The Sounds of Silents
Willy SommerfeldWilly Sommerfeld looks back on a musical career lasting over 80 years. Born in Danzig on May 11th, 1904, today he is the last surviving silent film pianist.

In 1920 he goes to Berlin, where he studies composing at the Sternsches Konservatorium. As a side job, he earns a little money working at a theater near Wittenbergplatz, where he plays violin accompaniment to a professor on the piano. Later, Sommerfeld himself plays the piano. Then and now, he accompanies films based on his intuition, never playing by notes. As he himself once said, "The images I see on screen go to my head, and from there straight to my hands. And since I'm so short, that happens very fast." As a piano man, he went on to attain national acclaim, receiving the Bundesfilmpreis (Federal Film Award ) in 1995.

In the late 1920s, he writes for a Braunschweig music publishing house. Later, he becomes a bandmaster and conductor at a Braunschweig theater. His failure to give the 'Hitler Salute' in 1933 spells the end of his 'piano career.' He finds a job in radio, where he writes music for radio dramas. After the war, Sommerfeld works as a musical arranger and music therapist. For years, he has humbly given publicists, journalists, scholars and documentarians insight into his life and work. Willy Sommerfeld is not a man of many words; he prefers to sit down at the piano and play. He is truly a phenomenon, for he has the gift of transforming any on-screen emotion, no matter how complex, into music.

Ilona Ziok's documentary film "Sound of Silents – Der Stummfilmpianist" portrays the life and work of Willy Sommerfeld in vivid images and interviews. It will be released in German theaters in May, coinciding with Willy Sommerfeld's 102nd birthday.

Even today, Willy Sommerfeld is not even thinking about stopping. Instead, he continues to play, and before every show, he merely asks the same question: "Will it be a happy film or a sad one?"

Willy Sommerfeld - Vita

Willy SommerfeldMay 11,1904 born in Danzig

1920 State Exam as music teacher for violin

1921 Berlin: studies in bandleading and music composition at the Sternsches Konservatorium (under Prof. Felietz)

1921-1926 silent film accompaniment on piano and violin

1926 Braunschweig: proofreader at Litolf music publishing house. Side job as conductor of a 12-man cinema orchestra at the UFA cinema in Braunschweig

1927-1934 bandleader at the Braunschweig Theater

1933 National Socialist seize power. Ban on performing following refusal to show the Nazi director the 'Hitler salute'

1934 Leipzig: pianist with the group 'Four Newsmen' (with Helmut Käutner)

1935 'Four Newsmen' are banned from performing

1935 return to Berlin

1935-1945 radio drama recordings for German shortwave radio station; house composer at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, Freie Volksbühne Berlin and Schauspielhaus Leipzig

until 1945 music for theater tours and troop entertainment at the front

1945 conductor of the show orchestra Neue Scala (now Metropol) in Berlin

1948 stage music for director Rochus Gliese at the Landestheater Potsdam. Head of March Brandenburg symphonic orchestra

until 1950 performances throughout Germany

1950 onward studio music for records, including light entertainment music and fairy-tales for musical slide shows

1952-1954 conductor of Baclay circus orchestra on Friedrichstraße

1954-1958 musical director and conductor of Hans Otto Theater in Potsdam

1958 marriage to Doris

1958 onward music for records

1961 Berlin Wall is built: record companies leave Berlin.
Economic hard times. Musical direction of Theater des Westens; musical entertainment evenings for seniors

1966 birth of son Sebastian

1968 onward retirement

1972 'Friends of the German Cinema' (Freunde der deutschen Kinemathek) discover Sommerfeld as one of the last silent film pianists and hire him as their house pianist in the Arsenal Cinema, where he had played over 70 years ago (originally named Bayreuther Lichtspiele).

1972 onward performances as silent film pianist throughout Germany. Accompaniment of cinema into the new era, i.e. at the opening of the Hamburg Cinemaxx

November 29, 1988 receives National Medal of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany

April 30, 1994 receives honorary professorship from the Berlin Senate for his outstanding activities

1995 receives Bundesfilmpreis (Federal Film Award) for exceptional service to German cinema, Golden Cinema Ribbon

2004 receives Berlinale Camera Award