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Igor Levit – No Fear

Director: Regina Schilling (Germany). Year of Release: 2022

Berlin, May 2019. Three men are struggling to drag a grand piano up a flight of stairs. A fourth man looks on, concerned, and wondering whether it will get into his new flat in one piece. When the piano finally arrives, he takes a photo and posts it on social media, under the name Igorpianist, accompanied by the text: “in a future life, I’m going to play the flute.” He plays a piece and shows obvious accomplishment, although it’s not really my thing – too complex, too many notes.

Igor Levitt is 35, has a trimmed beard, and wears black for most or all of the time. He spends an awful lot of time on Instagram and Twitter and doesn’t look like classical composers are supposed to. He was born in the Soviet Union, just before there ceased to be any such place, and left with his parents as a child. He now remembers nothing of his childhood there, and only knows Russia as a tourist.

Yet despite his t-shirts and Twitter account, Levit is more aware of classical music than much popular culture. He recounts how he recently read an interview with Keith Richards, which contained references to Muddy Waters, a musician and singer who he had never encountered before. He plays Mannish Boy to a colleague and says that this is the sort of music he wants to produce. The colleague, not really getting it, says “but a piano is a piano, and an oboe is an oboe”.

This was very much a film of two halves for me, not least because of my own Philistine tendencies. I’m enough of a fan of music to appreciate the Beethoven is a great composer, not but quite enough to look forward to hearing long performances of his music. Especially when these are rehearsals or run throughs with the producer of Levit’s records, which means that the same piece is played several times in a row. It’s interesting enough, but never really gripped me.

Then, about half way through, the film started to fight for my attention. It may have started with an unexpected visit to a performance by Marina Abramović. Levit is honoured, star struck even, and hugs the performance artist and doesn’t let go. She mentions that its difficult to put on performances these days. Levit’s own concerts start to be cancelled because of Covid. As a way of keeping himself active, he starts recording home concerts and posting them on social media.

He becomes an Internet sensation, with tens of thousands of people tuning into every performance. He offers an eclectic programme. Although he largely concentrates on the great classics, Levit’s favourite performance is one of modern composer Ronald Stevenson, which he introduces as being all form and no content. We don’t hear all of his home concerts, but we do see some of the playlists, which include composers like Eric Satie, George Gerschwin and Billy Joel.

The concert are as much for Levit’s sake as anyone else. In a very early scene, we see him rushing through Berlin-Mitte in a taxi, stressing about his programme. In 2020, he was due to play 108 concerts, which works out as just about one every three days. Just thinking about this causes him to have a panic attack in the cab. When Covid arrives, he reacts badly. When people ask him how he’s doing, he replies with welcome honesty and tells them that he’s not coping at all well.

We also witness some of Levit’s political interventions. He posts photos of himself as a 6-year old, and signs them with anti-fascist greetings. He speaks out in defence of refugees, and we see him being interviewed in a Love Music Hate Racism t-shirt. One of the final scenes of the film is of him playing a benefit concert on the edge of Danneröder Wood, to the environmental activists who have tied themselves to the trees to prevent them from being cut down.

For reasons that are unclear – to me at least – Levit takes part in a live discussion with Wolfgang Schäuble, former German president and defenestrator of the Greek economy. The moderator introduces them, saying – only in Germany – that one is Christian and the other Jewish. Later on, Levit mentions being part of a group of people who were once unwelcome in Germany. I forget his exact formulation, but Schäuble looks on, looking like he doesn’t know what Levit is talking about.

Levit is always engaging, but the first half of the film shows him doing things that I’m just not interested in. It’s not just the concerts and endless rehearsals. I just can’t raise much excitement at watching someone going clothes shopping, even if he tells a nice anecdote about entering a boutique, only for the surly assistant to tell him “we’ve nothing for you here, sir.”

As Covid hits, Levit’s life becomes much more interesting, as does his personality. He does not cope well with the enforced isolation, and struggles to find channels for his bundled up energy. It all somehow makes him more human than the man we see effortlessly hitting piano keys. I wouldn’t gp as far as to say that the film has made me seek out his recordings, but he does look like he’d be good fun in a bar.

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