‘Beethoven’s Nine’ Director Larry Weinstein Set Out to Make a Doc About the Famed Symphony — but Ended Up With His Most Personal Film Yet (EXCLUSIVE)

When ARTE Germany CEO Wolfgang Bergmann approached Toronto director Larry Weinstein in January 2023 about making a documentary to mark the 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the filmmaker didn’t exactly break into a chorus of “Ode to Joy.”

Nor could he have anticipated that his film “Beethoven’s Nine: Ode to Humanity,” which premieres in Toronto at Hot Docs on April 28, would be not only his first to break the fourth wall but also his most personal to date.

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A prolific director-producer since his early years with Canada’s Rhombus Films (his first film, a short doc about a community orchestra, received an Oscar nomination in 1984), Weinstein has made numerous acclaimed creative music docs, including “Beethoven’s Hair,” a 2005 forensic adventure exploring the composer’s physical and psychic woes. The prospect of making a second Beethoven film, especially with several “Ninth films” already in circulation, seemed dim.

“There wasn’t a lot of time to come up with a big idea,” he told Variety in early April. “I had concluded I would not make this film, but then I had an epiphany: What if I got the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, which was founded [in 2022] by conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson and includes refugees of the war, to perform Beethoven’s Ninth? I mean, Beethoven’s whole thing in this work was about the joy that came from freedom and peace and embracing all of humanity.”

“Beethoven’s Nine” tracks the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra in 2023 as it mounts the Ninth for performances and recording. Weinstein also introduces or follows several culturally significant characters (including Leonard Bernstein, Charles Shultz and Polish pop star Brodka) who “somehow embody Beethoven or the ideals that inspired the piece.”

For example, renowned American composer, pianist and educator Gabriella Lena Frank, who confronts and conveys equity and environmental issues through her work, was born with high-moderate/near-profound hearing loss; in her life she has explored the music of Beethoven and recently has described how he encoded his deafness in his music.

Like many of Weinstein’s previous films, “Beethoven’s Nine” presents its subjects and their experiences almost as non sequiturs in an intuitive structure that often leads viewers to places they may not expect.

On Oct. 7, Hamas militants were approaching the kibbutz where Weinstein’s sister Judih and her husband lived, and shot them while they were taking a walk. Judih called loved ones seconds after the incident. She and her husband were among the earliest casualties of the war. The family was certain her husband had been killed, but Judih was considered missing and her death was not confirmed until late December 2023. Weinstein and his daughter worked the phones while production on the film continued.

The film’s producers — Canada’s Riddle Films and Germany’s 3B-Produktion — told Weinstein he could take a break from the project at any time. “I was in denial,” he said. “I said, ‘I want to do this as therapy, I need the distraction.’ I wanted to make the film I intended to make and not acknowledge my tragedy to anyone.”

Cinematographer John Minh Tran eventually convinced Weinstein to allow himself to be filmed and interviewed as family interactions and Weinstein’s emotional thought-process unfolded.

“I’ve always been a fan of Larry’s films, but I think this is the one he will be remembered for,” filmmaker Sarah Polley (“Stories We Tell”), told Variety in advance of the film’s premiere. Polley recently joined the film as an executive producer.

“As his own life took a sudden turn, part way through the making of this film, he followed the most challenging, innovative and difficult path that opened up for him,” she continued. “It has resulted in a work that is deeply personal as well as political and profoundly beautiful. It’s a genuinely surprising, humanist work.”

As Weinstein got to know the Ukrainian players who had been suffering in war and experienced loss, his work was becoming deeper. After his sister was shot, he found himself talking about her in the same breath as he talked about Beethoven’s Ninth. “It was his love letter to humanity, and I was doing my own love letter at the same time,” Weinstein said. “It affected the depth of my interviews. What are the chances that you’re doing a film about humanism and humanity, that you’re asking if we are better off now than we were in the past?

“When Beethoven was a kid, he was full of Enlightenment ideals, he believed in Napoleon. Then things come crashing down—Napoleon becomes an Emperor, the aristocracy is becoming ridiculously sociopathic, the world is becoming darker, and the church is ridiculous.

“He heard Friedrich Schiller’s poem ‘Ode to Joy’ when it was written, when he was 15. Now it’s the end of his life and he thinks, I’m going to use this thing. He’s the first composer to have everything published in his lifetime. He is now in a position to write for posterity and he thinks, We will become better people in the future, long after I’m dead.

“And so, where are we 200 years later?” Weinstein asks of humanity’s relationship to Beethoven’s Ninth. “Are we actually worthy of what he was writing?”

“Beethoven’s Nine” is written and directed by Larry Weinstein, and produced by Riddle Films’ Jason Charters and Liam Romalis as well as 3B-Produktion’s Bernhard von Hülsen and Maria Willer. Bergmann and Polley serve as executive producers. The film’s three public screenings at Hot Docs have gone rush.

Unitel has world rights, excluding North America. Confirmed broadcasters include ZDF/ARTE (Germany),  ARTE (France), SRG SSR (Switzerland), NRK (Norway), SVT (Sweden), YLE (Finland) and TVO (Canada).

Hot Docs runs April 25 to May 5 in Toronto, Canada.

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