Directed by Francois Girard and starring Tim Roth as Martin, Clive Owen as David Rapoport. Based on the novel by Norman Lebrecht.
THE SONG OF NAMES has lured me back into the movie theaters, after a period of absence through indifference to a recent string of forgettable titles. And for me it was a welcome return. Here is a movie that is about something. It is about friendship, identity, and betrayal. More importantly, it is about the power of music—the power of a song to remember and memorialize life and loss.
The abrupt disappearance in 1951 of young violin virtuoso, David Rapoport, moments before his London concert debut, precipitates a 35-year search by his boyhood friend, Martin. The motives behind Martin’s quest are complicated: Not only is he trying to solve a mystery, but he wants to avenge a tragedy: David’s desertion of the concert was a betrayal of Martin’s father, who had sponsored the concert at great cost, and who subsequently had died of a heart attack.
This information comes to us only gradually, by fits and starts, through a series of flashbacks, while Martin spends decades relentlessly tracking David’s course from London to Warsaw to America and back to London.
The flashbacks reveal that the two friends had first met in 1939 when David’s father entrusted his ten-year old violin prodigy to Martin’s family before taking his family back to Poland. The two boys conquered their initial hostility and bonded in friendship during to the London Blitz and beyond. It is only when, shortly after the war, David learns, almost by accident, of the fate of his family during the Holocaust, that he abruptly deserts the London concert, regains the Jewish identity that he had abjured, and embarks on an odyssey of his own that eventually takes him to Treblinka, the site of the deaths of his family and millions of other Jews. There, amidst the grave markers, he again takes up his violin and plays a song—
the song of the movie’s title—the song whose melody he has composed to a text comprised of the names of the Jewish dead.Martin knows nothing of this when he finally catches up with David, now living quietly in a Jewish faith community in London. A phenomenally gifted violinist, he no longer pursues a concert career. He performs music exclusively in the service of this faith. Martin’s anger at David quickly turns to sympathy. But not before he demands that David finally redeem the tragedy that befell his family and perform the concert that he had abandoned thirty-five years ago.
This time David shows up. He performs Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. Then, unexpectedly, after the intermission, instead of playing music by Bach, he reappears garbed in traditional Jewish cloths and plays the music he had composed for his “Song of Names.”
Then, true to form—he disappears. Again.
The letter he leaves behind is an apology to Martin for the pain his past actions had caused his family. He wants only to turn his back on a selfish life of personal gain and return to his faith community.
But there’s more. It turns out David has more than his desertion of Martin’s family to atone for: There’s the mystery of his actions immediately prior to that concert of long ago. It’s a mystery that only Martin’s wife can solve: She confesses: Martin had been with her.
Martin says nothing. But he turns inward and, in the dark, silently recites Kaddish for the friendship that once was.
This is only one among many wonderful set pieces of the film. There is an impromptu violin duo of Paganini’s music between David and another boy while huddling in a London bomb shelter. In another scene, David stands alone in long shot performing his Song of Names in a Triblinka memorial site. And there’s the key sequence of the film, when David first visits a London Jewish community and hears the Rabbi chanting the music and the names of his own family, victims of Treblinka. The collective impact of these musics and these names is overwhelming.