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Hot Docs Film Spotlight – Interview with the director of ‘Beethoven’s Nine: Ode to Humanity’

Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 is arguably one of the greatest works of art in Western culture. But don’t take my word for it; 360°Sound spoke with Larry Weinstein, director of a new documentary film, Beethoven’s Nine: Ode to Humanity. Weinstein assembled nine great thinkers, artists, and modern-day philosophers to explore the grandeur and splendor that is the Ninth. The film gets its world premiere this spring at the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival held in Toronto.

Weinstein’s film is partly inspired by the classic film Ocean’s 11, in which underworld characters from diverse backgrounds come together with the common purpose of pulling an epic Las Vegas heist. The artists and thinkers who contribute to Beethoven’s Nine come from different regions of the globe, walks of life, and philosophical perspectives, yet the film deftly weaves them all together using the thread of Enlightenment philosophy and Beethoven’s Ninth symphony.

Composed from 1822-1824, the Ninth contains the beloved “Ode to Joy,” and is described in the film as “a love letter to all humankind.” The Ninth is a fixture throughout world culture, and this fascinating film explores its impact, and the impact of the Enlightenment, on the vast tapestry of humanity, often taking unexpected turns.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can view our entire interview with Larry Weinstein at the end of this article. 

Filmmaker Larry Weinstein

360°Sound: While Beethoven’s Nine: Ode to Humanity is most definitely about Beethoven’s Ninth symphony, Enlightenment philosophy and thinking are at the core of your film. What does the Enlightenment mean to you?

Larry Weinstein: The Enlightenment was quite popular when Beethoven was a boy. Great thinkers like [Baruch] Spinoza and [Immanuel] Kant and Voltaire, who were trying to push humanity forward. What it means to me is to be rational, to value science and rationality and progress, and that accumulated wealth could improve humankind and be shared with others who are less fortunate. The idea of enlightenment has to do with caring for the rest of humanity, and not being self-centered – not being closed in by the prejudices of the aristocracy, or governments that are filled with sociopaths and authoritarians who don’t care about the people. Also religion, which was closing in and becoming more conservative and more dictatorial – more purist and less rational. We’re experiencing a lot of this now. We need to live up to the ideals that Beethoven was putting forward when he wrote that symphony.

I should mention one other enlightenment writer, [Friedrich] Schiller, who wrote the poem “Ode to Joy.” It’s a little bit more godly than Beethoven would have liked – [Beethoven] eventually became an avowed atheist. Schiller was really interested in humanity, nothing divine. It was about us lifting ourselves out of the darkness into something very light. And that appealed to a 15-year old Beethoven. By the time he was in his early 20s he thought, ‘I need to take those words and set them to music.’ He didn’t know that it was going to be in a symphony, because no one had ever done that before – put words in a symphony.

One of your contributors, [Harvard professor] Steve Pinker puts it succinctly when he says of Enlightenment philosophy, “We ought to use knowledge to improve human well-being.

I knew I wanted Steve Pinker to be in the film. I hadn’t even realized he’d written the book, Enlightenment Now. That book became a bit of a Bible for me. Whenever I was mired in darkness, I would read his book to make me realize the world is not as bad as we think it is.

An important theme of the film seems to be that, as a global society, we’re not living up to the ideals of Enlightenment thinkers. Did you have that in mind at the beginning of the project?

When I began the project, I was just asked to make a film about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, an idea that I rejected because I saw there were other films out there about it. I got a spark in my head when I read a really good book by Harvey Sacks exclusively devoted to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we got the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra to perform it, this orchestra that was made of refugees that were suffering because of the war.

Keri-Lynn Wilson [Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra conductor] is a Canadian Ukrainian, who was very frustrated and wanting to do something positive. So here’s an orchestra based on the idea of freedom, and peace, and also embracing humankind, which is exactly what Beethoven was inspired by writing his piece. And they said yes, to my surprise – I think they called my bluff. I just needed a couple of good production companies in Canada and Germany to help make this thing happen – Riddle Films in Canada and 3D Produktion in Germany.

Keri-Lynn Wilson’s passion for the freedom of the Ukrainian people is so palpable on screen, and it’s a wonderful on-ramp into the narrative. Can you tell me a little bit about discovering the narrative of the film?

Luckily, I had the world’s best editor, David New, who I’ve worked with since 1990. We had very little time to make this film. We only started filming it end of August [2023]. Here it’s being premiered at Hot Docs [2024].

Rebecca Goldstein and Steve Pinker on Cape Cod

I like the idea of seeming non sequiturs, things that seem like tangents. Why are we in Cape Cod right now? Why are we in Germany? Who are we meeting now? The narrative, the glue in this, is that Enlightenment ideal, and it is Beethoven, and it is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and it’s the ideals that fuel that symphony. I knew always that I had to go after that. Like, why do I have a Polish rock star in the film? Well, it has to do with the fact that Beethoven himself was considered to be the rock star of his day – everyone recognized him! It was much to his chagrin; he didn’t want to be recognized, but everyone knew what he looked like in Vienna.

And the “Ode to Joy” theme. Why does that sound so different from everything Beethoven ever wrote? And it’s because it was written to sound like a folk song, a timeless folk song. And then I realized that this rock star, Monica Brodka, she grew up in the mountains of Poland and was steeped in folk music that was supposed to be her life. So she understood the folk element of what Beethoven was doing. Plus she lives in Poland, which could be invaded by Russia, right after Ukraine. So she’s very aware of that as well. So it all seemed to come together.

Rocker Monika Brodka during filming

Monika Brodka, the Polish rock musician, comments about the lyrics of “Ode to Joy,” how they’re ‘naive, but beautiful.’

I showed the film to a group of composers, and when she says how naive the rhymes and the lyrics are, they said, ‘That’s incredible.’ You would never get a Beethoven musicologist or expert to talk about the naivete, because that sounds like an insult. She just saw it very purely. She is a peer of Beethoven. And she’s looking at him like a songwriter, and responding to how naive the lyrics are, and yet the beauty that they yield, that’s what impressed her. She says that sort of jealously. She thinks of it as the ultimate pop song.

You juxtapose Benjamin Clark, the curator of the Charles Schulz Museum, and you bring in this wonderfully rich angle of Peanuts, and the character Schroeder. Why was the Peanuts connection important to telling the story?

It was partly because we knew we were going to very heavy themes, there was going to be a lot about war, a lot about suffering, a lot of heartache. And we thought that it would be good to try to come up with something else that felt a bit lighter. And though Peanuts is a comic strip, there’s something tearful and moving about it, too. I mean, there’s a profundity in Charles M. Schultz, his love of Beethoven and the way he tried to depict it. Many people got to know Beethoven through that.

The images and the story that you include behind Leonard Bernstein’s final performance in Berlin, Christmas of 1989 are powerful and moving. Bernstein seems like a kind of bridge from the 19th century to today. How does he embody the spirit of the Enlightenment for you?

He was such a humanist. He was so concerned about where humankind was going, and becoming depressed about it. He lived through the Second World War, and Vietnam and 1968, where everything bad in the world happened – he was very affected by those things. The fall of the Berlin Wall became this huge thing for him. And he was very ill; he had only a few months to live. He thought, ‘I want to conduct Beethoven’s Ninth symphony.’ But when Friedrich Schiller wrote the poem that became “Ode to Joy,” he originally wrote “Ode to Freiheit” – freedom – that was the initial idea. And so this idea of freedom, especially with the wall coming down, so appealed to Bernstein that he changed the word back to ‘Freiheit’ instead of ‘Freude’ – to ‘freedom’ instead of ‘joy.’ He performed it Christmas night in West Germany, and on Christmas morning in East Germany.

Leonard Bernstein at the Berlin Wall, December 25, 1989. Bernstein’s assistant, Craig Urqhart, and 11-year old Franz look on.

It is amazing that the wall was literally coming down. After the performance, he was exhausted, but he wanted to go and visit the wall, and get a piece of it. He saw this little boy who was 11, who had a hammer chisel, and his father, ‘Could you chip off a piece of the wall for me as a memento?’ And they said, ‘No, there’s nothing like doing it yourself. Here, take the hammer and chisel.’ There are these photos of him chiseling the wall. And it’s just so beautiful thematically, it gave him such happiness, the metaphor of the wall coming down. And luckily, we found the little 11-year old boy who had the hammer and chisel.

I love the photo that you found, where [the boy is] looking like, ‘This is Leonard Bernstein!’

Because they broadcast the concert live, and he had just seen him. Then he’s looking at this guy walking towards him, ‘That looks like Leonard Bernstein.’ And Bernstein goes, ‘I am Leonard Bernstein.’

You include Bernstein’s comments, when he said ‘Beethoven is struggle. A struggle for peace, fulfillment of spirit, serenity.’ And at the end, he says, ‘Perhaps we can grow into something worthy of being called the human race.’ Your film seems to suggest that the solution to our strife is a greater humanity.

It’s a greater sense of humanity. These weren’t just ideas in the air; it was an application of the ideas to improve our lives. And we have to continue, and we have a lot of obstacles now that we didn’t have in the past.

Can we achieve a truly greater sense of humanity, given that our baser instincts seem to continually betray us?

Many of the people within our film are all about humanity. Like Gabriela Lena Frank, the woman who was born deaf, who is one of the greatest American composers, with a Peruvian background. She’s all about goodness and environmentalism and anti colonialism and she’s a very powerful force. As is Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, who is one of the original Enlightenment thinkers of our time. She’s the expert on Kant and Spinoza – Spinoza was ground zero with these these guys. They’re such good people and they believe in the goodness [of humanity], and you see it.

Gabriela Lena Frank on location with the filmmaker

When people see this film they’ll see how personal it is for you. But I think they’ll also get the answer to ‘Why is this work, with its “Ode to Joy,” still such an evocative and exuberant expression of hope and resilience and love and freedom in the world?’ Finally, do you have anything to tell us about distribution?

We have a a distributor for European television, but we want to get an American distributor. I would hope that it would even have some theatrical possibility. There’s something of this film that transcends and transfixes that I find really powerful. There is a personal story in it, that has to do with October 7, and my own sister, which fueled me on. I think between that and Ukraine, this film is very relevant and very timely. And I’m hoping it gets out there.

Beethoven’s Nine: Ode to Humanity will make its world premiere Sunday 28 April at Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival, with additional screenings on Tuesday 30 April, and Saturday 4 May. If you’ll be in Toronto, secure some tickets to one of the screenings here, hotdocs.ca

Check out Larry’s many projects on his website, larryweinsteinproductions.com

You may also enjoy a review from last year’s Hot Docs festival

Hot Docs Film Review: ‘Igor Levit – No Fear’

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