Shine: 'Only the fit survive'

Shine: 'Only the fit survive'
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David’s music teacher Mr Rosen (Nicholas Bell) pleads with Mr Helfgott (Armin Mueller-Stahl) to let David take up an offer of a music scholarship in America. Mr Helfgott has no money and does not wish to use a bar mitzvah to raise the money. He is against religion, but even more afraid to lose his son. His protectiveness towards all his children is suffocating. Summary by Paul Byrnes.

Much of the film’s emotional trauma comes from the Holocaust, although it’s barely mentioned. Peter Helfgott has lost his parents in a concentration camp; his wife has lost her sisters. His protectiveness becomes a kind of authoritarian phobia which plays out in all sorts of ways – his desire to keep the family together, his often repeated lectures to David about how lucky he is to have a family, his nailing up of the fence to keep the eldest daughter from seeing boys, his demonstration of physical strength and his phrases about ‘only the strong survive’.

Eventually it will lead to violence against his son and an emotional boycott, when David decides to study at the Royal College of Music in London. This scene foreshadows the father’s form of madness, linking it to the son’s eventual disintegration. That’s the key relationship in the movie, until David, as an adult, meets Gillian, who will become his wife. In this scene, a clever visual link is created between the idea of the family confinement and a concentration camp, using the shot of barbed wire on the fence.

Shine Synopsis

David Helfgott (played as a child by Alex Rafalowicz) is a piano prodigy, growing up in Perth in the 1950s. His father Peter (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is a loving authoritarian, determined to keep his family together at all costs, a legacy perhaps of having lost family members during the Nazi Holocaust. In his teens, David (now played by Noah Taylor) is offered a scholarship to study in the US but his father forbids him to go. A few years later, David walks out on the family, to take a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, where he has a complete breakdown. He returns to Perth and spends years in psychiatric care and half-way houses. He is still estranged from his father, but he rediscovers his love of performing by playing piano in a restaurant. The restaurant owner (Sonia Todd) introduces him to one of her friends, an astrologer called Gillian (Lynn Redgrave), and a romance blossoms. Eventually, David returns to the concert hall, where he triumphs.

Shine curator's notes

Shine is a universal story of great talent triumphing over great trauma, but it was controversial at the time of release because of a debate about what caused the trauma. The film appears to suggest that the father Peter, traumatised by the Second World War, damaged the son. One of David Helfgott’s sisters (see below) later claimed that this was not an accurate portrayal of her father. A different interpretation might also be drawn from the film – that David Helfgott’s illness was just that – an illness that had no external causes, but could be affected by stress. In any case, the film is less about the causes than the depiction of how David Helfgott survived and came to terms with his illness. That is what audiences around the world loved about Shine.

There are at least three great performances in the film, not just that of Geoffrey Rush (as the adult David). Armin Mueller-Stahl is superb as the father, a man whose capacity for love is as obvious as his inability to compromise or forgive. The third great performance is Noah Taylor’s as the adolescent David. In some ways this is the hardest role, because he has to take David from shy 14-year-old to the young man who touches greatness at the Royal College of Music, even as his mind is cracking wide-open. It’s the kind of eccentric role that Taylor has made his specialty, but he gives one of the best performances of what is now already a long career (see The Year My Voice Broke, made in 1987). Geoffrey Rush won almost every award possible in 1997, including the Oscar for best actor in a leading role. The performance made him an international star, with good reason. He makes Helfgott’s mania credible, without becoming self-conscious. He makes the character loveable, without making him pathetic. David’s intelligence is always visible through the fog of his word-plays, and Rush brings a further layer of credibility by playing the piano himself (although the soundtrack mostly uses Helfgott’s own playing). This was also the film that catapulted director Scott Hicks to an international career. He was nominated for an Oscar as best director, one of seven Oscar nominations for Shine. The others were for best film (Jane Scott), best original screenplay (Jan Sardi) and story (Scott Hicks), best supporting actor (Armin Mueller-Stahl), best original score (David Hirschfelder), best editing (Pip Karmel), and best actor (Rush).

The controversy over accuracy stems largely from a book written by David’s sister Margaret (Out of Tune – David Helfgott and the Myth of Shine), after the film’s success. She claimed the film was wildly inaccurate and demeaned her father, who died in 1975. Rather than a tyrant, he was a loving father and husband who was, if anything, too lenient with his wayward son. Scott Hicks wrote a letter to The Wall Street Journal in rebuttal, in which he said that other members of the family supported his depiction of Peter Helfgott and that he withheld far more serious accusations of abuse against the father, out of consideration for the family and the audience. Hicks said he stands by the research that informed the film: ‘I maintain that all of the actions of the character Peter Helfgott have their origins in real events’

Notes by Paul Byrnes

Education Notes

This clip shows David Helfgott’s music teacher pleading for parental support so that David can study music in the USA. In the backyard David plays with his younger sister while his father mends the fence to prevent his elder daughter from visiting the boy next door. Mr Helfgott, David and a younger daughter are then shown using a bicycle and cart to collect bottles in the neighbourhood. Back in the yard Mr Helfgott shows off his strength to his son and daughter, urging them to be strong because ‘only the fit survive’. Piano music accompanies the clip.

Educational value points

  • The clip establishes Peter Helfgott’s power over his family in a series of short scenes. His opposition to David going to the USA is not directly stated but the music teacher feels it and appeals to Rachel, David’s mother, who defers to her husband. The elder daughter feels her father’s disapproval and withdraws from her conversation with a boy. Peter, the ‘man of steel’, physically dominates David and his younger sister while teaching them a lesson about life.
  • The use of filmic language to suggest a theme or plot element is demonstrated in the clip. Peter and Rachel Helfgott were Polish–Jewish immigrants who had lost their families in the Holocaust. The film does not directly refer to this event but its role is suggested when Peter tells David that he is lucky to have a family. The idea of a concentration camp is then conveyed by the image of Peter behind a fence, a strand of barbed wire in front of his face.
  • Film’s ability to suggest relationship is demonstrated through the character of David’s mother. Rachel is an ambiguous character here – she says little but her presence is important. When her husband urges his children to hit him, holding them at bay and asserting his physical superiority, she watches through the window. She is aware of what is happening in her family but appears to have no power to influence events or to change her husband’s behaviour.
  • Film has to use visual language economically to make its points, as is shown in the scene of Peter taking his children into the neighbourhood to collect bottles. The scene establishes the poverty of the family. It shows the bond between father and children and the way that David and his sister have been isolated from other children. The three little girls playing hopscotch move out of the way and one of them pokes her tongue out as the group goes by.
  • This section of the film is important in establishing Peter Helfgott’s character and the relationships he has with family members. The film suggests that the cause of Peter’s domineering and obsessive love for his children is grounded in his experiences in wartime Europe. Its effect on David is crucial in explaining his later breakdown. Margaret Helfgott, David’s sister, has since claimed that the portrayal is completely inaccurate.
  • The film Shine, based as it is on the life of a living person, David Helfgott, raises questions about real events and film’s depiction of them. Members of David Helfgott’s family, particularly his sister Margaret, have challenged the portrayal of her father, believing the film damages his reputation. Scott Hicks, the film’s director, has defended himself and claims that the film is not a straight biography. However, the film does appear to offer a truthful account of Helfgott’s life.
  • The mood of the clip is subdued, with the emotional responses of characters suggested but left unclear. The tones of blue and grey in the kitchen help to create the mood. David’s response to his father is never overtly conveyed. The slamming of the door when the elder daughter comes in may indicate her anger towards her father. The feelings of the father and the mother are distanced from the viewer by their being positioned behind windows.
  • Shine established the reputation of Australian director Scott Hicks (1953–). He won an Emmy award in 1994 for a documentary, Submarines: Sharks of Steel, but a newspaper article in 1986 inspired him to make a feature film based on the life of David Helfgott. The release of Shine in 1996 caused a sensation. It won an Oscar for Geoffrey Rush in 1997 and Hicks was nominated for Best Director. It won 38 other awards and received 33 other nominations.
  • The clip features the actor Armin Mueller-Stahl (1930–) playing Peter Helfgott. The role won him a 1997 Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He began his film and stage career in East Berlin. After being blacklisted he migrated to West Germany in 1980 and achieved success within the West German film industry. His US film career started with a leading role in Music Box (1989). He has continued to achieve success both in Germany and the USA.
  • The clip portrays the early life of David Helfgott (1947–). It depicts his father’s opposition to David taking up the offer of a scholarship from violin master Isaac Stern to study in the USA. As a young boy David won several state piano competitions and then a national competition and was hailed as a musical prodigy. At 19 he was offered a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music in London. His studies were cut short by his mental breakdown.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Momentum Films
Jane Scott
Scott Hicks
Jan Sardi
Story by:
Scott Hicks
Music :
David Hirschfelder
Geoffrey Rush, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Nicholas Bell, Noah Taylor, Kelly Bottrill, Danielle Cox, John Gielgud, Rebecca Gooden, Marta Kaczmarek, Alex Rafalowicz, Lynn Redgrave, Sonia Tood, Googie Withers
Produced in association with BBC and Pandora Cinema. Produced with the assistance of the Film Finance Corporation Australia, Film Victoria and the South Australian Film Corporation