ruzickova says in the film.

It was also the miracle of music, she said. She recalled carrying a piece of sheet music with her throughout the Holocaust as a talisman of hope.

Less than a decade out of the camps and still suffering under the totalitarian communist regime in Czechoslovakia, Ruzickova began winning international attention as a musician in the mid-1950s. As she rose to international prominence, despite suspicion from communist authorities, her music became a salve for those enduring life behind the Iron Curtain. When her concerts played on the radio in Prague in the 1970s and ’80s, one observer says in the film, “listening suddenly filled you with dignity.”

Devoting herself to Bach, she said, allowed her to recover from the traumas of the Holocaust and restored her faith in humanity.

“In his music, you always feel a deep sense in being human,” Ruzickova said.

She narrates much of the film sitting at her kitchen table, often playing music on her CD player and smoking, discussing the unthinkable traumas of her youth in her strikingly forthcoming and matter-of-fact manner.

“She has thought so deeply about not just what it meant for her and her family, but for Europe and all of mankind,” Harriet Getzels said. “She can step back from her personal story and can articulate the larger meaning.”

Reckoning with her experience in the Holocaust, the film suggests, also allowed her to delve so deeply into Bach and interpret the composer’s work so effectively.

The filmmakers have spent the past four years with Ruzickova, making the film and helping her finish her autobiography. The project started in earnest after a meeting with her cousin, writer Frank Vogl, about an unrelated idea for a documentary. At the tail end of the meeting, Vogl told them about Ruzickova.

“He was on his way out of the office and he was at the door and he said, ‘Let me tell you a story about my cousin,’” Peter Getzels recalled.

The filmmakers knew immediately that they needed to tell her story on film. They went to Prague and spent a week with Zuzana — then 87 — in her home, taping long conversations about her life. That interview and subsequent conversations became the backbone of the film, which makes powerful use of archival footage from World War II and from Ruzickova’s musical career.

The film also prominently features the Iranian harpsichord virtuoso Mahan Esfahani, a rising star and a pupil of Ruzickova who performed at the Aspen Music Festival in July.

“She communicated to me that I need to ask myself a very uncomfortable question everyday, which is ‘Were you made for this?’” he said of her intense devotion to music.

As the Getzels finished the film over the past two years, they witnessed the election of far-right leaders in Germany and the U.S. and the resurgence of Nazism in the West, a baffling turn of events that enhanced the contemporary resonance of Ruzickova’s story.

“All of a sudden, a year or two ago, the film was not about history anymore,” Harriet Getzels said. “It’s about the present day. It’s become a cautionary tale.”

Added her husband: “Racism, anti-Semitism, intolerance — these things do not disappear. It’s something that transcends time, like the great music that can be a bulwark against creeping destruction.”