A stark irony underpins the title of this Dutch-produced documentary about the often unbridgeable gap between the promise and fulfillment of prodigy. Cohen’s subjects—
two Russian violinists, an American violinist, and a
Russian pianist— are past
winners of Brussels’s Queen Elizabeth Competition; a first-place prize is widely considered the most prestigious accolade in classical music but does not, apparently, guarantee a
stellar career. All four of
these champions went on to middling-at-best success,
variously hampered by illness, depression, bad luck, sheer
indifference, and, for the
Russians, the vagaries of the Soviet regime. Soon after
winning the 1964 competition (even though another member of the Soviet delegation had been “planned” for the prize), pianist Yevgeny Moguilevsky was officially branded
“politically unreliable” and prohibited from leaving his country for 10 years despite
invitations from orchestras around the world.
The disappointments met by the other men are less readily explicable. Violinist Philipp Hirshhorn, who won in 1967 and now exudes stultified self-contempt, simply collapsed under the weight of expectation once he’d emigrated to the West. He now likens his winning performance to artistic deceit: “It seems I did something tricky to convince the jury, like a successful lie.” Scenes in which the bitter, slightly daffy Hirshhorn (who died in 1996) watches 30-year-old footage of his Queen Elizabeth win, scoffing at his broodingly handsome former self, are painful to watch.
The dark, melancholy air
of The Winners unfortunately carries with it a distinct whiff of condescension toward its subjects. I’m not sure what
Cohen is out to prove when his camera gawks at paunchy,
elderly Berl Senofsky while he lumbers about his apartment, knocking over plants as he searches in vain for his Queen Elizabeth medal, or when it stares at Hirshhorn for long intervals between Cohen’s questions. Cohen feels sorry for these men whose lives
never matched their brilliance, but offers little insight into the slow leaking process by which their gifts went to waste. The simplicity and straightforwardness of his approach is too pseudo-objective for such a murky, elusive topic as
genius and its betrayals. At times, Cohen comes off as little more than a pitying voyeur; his subjects have always deserved a better audience.