“The Lady in Number 6,” which on Sunday won the Academy Award for documentary short subject, tells the story of Alice Herz-Sommer, the centenarian Holocaust survivor whose devotion to classical piano helped her survive a Nazi concentration camp.
Herz-Sommer, who died just one week before the Oscar ceremony at the age of 110, performed concerts at the Terezin death camp and continued to play the piano the rest of her life despite health problems that made her unable to move some of her fingers.
In an interview, director Malcolm Clarke said that he was introduced to Herz-Sommer through pianist Caroline Stoessinger, who had written a book about her. The crew shot the documentary over a week-long period in Herz-Sommer’s modest London apartment.
“I initially resisted largely because I had made a documentary film, ‘Prisoner of Paradise,’ on the Holocaust,” said Clarke.
“That film had taken two years to make and it was very rough to work on. I didn’t want to put myself through that kind of draining psychological experience again.”
But meeting Herz-Sommer changed his mind. “The Holocaust was only a small component of a very inspiring life. I felt inspired and compelled. The idea was to make a tiny little short film.” (The documentary ended up being 38 minutes long.)
Herz-Sommer, who was born in Prague in what was the the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was an accomplished concert pianist before being sent to Terezin with members of her family. She performed numerous times with the Terezin orchestra during her imprisonment. As Stoessinger’s book recounts, a Nazi officer spared Herz-Sommer’s life (and that of her son, Raffi) because of her music.
She eventually settled in London, where she continued her music career. The documentary shows Herz-Sommer performing pieces by Chopin and other composers on the upright piano in her apartment. The movie also focuses on her gregarious, optimistic approach to life.
“She’s just one of the most inquisitive people you’ve ever met,” recalled Nick Reed, the movie’s producer
“She loved having all these young handsome men around her apartment during the shoot. She would keep asking, what’s that button do?"
“The Lady in Number 6" will be available on Netflix on April 1.