Special Preview ‘playing for Time’ is Playing with Fire
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Special Preview ‘playing for Time’ is Playing with Fire

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“We know a little something about the human race that we didn’t know before, and it’s not good news,” Fania Fenelon says in the CBS-TV production of “Playing for Time, ” which is to be aired Tuesday evening Sept. 30. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency was invited to preview the production without commercial interruptions.

This statement referring to her experience as a member of the women’s orchestra at the Birkenau extermination comp could also summarize the three-hour dramatization’s effect on the viewer.

“Playing for Time” has been surrounded by controversy since/last year when Vanessa Redgrave, an outspoken supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was cast as Fenelon, a half-Jewish French musician. “You are on artist. In this place (Birkenau-Auschwitz) you will have to be an artist and only an artist, ” orchestra director Alma Rose tells Fenelon in the film. Perhaps both Redgrave and her critics should heed this advice about separating art and politics. Politics aside, as “artist and only an artist, ” Redgrave is superb in her role.

The other actors — practically an all-woman cast, including Jane Alexander, Shirley Knight, Viveca Lindfors, Melony Mayron and Marisa Berenson — are equally convincing in this powerful story of a handful of women prisoners struggling for survival at Auschwitz.


No dramatization nor factual description by a survivor can adequately recreate for others the degradation, the stench, the fear, the death that encompassed inmates of Nazi extermination camps. Despite the shaved heads and running sores, the interspersed footage of actual transport, the production can be criticized for romanticizing and minimizing Fenelen’s situation.

While the attempt of realism is more successful than previous television docudramas about the Holocaust, we are still left knowing only in little something” about life in Birkenau Auschwitz.

The film, written by Arthur Miller and direct by Daniel Mann, nevertheless presents the viewer with some information which has not previously been mentioned by American commercial television.

There were organized underground resistance activities in the camps.

Poles, Catholics, political and other “untermenshen” were also victims of the Nazis, but Jews were singled out for “special ” treatment.

The Pope and other Christian leaders knew of the situation in Nazi concentration camps but remained silent.

The Auschwitz crematorium burned some 12,000 corpses a day.

Some German Jews were more German than Jewish, but not according to the Nazis.


But “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, ” the old saying goes. Through errors of omission and commission, “Playing for Time” can give viewers a false impression of life in a Nazi-death camp.

For example, Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous Auschwitz doctor now reportedly hiding in Paraguay is depicted as a cultured German gentleman who loves music. No mention is made of his heinous human medical experiments; his role in selections of inmates for gassing is grossly minimized. The producer., Linda Yellen for Syzygy Productions, Ltd. apparently assumed prior knowledge which some viewers may lock. But this is a violation of a basic principle of journalism and documentaries — never to assume prior knowledge. In the case of Mengele, especially, it becomes a travesty of history not to at least mention of indicate his nefarious role.

Likewise, SS comp commander Mario Mandel chief of the Birkenau women’s comp, is portrayed as a sometimes humane music lover who cries over the disappearance of a little Polish boy she had “adopted.” In Fenelon’s book, on which the film is based, Mandel is specifically described as personally taking “her” little boy to the gas chamber. There is nothing mysterious or implied about his disappearance.

Perhaps most misleading is a scene that exaggerates a description in Fenelon’s book. The body of orchestra conductor Rose is laid in state in a coffin, surrounded by flowers. Rose, a German Jew, and niece of Gustov Mahler, was not treated in death nor in life as were hundreds of thousands of victims of Auschwitz.

While Fenelon’s book describes this extraordinary but actual occurrence, the film fabricates details that are unbelievable to the point of absurdity. In the film, the coffin of Rose is dropped with a Nazi flag by members of the SS and Mengele, himself, comes to pay his last respects. At one point, be even kisses Rose’s violin.


Some four million Jews and non-Jews perished in Birkenau-Auschwitz, by gassing, burning, beating, torture, dog bites, shooting, hanging. This was the “normal” way of death there. The film shows the viewer the exception, but not the rule. At this point no film footage of actual gas chambers or crematoriums is interspersed.

Even the one hanging that is portrayed is romanticized. The victim, underground leader Male, is shown being hanged next to her lover, with whom she had attempted an escape. They gaze into each other’s eyes as they die. Malag was in fact hanged. Alone, but not before she was tortured, beaten and trampled until she was “just one mangled mass of blood, a disjointed puppet,” according to Fenelon’s book.

The end of the film becomes garbled, as though the producers were “playing for time.” After 10 months at Birkenau, Fenelon and other orchestra members were in fact moved to the Bergen-Belsen concentration comp by train in November, 1944 and liberated by the British on April 15, 1945.

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