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Music: To Kill and To Save
Image: Wavelength Films

"Music can change the world," Bono once said, "because it can change people."

No one would dispute his claim. Music's power to soothe, to inspire, even to motivate one to great things is well chronicled through the ages. Nor, on the other hand, is there little argument about music's ability to provoke, to rile, even to stir up trouble.

But to kill? Maybe.

Two compelling new documentaries examine music's role—for good and for evil—during the rise of the Third Reich. One, Wagner & Me, explores how the great German composer's works may have played a part in Hitler's anti-Semitism and the advent of Nazism. The other, Orchestra of Exiles, tells almost the opposite tale—how music was used for the greatest good, sparing the lives of almost 1,000 Jews just as the Holocaust was about to begin.

Both are new releases from First Run Features, long one of my favorite sources for fascinating and often daring documentaries on a wide variety of topics. Wagner & Me and Orchestra of Exiles are now available at First Run's website.

And both fully bear witness to the gut-wrenching truth of Bono's quote, that music can—and often does, as history bears out—change the world. For better or for worse.

Near the beginning of Wagner & Me, host and narrator Stephen Fry describes his lifelong love of music: "[It has] always made me do things inside. It's released forces within me. And no music has done it like Wagner's."

Hitler may well have said the same, especially the part about it "releasing forces within me." (Several decades later, Tom Waits would say, "I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things," ...

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Music: To Kill and To Save
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August 2013

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