Playing for Time (1980)

Vanessa Redgrave in Playing for Time (1980)

Life or Death

Famous musician and singer Fania Fenelon (Vanessa Redgrave) finds herself removed from her life performing in the Paris clubs to being in the box car as being half Jewish she was rounded up with all the other Jews. Believing they are being transported to the farms around Munich to work they realise in the midst of the squalid conditions that they were going in the other direction towards the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Stripped of their belongings, clothes and dignity as their heads are shaved Fania is fortunate enough to be recognized and can avoid the hard labour and certain death in turn for playing in the prison's female orchestra, Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz. But whilst being part of the orchestra offered a certain amount of security from the atrocities which would befall others it left Fania conflicted at having to perform for her Nazi captors or performing to drown out the screams of those who ended up in the gas chamber and being hated by others for it.

It is only recently that I have come across "Playing for Time" which to put in to context for you is more than 30 years after this TV movie premiered. It is an important fact starting with the movie's controversy as I remember nothing of the controversy when it came to the casting of Vanessa Redgrave with the real Fania Fenelon being very vocal in her objections to Redgrave's casting because of her politics. Because I know nothing of the controversy other than what I have read I don't feel I can pass judgement although when you look into it there is something almost perverse about Redgrave's casting because of her then political beliefs.

Jane Alexander in Playing for Time (1980)

The age of this movie also is of importance as is the fact it is a TV movie as times have changed since 1980 when it premiered and compared to more modern movies which deal with the holocaust it almost feels sanitized. Don't get me wrong as it is still a harrowing portrayal with powerful scenes from the squalid conditions in the box cars where raw sewage would lie on the floors to the power scene of the women getting their hair hacked off on entry to the camp. But certain aspects of the horrific conditions seem to have been left out which wouldn't be the case now. You have to understand why as the true of horror of Auschwitz would have never been allowed to air back in 1980.

Anyway, aside from those issues which have come with time the real focus of "Playing for Time" is the conflict which Fania felt playing for the Nazi's when all around her there are those who are suffering awful atrocities. It brings to light whether the price of this seeming security is worth it to have to watch others suffer and be haunted by it for the rest of your lives. It is this side of "Playing for Time" which has the bigger impact rather than the representation of life inside the concentration camp as no matter how strong Fania felt about things it was all about survival.

Aside from that you have to say all the actresses and not just Vanessa Redgrave give themselves fully to their performances. When you see Vanessa Redgrave or Melanie Mayron with their heads shaved and their skin sickly white it is uncomfortable especially as all these actresses look malnourished. But it is not just the look as each of the actresses manages to bring the heart ache of the situation to their performances and the conflict they felt.

What this all boils down to is that "Playing for Time" is dated in the way certain aspects of life in Auschwitz are left out but at the same time it is still a harrowing movie which will open your eyes to the conflict some of the prisoners faced when the privileges they received meant they had to watch all the suffering.