Australian Screen

Australia’s audiovisual heritage online

Shine (1996)

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clip 'Only the fit survive' education content clip 1, 2

Original classification rating: PG. This clip chosen to be G

Clip description

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.

Curator’s notes

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 (see clip three). 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.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

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.

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australianscreen is produced by the National Film and Sound Archive. By using the website you agree to comply with the terms and conditions described elsewhere on this site. The NFSA may amend the 'Conditions of Use’ from time to time without notice.

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  • The National Film and Sound Archive’s permission must be sought to amend any information in the materials, unless otherwise stated in notices throughout the Site.

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