Archival Spaces 282
Martin Koerber‘s Laudatio for Chris Horak
Uploaded 12 November 2021
For the first time ever, I have given space in my blog for a guest author. On 4 November 2021, Martin Koerber, Curator at the Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin, and also responsible for the film archive, gave the laudation speech in the Kino Arsenal when I received the Cinematheque Association‘s honorary prize. The original text was read in German.
Today, Prof. Jan-Christopher Horak receives the Honorary Prize of the Cinematheque Association for Service to Film Culture and Patrimony 2021. Since the 1970s, as anyone who has concerned themself with film archiving and film history knows, Chris Horak has been on the road as a film historical researcher, but also as an archive director, curator, and as the founder of diverse activities in our field. Only a few of his many accomplishments can be addressed in this short appreciation – a laudatio from the Latin- mentioning merely a few highlights, for example, the innumerable articles – according to Wikipedia over 300 – which Chris has published in the last forty-five years; these will hopefully be collected one of these days in an anthology or be available for reading on his blog, Archival Spaces. I want to warmly recommend, you subscribe to this blog, in which he speaks of his experiences, his contacts with other film preservationists and filmmakers, occasionally mentioning biographical details, which reveal much that is private, so the reader understands why certain topics interest him. Blogs are a publication modus to pursue so-called minor matters that unlock much more about the writer at times than serious missives and their accompanying footnotes. You will see, how useful it was for me that Chris is a blogger.
The honorary prize which has been previously awarded only three times, applies not so much to a role or roles someone has filled than to the personality repeatedly displayed in the course of exercising one or more functions. Character manifests itself in an interest in professional activity, closely connected to a biography, and from this link emerges the passion and dedication necessary to perform the extraordinary. The film critic Andreas Kilb once described Chris Horak in Die Zeit (1999) as follows: „Chris Horak, the son of a Czech émigré and a German woman, raised in West Germany and the USA, is a hybrid of Germanic and American virtues: tall, energetic, affable, fastidious, a workaholic and a dreamer, he could easily be an ambassador for German film in Hollywood, a mediator between worlds.“
The slogan for this year’s festival of the Cinematheque Association is “Cinematic Migrations” – a motto that could stand for the life and professional impact of Dr. Jan-Christopher Horak. Born in 1951 in Bad Münstereifel, and whoever doesn‘t associate evil with the naming of this quiet spa, knows nothing of the bitter ironies of the 20th century in Germany (Hitler’s Felsennest residence looked down on the medieval town). These accompany Chris’s life from the very beginning like a warning shadow, making him ever vigilant: His father illegally crossed the border from Prague into – of all places – Germany, where at the beginning of the 1940s Jaromír Horák had been incarcerated briefly in the Concentration Camp Sachsenhausen because he had been a university student when demonstrations against the Nazi German occupation had occurred. The grandfather was able to ransom his son’s release, but further political activity after 1945 finds him again on the „wrong side“ after the Communist Putsch in Czechoslovakia. In a strange reversal of fronts, Germany becomes a refuge for a man condemned in absentia to twenty years hard labor.
The family moved on to America, but returned in the mid-1960s to Germany, from where the father travelled repeatedly on business to the old CSSR. When the archives of the Czech Secret Police are opened after 1989, it becomes clear that they had considered finally arresting Jerome Horak numerous times on one of those trips, which elicited the following succinct comment from father to son: „Those were exciting times.“
Chris Horak studies first in the USA and then in Germany, receiving his doctorate at the University of Münster with his dissertation, Anti-Nazi-Films of German-speaking Émigrés in Hollywood 1939-1945 (1984). The late/great film critic Karsten Witte emphatically recommended I read this work he undoubtedly saw in relation to his own studies of German cinema in the 1930s, which first appeared here and there and then collected in his seminal publication, Lachende Erben – Toller Tag, Film Comedy in the Third Reich (1995).
I should mention two publications from this period, written with Ute Eskildsen that indicate Horak‘s interest in international linkages in avant-garde film and photography: Film and Photo in the 1920s (1979)and Helmar Lerski, Lichtbildner und Fotograf (1982); again migration as a life-saving human right is a factor in the biographies of the artists discussed here and certainly also determined the creation of these studies. The 1980s find Chris Horak first as Associate Curator, later as the long-time Senior Curator in the film archive of the George Eastman Museum in Rochester. It was essential to move the film archive into professional channels, given that since its founding it had been operated as a personal collection, and establish first contacts to other film archives in the Fédération Internationale des Archiv du Film (FIAF). We, too, first met – I believe initially by mail – because the Kinemathek was a consistent client of Eastman House for its Berlinale film retrospectives, and was even able to „borrow“ their house pianist Phil Carli in the mid-1990s (under Chris‘ successor Paolo Cherchi Usai) for William Wyler’s silent films from Eastman.
The mid-1970s sees the initial formation – with Chris Horak in attendance – of the forerunner of what will become the Association of Moving Image Archivists (aka AMIA), a global coalition of film archivists and those interested in film preservation, a fantastic network around the world which continues to coordinate the activities of our little industry. In contrast to FIAF, which unifies film archival institutions, AMIA engages individual members, whether they are at home in public film archives or in the collecting and preservation departments of the film industry, or work for equipment manufacturers and film post-production houses, or are students interested in entering the field. Chris Horak became the first vice president of the Association, its second official member. Later, he founded The Moving Image, AMIA’s journal concerned with film preservation issues, but whose professional importance expanded far beyond its membership. Chris edits the journal for its first six years, establishing it in the field as a serious publication with a considerably expanded thematic brief, in comparison to FIAF’s Journal of Film Preservation, reflecting topical debates in film studies and the archive world.
In 1994, Chris Horak is named Enno Patalas‘ successor as Director of the Munich Filmmuseum, and now becomes an active member of the German Cinematheque Association. Our contacts increase, especially in the preparation of the Berlinale retrospective for G.W. Pabst in 1997, for which our partners restore and make whole many of the director’s films. Under Chris‘ aegis, Pabsts’s seminal film, TheJoyless Street (1924) is restored, moving Enno Patalas‘ previous work far beyond what any of us could have hoped for. Wolfgang Jacobsen, René Perraudin, and I accompany their work with a camera for our film, Pabst Wieder Sehen, which is screened at the retrospective and on the Arte TV channel; I remember intense days of film shooting during which, on the one hand, we tried to capture work on the editing table, which collated shot by shot the severely mutilated and incomplete film, giving it a new lease on life by combing prints from numerous different countries. On the other hand, I remember the stunning richness of photographs and scripts from G.W. Pabst’s estate that had been deposited in Munich in the 1960s. For lack of other possibilities, we distributed this hardly manageable treasure on the floor of an empty room in the Filmmuseum and created – contrary to today’s stricter rules for the conservation of documents – a landscape over which our camera glided at the beginning of the film, in order to indicate all that had been lost and found during the search for Pabst’s oeuvre.
Chris’ work in Munich is also characterized by the fact that he adds new accents beyond the Filmmuseum’s previous focus on the canonized German film classics. A lucky find in a Munich cellar reveals a whole bunch of previously thought „lost“ German film comedies from the early 1930s, which are then preserved, copied, and screened. Another outstanding project from this period is his exhibition on Dr. Arnold Fanck and the mountain film, including the publication, Berge, Licht und Traum. Dr. Arnold Fanck und der deutsche Bergfilm, which lifts this genre out of the trash or cozy corner (depending on the audience’s p.o.v.) of German film history, critically illuminating it.
The return to America occurs as early as 1998, this time to the heart of Hollywood: Chris Horak becomes the founding director of Archives & Collections at Universal Studios. Another transnational project: Universal was famously founded by the German Jew Carl Laemmle but had morphed into a multi-national, multimedia company, which like many others, functioned without a sense of its own history or a „narrative.“ That had to change. In an article, Chris Horak seems to me to be introducing his new job: In conjunction with Helmut Asper he publishes an essay in the journal Film History, „Three Smart Guys. How a few penniless German Émigrés saved Universal Studios.“ It concerns Joe Pasternak, Felix Joachimson aka Felix Jackson und Heinrich Kosterlitz aka Henry Koster who in Berlin und Budapest had successfully tested recipes for film comedies with Dolly Haas und Franziska Gaal, which they recycle with Deanna Durbin and Mickey Rooney after their emigration to Hollywood, earning millions from these films and thereby saving the nearly bankrupt Universal from ruin. Apart from the beautiful arabesque, Horak appends to one of his lifelong themes, namely film emigration from Nazi Germany, the article is interesting because it – in accordance with the „New film history“ – not only raises film aesthetic issues but also because it focuses on the film business, which makes artistic production even possible. What in fact drives film history forward? „It’s the business model – stupid!“
Unfortunately, the irreconcilability of serious academic research into film history and studio politics becomes apparent after a promising beginning, collecting, cataloging, and housing archival materials from Universal‘s various storage facilities. Chris‘ employment at Universal is cut short by the employer from one day to the next without warning, in the American way: „You’re fired!“ A serious blow for a film academic who in an interview in Die Zeit a short time before had declared that he was not planning on ever applying for another job, given his present life’s work, researching the studio’s history since 1912.
But life continues: For a few years, Chris breathes new life into the privately-financed Hollywood Entertainment Museum on Hollywood Boulevard, organizes fifty exhibitions, and warms up for his next major assignment: From 2007 to his retirement in 2020 he is the director of UCLA Film & Television Archive, the second largest film archive in the USA. He brings about decisive improvements in the archive’s financial situation and champions the preservation of films by filmmakers of both genders with diverse ethnic backgrounds. He initiate projects, like LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2011), a retrospective of 58 African-American films, accompanied by a symposium, a book publication (2015), a DVD box-set, as well as an international tour of a traveling film program from 2012 to 2015. The program also occasioned the restoration of numerous films, which you can read about in Chris’s blog, as I never tire of pointing out.
Another aspect of „Cinematic Migrations“ which long remained hidden was the Latin-American cinema in the USA, produced for Spanish-speaking inhabitants of this multi-ethnic country. Recuerdos de un cine en español: Classic Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles, 1930-1960 opened an extremely comprehensive UCLA Film and Television Archive retrospective. Chris even managed for this program to invite the director of the Cinemateca de Cuba to break the blockade and hand-carry original 35mm film cans of the previously suppressed pre-revolutionary period in Cuba, like Casta de Roble (1954), which was then restored. One result of the retrospective was the publication of Hollywood Goes Latin. Spanish-Language Filmmaking in Los Angeles (2019), edited by Chris Horak und María Elena de las Carreras. During his curatorial administration at UCLA, he also organized the retrospective Through Indian Eyes. Native American Cinema, illuminating another previously unknown or little-known chapter of American film history.
Next to these big achievements, other miniatures document Chris continuing preoccupation with cinematic migrations. Where do we find them? In his Archival Spaces blog, of course! A little study on the film director John H. Auer (from Budapest ) who directed Spanish-language films in America, or the mostly forgotten novelist, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, who escaped from the Nazis but then was interned as an enemy alien and deported to Australia. On the return to the U.K. his ship was torpedoed and he drowned; a memorial stone sits in front of his last residence before his emigration in Berlin Schmargendorf (Archival Spaces 272). Time and again, Chris delights the reader with little surprises, one would not have thought about, allowing us to partake in things that are on his mind or which he has noticed in his research. Sharing knowledge – how important that is! BTW that also manifests itself in the fact that Horak continues to teach after his retirement at UCLA, Chapman, and elsewhere.
The list is getting too long. I have to stop, otherwise, there won’t be time for The Killers. Dear Chris Horak, we are so happy that you have accepted the Prize and wish you our hearty congratulations.
Martin Koerber, Berlin, 4 November 2021.