'Two Hands,' an Oscar Nominee with Heart Nathaniel Kahn's film Two Hands, a film about pianist Leon Fleisher's 30-year struggle to return to the concert stage, is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject.
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'Two Hands,' an Oscar Nominee with Heart

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'Two Hands,' an Oscar Nominee with Heart

'Two Hands,' an Oscar Nominee with Heart

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Tonight at the 79th annual Academy Awards presentation in Hollywood, one of the lesser-known categories is Best Documentary Short Subject. In contention for the Oscar is an 18-minute film about pianist Leon Fleisher. The director is Nathaniel Kahn, and he joins us now from the studios of NPR West. Welcome to the program.

Mr. NATHANIEL KAHN (Director, "Two Hands"): Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: Tell those listeners who may be unfamiliar with Leon Fleisher's story, tell us a little bit about him.

Mr. KAHN: Sure. Well, Leon is, you know, one of the great giants of the piano in the 20th century, and when he was very young, in his 30s, he won tremendous competitions and was really on the fast track to being the number one pianist in the world.

(Soundbite of film, "Two Hands")

Mr. LEON FLEISHER (Pianist): I had a minor accident. I was carrying a piece of garden furniture, one of these cheap chairs. It slipped from my hand, cut my thumb.

Mr. KAHN: And that point, when he was - this was about 1965, he suddenly found that the two little fingers of his right started to curl under.

(Soundbite of film, "Two Hands")

Mr. FLEISHER: It took the most enormous kind of effort to extend them, to keep them out. I couldn't play the piano that way.

Mr. KAHN: His hand really virtually turned into a claw, and he could no longer play the piano with his right hand. So his life was entirely derailed, and for - the film covers this story and then talks about these 35 years that he searched for an answer to what had happened to him, and during the last few years - I don't want to give away the movie too much, but a miracle, basically, a medical miracle and a miracle of persistence has occurred, and Leon is again playing with two hands.

So it's an enormous - it's an incredible story of music and art and love and faith, and in the end triumph over an incredible adversity.

(Soundbite of film, "Two Hands")

Mr. FLEISHER: The gods know where to hit you when they want to hit you.

HANSEN: I'm interested in your approach. In the opening scene, for example, we see the empty concert hall. There's a Steinway on stage and we hear Leon Fleisher in voice-over talking about what happened to his right hand.

Mr. KAHN: Yeah.

HANSEN: Obviously, you directed Fleisher as he sat down at the piano, you know, for the visuals in this scene. What did you say to him to get that sequence?

Mr. KAHN: Leon is like a great actor. I basically just told him, look, I want to film you coming out on stage, sitting down at the piano and imagining that once again you can't play. And he walked out, and he sat down. I didn't ask him to act, mind you, but he just sat down, and he just sat there, and he put his hands on the keys for a moment, and then he withdrew them. And it was just was an astonishing moment. The amount of emotion he brought into the scene, suddenly it was just, you know, really overwhelming.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KAHN: I love the look of hands. I love the way artists render hands, and watching a musician's hands, I mean, that's the greatest miracle of all. You have an idea, you have a feeling in your brain, in your head, and you're able to communicate that to your fingers and make these sounds that are transcendent, that can make people weep or laugh. That's a miracle.

So somehow the hand for this film became really the main character in the end, and you see those fingers that still curl under reaching out and touching the keys and pushing down, and you feel the enormous desire behind that hand to communicate.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You've said about Leon Fleisher's emotions that there were sometimes shifts that were so subtle that only the camera could really pick them up. Is there a point in the film or a place that you can talk about where that happened?

Mr. KAHN: Yeah, sure. I mean, he was, as I said, like a great actor. There would be a tiny gesture in his eye, a flicker of his lips, something with his hand, and you'd say, you know, it's all there. You feel the pain. You also see the joy. You also see the hope, all those things shifting very quickly, and there is sort of one moment when he talks about all the different things that he's tried over the years to fix the problem with his hand, and it's a rather funny list, but at some point he just kind of cocks his head to one side and you think he's really hearing this and realizing once again what he went through.

(Soundbite of film, "Two Hands")

Mr. FLEISHER: I was trying everything. I was trying hypnotism. I wish I could remember them all.

Mr. KAHN: I wrote down a few, and perhaps you can tell me. I've heard EST?


Mr. KAHN: L-dopa, myotherapy, hypnosis.

Mr. FLEISHER: Right.

Mr. KAHN: Biofeedback, Tiger Balm, and then ultimate scotch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KAHN: If you can tell me...

Mr. FLEISHER: I've blocked all of that (bleep) out, I really have.

HANSEN: You had to draw him out to give that list of things. We hear your voice on the film, asking him - I mean, this is a story that had been around for a while. He told it a few times. But was it difficult to draw him out at all?

Mr. KAHN: Yeah. I mean, it's always hard when somebody's told a story several times because they almost have - it's a set piece for them. They kind of turn it on, they push play, and there comes the story. And actually I was rather happy that in this case Leon seemed surprisingly reticent to tell it to me.

Maybe it's because he knew I wanted his soul. I wanted something much deeper than just the surface story. So when I asked him, hey, listen, list the things you tried, he wouldn't do it. And I do feel that in him not wanting to say it, he told me what he really felt about it all, which is, you know, the devastation of trying for so many years to get back his great gift.

(Soundbite of film, "Two Hands")

Mr. FLEISHER: And then, you know, after about two years came this awareness, this realization that my connection was to music.

Mr. KAHN: Leon was somebody who never gave up. Not only did he not give up on being able to play with two hands again, but also he completely reinvented himself as a pianist of left-hand literature, and there's an incredible story about how that literature came to be.

A pianist from the early 20th century named Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm in World War I, and he commissioned the great composers of the day, Ravel and Korngold, etc., Bartok, to write pieces for the left hand.

(Soundbite of film, "Two Hands")

Mr. FLEISHER: You know, wow. Good thing it didn't happen to my left hand because there's no right-hand literature.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KAHN: These pieces were not played very much, but when Leon had his problem with his right hand, he dragged them out again, and he became the great performer of pieces written for the left hand. and then also he reinvented himself as a conductor.

HANSEN: And a teacher, too. I mean, you can't forget that.

Mr. KAHN: That's right, and perhaps most significantly, he has become a teacher of many of the great pianists of this era.

(Soundbite of film, "Two Hands")

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: Leon Fleisher is back for the first time since 1965. He has completed a concert performance with both hands.

HANSEN: There's a moment when he has regained the use of his hand, and we see what was called his triumphant return to the concert stage, playing the piano, both hands, but he talks about it in such disappointing terms. Did that surprise you, when he called that moment an evening of pretense?

Mr. KAHN: Well, you know, there were several so-called comeback attempts, and that particular one is one that sort of didn't work. At one point, they thought the problem might be almost like a carpal tunnel problem, which it wasn't at all, and they did do some surgery on his wrist, and he was able to play to some degree with his right hand. And he got out there and he realized this was not the solution, and it had not fixed the problem. He got through the concert beautifully, but he had to change the program from something that was much more demanding to something much more simple.

That was actually 20 years ago, and this more recent - this time it really is a comeback because he's found a real solution to the problem, and he really is able to play with two hands, and his playing is magnificent. It has all the qualities, somehow, of a traveler who has gone out into the wilderness and has become lost for years and years, and suddenly they've come home after all these years in the wilderness.

HANSEN: And he's been able to come home because of neurological developments, developments in diagnosis of what's wrong with his hand. I too don't want to give away, you know, the end of the film. Anyway, but it's a remarkable arc for someone like Leon Fleisher to follow and for a filmmaker to follow too. You've got a great story and a great character.

Mr. KAHN: Well, you know, in the end, the stories that I want to tell most - I feel we live in a world right now that has so much darkness in it - to tell the story of one man who had the courage to never give up. That kind of uplift is what I feel we need right now.

A story like this makes you want to be a better person and makes you not want to give up. Those are the kinds of stories I love telling, and Leon fits the bill better than anybody I've ever met.

HANSEN: Nathanial Kahn is the director of the film "Two Hands," nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Documentary Short Subject, and he joined us from NPR West. Thanks a lot, and good luck.

Mr. KAHN: Thank you, thank you. I just wanted you to know that actually my date tonight at the Oscars will be Leon Fleisher. So if you look out there, you may very well see him cheering along.

HANSEN: What will he be wearing?

Mr. KAHN: Oh boy, I hope just a normal tuxedo. I don't want any crazy ruffles or anything like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: All right. Good luck again, Nathaniel.

Mr. KAHN: Thank you.

HANSEN: You can see an excerpt from "Two Hands" and hear a recent performance of Leon Fleisher playing Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" on our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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