Durham County

Full Frame: ‘One of the great human gems’

"Zuzana: Music Is Life" chronicles the life of Zuzana Ruzickova, the first and only person to record the complete keyboard works of Bach.
"Zuzana: Music Is Life" chronicles the life of Zuzana Ruzickova, the first and only person to record the complete keyboard works of Bach. Submitted

Zuzana Ruzickova lived through the 1939 Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union’s takeover in 1948, the Soviet consolidation of power during the Prague Spring of 1968, and the coming of political freedom with the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Ruzickova also survived the Nazi death camps of Terezin, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

Ruzickova remained faithful to her musical gift, and, at age 18, when World War II ended, she went back to Prague and resumed practicing. Ruzickova, now 90, is the first and only musician ever to record all of Johann Sebastian Bach’s keyboard works. An audience at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival saw the world premiere of Harriet and Peter Getzels’ documentary about Ruzickova, “Zuzana: Music Is Life,” Saturday.

During a question-and-answer session after the screening, Peter Getzels called Ruzickova “one of the great human gems.” When she returned to Prague, a teacher told her she would not have a career in music, that she would only play for her future husband. “It was this dogged commitment to Bach that propelled her,” Getzels said.

“Bach played a big role in my recovering from my experiences,” Ruzickova says in the film. “In his music you always feel that deep sense of being human.” Bach’s music was written for the harpsichord, and when she heard Bach’s compositions played on that instrument “it was love at first hearing,” Ruzickova says. She has devoted her life to the instrument.

The Getzels, who have made some 30 documentaries, learned about Ruzickova through her cousin Frank Vogl, who lives in Washington and was a founder of Transparency International, an organization that fights government corruption, Harriet Getzels said in a phone ninterview before the festival. The Getzels were planning to work with Vogl on a film. As he was going out the door during a meeting, Vogl turned to them and said, “There’s one other thing I always thought should be a film,” Harriet Getzels said. Vogl told them about his cousin and her story of musicianship and survival. “We were on a plane a couple of months later,” Harriet Getzels said.

Ruzickova married composer Viktor Kalabis, who died in 2006. Ruzickova was invited to a 1956 competition in Munich. She was hesitant to return to Germany because of her Holocaust experience, but Kalabis convinced her to return and bring Bach’s music and spirit to Germany. She won the prize, and soon the Soviet government was sending her on world tours, as a propaganda tool and a means to get foreign money into the treasury.

When the Getzels first approached her about making the film, she wanted to focus on Kalabis’ music, but they convinced her to allow her story to be the focus. “She’s a very direct person,” Harriet Getzels said during the Q&A. “She looks at her life and her history very straight-on.” As a Holocaust survivor “there came a point in her life when she realized she had to talk about it,” Harriet Getzels said.

The Munich prize led to a 10-year contract to record all of Bach’s keyboard music. In 2016, those recordings were digitized and re-released. After the recordings were digitized, Ruzickova listened to them and said, “I can hear all the mistakes.”

“I think that really describes her personality,” Harriet Getzels said.

The Getzels’ film was paired with director Wenceslao Scyzoryk’s film “The Submarine,” about Juan Marine, a 95-year-old film restorer at the Film School of Madrid. Scyzoryk gives viewers a rare look at the process of restoring old films. Marine examines the frames of a 1916 film of people in Spain waiting to board a train. He inserts the frames into a machine, and a chemical solution washes away the scratches and other flaws that time and handling have caused to the film. Marine’s eyes light up as he watches the transformation of these images.

Both films are among 71 new documentaries that are in competition for awards. The festival continues today. For information, visit www.fullframefest.org.

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1