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Restoring Summer of Soul (… or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

Uploaded 23 July 2021

The Harlem Cultural Festival in the summer of 1969 has been called “the Black Woodstock.” Held over a period of six Sundays in what is now called Marcus Garvey Park at 125th Street in Harlem, the Festival drew over 300,000 people and featured some of the biggest music acts of the era, including Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, the Chambers Brothers, the Fifth Dimension, B.B. King, the Staple Singers, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, The Temptations’ David Ruffin, and Mongo Santamaria. A fantastic new documentary, Summer of Soul (… or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), directed by the musician-disc jockey-record producer Ahmir Khalib Thompson aka Questlove, not only captures the spirit of that signature event, but also contextualizes it within the African-American struggle for civil rights and an emerging “Black is Beautiful” cultural identity, adding modern interviews with participants on and off stage, as well as news film footage.

African-American fashion at Black Woodstock

As the documentary makes clear, structural racism in America’s entertainment industry kept the video footage from receiving its full due, even though many of the acts had had huge cross-over hits that summer.  At least two one hour (with commercials) compilations of the Harlem Festival were broadcast at the time. Produced/hosted by Tony Lawrence and produced/directed by Hal Tulchin with Jambe Prods., Ltd., one show was seen on the New York CBS affiliate WNEW-TV and CBS-KOOL-TV in Phoenix in July 1969. ABC broadcast a second show in September 1969 on WLS-TV in Chicago and probably many other markets, but apparently not in the South. Thus, while the film states that the videotapes remained unseen and unheard for over 50 years, rotting away in a basement until producer Robert Fyvolent acquired the more than forty hours of footage, the actual story of its “discovery” and preservation is more complicated.

Director Hal Tulchin

The 3rd Harlem Cultural Festival, sponsored by Maxwell House, was recorded on 2” Quad videotape in summer 1969 by television director Hal Tulchin who put up his own money. Tulchin hired Tele-Tape Productions to supply a mobile recording truck, three Marconi Mark VII four Plumicon tube color cameras. One tube each for the red, blue, green, and black and white, as well as a Norelco PCP-70 portable color camera with three Plumbicon tubes, red, green and blue for the hand-held shots of the stage and audience.  All cameras were hard-wired to the truck. The Marconi cameras had their own vertical and horizontal aperture correction design, BBC qualified lens, producing a very high quality and detailed picture in both luminance and color. Filling the entire 4.2 Mhz NTSC bandwidth with information.

Norelco camera left of piano, Marconi cameras on and under stage right

The Tele-Tape truck had a full control room and two High Band Quad machines. The director created two simulations live versions. The first 2” machine recorded a line cut of the performances on stage from the four cameras, as well as mixed audio on the audio track and ambient audio from the audience on the Cue track. The second Quad recorded an ISO cut, which was a camera shooting the crowd from the perspective of the performers. There were microphones on stage picking up crowd noise that was recorded on the main audio track. Audio from the production board mixer was recorded on the cue track from the Norelco, and ISO audio straight from the production board mixer since multi-track location recording was not yet possible. On high profile performances, both Quad machines were recording the line cut and mixer audio as a backup.  Six reels of 90-minute Quad tape were shot per day. 

19 year old Stevie Wonder on drums. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios
Gladys Knight & the Pips. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios

Hal Tulchin tried for years unsuccessfully to find financial backers for his “Black Woodstock,” which he had copyrighted. In the early 1980s, Tulchin dubbed each of the Quad masters onto 1” Type C” on Ampex VPR-2’s, using 60 min tapes and small spot reels. For some reason he didn’t use 90 min 1” tape stock, thus breaking up the original reels. The quality of the analog dubs was also lower at 300 lines. The tapes remained stored in Tulchin’s Bronxville basement for decades.      

The Fifth Dimension

In 2004, Joe Lauro of Historic Films teamed up Tulchin and filmmakers Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon to create a documentary but failed to find financial backing.  In 2011, Joe Lauro made a new pitch, working with Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions (Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown) to sell the project, this time to Sony Pictures. In June of 2012, a sample of the 1” tapes were sent to DuArt Restoration evaluation, but their Video technician, Maurice Schechter, determined these had baked in quad artifacts, so the original quads were pulled from Tulchin’s basement. Approximately a third of the 2” tapes (14 tapes) and log sheets were sent for transfer and restoration. The Quads were found to have incredible detail, resolution, saturation, and sound, but Sony turned down the opportunity and Jigsaw walked away. Tulchin died in August 2017 with having realized his dream of a “Black Woodstock” film. In October 2015, DuArt closed down and the fourteen original quad tapes apparently ended in the dumpster.

Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone

Before Tulchin died in September 2017, Robert Fyvolent, an entertainment lawyer, purchased the rights to the footage and formed Mass Distraction Media to produce a documentary, probably bringing in Joe Kamen and RadicalMedia soon after, since that company asked the AMIA Listserv for suggestions to do transfer work on 2” Quads. Schechter Engineering, which had purchased DuArt’s video lab volunteered. Maurice Schechter and Bill Seery of Mercer Media transferred all surviving 2” and 1”, baking and cleaning the quads to mitigate any back coat issues from the decomposed foam sealing. The analog output of the quad was fed into a Snell and Wilcox decoder, which created a 10bit uncompressed SDI stream. This was a huge challenge, since detail from the 4 tube cameras can create a mirage of visual artifacts, dot crawl, cross color and loss of resolution. After several more steps to capture the audio. the SDI signal was captured by AJA to a 10bit uncompressed interlaced NTSC / 24bit 48Khz PCM quicktime audio file. Unfortunately, virtually all of the most important performances had been on the lost 14 tapes. Fortunately, Schechter found the hard drives from the 2011 transfers and donated them to Radical. At this point director Questlove was brought in to supervise color timing and editing.

RCA TR600A Quad Machine at Glen Head, N.Y. transferring Tulchin footage

A decision was made to finish the film in 4K at 24p, blending down the 30 frame NTSC ( AKA 29.97 ) of the original digitization to 24 Frames, while keeping the 4×3 aspect ratio, thereby creating digital artifacts and strobe effects. The producers apparently wanted the feel of photochemical film, giving it a “more vintage” look that contrasted with the modern interviews and buttressed the filmmaker’s thesis that the historical event had been willfully neglected for decades.   

Ahmir Khalib Thompson aka Questlove

Make no mistake, Questlove and the producers have created an extremely moving document that itself becomes evidence for the institutionalized racism suffered by people of color in this country, while celebrating the unbelievable joy of music. Nevertheless, one can only hope that the unedited and correctly transferred footage of this amazing event will one day become available in all its visual glory.

Thanks to John H. Mitchell Television Curator Mark Quigley for help on researching this blog, as well as the hours of time Maurice Schechter gave me to explain the technical aspects.

Nina Simone

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John H. Auer’s Beginnings as a Poverty Row Auteur

Uploaded 9 July 2021

Erich von Stroheim in The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935)

This week I recorded a DVD commentary for The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1934), directed by the Hungarian American director, John H. Auer, which will be released in a four-disc box set by Flicker Alley later this year. According to an appreciation published by David Kerr in Film Comment in 2011, the director, John H. Auer, “was a filmmaker of high ambitions who discovered a certain freedom on poverty row,” like Edgar G. Ulmer at PRC and Joseph L. Lewis at Monogram. As house director for urban thrillers romantic comedies, torrid melodramas, and breezy musicals at Republic, – anything but westerns! – Auer held a position similar to Michael Curtiz at Warner Brothers. Kerr notes further, more than a competent craftsman, Auer’s films are about constant motion within a fixed structure, his characters consistently inconsistent, defined by dual natures and hidden emotions. In doing the research for the commentary, I was able to nail down some biographical details that have been fuzzy in previously published biographic sources.

John H. Auer

Born in Budapest on 3 August 1906 in what was then still the Austro-Hungarian Empire, John Hummer Auer suppressed his middle, becoming John H. According to some sources, John H. Auer was educated in Vienna and acted as a child in Hungarian films, beginning in 1918, but no credits have been confirmed. He supposedly entered the business world after his career as a child actor ended. His older brother, Stephen Auer preceded him to the United States, entering the country through New York in March 1921, remaining there until applying for American citizenship in 1927. Johan Auer arrived in New York from Trieste in November 1928 with his mother, Hinie Auer, on a temporary visa, giving his profession as clerk. It is unclear how long he stayed in New York with his brother, before travelling to Hollywood to find work as a director, but Auer initially failed to get a job.

Auer apparently entered the film industry in late 1930 as a producer for a Spanish language film, El comediante (1931), under the John H. Auer Productions banner. Starring and directed by Ernesto Vilches, the film was shot in Los Angeles and picked up for distribution by Paramount. Based on de Mélésville’s 19th century play, “Sullivan,” about the actor David Garrick, the film has Vilches performing in a variety of roles, including, “Peña Mena, Salambo, Juan Molinari and other figures known to the public,” according to Los Angeles Spanish language newspaper La Opinion.

While El comediante and the majority of Spanish language films were still being produced in Hollywood, due to inadequate production conditions for sound films in Mexico, by 1932 the situation was beginning to change, thanks to the success of Santa (1932). Auer’s directorial debut came with Un vida por otra (1932), a film he also co-wrote, although he did not speak Spanish. Produced by the companies Compañia Nacional Productora de Peliculas and Inter-Americas Cinema in the United States, the film starred Nancy Torres and Julio Villareal. The great Mexican director, Fernando de Fuentes co-wrote the script and probably assisted Auer with the direction of the actors, directing his own first feature the following year.  A melodrama of “a pure Mexican woman,” the film tells the story of Lucia, who needs money for her sick mother and takes the blame for a murder she didn’t commit; her mother dies before the actual murderess pays her, so she is ultimately acquitted. As La Opinion wrote in its review: “With an argument full of vigor and interest, it presents the rare combination of good photography with excellent acting. The direction is by John Auer, one of the foreigners most intimately knowledgeable about Mexican psychology.” The film received an award from the Ministry of Education of Mexico.

Auer followed up that film with Su última canción (1933), starring the Mexican “Caruso” Alfonso Ortiz Tirado and Maria Luisa Zea with music by José Broseño. The film revolved around a down on his luck opera singer who is prevented from committing suicide by a young woman who helps him revive his career but doesn’t love him, leading to tragedy. The film was praised in La Opinion as a truly “national” picture with outstanding acting and superior cinematography by Alex Phillips (Santa), the Canadian cinematographer who had a long career in Mexico. All three films by Auer were screened in the Spanish language cinemas of downtown Los Angeles and reprised several times.

The Crime of Dr. Crespi with Jeanne Kelly

Still unable to get an offer from Hollywood, Auer next directed The Crime of Dr. Crespi in September 1934, which he apparently also produced through his own company, J.H.A. Pictures, but was co-financed by Liberty Pictures and M.H. Hoffman in New York. Filmed at the Biograph Studios in the Bronx, New York, the film was very loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Premature Burial.” First published in the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper in 1844, Crespi was co-written by John H. Auer and adapted by Louis Goldberg under the pseudonym Lewis Graham and Edwin Olmstead. Historical sources list Liberty Pictures as the film’s producer, but The Crime of Dr. Crespi was released by Republic Pictures, after Herbert J. Yates, the owner of Consolidated Industries, merged several poverty row studios that were heavily in debt to him. The Crime of Dr. Crespi was copyrighted twice on 29 November 1935, with a note by Republic stating that the first copyright in Liberty’s name was an error. The film remained on the shelf for at least 18 months and was not screened publicly until January 1936. Like much of Auer’s later work, the film’s studio bound scenes give evidence of high key lighting, expressionist shadows, off-kilter camera angles, a lot of camera movement and even direct references to Weimar Cinema’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932).

Major Bowes and Frank Sinatra (1935)

After completing the film Auer remained in New York at the Biograph Studios – probably living again with his brother and mother in New York – directing two short films, adapted from the “Major Bowes Amateur Hour’ radio program on the N.B.C. Network. Major Bowes Amateur Theatre of the Air was actually produced by Auer, and may have been a pilot, because the second film, Major Bowes Amateur Parade No. 1 (1936), officially opened the six film RKO series, introducing local singers and other variety artists to a wider public. A young Frank Sinatra made his first public appearance and recording with the Hoboken Four in the first film. 

John H. Auer transitioned to Republic Pictures after the merger with Liberty. His first film for Republic was A Man Betrayed (1936), shot at the Mack Sennett Studios – renamed Republic Studios in Los Angeles, and released in December 1936. Auer became a resident of Los Angeles the same year, according to his marriage certificate. Except for a three year period at RKO in the 1940s, Auer remained with Republic almost to the end of his career, directing and producing 30 features. Auer died on 15 March 1975 in North Hollywood.

Dwight Frye and Erich von Stroheim in The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935)

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Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz: The Passenger (1939/2020)

Uploaded 25 June 2020

Berlin’s Anhalter Bahnhof, 1930s

I recently finished reading Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s “lost” novel. Der Reisende, published for the first time in German in 2018, and recently republished in English in a new translation as The Passenger, eighty years after its first quickly forgotten appearance; it has been hailed by critics as a masterpiece. A promising young German-Jewish author of 27 years with two novels under his belt, Boschwitz died in 1942, when the troop transport ship he was on was sunk by a German U-Boat, having previously survived a torpedo attack in 1940 en route to Australia. Like the luckless fictional Jewish hero of his novel, who desperately tries to flee Nazi Germany in the days after the November 1938 Pogrom, an event the Nazis-called Reichskristallnacht, Boschwitz could apparently not escape his fate.

The novel opens in the Berlin home of Otto Silbermann on the night of 9 November, when Nazi brown shirts, the Sturmabteilung (S.A.), try to break into his flat and arrest the middle class business man, just as thousands of other German Jews were arrested and beaten all over Germany. Leaving his Christian wife behind, Silbermann escapes out the back door, and after meeting his “Aryan” business partner who has bought the business for a tiny fraction of its actual value, – a process the Nazis termed “Aryanization” – gets on a train without a destination in mind. He tries unsuccessfully to cross the border illegally into Belgium with 40,000 Reichsmarks in his possession, – another crime, given the prohibition for Jewish citizens against taking any money out of Germany, – and spends the rest of the novel travelling by train from one place to another, eventually ending back in Berlin.

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz and his mother, 1938

Silbermann is not only a completely assimilated German citizen of Jewish ancestry, he does not look “Jewish” and can therefore pass among both anti-Semites, Nazis, and ordinary, non-political Germans.   It is this ability to move freely among the “Wolfmen,” as Curt Siodmak called the Nazis that had kept Silbermann from emigrating sooner, as his son had and now leads him to reproach himself obsessively for not seeing the writing on the wall, for not rescuing his capital sooner, for abandoning his wife, for not trying to attempt another border crossing. But he had served patriotically in World War I on the Western Front, and like many middle class German Jews, he took pains not to call attention to his Jewishness. As time goes on, Silbermann becomes not only more and more frustrated, but also thin-skinned, even aggressive. When he meets an old Jewish business associate back in Berlin, he accuses the friend of putting him in danger, because Löwenstein looks Jewish. When he meets a sympathetic woman on a train, who makes clear to him she is not an anti-Semite, he verbally abuses her. “You look so irritated. I can understand that, but you should know I have nothing to do with all that. I’m not an anti-Semite. And if you were?, he said sharply. What would it change?” He even retorts aggressively to a German police official who is trying to find an excuse not to arrest him.  

German citizens of Jewish ancestry, arrested by S.A> and Police on 10 November 1938

I’ve read dozens of novels, written by exiled German Jewish writers in my decades of research on German refugee filmmakers from Nazi Germany after 1933, but seldom have I read a writer who described the pain, suffering, disappointment, humiliation, and betrayal, as well as Boschwitz, himself a German citizen of Jewish ethnicity who was thoroughly assimilated, and even baptized. In fact, Boschwitz wrote the novel in one month immediately after the November Pogrom. It was published in Sweden and England under the title The Man Who Took Trains.

HMT Dunera, 1940

Boschwitz did escape and went to England, where his mother was already residing, but was arrested and deported as an enemy alien to Australia by Winston Churchill’s government.  On 10 July 1940 2,542 detainees, almost all of them Jewish, anti-Nazi Germans, Austrians, and Italians, were loaded onto the HMT Dunera, where they were beaten, abused, and robbed by British military guards before arriving in Australia 57 days later. The ship was torpedoed twice, but one bomb was a dud, while the second narrowly missed the hull. Among the ship’s passengers were many famous refugee scientists, artists, and intellectuals. Boschwitz spent two years in an Australian internment camp, was then allowed to make the perilous journey back to England, if he enlisted. In his luggage was a revised version of the novel he hoped to republish, having previously sent revisions of the first 109 pages. He died on 29 October 1942, when the M.V. Abosso was sunk by a German torpedo 620 miles north of the Azores.

M.V. Abosso

In the postwar German Federal Republic, no one was interested in publishing Boschwitz’s novel,  although none other than Heinrich Böll (Group Portrait with Lady) tried in vain to convince a publisher. Not until Peter Graf, the editor of Der Reisende, found the German manuscript in 2015 in the “Exile Archive” of the German National Library in Marbach was The Passenger discovered.  

German Jewish citizens paraded through streets, November 1938
German Anti-Nazis being forcibly deported, London 1940

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Ozaphan, 16mm on Cellophane

Uploaded 11 June 2021

Ozaphan was a non-flammable safety film format marketed for home use in France and Germany from the late 1920s to the 1950s, which had the peculiarity that it neither used a conventional photographic emulsion, nor was its base di-acetate.  Rather, Ozaphan employed a system of image reproduction akin to blue line printing on a cellophane base. Despite the fact that it could not be utilized as a production medium, but only as a projection format, it was relatively popular as a distribution medium for amateurs wishing to screen commercial fiction, documentary, and animated films in their own homes. Ozaphan was produced through a cooperation between the French Le Cellophane, Agfa, and the German manufacturer Kalle & Co. AG. Despite attempts to form a French-German-American partnership in 1937-38  to distribute Ozaphan films in the United States, negotiations broke down, due to resistance from Ansco, the American subsidiary of Agfa, which saw as a competitor to its 16mm film. A new monograph by Ralf Forster and Jeanpaul Goergen, Heimkino auf Ozaphan. Mediengeschichte eines vergessenen Filmmaterials (CineGraph Babelsberg, 2021) details the history of this weird film format.

Cellophane was invented and patented between 1908-10 by the Swiss chemist, Jacques Edwin Brandenberger, as a clear, waterproof tablecloth for restaurant use, but was quickly marketed as packaging material for everything from food and candies to drugs and books. By 1912, Whitman Candy Company was packaging their sampler in cellophane. In 1924, Brandenberger sold the rights to cellophane production in America to E. I. du Pont de Nemours. While cellophane was contemplated as a base for photographic film, the fact that it lost its dimensionality when soaked in developer, made it unsuitable. Invented in 1917, Kalle & Co. introduced a diazotype photographic process in 1924, under the brand name Ozalid, which was able to accurately reproduce blue-line drawings on paper. Ozalid’s dry developing process used gas, rather than water, making a marriage of the two technologies feasible.

Le Cellophane S.A. trade show, n.d.
Ozolid blue line architectural drawing

With the expansion of the amateur film market in the 1920s, numerous raw film manufacturers attempted to find a safe alternative to highly flammable nitrate film. Pathé introduced a 9.5mm format in 1922 for their “Baby-Pathé” camera and projector, and Eastman Kodak brought their 16mm system to market in 1924, both based on a di-acetate based film. Shortly thereafter, Kalle, which had been absorbed by I.G. Farben, formed a partnership with Le Cellophane S.A. to create a non-flammable amateur film format, Ozaphan, which was also significantly cheaper to produce than di-acetate. In April 1928, Agfa introduced its 16mm Ozaphan film, having marketed a 22mm format (Edison) a year earlier, and two years later an X-ray film and film for sound tracks.

One advantage of Ozaphan was it was approximately half as thick as di-acetate, decreasing shipping costs, and also cheaper to produce because it did not use silver salts. Instead, cellophane was impregnated with a photosensitive ferric compound and dried. Utilizing a 16mm photochemical positive print, reduced from a 35mm negative as a matrix, Ozaphan prints were contact-printed under light, then developed under pressure in ammonia gas, a process that took 6-7 hours. Despite increased cost for matrices and developing, the cost of a finished Ozaphan film was 15 Pfennings, rather than 90 Pfennings per meter for di-acetate. This process obviously precluded the production of images in a camera, and was thus only used to make copies. Drawbacks to the process were that cellophane continued to have dimensional and shrinkage issues, and the quality of the yellow tinted black and white image was inferior to photographic film, lacking most grey tones.

Movector CS 16mm projector, modified filmgate for Ozaphan film, 1935

Nevertheless, Ozaphan became a popular amateur projection film format in Europe. By 1934, Agfa was distributing more than seventy-five titles (all of them silent) in the Ozaphan format. Virtually all of them were severely abridged versions of previously released commercial films, including German “Kultur” films from the Ufa, and other companies, and even American films, like “Charlie Chaplin in Hollywood.” Agfa, and after 1937, Kalle, continued to distribute films a large catalog during the Third Reich, including Nazi propaganda films. And while the company went dormant in 1945, it was revived in 1949 in the German Federal Republic and continued to operate until 1958, even spawning an Ozaphan-Film Club movement with more than 10,000 members. As a result, at least two generations of amateur film lovers were influenced by the process. Several hundred Ozaphan prints survive in German film archives, but copying them was impossible until digital technologies were introduced.

Ozaphan Film Club Membership Card, 1950s

Film history is filled with such anomalies, technological dead-ends, and brief shooting stars! As a non-photographic process, Ozaphan was one of themoost uinteresting. For those who don’t read German, Ralf Forster and Jeanpaul Goergen published their preliminary research, “Ozaphan: Home Cinema on Cellophane,” in Film History, No. 4, 2007, 372-383.

French Ozaphan film formats: 17.5 mm, 22mm, 24mm, 35mm sound

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Will Warner Brothers Abandon DVDs/blu-rays?

Uploaded 28 May 2021

Several weeks ago, Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites blew up with the news that AT & T’s Warner Media had announcedthat the WB would be abandoning the distribution of physical movie media, i.e., DVDs and Blu-rays, turning sales over to a third-party company. While the rumors were quickly denied, the Warner Archive Collection site now sends consumers to Amazon for the purchase of its classic DVS/Blu-Rays.

The Warner Archive Collection is the home video division for releasing classic and cult films from the company’s library. It began in March 2009 as a manufactured-on-demand DVD series with the goal of making available to consumers previously unreleased catalog films on DVD, without the major expense (advertising, packaging, extras) of a full DVD release. Although the digital transfers without clean-up were from existing prints, the initiative was in fact quite successful; it seems for now, the Collection will continue operating, but the question is for how long?

The rumors started flying back in January, when Warner Pictures Home Entertainment and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment announced that they would form new joint venture to distribute DVDs in North America for new releases, library titles and TV content. According to a report in Variety (15 January 2021), the new company was expected to be operational in the first quarter of 2021 but has yet to go public. The deal came as sales of all video disc formats (DVDs. blu-rays, UltraHD Blu-Rays) fell more than 50% between 2014 and 2018, sales dropping from $ 25.2 billion to $13.1 billion. In 2019, sales fell another 9.4% to $5.9 billion.

Meanwhile, in the first half of 2020, digital movie sales ($1.61 billion) overtook DVD/Blu-ray sales ($1.275) for the first time in the US, but those figures don’t even include streaming rentals or subscriptions. Since 2011, platforms like Netflix, Hulu and HBO have seen sales balloon 1,231% to $12.9 billion. According to Zoe Mills, an analyst at GlobalData, “Streaming has been a significant disruptor in the video market, with the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video enticing consumers to invest in their services at the detriment of physical DVD and Blu-ray sales.” She noted further in a report on the website, Advanced Television: “The Covid-19 pandemic is set to exasperate (sic) this market even further as not only is there a major new entrant to streaming but also with more people spending time at home, investment in these subscription services appears more worthwhile as consumers are able to use them more regularly.”

Format changes are of course nothing new to the film business. For more than 100 years, from its invention in 1895 to 2009, when 35mm prints as a medium for theatrical projection suddenly became obsolete with the introduction of so-called Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs). However, 35mm as a film distribution medium had already been impacted by the introduction of 16mm in 1924, which quickly became a format for home viewing and for non-theatrical screenings in educational institutions. By the 1950s, virtually all the major studios operated non-theatrical divisions to distribute their new and classic films, once the 35mm theatrical market had been saturated.

1976 VHS VCR

With the introduction of VHS, a video tape format for home use in 1976, home viewing became much more practical and lead to a huge expansion in the market. By 1977, the first video rental store opened in Los Angeles. But the industry was worried that VHS would cannibalize box office and so they sued SONY in 1976. As the cost of VHS players dropped to practically nothing, though, home video sales increased to $ 18 billion, creating a huge new income stream without effecting theatrical sales. In March 1997, the first DVD players were introduced and soon drove VHS from the market, given its superior image quality and ease of use.

However, with each of these format changes, fewer and fewer classic films have been available. Indeed, while VHS lead to the founding of numerous smaller distributors for public domain content, given the extremely low cost of transferring films to video, the introduction of DVDs lead to a shrinkage in the market, given digitals much higher production costs. With the new streaming services, classic and foreign films have become even more difficult to find and see. Yes, we have the Criterion Collection and You-Tube, but old American films from the classic studio era are virtually invisible on Netflix and many other streaming services. It remains to be seen, how many classic titles will be available on HBO Max (Warners), and the Paramount and Disney Channels.

Meanwhile, a number of smaller vendors, including Kino, Milestone, Shout Factory, Flicker Alley, and Drafthouse Films are betting that DVDs will stay around a bit longer, because a small but dedicated group of consumers still want to collect films, like holding the physical object in their hands, and believe the image quality of physical media still beats streaming.

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Liberating Hollywood. Women Directors & the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema

Uploaded 14 May 2021

The following review was originally written in October 2019, but remained unpublished. With a woman of color winning an Oscar for directing this year, this book remains hugely relevant.

Elaine May directing A NEW LEAF (1971)

In October 2019, it was announced in the trade press that Elaine May was, at 86 years old, making her first film in more than three decades, Crackpot, starring Dakota Johnson (a project that has still not materialized). May, the former partner of Mike Nichols, belonged to the first generation of Hollywood women film directors, influenced by 1970s feminism. Elaine May is one of the subjects in Maya Montañez Smukler‘s book, Liberating Hollywood. Women Directors & the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema (Rutgers University Press, 2019), based on her dissertation at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). The book won the Richard Wall Book Award of the Theatre Library Association.  

While American fiction filmmaking in the silent era featured literally dozens of women as writers, directors, and producers, the consolidation of the industry in 1920s Hollywood into a monopolistic system of production, distribution, and exhibition transformed filmmaking into a bastion of male privilege. While a small cadre of women survived as scriptwriters into the 1930s and 40’s, only two women directors are known to have had modest careers between 1930 and 1970: Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. With the rise of feminism, women began pushing for more responsibility behind the camera, and Smukler’s book analyses for the first time the success or lack thereof of the sixteen women who directed their first features in this period. It is a fascinating tale of small victories and major frustrations, involving gender issues that have yet to be resolved even now, exemplified by Elaine May’s banishment for 32 years after the mega-flop, Ishtar (1987), a film which has enjoyed rehabilitation in the last decade.

Ida Lupino

Before discussing the first attempts of women to reform Hollywood in the 1970s, Smukler offers a brief prologue that pays homage to independent women filmmakers who worked out of New York in the 1960s, making fiction features, including Shirley Clarke and Juleen Compton. Clarke’s The Connection (1961), The Cool World (1963) and Portrait of Jason (1967) were art houses successes, before she moved to Los Angeles, taught at UCLA in the late 1970s, and made an unsuccessful run at Hollywood. Compton’s films, Stranded (1964) and The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean (1966) were produced independently and then promptly forgotten after very limited runs. They were recently preserved by UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Shirley Clarke

In Chapter 1, Smukler sets the stage by noting that in 1970 the country’s two film schools most closely tied to Hollywood, UCLA and the University of Southern California (USC), matriculated only fifty women but 850 men. Clearly, this stepping stone to Hollywood – mythologized by the „movie brat generation“ of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas – was for men only, so women had to organize. Smukler discusses various political attempts to influence Hollywood. In March 1969, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) conducted hearings in Los Angeles, revealing gender and racial discrimination in the film industry’s hiring practices, but enforcement proved impossible in the face of indifference and intransience. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was also brought into play, but the equally guilty studios and craft unions blamed each other, so nothing changed. Finally, the Writer’s Guild Women’s Committee, founded in 1972, began aggregating employment information to prove gender bias, but their repeated meetings with studio executives also ran aground. The studios argued that the marketplace and the industry’s self-regulation would lead to change, not government intervention.

Joan Micklin Silver

In Chapter 2, Smukler differentiates between studio, art house and exploitation films as production cultures where a limited number of the women found initial success. Elaine May is represented as the sole woman working in a mainstream studio environment, when she directed A New Leaf (1971). Directors Barbara Loden (Wanda, 1971), Karen Arthur (Legacy, 1974), Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, 1975), and Penny Allen (Property, 1979) all directed independent features which succeeded on the art house circuit. Stefanie Rothman was a Roger Corman protégé, directing It’s a Bikini World in 1967, before producing the box office exploitation smash, The Student Nurses (1970). Also working in the (s)exploitation field were Beverly Sebastian (The Love Clinic, 1968) and Barbara Peeters (Just the Two of Us, 1970). Not surprisingly, these female exploitation directors had to temper their feminist themes with nods to male fantasies. The Student Nurses, for example, featured strong and independent women who nevertheless had to expose their breasts like clockwork throughout the narrative.

Stephanie Rothman

Some, like Rothman, Silver, and Sebastian were helped by their producer husbands, but Smukler demonstrates that other male mentors, like Roger Corman, “rarely… created the stepping-stones for career progression that for their male colleagues were typical…” (p. 45). Other husband-wife partnerships included Joan Rivers/Edgar Rosenberg (Rabbit Test, 1978), Anne Bancroft/Mel Brooks (Fatso, 1980), and Jane Wagner/Lily Tomlin (Moment by Moment, 1978), all of whom directed their first and only films for mainstream distributors.

Joan Tewkesberry

Smukler notes at the beginning of chapter 3:“While Hollywood seemed occasionally willing to appropriate feminism to boost its revenues and reputation, its unwillingness to hire women – both in front of and behind the camera – illustrated how the film business was determined to contain its female employees’ success – and with it their power – even if doing so meant losing money that these directors and actresses could have made for their studios.”(p. 163). That is the essence of the story of women in Hollywood throughout this book. Smukler next discusses the directorial careers of Joan Darling (First Love, 1977), Jane Wagner, Joan Tewkesbury (Old Boyfriends, 1979), Joan Rivers, and Claudia Weill (Girlfriends, 1978), all of whom directed their first films in the late 1970s. Almost all the women named here enjoyed only very brief careers as feature film directors, but some of them were able to sustain themselves with television work, which was geared more towards female audiences. As Joan Tewkesbury noted: TV movies “were cheap to make and women watched them… The men watched sports and the women watched these TV movies.” (p. 186)

Lee Grant

In the remaining pages of the chapter, Smukler discusses the history of the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, founded in 1974, which had been set up after persistent complaints that the AFI program privileged men: Only three of the AFI’s first 65 filmmaking grants were given to women. The workshop initially trained, among others, Anne Bancroft, Lee Grant (Tell Me a Riddle, 1980), Nancy Walker (Can’t Stop the Music, 1980), and Maya Angelou (Down on the Delta, 1998). The first three of course had major careers as actresses. Yet for all the propaganda value the AFI has culled from the workshop, none of the women in the early cohorts transitioned to mainstream Hollywood film careers, although Grant would produce a sizable body of work in documentary and television movies.

Maya Angelou directing DAWN ON THE DELTA (1998)

Smukler’s final chapter analyses the tortured relationship of the Director’s Guild with women, and the efforts of a group of feminists to push the DGA to accept more women through its Women’s Steering Committee – founded in 1979 – , making a direct appeal to the film companies, and finally through an EEOC legal case which ultimately failed. DGA resistance came not only from a significant number of males in the DGA, but, more surprisingly, from DGA members of colour, who expected their grievances to be resolved before women stepped up to the plate.

In her epilogue, Smukler points to women directors who produced their first films in the 1980s and in contrast to 70s women, were often able to sustain much longer careers, in part, thanks to the spade work of their older sisters. In 2020, women represented 16% of directors working on the 100 highest-grossing films in 2020, the best year ever for women, who only represented 4% of directors in 2018. By presenting the creative biographies of the first modern generation of women directors in tandem with their political struggles for employment equality, Maya Smukler has written an important contribution to the history of women behind the camera in Hollywood.

Claudia Weill shooting JOYCE AT 34 (1974, Joyce Copra)

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Archival Spaces 268

Seeing by Electricity. The Emergence of Television, 1878-1939

Uploaded 30 April 2021

Even though we think of television as only coming to public consciousness several decades after the birth of cinema, one of the epiphanies of Doron Galilli’s new book, Seeing by Electricity. The Emergence of Television, 1878-1939 (Duke University Press, 2020), is that theoretical conceptions of cinema and television emerged virtually at the same time, it initially being unclear which medium would first come to fruition. Furthermore, it was not until the cinema had entered its mature, industrial phase in the 1920s and the first practical television systems had been developed that media specific definitions of film and television were first articulated. In presenting evolving theoretical models of television from early visionaries to modernist avant-garde theorists, Galili’s media archeology demonstrates that American television as an entertainment broadcasting system was hardly a foregone conclusion.

Indeed, as Galili notes in his first chapter, early conceptions of television were intimately connected to the telephone and the telegraph, rather than optical toys as was cinema, and were seen as visual extensions of those technologies. The focus was on the simultaneous transmission and reception of moving images, whereas cinema developed out of technologies for recording and projecting images, mostly for entertainment purposes, rather than direct communication. In other words, two different media environments, and not just their ontological differences as chemical or electronic media, characterized the development of cinema and television. At the most basic level, film eliminated time by recording it, television obliterated space through simultaneous transmission between different locations.  Galili’s second chapter digs deeper by aligning the development of cinema and television with 19th century theories of optics and the human nervous system, which was thought to function through electrical impulses. Both media were seen as prosthetic extensions of the human eye (the film camera as an eye is a central metaphor of 1920s modernist film theory), but television could see the world instantaneously. 

1910 French postcard by Villlemard

Even after cinema became a reality and began rapidly developing into a coherent system of production, distribution and exhibition, the exhibition of “actualities” still evoked a sense of being there in the moment, just as television promised “liveness.” That very notion of liveness, is what television broadcasters would highlight, in order to distinguish it from cinema. Not that all early television attempts were that “live:” In 1934, Gaumont-British relayed eight feet of film of an airplane race from Australia to England by wireless telegraph, a process that took 68 hours, thus rivaling present download speeds for uncompressed movies. But cinema also began to define itself in contrast to the electrical transmission of images: “As cinema created for itself a distinct and coherent media identity, it charted new intermedial contexts and thereby distinguished itself from the sphere of transmission media.” (p. 93)

Siemen’s Selenium Eye, Scientific American, 1876

In chapter 4, Galili discusses the history of radio broadcasting, noting that its institutionalization in the United States as a system of privately owned, commercially operated broadcasting networks during television’s experimental phase (1920s) made it the dominant model for American television, while European nations followed a state-owned model for radio and later television. However, both radio and TV depended on a one-way model of transmission from centralized broadcaster to consumer, rather than the telephone’s two-way communication. As in his earlier chapter, where the author discusses television’s visual depiction in early cinema, he here looks at the many interesting and fun examples of television use in classic movies.

In his final two chapters, Galili analyzes modernist film theory’s prognosis for television, focusing on Dziga Vertov’s concept of the “Radio-Eye,” and Rudolf Arnheim’s 1930’s writings on television. The former emphasizes to a much greater degree than generally acknowledged that Vertov’s ideal – though unrealized – media for bringing unvarnished reality to the masses was television, rather than film, decoded in a Marxist terms. Interestingly, one of the central metaphors of his greatest film, The Man With the Movie Camera (1929), is the simulation of sound and instantaneous transmission (radio/television). Galili has a harder time making a case for Gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, who, following his standard work, Film as Art, denied television, like sound film, any artistic characteristics, since it was a hybridized, impure medium. Rather, writing from Fascist Italy, Arnheim focuses on television’s potential for totalitarian control and “maintains that the state should utilize the advantages of television in order to reawaken communal feelings and save the creative power of individuals from being ‘weakened by the division of labor’,” a statement that comes dangerously close to undergirding Italian Fascist ideology.

Man With the Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov)

In highlighting the dichotomies between cinema and television, between recording and transmission, between analog chemical film and electronic signals, while noting the continuous overlaps in conceptions and technical evolution, Doron Galili has vastly increased our knowledge of both media, while also illuminating the digital landscape of today, where film and television are no longer distinguishable. Ironically, the COVID pandemic has brought us back to television’s first conceptional model as a two-way tele-visual communication media through Zoom, WhatsApp, and Facetime.

Japanese Television-phone, 1968

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Archival Spaces 267

The „Aryanization“ of the Ufa

Uploaded 16 April 2021

Der Kongress tanzt / The Congress Dances (1931, Erik Charell), Ufa’s world-wide mega-hit

Some historians have always understood the Third Reich as a dictatorship that suppressed democratic institutions and oppressed, even murdered its citizenry without due process, but as the example of Germany’s largest film company, the Universum Film A.G. (Ufa) demonstrated, a significant portion of the population, including the business community, the military and the judiciary were willing conspirators in the establishment of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party, before Hitler was legally named Chancellor in January 1933. Even before the Nazi government passed anti-Semitic legislation, banning Jewish people from public life, the Ufa’s Board of Directors, in what the Germans call „voraus eilendende Gehorsamkeit” (anticipatory obedience) declared contracts with their German-Jewish employees to be null and void.

When the Nazis declared a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses on 1 April 1933, it resulted in the destruction and looting of Jewish businesses by Brown Shirts, while innocent Jews were beaten and humiliated in the streets. Obviously, the Ufa’s Board of Directors could not have known that the fascist disregard for law would manifest itself in violence and death when they met on the morning of 29 March – the same morning the papers announced the boycott . But they did vote to fire no less than twenty-four prominent film directors, writers, and actors.  Attending the meeting were Ludwig Klitzsch (CEO), Ernst Hugo Correll (Production chief), Alexander Grau (Film Theatre Dept.), Hermann Grieving (Studio Operations, Accounting), Paul Lehmann (Newsreels, Advertising Films) and Wilhelm Meydam (Distribution), as well as some non-Board members and company lawyers, the latter responsible for dissolving contracts.

Alfred Hugenberg and friend in 1933

Although the company’s majority stockholder, Dr. Alfred Hugenberg, was a member of Hitler‘s cabinet, the Board minutes reflect a certain guilty reticence on the Board’s part, probably because the talent involved were their biggest moneymakers. Then there was the uncomfortable fact that one of their own, Meydam, was a so-called „half-Jew,“ who was not forced out until 1941. But, in fact, Joseph Goebbels had informed Klitzsch of Nazi plans for the 1 April Jewish boycott, before the papers announced it, so the CEO was prepared. As a result, Jewish Board members Salomon Marx and Curt Sobernheim were not even invited to the meeting and were officially removed shortly thereafter, „due to the national revolution in Germany.“ Marx, who had been a member of the Board since its founding in 1917, died in October 1936, after his private bank had been confiscated, while Sobernheim fled to Paris, where he was murdered by German occupation forces in June 1940, days after the Fall of France.

Rosa von Borsardy and Anton Walbrook in Walzerkrieg (1933)

On 29 March fifteen of Ufa‘s most important filmmakers were sacked, while the fate of nine others was tabled in the hopes of quietly keeping them, a hope that proved illusory.  Except for the head of UFA Distribution, Hermann Kahlenberg and five secretaries, all the axed employees were prominent film talent: two producers (Erich Pommer, Fritz Wechsler), four directors (Ludwig Berger, Erik Charell, Erich Engel, Vikor Gertler), four scriptwriters (Robert Liebmann, Hans Müller, Otto Hein, Fritz Zeckendorf), two composers (Werner Richard Heymann, Gérard Jacobson), three actors (Rosy Barsony, Julius Falkenstein, Otto Wallburg), a set designer (Rudi Feld) und two technical department heads (Gerhard Goldbaum, Georg Engel).

Most were, at that moment, in production: Erik Charell was in pre-production on an Odyssey film, while Pommer, Berger, Liebmann, Müller and Barsony were making War of the Waltzes (1933), and Heymann and Jacobson were in post-production on Season in Cairo (1933). The latter was directed by Reinhold Schünzel, another „Halbjude“, whose contract had been renewed to finish the film before the end of April. Schünzel was able to continue working for Ufa as an „honorary Aryan“ (Goebbels) until 1937, then got into political hot water over the supposed anti-Hitler satire, The Land of Love (1937).Only Erich Engel, who was on the list for leftist sympathies, rather than racial „impurity,“ was able to continue his career in Nazi Germany after that fateful Ufa Board meeting.

Kurt Gerron and Dolly Haasin Dolly macht Karriere (1931)

Ultimately, many other German-Jewish filmmakers were victims of the Ufa’s policies, not just those specifically named in the minutes. For example, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch were also under contract in 1933, the latter actually suing Ufa for breach of contract. Ditto Fritz Zeckendorf. Film director Kurt Gerron was fired after he finished his film in May 1933. Gerron, who was also a well-known character actor, co-starring in The Blue Angel (1930), worked for the Nazis again in 1944, when as an inmate of Theresienstadt Cocentration Camp, he was forced to direct a Nazi propaganda film about the happy communal life in Theresienstadt (1944), before being murdered in Auschwitz.

Ufa’s anti-Semitic blacklist, included other first tier talent, like producers Gregor Rabinowitsch, Arnold Pressburger and Alfred Zeisler, scriptwriters Irmgard von Cube, Otto Eis, Max Jungk, Felix Joachimson, the cameraman Otto Kanturek, composers Friedrich Hollaender, Bronislav Kaper and Franz Wachsmann, and actors Walter Rilla and Rose Stradner, and eventually Anton Walbrook, because he was gay.

The Rabinovitch-Pressburger films were international hits

One wonders how many lower level film technicians (not named in the credits), – painters, carpenters, plumbers, gaffers, camera assistants, drivers, etc. – lost their livelihood in this anti-Semitic purge? Since the movie theater business had literally been founded in Germany as elsewhere by a generation of Jewish pioneers, it stands to reason that literally hundreds of employees in Ufa’s extensive first run theater circuit were also fired. There are no statistics for Germany, but Klaus Christian Vögl has compiled figures for Austria after the so-called „Anschluss“ in 1938. In Vienna alone, the Nazis „aryanized“ over eighty cinemas, which had a value of 6.6. million Reichsmarks.

Jewish Cinema in Vienna, 1938

Of the eighteen filmmakers fired by the Ufa on 29 March, at least five are known to have perished in the Nazi German genocide, i.e. almost one third.  While Fritz Gertler actually survived the camps, Wallburg, Goldbaum, Zeckendorf, Jacobson and Liebermann died at the hands of the Nazis. The others survived, with only some of them able to continue their careers in Hollywood or elsewhere. The Ufa’s decision to fire Jewish employees prior to any anti-Semitic government legislation sadly indicated the willingness of German private industry to accommodate the Nazis. Their action constituted literally the first shot in a war against European Jewry, genocide and confiscated Jewish wealth financing Nazi Germany’s ultimately failed wars of aggression. 

Theresienstadt (1944, Kurt Gerron)

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Archival Spaces 266

Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism

Uploaded 2 April 2021

Earlier this week, I participated in an online book launch at the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (https://www.ithaca.edu/finger-lakes-environmental-film-festival) for Terri Simone Francis’s book, Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism (Indiana University Press, 2021). I was invited to be on the panel, because as a young curator at George Eastman Museum in the late 1980s, I had helped preserve and make available to the African-American community several rare Josephine Baker films that seemingly only existed in unique copies in our archive. I noted that I had first encountered “La Bakaire” as a teenager in the 1960s in Germany where she appeared regularly on the type of Saturday night variety shows I detested.  After the Archive preserved Zou Zou (1934, Marc Allégret) and Princess Tam Tam (1935, Edmund T. Gréville), as well as some of the Folies Bergère footage, I presented Josephine Baker programs in Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, Minneapolis, and Durham, NC; at Film Forum in October 1987 the crowds were so great that traffic came to a standstill in downtown Manhattan. Afterwards, Jean-Claude Baker invited Bruce Goldstein, the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold, my wife and myself for dinner at his 42nd Street after-theatre brasserie, Chez Josephine, a little more than a year after it had opened. Jean-Claude, who was at the time writing his own biography of his adopted mother (published 1993), became an acquaintance, who we would see on subsequent visits to New York.

Unlike several biographies about Baker, Terri Francis’s book analyses for the first time Baker’s film career, rather than her life, mixing close textual analysis with historical contextualization. Baker was in fact unique in that she had starring roles in several French films, at a time when her career possibilities in Hollywood films would have been limited to playing stereotyped, walk-on roles as a domestic or mammy. Instead, Josephine Baker moved to Paris in 1925, where she became a huge star at the Folies Bergère, sustaining a career there as a dancer and singer for fifty years. That fame was based on her infamous semi nude banana dance, so that her public image vacillated between the demeaning stereotypes of black minstrelsy, the sexual allure of an ebony goddess, and liberated, independent womanhood. To explicate the many different sides of Baker, Terri Francis employs the metaphor of the prism, which, with the changing light, offers ever different views.

Francis begins with a lengthy discussion of Baker’s banana skirt routine, explicating it as a potent symbol for primitivist and colonialist ideologies signifying persons of color, connecting her to nature, but also to underdeveloped cultures in relationship to supposedly superior white, modern European civilizations. Francis argues that the banana dance is not just a performance, as captured on film, but also performative, in the sense that Baker is simultaneously and self-reflexively satirizing her position as an object for white man’s desire. Indeed, her cabaret performances continued to negotiate these ambiguities and contradictions.

Siren of the Tropics (1927)

In the following chapters, Terri Francis presents close textual analyses of her three main features, The Siren of the Tropics (1927, Henri Étiévant and Mario Nalpas), a silent, Zou Zou, and Princess Tam Tam, in which Baker speaks fluent if vernacular French. All three films offer a version of Baker’s own rags to riches biography, in which an untrained woman of color morphs into a European musical star. In her chapter on Zou Zou, Francis discusses the 18th century case of Alice Baartman, an African woman who was “exhibited” to British and French audiences, noting that Baker, like Baartman, was perceived as an exotic object, available to curious audiences for visual inspection. Significantly, while she is undoubtedly the star of these films, she is ultimately not the “love interest” for the white male hero. Indeed, Baker as Papitou, Zou Zou and Alwina, fantasizes about the European male object of her desire, but love remains unrequited, while the white male loves only whiteness. Francis demonstrates this mise en scene of gazes precisely by pointing to Jean Gabin in Zou Zou constantly looking away from Baker as she speaks to him towards her girlfriend, whom he desires. Thus, while her stage shows fore-grounded Baker as an object for white colonialist fantasy, her films visualize her subjectivity as a sexual woman of color, while keeping her within an ideological frame of European negrophilia. Politely kept in her place as other, Baker is left to continue her entertainment career or return to her roots, as she does in Princess Tam Tam. Clearly, while the French film industry was willing to have the dark-skinned Baker star in mainstream feature films, an impossibility in Hollywood, it, too, was worried about the specter of miscegenation, which remained a threat to white control of the colonialist imaginary.

Baker’s place in black film history, if mentioned at all, is usually that of a European outlier, divorced from the hard realities of white supremacist America, the race films produced at its periphery, or today’s more mainstream black films. Yet Francis, by focusing on the African-American press reception of Baker and her films, connects Baker directly to black film history, valorizing her as a hope for black cinema in America, but also demonstrating that she was consistently integrated into African-American social consciousness. In other words, Francis theorizes a bifurcated African-American cinema,. split between America and the African-American diaspora, where seminal figures like Paul Robeson and Melvin van Peebles worked.   

Princess Tam Tam (1935)

Finally, a note that in no way diminishes Terri Francis’s critical achievement: it is curious that Francis avoids any discussion of Baker’s well-known queerness, although such a discussion could have been easily integrated into her prism analysis as just another facet, and may even be supported in the text, e.g. in Zou Zou’s relationship to Claire, and, more obtusely in the white-white-black relationship triangles in the other films. Francis’s Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism, by melding textual analysis with historical contextualization, even showing how Baker remains an icon for contemporary entertainers, like Beyoncé, makes a seminal contribution to African-American film history.   

Still from Zou Zou (1935)

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Archival Spaces 265

Love and Death in “ism” Cinema

Uploaded 19 March 2021

I’m reading and reviewing for a German publication an excellent new book on Israeli cinema, Projecting the Nation. History and Ideology on the Israeli Screen (2020) by Eran Kaplan. I was particularly struck by a line in his chapter on Eros: “The real fulfillment of love and desire in the Zionist epic is death.” (p. 134) Kaplan describes “the New Hebrew” of the Zionist imaginary as having strong physical and masculine traits combined with “moral restraint: a saint with muscles,” – unlike the feminized, victimized and weak Diaspora Jew. The goal of nationhood consistently trumped private erotic happiness. Indeed, Kaplan characterizes all Israeli cinema’s depiction of sex and romance as inextricably linked to death, with only rare moments of tenderness and erotic pleasure.(p. 130)   

I instantly recognized “the pathology,” having in 1981 ascribed similar kinks in the national imaginary of proto-fascist and Nazi German films about the history of Prussia. “Love, Duty and the Eroticism of Death,” was indebted to both Sigmund Freud and Klaus Theweleit, whose seminal Männerphantasien, has been translated as Male Fantasies (1987). A German reviewer of the multi-volume exhibition catalog, Prussia. Attempt at a Reckoning) referenced my contribution, but was actually taking a swipe at Theweleit when he wrote: “With the help of the volume on “Prussia in the Cinema,” one can yet again be instructed in the relationship between Fascism and Sex…” (Die Zeit, 8-28-81) My essay constructed meta-narrative of German films, whereby the male hero falls in love with a woman, but then – despite the pleas of his love interest – realizes his duty to the nation/revolution and sacrifices himself in a Heldentod.

Does this mean, I’m equating Zionism with Nazism or Communism? Absolutely not, because I believe Zionism remained morally, if not always in practice, dedicated to democratic principles and has survived with democratically elected governments in Israel for 73 years;  i.e. it never entered a totalitarian phase. Totalitarian by design, on the other hand, were Communism and Fascism. Both enforced tight parameters on public eroticism and sexuality outside marriage. Zionism, too, apparently encouraged moral Puritanism.  But, think about it, why are Hollywood, French Cinema, Indian cinema obsessed with romance and erotic pleasure, while the cinemas of these three isms are machines of sexual sublimation?  

Zionist Histadrut Poster
Soviet Proaganda Poster

German films from Theodore Körner (1932, Carl Boese) to Kolberg (1945, Veit Harlan) propagated a fanatic patriotism, renunciation of individual happiness, total commitment to the state, the valiant and unflinching heroism of Teutonic men, the honor and rapture of a death for the Führer und Volk. Eros conquered by Thanatos; the life and death instinct, intertwined and always present, according to Freud. Narratives of sexual sublimation, of the organism surrendering to a death wish, of self-sacrifice for the Vaterland, permeate Prussian films, creating an idealized fascist German imaginary obsessed with death.

Kolberg (1945) the Movie
Kolberg, East Prussia, 1945

While the transformation of Prussian history into German myth was well under way in 19th-century German poetry and popular literature, German commercial cinema quickly appropriated both its narratives and ideology. Isolated in World War I from the French competition, which had dominated film distribution before 1914, German film producers rushed to make patriotic films. However, the incredible financial success of Arzen von Cserepy’s four-part epic, Fridericus Rex (1920-1922), made only two years after the end of a bitter world war, established the Prussian film genre. No less than ten films between 1927 and 1942 starred Otto Gebühr as the legendary Frederick the Great (1712-1786), while more than 300 German  films touch on Prussian history, from the Napoleonic Wars to Germany’s reunification under Bismarck.

Otto Gebuehr as Frederick the Great

After 1933, Prussian films drew historical analogies to imply that the Third Reich constituted the next reawakening in German national power. Its heroes were invariably military men, who had fought valiantly on the battlefields, or great “men” who through their deeds had contributed to the growth of national consciousness, while women were relegated to making babies. After 1945, Prussian films lay dormant for a few years, only to be revived in the 1950s, during the period of reconstruction and rearmament under NATO. Less authoritarian than their predecessors, Prussian films under Adenauer nevertheless retained elements of “patriotic” anti-Communism and patriarchy.

Prussian and Nazi cinema was more invested in patriarchy than other male action genres, like the American western, addressing a male subject, while denying the existence of female subjectivity. Not only were women consistently removed from the narrative as figures of identification, but their gaze too was rarely acknowledged. Woman’s desire, as positioned in narratives of heterosexual romance and sexual union, is consistently denied and ultimately eliminated, privileging narratives of male bonding and violent aggression.

Besatzung Dora (1943) Male Bonding

My meta-narrative of Prussian films functioned this way: 1. A love story develops in the course of which woman is revealed to be in conflict with the male hero’s military aspirations; 2. the hero realizes that his true duty lies in his sacrifice to the nation; 3. through the group dynamics of male-bonding, the hero experiences true brotherhood; 4. the hero finds the strength to embrace his fate as a martyr. Such a meta-narrative aspired to trace the imaginary trajectory of the German male’s sexual sublimation, from a renunciation of heterosexual union via an only barely repressed homoeroticism to an ultimate death wish. By positioning the male subject in this drama of Thanatos, Prussian films, especially those produced in the Third Reich, prepared young men for their imminent death on the battle fields, and thus represented an overt ideological manifestation of Fascism.

(1932)

The abandonment of sexual desire and heterosexual union promised in the fascist cinema imaginary a higher, spiritual form of bliss, dissolved within the national body politic. The individual body was robbed of its physicality and sensuality, co-opted into an idealized, fetishized Übermensch, integrated in the geometry of the Nazi masses. Eternal life guaranteed through ethereal union with the Nation, seen over and over in Nazi cinema images of fallen military heroes marching through the heavens. The trope is repeated in Zionist cinema, but with a twist: the Sabra masses are pioneers, marching to build, not destroy, like those jackboot bodies. And maybe that juxtaposition succinctly captures the difference between the two.

For those wishing to read a revised  English translation of my essay: “Eros, Thanatos, and the Will to Myth: Prussian Films in German Cinema,” in: Bruce Murray and Christopher Wickham (eds.): Framing the Past: The Historiography of German Cinema and Television (Carbondale: University of Southern Illinois Press

Archival Spaces 264

Restored Avant-Garde Films from the Netherlands

Uploaded   5 March 2021

Joris Ivens in De Brug (Joris Ivens, 1928)

Between February 24 and March 9, 2021, the Eye Museum, Amsterdam and Anthology Film Archives, New York, are presenting a streamed film program, “THERE ARE NO RULES!: RESTORED AND REVISITED AVANT-GARDE FILMS FROM THE NETHERLANDS,” co-curated by Simona Monizza, Mark-Paul Meyer and Marius Hrdy. Originally scheduled as a theatrical series for April 2020 on the history of Dutch avant-garde film from the 1920s to the present – cancelled due to COVID), –  the present online program focuses on three areas: pre-World War II avant-garde films, screened by the Dutch Filmliga, Dutch avant-garde work from the 1950s, and films by the contemporary filmmaker, Henri Plaat. These five, rare programs, each running about an hour, can be viewed for a nominal. http://anthologyfilmarchives.org/film_screenings/series/53327.

Edited by Ute Eskildsen and Jan-Christopher Horak, (Stuttgart, 1979)

Given my own long-standing interest in the 1920s European avant-garde, I viewed the first two programs, dedicated to works screened at the Dutch Filmliga (1927-1933). My own research in this area goes back to 1979, when I co-curated (with Ute Eskildsen) the 50th anniversary reconstruction of “Film and Foto,” an exhibition of European avant-garde film and photography, curated by Hans Richter and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Our show, “Film und Foto der 20er Jahre,” opened in Stuttgart, then travelled to Essen, Hamburg, Zurich, and Berlin, before Van Deren Coke remade the exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. My essay in the accompanying German catalog (translated into English for Afterimage in 1980), was the first film history to recontextualize European avant-garde filmmaking as a cultural phenomenon, consisting to production, distribution, exhibition, and reception, and not just as a valorization of isolated film artists. It was a methodology I subsequently applied to defining a first American film avant-garde in Lovers of Cinema: The First American Film Avant-Garde (Madison, 1995).   

The present Filmliga program is divided into “Shapes” and “Structures,” although the reason for this breakdown is unclear, given that Jan C. Mol’s microscopic films bookend the two programs. Generally, the first program is about humans in relationship to nature, the second about city life. Founded in 1927 by Dutch intellectuals, the Dutch Filmliga was one of many film societies, like the Le Club des Amis du Septième Art in Paris, the London Film Society, and the German Gesellschaft Neuer Film, which hoped to support independent and avant-garde film in the face of American commercial cinema. As a result, the program includes not just Dutch films, but also German, French, and Belgian examples.

Uit het Reijk der Kristallen (Joris Ivens, 1927)
Kristallen in Kleur (Jan Mol, 1927)

Program 1 opens with Jan C. Mol’s From the Realm of Crystals (1927), which uses microscopic and time altered photography to visualize the growth of various chemical crystals, including boric acid, potassium sulfate, and silver nitrate. Mol’s scientific film was championed by the avant-garde, because it revealed the abstract beauty of structures in nature, which were invisible to the human eye but made visible through film technology. Mol’s Crystals and its color remake, Crystals in Color (1927), look surprisingly like abstract modernist art in motion. Henri Chomette had already included similar shots of crystals in his Cinq minute de cinema pur (1925), and, indeed, the trope of abstract art in nature was also mined by Jean Painlevé in France, and photographers Karl Blossfeldt, Albert Renger-Patzsch, and Imogen Cunningham, among others.

Images d’Ostende (Henri Storck, 1929)
Dagjesmenschen (Henri Storck, 1929)

The next two films by Belgian film documentarian Henri Storck were shot on the beach at Ostend. Images of Ostend (1929) is a visual poem of sea and surf in the dead of Winter, searching for the abstract beauty of moving water, sand and wind, punctuated by signs of human activity: an anchor, a jetty, an abandoned fishing boat, rapidly edited to convey the rhythm of the sea. Daytrippers (1929), on the other hand, documents with a great deal of humor crowds of beachgoers from all social classes and of all ages congregating, playing, strolling, swimming, lying, and reading in the Summer sun; some wear bathing suits, others wade in their street clothes. Unfortunately, the first named film is slightly over-exposed, leading to a loss of detail.

Disc 957 (Germaine Dulac, 1928)
In der Nacht (Walter Ruttmann, 1931)

French filmmaker Germaine Dulac’s Disc 957 (1929) and German avant-gardist Walter Ruttmann’s In the Night (1931) are very short films (5” & 6”), one silent, one sound, that attempt to visualize music. In both cases, the emotional power of music is equated with lyrical images of nature.  Dulac intercuts images of the forest and natural landscapes with animated images of sound waves, a revolving 78 RPM disc, piano hands, and a metronome, all to accompany an absent Chopin Prelude, which was probably played live, but is missing from this performance. Similarly, Ruttmann’s sound film intercuts images of a female concert pianist playing a classical piece with night time shots of lakes seen between the trees, running water, and the surf smashing against rocks.

Regen (Joris Ivens/Manus Franken, 1929)
Regen (Joris Ivens/Manus Franken, 1929)

Sandwiched between these two films is Joris Ivens and Manus Franken’s silent, poetic city film, Rain (1929). Film portraits of cities, beginning with Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1921) and Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926) were an almost universal phenomenon in the pre-war avant-garde, as documented the recent publication, The City Symphony Phenomenon (New York, 2019). Shot in Amsterdam before, during, and after a rain storm, Ivens’ camera searches out abstract visual designs in the concentric circles of water falling into canals, in a crowd of umbrellas, in the rack focus of raindrops on windowpanes, in ever-changing cloud formations. As Eva Hielscher notes in the above publication, the rain creates reflective surfaces that act as screens, “generating a new and modern mediated vision not unlike cinematic perception.”(p. 253)

De Brug (Joris Ivens, 1928)

The second Filmliga program continues the theme of city symphonies with Joris Ivens’ The Bridge (1928), a poetic view of a movable, steel-constructed railroad bridge in Rotterdam as it is raised and lowered to allow for river traffic below. De Brug is in fact a visual symphony of moving machine parts, rhythmically cut on movement within the frame or the moving camera, whether the trains rolling over the bridge, the bridge’s machinery and steel girders in motion or the abstract design of vertical and horizontal planes. The beauty of modern technology is, of course, another ubiquitous trope of the modernist film avant-garde, as demonstrated by Laszlo Moholy Nagy’s Impressions of Marseille’s Old Port (1929), Eugène Deslaw’s La Marche des machines (1929) and Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929), among many others.

Fragment Nul Uur Nul (1928)
Hoogstraat (Andor von Barsy, 1929)
Doordeweekse Dag (1932)

Three other city symphonies follow: Andor von Barsy, Simon Koster, and Otto van Neijenhoff’s Fragment Zero to Zero (1928) uses the repeated image of a clock to document human activity in a city over a twelve hour period, beginning with industrial work and ending with urban leisure time activity. Andor von Barsy’s Hoogstraat (1929) is an “absolute film,” documenting Rotterdam’s famous shopping street, intercutting pedestrians and street vendors with store fronts. The numerous shop window mannequins point to another favorite visual trope, especially of the Surrealists, as inspired by Eugène Atget’s pre-WWI images of Paris. Sadly, Hoogstraat’s picturesque neighborhood was completely obliterated by Nazi bombs in 1940, giving the film added documentary value. Finally, the anonymous and charming Weekday (1932) uses a uniformly subjective p.o.v. camera to illustrate a commuter having breakfast, dressing, then taking a taxi through city streets to work.

Diepte (Frans Dupont, 1933)

The outlier in the second program is Frans Dupont’s animated Depth (1933), which as the film tells us is “an absolute film about harmony; not a representation of a particular subject.” The film intercuts abstract circles and rectangles, some of which connote an urban landscape, with animated portraits of a man and woman, interrupted by a live action scene of a smoky card game. It is an experiment in creating three dimensions from two, but remains mysterious.

In any case this excellent primer on the 1920s-30s European film avant-garde is available for viewing through March 9th.  

Archival Spaces 263

Jaimie Baron: Reuse, Misuse, Abuse

Uploaded 19 February 2021

In her first book, The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History (2014), Jaimie Baron analyzes the effects of appropriating archival film and video footage on historical representation. How do the meanings of archival images change when they inserted into new contexts?

In her new monograph, Reuse, Misuse, Abuse. The Ethics of Audiovisual Appropriation in the Digital Era (2021, Rutgers University Press), follows up with a more focused discussion of the ethics of visual appropriation. This discussion is certainly timely, given the fact that there are now literally billions of photographs and moving images digitally accessible on the internet, which users are downloading for their own audiovisual works, oftentimes without contacting the real or implied rights-holders. There is a supposition in “remix” or “Read/Write Culture” that montages of previously published quotes fall under fair use or artistic freedom, without digging deeper into the ethical issues such appropriations raise. This is particularly the case with documentary and actuality footage, where personality and privacy rights beyond copyright come into play.

Basing her argument on Vivian Sobchack’s work on ethical gazes engendered by death, Baron differentiates in her introduction between various, layered gazes: that of the original producer, that of the filmmaker appropriating visual material, that of the viewer of the newly contextualized use. She expands this taxonomy of gazes to include audio material, for which there is no corresponding audial term.  Baron notes that “every re-use of a pre-existing recording is, on some level, a “misuse” in the sense that its new use was not intended or at least not anticipated by its original producer.” (p. 8)

Suitcase of Love and Shame (2013, Jane Gillooly)

In Chapter 1, “(Re)exposing Intimate Traces,” the author turns to home movie footage, which was originally produced solely for private, intrafamily consumption, but is now routinely recontextualized by a host of documentary filmmakers, utilizing someone’s private moments as public evidence. The degree to which the appropriationist’s attentive gaze protects their subjects, by blocking a voyeuristic impulse, revealing or hiding identities, or making public that which was secret, are all a measure of ethical behavior. The complex ethical questions of such appropriations are revealed in the example of Jane Gillooly’s 2013 film, Suitcase of Love and Shame, which uses audio recordings of a couple’s secret love letters, placing the viewer “in the ethically compromised position of the eavesdropper.” (p. 41)  By protecting the anonymity of the filmmakers, though, Gillooly presents an ethical occluded gaze.”

From the North (2015, Dominic Gagnon), depicting the “Other.”

In “Speaking Through Others,” Jaimie Baron discuses the issue of ventriloquism, placing words in the mouths of an appropriated subject often for comedic effect, leading to either a playful, satirical or denigrating gaze. As these various gazes indicate, such appropriations are often harmless, because they involve public figures, such as politicians. Indeed it is often a matter of power relations. When the target of the appropriation is someone who holds less power than the monteur, the appropriation may slip into exploitation or, worse, racial ventriloquism, as in the case of Dominic Gagnon’s of the North (2015), which appropriates from You-Tube First Nations footage: “Gagnon’s film solicits an objectifying ethnographic and potentially denigrating gaze vis-á-vis the unidentified Inuit people in the clips he appropriated.” (p. 89)

Halimuhfack (2016, Christopher Harris)

In the following chapter, “Dislocating the Hegemonic Gaze,” Baron is concerned with original footage that may have been unethical to begin with, but is viewed critically through the appropriation, rendering it ethical, by disrupting the original gaze. She demonstrates, e.g. how Christopher Harris’s Halimuhfack (2016) disturbs the white gaze on persons of color by spatially layering images and text to subvert any residual stereotyping inherent in the white gaze. Utilizing the example of the gay-themed Falling in Love… With Chris and Greg: Work of Art! Reality TV Special (2012, Chris Vargas, Youmans) and Soda Jerk’s feminist project, Undaddy Mainframe (2014), Baron then discusses the disruption of the straight and male gaze, respectively.   

Undaddy Mainframe (2014, Soda Jerk)

As the title indicates, “Reframing the Perpetrator’s Gaze,” discusses footage that is a priori unethical, because it reflects the gaze of criminal perpetrators, for example, Nazi documentary footage. Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished (2010) reedits Nazi Propagandakompanie (PK) outtakes of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 to transform into an accusatory gaze the unethical and dehumanizing gaze of the cameramen who are in a position of absolute power in regards to their incarcerated Jewish subjects. Brian L. Frye’s experimental film, Sara Nokomis Weir (2014), on the other hand, appropriates in a reformative gaze a seemingly unethical victim video, People vs. Kelly, toadvocate for the perpetrator whose harsh sentencing may have been unduly influenced by the video’s sentimental montage of images of the victim.

A Film Unfinished (2010, Yael Hersonski)

In her final chapter, “Abusing images,” Baron takes a completely different track, analyzing the complex moral and ethical issues of a white artist appropriating an iconic image from African-American history. In the case of Open Casket (2017), a painting by Dana Schutz, the artist appropriates not only the image of the mutilated body of Emmett Till in his casket, based on a photograph by a black photographer, but also the “endangered gaze” of all African-Americans looking at the image:  “… the endangered gaze is not encoded in the act of photographing but is nevertheless elicited in the act of looking at the image – but only for Black viewers who have lived the experience of being visibly Black in a racist society.” (p. 162)  The abusive appropriation occurs because the white artist’s gaze is protected, yet she hopes to communicate suffering she herself cannot experience. While the painting resulted in justifiable African-American protests, Baron’s argument may engender some controversy, given that it posits an inability of whites to empathize with black suffering. Much less sticky is Baron’s closing example, the proliferation of antisemitic Anne Frank memes, which openly solicit an endangered gaze from their audience to joke about the Holocaust.

In the final analysis, Jaimie Baron argues that while appropriation of images in a remix often lead to very productive outcomes, the remixer should always place themselves in the shoes of the subject to decide whether they would mind someone taking your images, whether their remix is an ethical use of appropriation? Jaime Baron’s Reuse, Misuse, Abuse thereby takes us beyond the mechanics of what used to be compilation films into the age of digitality, where the ease of appropriation now demands a moral stance. It is all too easy these days to appropriate perfect copies, making the moral obligation towards the orginal subject and/or filmmaker all the more important, that is Baron’s plea. That makes this an important book, actually Pflichtlektüre for digital film scholars, filmmakers and curators wishing to produce ethical programming.

Fran Allison, clip from Kukla, Fran and Ollie (1947-1957), one of America’s most popular Children’s TV shows.

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Archival Spaces 262

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Uploaded 5 February 2021

On 1 November 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated 27 January as “International Holocaust Remembrance Day,” in order to commemorate the liberation by Soviet Russian forces of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau on 27 January 1945. According to the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The purpose of International Holocaust Remembrance Day is two-fold: to serve as a date for official commemoration of the victims of the Nazi regime and to promote Holocaust education throughout the world. UN Resolution 60/7 also specifically rejects any form of Holocaust denial, and encourages national and local governments to physically preserve geographic sites of the so-called “Final Solution.” Finally, the resolution condemns all forms of religious intolerance, as well as incitement to violence against any minority ethnic or religious communities.

I began this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day by tuning into a virtual concert on Zoom, sponsored by the German General Consulate/Stephan Schneider and the Holocaust Museum L.A./Beth Kean, which featured pianist Morris Ernst playing selections from various composers who had been driven into exile by the Nazis, including Arnold Schoenberg, Walter Arlen, Eric Zeisl, Arthur Lourié, as well as Viktor Ullmann, who was murdered in Auschwitz. Walter Arlen is still with us at 100 years(https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/blogs/archival-spaces/2019/08/16/happy-birthday-walter-arlen).

Jessica Jestain: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

In the evening I watched The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017,Nki Caro), one of now over 1000 films that touches on one aspect or another of the Holocaust. The color film, starring Jennifer Chastain, relates the story of Jan and Antonina Żabiński, a Polish zookeeper and his wife, who were responsible for rescuing several hundred Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. An international co-production, shot in the Czech Republic with American funding, the film focuses, like Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg), on the “Righteous among the Nations,” those non-Jews who risked their lives to save victims of the Holocaust. The film is certainly worth watching, although as some reviewers opined, the animals are handled with more emotion than the emaciated ghetto inhabitants. The exception is Shira Haas, the diminutive Israeli actress who shined in TV’s Shtisl (2013- ) and Unorthodox (2020), who steals the show as a pubescent girl raped by two German guards. But the ending, which finds the Polish family reunited and undamaged offers a feel-good moment for audiences and allows them to forget that the Jewish survivors invariably lost their whole families and often remained traumatized for life. Visualizing the Holocaust is fraught with difficulties, even when intentions are good.

The first Holocaust film I ever saw was Erwin Leiser’s Mein Kampf (1960). I was eleven years old when my parents went to a drive-in to see the film, leaving us children in the back seat to sleep. I didn’t. I watched, understanding little. However, the images of naked women being chased into the gas chambers were burned into my brain, making me worry about my own family. But it was in college when I saw Night and Fog (1956), Alain Resnais’ short documentary that the true horror of the Holocaust hit me. I had to run to the bathroom to puke when the shot of the mountains of hair came on the screen. I felt the materiality of those objects as stark symbols for the absent lives, snuffed out in an industrial process of genocide. The power of Resnais’ film lay in its highly poetic commentary by Jean Cayrol over  images of the abandoned camps at Auschwitz, endlessly tracking along barracks walls, showing mountains of suitcases, shoes, clothing, and hair, all that remained of millions of victims. By then, I also knew my dad had been a concentration camp survivor, though not a death camp. It is one reason I became a life-long student of the Holocaust, beginning with my dissertation on anti-Nazi Films.

Nuit et Brouillard (1956)

The first Nazi Konzentrationslager (KZ) camp I saw was Terezín/Theresienstadt, which I visited with my parents in 1965 when I was fourteen. Because it was an old garrison town that had been converted to a ghetto, I didn’t completely comprehend that the town had been a death camp. Much later I saw the Nazi documentary Theresienstadt (1944), wrongly identified for decades as Hitler Gives the Jews a City, and Alfred Radok’s The Distant Journey (1950), which used stylized imagery to visualize the town’s horrors. Not that any single film can make sense of the Holocaust. Indeed, the Holocaust cannot be adequately visualized in any one film and the Nazi KZ sites themselves only give an inkling of the genocide unless accompanied by educational tools. But memorial sites can have an emotional impact.

Terezin/Theresienstadt. All Nazi work camps featured this slogan: “Work Makes You Free.”

Travelling to Italy to see my parents in 1979, I and a fellow student stopped in Dachau at my suggestion. We spent several hours in the camp and museum, then talked for hours about German history as we drove on to a village in Austria where Thomas’s grandmother lived. I explained to him that Dachau was much like Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg, the work camp where my father was incarcerated, but that inmates were not expected to survive. They were not extermination camps, like Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor. At his grandma’s I noticed several photos in the sitting room with young men in SS uniforms. When Thomas asked his grandma about them, she started beaming, proudly explaining that her husband had been Gauleiter; two of her sons (T’s uncles) were in the elite SS unit, Leibstandard Adolf Hitler. Thomas was in such shock that he had developed a psychosomatic illness by the time we got to Italy. Thomas associated his grandmother with care-free summer holidays as a child, and only now realized that his immediate family belonged to the front line perpetrators.

Auschwitz/Oswiecim

My own epiphany about the true extent of the Holocaust and the industrialized nature of the Nazi genocide came when I travelled to Oświęcim/Auschwitz in 1988.  I had binge-watched Claude Lazmann’s Shoah (1986) on video, before screening it at George Eastman Museum, but even that film didn’t give me a sense of the monstrous geographic space of Birkenau’s death camp. First goingtoAuschwitz I (work camp), the tour began with a short Russian documentary, made in 1945, which did not even mention the word Jew and featured a Catholic funeral. Finding the death camp (Auschwitz II) also took some energy, since there was no signage anywhere. When I finally did, I couldn’t believe the size of the camp. The ramp was over a mile long. Just stunning. Another shock was to see that ordinary Poles were living in the house of Rudolf Höss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, while other Poles lived in newer housing within 100 feet of the gas chambers. Seeing the real camp also made me realize that some of the most famous Holocaust films failed to differentiate between work and death camps, including classic examples, like Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage (1948) or Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo(1960).

Given the fact that 63% of Millennials and GenX do not know that six million died in the Nazi genocide, we can never have enough films about the Holocaust.

Kapo (1960, Gillo Pontecorvo)

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Archival Spaces 261

My 50 Years in Film Studies

Uploaded 22 January 2021

Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein)

After my freshman year at Ohio University, which ended prematurely with the Ohio National Guard occupying campus in the wake of the Kent State killings, I transferred to the University of Delaware, because my parents had moved there from Germany and I was able to attend as an in-State student. I still wasn’t sure whether I would declare English or History my major, but I did have to find off-campus housing, due to lack of dormitory space. One of my three flat mates at the Colonial Gardens Apartments was Joe Johnston, who had ambitions to become a filmmaker, so the apartment began filling up with film books, which I started to peruse. You mean one can actually study this stuff?  I was intrigued by the mixed media – images and texts – of most film books at that time, but sensed only much later that this was in fact a new field, not overcrowded with dozens of dissertations on Shakespeare or the Franco-Prussian War.

Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1943, Sergei Eisenstein)

I was not a film buff but a reader, although I had started going to Ohio U’s excellent campus film programs the year before, seeing a number of Ingmar Bergman films, which perplexed me, as well as Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (1968), which infuriated me. And I did have an early epiphany about film’s power, when I saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. A Space Odyssey (1968) in high school, which baffled and impressed me. In any case, in January 1971, the middle of my sophomore year, the University of Delaware instituted a new experimental “Winterim” program which allowed students to take a 1-3 credit, pass/no record course on a topic of interest, outside of the usual academic requirements. Joe and I discussed signing up for a lecture/film series dedicated to Sergei M. Eisenstein, then he disappeared to New York. I, of course, had no idea what I was getting myself into or that film study would morph into a fifty year professional career.

The Eisenstein course consisted of afternoon sessions, where Gerald R. Barrett lectured and discussed the assigned readings, followed by evening lectures and screenings open to the public. We met for the first time on January 6, 1971 with a screening of Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944), accompanied by UD Professor Stephen Lukashevich’s lecture on Eisenstein’s use of Russian History, and ended with a screening of Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) and a lecture by Professor Barrett, summarizing the two week course. Barrett, who was teaching in the English Department as an ABD, had organized the course and was particularly interested in film studies, later becoming my first mentor.

Jerry Barrett, George Stewart, top left, ca. 1974

There followed in quick succession, Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1946), Strike (1925), Potemkin (1925), Ten Days That Shook the World (1928), Pudovkin’s Mother (1926), The General Line (19239), ¡Que Viva Mexico! (1932) and Alexander Nevsky (1938). While most of the lectures were given by UD professors from the departments of history, art history, and music, Martin A. Gardner, a New York film critic, and John B. Kuiper, Head of the Motion Picture Division of the Library of Congress, presented talks on Russian drama and The General Line, respectively.John had written his dissertation on Eisenstein at the University of Iowa in 1960. Ironically, I had no memory of him when  we met four years later at LOC, while I was visiting as a George Eastman Museum intern; nor could I have anticipated that he would become my boss at GEM thirteen years later.

John Kuiper, 1980s.

That lack of memory was probably connected to the fact that I was indeed totally over my head. Not only were all the prints dupey 16mm copies, probably rented from Audio-Brandon, but the silents were also shown without musical accompaniment, as was the practice at the time; no restorations with full orchestral scores. Hardly  a great introduction for someone who had never seen a full-length silent film. That Eisenstein’s films are intellectually challenging, goes without saying,  even if you possess the critical vocabulary, which I certainly didn’t. But I was fascinated, especially Potemkin, and Mother, the latter possibly because it more closely conformed to my underdeveloped viewing experience.

The assigned readings included excerpts from Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art, Ivor Montague’s Film World, Dwight MacDonald’s essay on Eisenstein and Pudovkin, as well as selections from Eisenstein’s Film Form, Film Sense, and Film Essays. The readings were also difficult for a beginner, especially the Eisenstein texts. I read, but it would take several years of rereading and reviewing, before I actually understood.

Another student in the Eisenstein course, George Stewart, became a life-long friend, and we both followed up by taking Jerry Barrett’s “Intro to the Art of Cinema” course in Spring semester of that year. For that course, I wrote a final research paper on the Czech New Wave, which had been getting a lot of press in America at that time. I had been in Prague until five days before the 21 August invasion in 1968.  When I went to pick up my paper at the end of the semester – a habit students no longer engage in – Barrett ask me, whether he could publish it in a book he was writing on teaching film studies. The book never appeared, but now I was hooked, deciding to make film my career. I subsequently took a number of other film courses with Barrett and started writing film reviews for the UD student paper, The Review. I admit, I liked to see my name in print and loved watching movies. I was just waiting for Jay Cocks to move on at Time, so I could take his place.

Winter 1971, behind the Colonial Gardens, Newark, DE. Photo by Joe Johnston

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Archival Spaces 260

Restoration of Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924)

Uploaded  8 January 2021

A courageous little distributor of classic and silent films, Flicker Alley has just released a blu-ray-DVD dual format edition of Paul Leni’s canonical Das Wachsfigurenkabinett / Waxworks (1924), directed by Paul Leni. This new digital restoration, carried out by the Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin and the Cineteca di Bologna, offers a completely new visual experience. I had previously seen a number of different 35mm prints, while researching the German-Jewish photographer/cameraman, Helmar Lerski, but all of them originating from the nitrate master positive at the British Film Institute. Seeing Waxworks in this new digital version revealed many visual details previously hidden in the patina of the emulsion, but digitality has its own pitfalls.

Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss in Waxworks (1924, Paul Leni)

Waxworks is considered by film historians to be a “pure” Expressionist film, like The Cabinet of Caligari and Genuine (1920), all films defined by their expressionist décor, visual design, and acting style, in contradistinction to more realistic Weimar era films, like The Last Laugh (1925) and Metropolis (1927), which have been said to display expressionist lighting and camera angles. Interestingly, Waxworks, as the last pure expressionist film, is also the first to highlight expressionist lighting, as it would be inherited by American film noir, thanks in no small part to Jewish émigrés from Berlin. Not surprisingly, Waxworks opens, like Caligari, on a fairground, a place of wonder in German cinema, as well as the first home of cinema.

Waxworks (1924, Paul Leni)

Waxworks relates the stories of three historical figures, depicted in a fairground wax museum, Haroun al Rashied, the Caliph of Bagdad, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper. In the film’s frame story the attraction’s owner hires a young journalist to create stories for his wax figures, which in their cinematic incarnation are played by Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, and Werner Krauss, respectively, the three most famous actors of the era, while a young William Dieterle impersonates the writer. Interestingly, the three stories are not weighted evenly in terms of length – indeed a fourth episode, Rinaldo Rinaldini was never shot, due to budget issues, although the figure is clearly visible in the attraction’s line-up – nor are the episodes stylistically similar beyond some expressionist features.

Emil Jannings in Waxworks

The 1001 Nights  sequence is relatively evenly lighted (except later night scenes), in order to highlight the outrageous set design, a riot of intestinal passageways, rotund architecture, oversized balloon-like headdresses, and obese bodies. The shorter Ivan the Terrible story intensifies the gaze on elongated, tortured bodies, their agony inscribed on faces in high key lighting. The final Jack-the-Ripper sequence turns the journalist narrator into a subject, as he dreams, the serial killer is stalking his sweetheart, the proprietor’s daughter. Only roughly five minutes in length, the sequence is a densely constructed series of superimpositions, in which the hero and heroine are haunted by the phantom image of Jack, the Ripper. Not only are the episodes shorter, but their central characters are progressively less developed with Werner Krauss literally a ghost without a solid body.

Georg John, Conrad Veidt in Waxworks
Werner Krauss in Waxworrks

According to Jürgen Kasten’s Der expressionistische Film (1990), the Berlin premiere version of 12 November 1924, began with the Ivan episode, then Jack, then Haroun al Rashied, but was changed shortly after. Budget issues and a lawsuit by the screenwriter Henrik Galeen delayed the production which probably began in Summer 1922, and caused the elimination of Rinaldini, with shooting completed in November 1923.

William Dieterle, Olga Belaja in Waxworks

It has long been my contention that Helmar Lerski, the film’s cinematographer has been unjustifiably ignored in favor of Paul Leni’s highly stylized and abstracted sets. While comedy and playful set design dominates the first story, the Ivan and Jack episodes, in particular, allow Lerksi to create filmic space solely with light, through high key close-ups and intensely lighted figures within a black frame. This manipulation of cinematic space through light matched Lerski’s practice of making close-up photographic portraits, for which he often used black velvet, wide-angle lenses, and a battery of Jupiter lamps and mirrors, to eliminate all superfluous visual information, and thus better explore the landscape of the face. The Jack the Ripper sequence’s almost cubist visual design, layering superimposition over superimposition, would not have been possible without Lerski’s framing of bodies against black back-drops.

Waxworks

The new restoration’s carnivalesque tinting and toning seems to emphasize the intense pools of light that structure the images (excepting the Haroun al Rashied episode), but digitality also flattens out space, thus intensifying the effects of Paul Leni’s abstract stage and costume design. Indeed, the tinting turns even scenes with movement from background to foreground into two-dimensional spaces, given the saturation of the tints. The digital image flattens space, obliterating any sense of fore and background, because scanners remove grain and sharpened all data, eliminating depth cues base on focus. But viewing habits are changing, so many may prefer such images.

Apart from the two discs (DVD & Blu-ray), the set includes a handsome booklet, an audio commentary by Adrian Martin, an interview with Julia Wallmüller from the Deutsche Kinemathek about the restoration, a conversation with Kim Newman, as well as a bonus of Paul Leni’s short crossword puzzle films, Rebus-Films Nr. 1 (1926).     

Conrad Veidt in Waxworks

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Archival Spaces 259  

Cinefest: 33rd Film Historical Congress

Uploaded 30 December 2020

The 17th International Festival of German Film Patrimony, sponsored by the Hamburg Cinegraph, was accompanied by a film historical conference from 20 – 22 November under the heading, “Cinema, War and Tulips. German-Dutch Film Relations.” As in the case of the film festival (see Archival Spaces 257), the Congress took place online, but during regular business hours in Hamburg (9:30 AM GMT), which meant this reviewer in California pulled three all-nighters, something I haven’t done since college.

The keynote, titled “Panorama, Academy and Archive, German-Dutch Film Relations,” was given by Ivo Blom, a professor in Amsterdam and former curator at the Eye Institute. Blom noted that Dutch images of Germany and German images of the Netherlands have always been based on stereotypes, even if many Dutch people worked in Germany over the years (Truus van Alten, Ernst Winar, Jaap Speyer), while many German-Jewish refugees fled to Amsterdam in the 1930s. However, the rich history of German-Dutch production, distribution and exhibition, has yet to be written, e.g. by analyzing the Eye’s pre-WWI Jean Desmet Collection or the Filmliga Collection of avant-garde film.

Independent scholar Thomas Tode followed up with a discussion specifically of the Dutch and German film avant-garde, beginning with the thesis that the Dutch masters (Rembrandt) in art were fascinated by light, an obsession shared with filmmakers, like Joris Ivens, who has started his career studying optics and working on the design of the Kinamo, a lightweight 35mm camera that became the workhorse of avant-garde filmmakers, like Ivens, Moholy-Nagy, Luis Trenker, Hans Richter, and Alexander Hackenschmied. Next, Rommy Albers, Head of the Dutch Film Collection at EYE, discussed the career of Haro von Peski, a little known film director and producer, who after directing two films in Holland, set up a production company in Berlin in 1931, Majestic-Film, which produced 13 films under van Peski (the company continued to produce films until 1939). Peski returned to Amsterdam in 1935, but was not able to produce any more films under the Majestic label.

Kinamo 35 mm movie camera
Rain (1929, Joris Ivens)

The afternoon sessions began with EYE researcher Annette Schulz’s talk on Rudi Meyer, the German Jewish film producer who was responsible for numerous exile films in the 1930s and became a prominent film distributor in the Netherlands after surviving Auschwitz, also producing films in the 1950s by Gerard Rutten and Bert Haanstra. André Van Der Velden, a professor at the University of Utrecht, discussed the rivalry between the Dutch Tuschinski owned cinemas in Rotterdam and Amsterdam and the German UFA-owned Rembrandt (Amsterdam), Luxor (Rotterdam) and Asta (Den Haag) cinemas.    

Saturday morning began with Bundesarchiv archivist Evelyn Hampicke discussing  the ambiguous career of Fritz van Dongen, the Dutch actor who was featured in at least two Nazi propaganda films, which communicated racist ideology, before emigrating to Hollywood, where he changed his name to Philip Dorn and became an upstanding anti-Fascist in numerous anti-Nazi films.  After the break, Timur Sijaric, a doctoral candidate in music at the University of Vienna, lectured on the film music of Alois Melichar for the Hans Steinhoff Nazi bio-pic, Rembrandt (1942), which was wholly shot in the occupied Netherlands. Interestingly, Sijaric notes that the composer utilized verboten 12-Tone techniques in his composition for Rembrandt, but Goebbels hated the film anyway, and it failed with audiences, despite being one of the most expensive German films of the war years.

Komedie om Gekd (1936, Max Ophuls)

Next, Kathinka Dittrich van Wehring, who received this year’s Reinhold Schünzel Prize, spoke about her efforts to research German refugee filmmakers in Holland, when she directed the Goethe Institute Amsterdam in the 1980s, and in her 1987 dissertation. Van Wehring noted that the home office of the Dutch government banned any anti-fascist topics in films, so the features made by German émigrés  were apolitical and mostly harmless entertainment. In the afternoon session, Tobias Temming spoke about the image of Germans in post 1945 Dutch feature films, while Katja S. Baumgärtner, a doctoral candidate at the Berlin Humbolt University, discussed an East German documentary, Women in Ravensbrück (1958), co-directed by the Dutch-German team of Joop Huisken and Renate Drescher.

Alleman (1963, Bert Haanstra)

Sunday morning began with Anke Steinborn, an academic at the Viadrina University of Frankfurt/Oder, discussing Bert Haanstra’s use of Rembrandt lighting. Next, Karl Griep, former director the Bundesarchiv’s film department, presented a classic content analysis of the image of Holland and the Dutch in German post war newsreels, noting that stories about sports far outstripped any other topic. Finally, Anna Schober de Graaf discussed the use of identification figures  (taxi drivers, pedestrians) in Dutch post war documentaries to create empathy, while independent researcher Michael Töteberg reviewed the film careers of two Dutch producers who helped jumpstart New German Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, namely Rob Houwer and Laurens Straub.    

Michael Kohlhaas (1969, Volker Schloendorf, produced by Rob Houwer)

Despite a few very minor technical glitches, Hamburg’s Cinegraph, the Eye Institute and the Bundesarchiv should be congratulated on this conference on German-Dutch film relations, which despite a degree of heterogeneity certainly pointed the way towards further research in this under-exposed area of film history. A publication in German is forthcoming.

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Archival Spaces 258

Edward Stratmann (1953-2020)

Uploaded 17 December 20

Edward Stratmann, my colleague and friend, has died. His distinguished career in film archiving began almost at the same moment in the same place as mine, making us life-long fellow travelers on a remarkable  professional journey into what was then still a field in its toddler stage. Even though we were never close friends in the 45 years I knew Ed, we had a relationship of mutual respect while he worked for me that turned into a deep sense of caring and warmth, once I left Rochester. Edward was one of the most down to earth people I ever met, absolutely honest, loyal, discreet, and extremely good-natured. In the rarified academic atmosphere of the museum, Ed was a nuts-and-bolts practitioner, who learned film preservation from the bottom up.

Born November 29, 1953 in Biloxi, MS at Kessler Air Force Base, he moved to Rochester with his large family, where he graduated from high school and attended Monroe Community College and Rochester Institute of Technology. In 1975, he started working for Seymour Nussbaum, the facilities manager at George Eastman House, then transitioned to the film department. It was in September 1975 that I came to Rochester on an National Endowment for the Arts post-graduate internship in the film department, where I spent a year working for the legendary James Card. Ed was already reporting to Assistant Allan Bobey, so he would often hang out with us film dept. grunts, including projectionist Bob Ogie, while Card was often absent.

George Eastman Museum

When I returned to Eastman Museum in 1984, Ed was handling vault management and shipping, as well as sometimes projecting films when no one else was available. I almost immediately took over programming the Dryden Theatre from Kay Mcrae, Director John Kiuper’s secretary, so I had to work closely with Ed to traffic prints. At that time, as later after I had become head of the department, I spent a lot of time hanging out in Eddie’s Dryden Theatre office, usually to have a cigarette break (still smoked back then), since I could always rely on him having a smoke.

The Bluebird (1919, Maurice Tourneur

In 1987, I asked Edward to become our preservation officer with the title of assistant curator. Although he had no professional training, I knew he was a quick learner and I was confident we would learn together. One of our first projects was Maurice Tourneur’s The Blue Bird (1919), a beautifully tinted nitrate print from the Cinémathèque Française. Ed also started accompanying me to the Association of Moving Image Archivists conferences, where he happily mingled with other film preservation technicians, soaking up their expertise. In 1998, I had the privilege of successfully nominating Eddie for AMIA’s Dan + Kathy Leab Award, given to film archivists for their contributions to the field of film preservation.

The Lost World (1925, Harry O. Hoyt)

But the project Ed was really passionate about was the reconstruction of The Lost World (1925) with stop-motion animation by Willis Obrien. We had a very good tinted 16mm print, which had been cut down for it’s Kodascope release, which we blew it up to 35mm, producing the most complete negative available, though still only 40% of its original length. Then in 1992, we discovered a 35mm nitrate material in Czechoslovakia, probably struck from the original foreign negative. I left Eastman before the lost material arrived, but Ed followed through, working with Paolo Cherchi-Usai to crowd-source $ 80,000 and  eventually produce a magnificent new negative and print that was now missing only about a reel, much of it consisting of shortened titles and only one major sequence, namely the attack of cannibals. The reconstruction premiered in 1997 and was one of Edward’s proudest achievements and a major contribution to film history.

Print

While continuing his work overseeing the Film Department’s film preservation work, Ed also became a teacher after the founding of the Jeffrey Selznick School in 1996. As the instructor of record for the school, Ed was lionized by the students, especially because of his story-telling prowess. Ed organized annual student trips to John E. Allen, to the Library of Congress, to Syracuse Cinefest, where Ed would invite me to give impromptu talks to the students. Since its founding, the school has graduated more than 280 archivists from twenty-eight countries in its one year certificate and two year Master’s programs. Just how much the students idolized Ed became clear when more than seventy-five alumni attended his retirement party, held in May 2016 in conjunction with the Eastman Nitrate Film Festival. Indeed, many of today’s most prominent younger generation moving image archivists received their training with Edward, including Rita Belda, Jared Case, Liz Coffey, Brian Graney, Andrew Lampert, James Layton, Heather M. Linville, Regina Longo, Brian Meacham, Anke Mebold, Paul Narvaez, , Cyndi Rowell, Ulrich Rüdel, Vincent Pirozzi, Christel Schmidt, Albert Steg, Dwight Swanson, and Katie Trainor.

Jeffrey Selznick Students, 2013

Seeing Ed in 2016 at his party, I realized his health was extremely fragile and was the main reason for his retirement. However, until this last week, I was unaware of the fact that he had been in and out of the hospital several times this last year. Edward Stratmann passed on 10 December 2020 in Greece, New York. For me it is the end of an era.

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Archival Spaces 257

Cinefest: Cinema, War and Tulips

Downloaded 4 December 2020

The 17th International Festival of German Film Patrimony, sponsored by the Hamburg Cinegraph, screened online from 14 to 22 November: “Cinema, War and Tulips. German-Dutch Film Relations;” it was accompanied by a film historical conference (20-22 November). I’ll discuss the conference in my next blog, while focusing on the film program today, which presented 11 Dutch films, made between 1929 and 1939, the majority being so-called “exile” films made by German émigrés from Nazi Germany. I’ve been trying to track down some of these films since the 1980s, when researching my dissertation on Anti-Nazi films made by German émigrés in Hollywood. I became aware of the Goethe Institute Amsterdam presenting a film program and catalog on German refugees to Holland in the 1930s, documenting the incredible influence they had on jump-starting the Dutch film industry. 

Thanks to the influence of German émigrés and some Dutch expatri­ates returning from Germany, the indigenous sound film industry in the Netherlands blossomed. The producers Gabriel Levy, Leo Meyer, and Rudi Meyer, the directors Jaap Speyer, Ludwig Berger, Max Nosseck, Friedrich Zelnik, Rudolf Meinrad, Richard Oswald, Henry Koster, Max Ophüls, and Kurt Gerron, as well as the script writers Jane Besss, Walter Schlee and Alexander Alexander played a decisive role in this development. However, due to the size of the domestic market and the limited possibili­ties for export, these films remained relatively unknown outside Holland.  Surprisingly, of 31 films produced in the Nether­lands in the 1930s, 23 can be classified as “exile” films, including Bleke Bet (1934, Richard Oswald), De vier Mullers (1934, Rudolf Meinert), De Big von het Regiment (1935, Max Nosseck),  Drei Wenschen (1937, Kurt Gerron) and Vadertje Langbeen (1938, Friedrich Zelnik). Considered mindless entertainment by some critics, many of these films nevertheless offer fissures that communicate the anxieties of exiled German-Jewish artists.

Zeemansvrouwen / Sailor’s Wives (1929/2003)

The present series started with three Dutch sound films, before the rise of Nazism brought German filmmakers to the Netherlands. Zeemansvrouwen / Sailor’s Wives (1929/2003, Henk Kleinman), which was to be the country’s first sound film, was released silent and only sonorized in 2003 (with post-synchronized dialogue); it is a neo-realist melodrama of a pregnant fishmonger, shot around Amsterdam’s docks.  Likewise, Jaap Speyer’s De Jantjes / The Tars (1934), produced by Leo Meyer, Holland’s second sound film, plays in the same milieu of Amsterdam’s Jordaan district and concerns three sailors returning home, who are unable to adapt to civilian life, while popular folk songs mitigate the tragedy. Finally, Dood Water / Dead Water (1934, Gerard Rutten) visualizes the reclamation of land from the Zuidersee, but killed off the local fishing industry; while the opening documentary prologue is a patriotic even nationalist hymn to progress, the fictional narrative that follows focuses on the human toll of modernization.

I first heard about De Kribbebijter / The Cross Patch (1935, Henry Koster) when I interviewed Koster about his career in 1976. A light comedy of mistaken identities with music, De Kribbebijter concerns a Baron, a wealthy grouch who disowns his son for wedding his secretary and is trying to marry off his daughter to an accountant, whereby the children have their own ideas. Koster, who had specialized in comedies in Germany (The Ugly Girl, 1933) and Austria, before discovering Deanna Durbin at Universal, keeps it light, despite the Depression economics that motivate the action. The film was produced by Leo Meyer, who would become Holland’s most important distributor after World War II and would continue a correspondence with Koster well into the 1960s, and co-written by Alexander Alexander and Jane Bess, one of the most prolific women screenwriters in Weimar.

Mystery of the Mondscheinsonata (1939, Karel Lamac)

Kurt Gerron’s Het Mysterie van de Mondscheinsonate / Mystery of the Mondscheinsonate (1935), based on Willy Corsari’s detective novel, is a crime drama about the murder of a retired cabaret star, supposedly at the hands of her dance partner. With its expressionist cabaret set harking back to Weimar, Het Mysterie also touches on German exile themes, in particular, the threatened loss of economic status and identity, which motivates the murder. The film can also be considered a pure German exile film, given that the director, scriptwriter (Walter Schlee), producer (Leo Meyer), cameraman (Akos Farkas), art director (Erwin Scharf) and sound technician (Gerhard Goldbaum) were émigrés.

Another crime drama that starts out as a horror-comedy based on Arnold Ridley’s often filmed play,  was De Spooktrein / The Ghost Train (1939, Karel Lamač), which dumps a motley crew of train passengers in a deserted, “haunted” train station. Like many “haunted house” films of the period, the focus is on the eccentricities of the various characters who are trapped against their will. The ghosts turn out to be weapons smugglers, a highly politicized subject released only weeks after the start of World War II, but Lamač avoids politics like the plague, as did all Dutch features in the period, given the censorship restrictions of the government regarding discussion of Nazi Germany.  

The three best films in the program were undoubtedly Max Ophüls’ Komodie on Geld / Comedy about Money (1936), Ludwig Berger’s Pygmalion (1937), and Douglas Sirk’s Boefje (1939), the latter produced by Leo Meyer. I had seen the first two films at the Berlinale 1983, but realized just how good they were. All three films allude to themes of exile. Komodie om Geld satirizes the obsessive quest for money, its “rags to riches to rags story” closely resembling the fate of many émigrés, while the décor of the cabaret recalls Weimar Cubism and art deco. Pygmalion, starring Lili Bouwmeesteras Eliza Deuluttel, receives an exile-centric reading of Shaw’s text, in that language defines class and status, a fact that German refugees were painfully aware of, given they were forced to work in foreign languages after the loss of Germany. Boefje, which means brat in Dutch, concerns a good boy who is invariably regarded as a juvenile delinquent by the authorities, simply because of his origins. The prejudices encountered by Boefje as a member of the Lumpenproletariat reflect the situation of German Jewish refugees:  Often without passports, residency permits, or working papers, they were literally hounded from country to country by the authorities, like common criminals.  

Given the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, Holland remained a transit country for German émigrés, most eventually finding their way to Hollywood, although some, like Rudolf Meinert, Willy Rosen, and Kurt Gerron, were murdered in Nazi concentration camps, while Rudi Meyer survived Auschwitz, and Ludwig Berger remained hidden with false papers until war’s end. According to Ivo Blum, Leo Meyer committed suicide in Amsterdam in 1944. Jane Bess emigrated to Nazi-infested Argentina, while Alexander Alexander disappeared without a trace.  

Rudolf Meinert
Kurt Gerron

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Archival Spaces 256

Hannah Arendt – the Movie (2012)

Downloaded 20 November 2020

Hannah Arendt, ca. 1952 (Karl Rabe)

There is a scene near the end of Margarete von Trotta’s masterful biopic, Hannah Arendt (2012), in which Prof. Arendt’s academic colleagues move away from her as she sits down in the faculty cafeteria, after in February 1962 she has published her controversial reportage, Eichmann in Jerusalem. The scene is fictional, but is a visual indication of just how Arendt herself became a pariah after the controversy around her New Yorker articles erupted, leading to what Irving Howe in 2013 called a “civil war” among New York intellectuals. Watching the scene, I immediately flashed back to Hugo Münsterberg, one of the first film theorists, who like Arendt was ostracized by his academic colleagues (Harvard), because of his unpopular pro-German views during World War I.  Like Münsterberg, Arendt enjoyed popular fame far beyond academia, becoming mass media stars, publishing bestsellers. Most importantly, both were naturalized Americans of Prussian-German Jewish heritage, who carried with them the intellectual baggage of their upbringing, melding the logophilia of Judaism with the Prussian instance on the letter of the law, principles and duty.

Rather than present a biography of Hannah Arendt, von Trotta focuses on the period 1961-63, when Arendt travelled to Jerusalem to observe the Eichmann trial. Left out, are her childhood in Königsberg, East Prussia, studies in the late 1920s at university with Martin Heidegger (with whom she has a love affair), Edmund Husserl, and Karl Jaspers, her interment in the notorious Gurs French concentration camp (1940), her emigration to New York, and 30-year marriage to Heinrich Blücher.

The film opens with Eichmann’s dramatic abduction from Argentina by the Mossad, then cuts to Hannah Arendt lying on a couch in her darkened New York apartment on the upper West Side, smoking; the scene is repeated a several times, also  ending the film. In this juxtaposition we get action and thought. Arendt believed in human thought, rejecting Heidegger’s insistence (in a flashback lecture) that thought does not lead to knowledge. Her central concern in the reportage is Eichmann’s ability to act without thought. The closing scene also implies a more emotional level, as Arendt contemplates with heavy heart the many friends she has lost.

Hannah Arendt (2012, Margarete von Trotta)

As one friend after another have peeled off in the wake of her Eichmann work, she is unable to compromise her principles, once she formulates her working thesis about Eichmann, even as the film is structured to justify her actions and writing. Two of the most painful scenes of Arendt’s loss involve Kurt Blumenthal (who turns away from her on his death bed) and Hans Jonas, German-Jewish colleagues she had known for more than thirty years.

Kurt Blumenthal and Arendt discussing case in Jerusalem in Hannah Arendt

Actress Barbara Sukowa, who is remembered for her great role in R.W. Fassbinder’s Lola (1981) plays Arendt brilliantly, having previously given a Cannes-awarded performance in Margarete von Trotta’s Rosa Luxembourg (1986), about the doomed leader of the German Communist Party. Although Sukowa in no way physically resembles Arendt, she quietly reproduces Arendt’s intellectual rigor, her stringency, her uncompromising theoretical principles, even in the face of overwhelming public criticism. She is characterized at two different times as arrogant and unfeeling, a view that overlaps with the American view of Münsterberg and his Teutonic pedagogical dogmatism.

Arendt’s great accomplishment was that she secularized the public discourse around Nazi war criminals, which was still dominated by mythological terms, like, monsters (Hitler), devils (Goebbels), insane demons (Himmler), who had misled the German people, introducing instead the today widely accepted concept of the “banality of evil,” namely that Eichmann was an ordinary, even unremarkable German, a loyal bureaucrat who was only following orders and intentionally turned off his moral compass. Since the publication of Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996), we, of course, know that tens of thousands of Germans participated in the murder of the Jews.

Von Trotta’s film structures the scenes of the Eichmann trial, consisting both of original newsreel footage and staged scenes, to support Arendt’s thesis, showing Eichmann as cold-bloodedly refusing to take any responsibility for the fate of the humans he put on trains to the extermination camps. As Arendt notes in a lecture to her students, neither German Fascism, nor the system of anti-Semitism was on trial in Jerusalem, rather, Eichmann was being tried for his own actions, which could not be directly connected to crimes of murder. Unlike her anarchist leaning husband, Blücher, who believed there was no legal basis for the trial, Arendt did want to make Eichmann responsible for his actions, supporting his execution. But at the time, few people accepted the premise of “the banality of evil.” Almost half the film therefore visualizes the extremely negative public reaction to Arendt’s article by friends, colleagues, and neighbors: A Mossad agent she knew as  a student in Berlin threatens her, an upstairs neighbor calls her a Nazi whore in a note passed on by the building’s doorman.

Original Television news footage of Eichmann, the “man in the glass booth.”

The bone of contention, as even the New Yorker editors recognized before publication, was that many believed Arendt was blaming Jewish leaders for cooperating with Eichmann and, therefore, to blame for their own destruction. In fact, Arendt argued that it was the very amorality of the Nazis, their unwillingness to think about their personal responsibility, rather than rampant anti-Semitism, which allowed for the total moral collapse of both the Nazis and their victims. According to Arendt, the leaders of the so-called Judenrate (Jewish councils) of necessity shared in the responsibility for keeping the trains running. Such a brutal but realistic theory was intolerable to living victims of the Holocaust, less than twenty years after the war. Indeed, Arendt could be criticized for failing to consider their emotional state as survivors. Many scholars also agree that she probably underestimated the virulent emotional and intellectual force of anti-Semitism. Kurt Blumenthal admonishes her for not “loving her people,” but she responds she never loved any people, Jewish or otherwise, but only friends. Ironically, it is those she is losing.

Arendt and Hans Jonas in Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt believed her own intellectual integrity had to be maintained at all costs, even if she was ostracized, even if uncomfortable truths hurt those around her. Like the Sukowa version of Rosa Luxembourg as imagined by von Trotta, Arendt here is seemingly willing to give up everything for her principles, and her right as a woman to express them; feminist icons in the making. Fulfiilling another feminist ideal, Arendt is also portrayed as a warm and loving spouse to Blücher, who had rescued her from Gurs. It was possibly arrogance and philosophical coldness in a man’s world of cuddly women that allowed her to become one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century.  

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Archival Spaces 255

CINE SALON BEYOND with Leo Hurwitz’s Strange Victory (1948)

Downloaded 6 November 2020

Leo Hurwitz

Dartmouth’s Film and Media Studies Department recently sponsored a CINE SALON BEYOND (online) with host Bruce Posner and Tom Hurwitz, the award winning documentary filmmaker who is the son of Leo Hurwitz. The event included clips from Tom’s soon to be released Can You Bring It? (2020), Leo Hurwitz’s best known film, Native Land (1932) as well as Leo’s Hunger (1932) and Strange Victory (1949) in their entirety. The Salon also highlighted Tom Hurwitz’s new website, https://leohurwitz.com/, where twenty-four of Leo Hurwitz’s films can now be streamed, including the above titles, as well as Pie in the Sky (1934), The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), The Heart of Spain (1937), The Museum and the Fury (1956), and his magnum opus, Dialogue with a Woman Departed (1980). While I have written about Hurwitz’s earlier work, I had not yet seen Strange Victory, which proved to be a revelation.

Strange Victory (1948, Leo Hurwitz)

I first met Leo Hurwitz in late November 1981, when I attended the Leipzig International Documentary Film Festival, when the East German State Film Archive staged a retrospective, “American Social Documentary, 1930-1945,” recuperating progressive filmmaking. Only a handful of Americans attended the Festival that year, so I received a Thanksgiving dinner invitation from fellow Americans, Anne and Will Roberts, filmmakers from Athens, Ohio, held at Leipzig’s Auerbach’s Keller (memorialized in Goethe’s “Faust, Pt. I”). No turkey, only duck with dumplings and apple sauce, but we make due. Other guests included Leo Hurwitz and Leo Seltzer, two survivors from the Film and Photo League who were being feted in Leipzig. At 72, Leo Hurwitz was still full of piss and vinegar, at least as far as his politics were concerned. I spent much of the evening talking to Leo, who had cut sections of Native Land into his new film, Dialogue with a Woman Departed, which I thought was a wonderfully poetic and utterly romantic view of left-wing politics. Several months later, I saw the 225 minute film dedicated to Hurwitz’s second wife, Peggy Lawson, again at the Berlinale’s Forum of Young Cinema, where Leo discussed the film at length with West German students.

Tom Hurwitz opened the Zoom Salon with a brief biography of his dad, noting that Leo (born 1909) saw his first silent Hollywood films around 1915, and felt intuitively that they were more make believe that real, or as Tom put it, “Leo felt he had been hit over the head, leaving the cinema.” As a result, Hurwitz gravitated as a young man to left-wing politics, joining the Film and Photo League of the International Workers Relief (a Communist front organization), where he produced political newsreels with, among others, Leo Seltzer, Robert de Luca, Sam Brody, and C.O. Nelson. Their work acted as an antidote to the commercial newsreels of the major Hollywood studios, with titles like America Today (1932) and The World in Review (1933-34). Like these newsreels, Hunger (1932), is a compilation of suppressed commercial newsreel and Film and Photo League footage, documenting a huge march on Washington for unemployment insurance and immediate cash relief for America’s 12 million unemployed.  As Tom noted, Leo Hurwitz was a big fan of Russian filmmakers V. Pudovkin, A. Dovzhenko, Joris Ivens and Soviet editing styles, and became extremely proficient at cutting together newsreel footage from disparate sources to create a unified narrative of class struggle.

Taking their lessons from Pudovkin’s theory, On Film Technique, Hurwitz wished to move beyond the journalism of the Film and Photo League to produce aesthetically engaging documentaries, founding Nykino and Frontier Films with Ralph Steiner, Willard Van Dyke, Michael Gordon, Irving Lerner, Sydney Meyers, and Ben Maddow. As Tom Huwritz noted, the first four-named left the film collective in 1937, due to ideological conflicts and the group’s closeness to the CPUSA, Van Dyke going on to produce the liberal-capitalist documentary, The City (1939), while Gordon went to Hollywood. Meanwhile, Hurwitz and Strand spent years working on Native Land, a daring experimental documentary with staged fictional scenes about the violent history of the labor movement that unfortunately went under, because America’s entrance into World War II heralded a moratorium on labor agitation in favor of the war effort. We restored the film at UCLA in 2011.

Made at the height of American anti-Communist hysteria, Strange Victory posited the theory that America had defeated Nazism in Europe after four years of war, but that fascist ideology was still alive and well in the United States, in particular the country’s racist Jim Crow laws and anti-Semitic housing restrictions. As the narrator asks: “If we won the war, why does it look like we lost?” or “Why are the ideas of the losers still alive in the land of the winner?” While the film’s first third compiles war footage, the latter sections visualizes e.g. the difficulties of African-American fighter pilots to get a job in the airline industry or any job other than menial cleaning work; racial segregation victimizes all minorities, including Jews: “We keep our yellow stars hidden in quotas.” An extended scene of babies of various ethnicities in a maternity ward makes the point that we are all equal at birth, but only then, because white privilege kicks in as soon as they leave the hospital. Like Native Land, Strange Victory is brilliantly edited with a sparse, poetic narration (that includes a female and a male voice), and staged scenes of everyday racism. The New York Daily News called the film Communist propaganda, leading to its suppression and Leo Hurwitz’s blacklisting.

Strange Victory (1948, Leo Hurwitz)

According to Tom Hurwitz, blacklisting not only limited his father’s employment in subsequent years, but also caused the suppression of all his political work and his rightful place in film history as one of the 20th century’s foremost American documentarians. Milestone Films restored and released several of Hurwitz’s films in 2015, but hopefully, the new website will also contribute to his rehabilitation.     

Dialogue With a Woman Departed (1980, Leo Hurwitz) with Peggy Lawson

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Archival Spaces 254

Giornate del cinema muto: Limited Edition

Downloaded 23 October 2020

Given the continued world-wide COVID pandemic, the organizers of the Giornate del cinema muto, decided to stage an abridged version of the “Days of Silent Film” online, 3-10 October 2020. Each day’s program included at least one feature, – always a new restoration or a rediscovered film – and either a program of shorts and presentations of newly published books or master classes in silent film composing. Viewers could link up to the program for a ridiculously low fee, and each show was available for twenty-four hours, making it possible for viewers in any time zone to see the films easily. Another element I really appreciated was a short documentary prior to the feature about the film archive that had contributed the program, beginning with the Library of Congress, followed by the Eye Institute, Amsterdam, the China Film Archive (Bejing), the National Film Center (Tokyo), Cineteca Italiana (Milan), the Greek Film Archive (Athens), the Munich Filmmuseum, George Eastman Museum, and the Danish Film Institute.  

Venice, 68mm Biograph film, ca. 1898

The Festival began on Saturday evening with a series of nine shorts, entitled “The Urge to Travel” (1911-1939), that began in New York, then travelled virtually to Kraków, Poland, through the Swedish countryside to Ostende, Belgium, along the Moldau near Prague, then to the beaches at Trieste, and, finally to London. Many of the films were tinted and toned, but the real pleasure of these overseas journeys into the past was the fact that we are now all armchair travelers, due to COVID. The same held true to the program of Biograph shorts on Sunday, all of them shot on 68mm film, giving these digital versions an uncanny sharpness in detail, – they were scanned at 8K – as we again travelled virtually to the beginning of the 20th century to Ireland, Berlin, Amsterdam, Venice, Paris, and Windsor Castle, London. Seeing the way people move, their fashions,  the incredible details of their lives, made these images truly a window into the past.

The eight features of the festival, while crossing numerous genres, nevertheless focused in the widest sense on stories of family relations, whether in peril or in formation. This look at our most intimate human interactions and emotions was a smart decision, taking the smaller streaming screen into account. Penrod and Sam (1923, William Beaudine) was an absolutely charming piece of Americana, a little comedy-melodrama about growing up in a small town, boys building forts on the empty lot next door, staging make believe wars with rival gangs, reminding us that until recent children played together, rather than staring at computer games. Unlike other Hollywood examples of the genre, the film steers clear of cheap sentimentality, even when the film’s boy hero is confronted with death.  

Penrod and Sam (1923, William Beaudine)

Guofeng (1935, Luo Mingyou, Zhu Shilin), starring Ruan Lingyu and Li Lili, the former the tragic star of Shanghai cinema, concerns two sisters who are in love with the same man, the older sister withdrawing from the competition, even though she is already secretly engaged. While the older sister adheres to the virtues of Chiang Kai-shek’s “New Life” movement – following tradition, social responsibility, frugality, and modesty – the younger sister divorces her husband who financed her education and chases material pleasure, thereby destroying her family. A day later, the Giornate returned to Asia with Where Lights Are Low (1921, Colin Campbell), a Hollywood melodrama produced and starring Sessue Hayakawa as Chinese Prince Tsu Wong Shih who falls in love with the daughter of his gardener; he goes to America to study and must eventually rescue his fiancé from white slavery. Unlike the previous film, Prince Tsu comes down on the side of modernity, rather than tradition.

Guofeng (1935)
Tempesta in un Cranio (1921, Carlo Campogolliana)

La Tempesta in un cranio/Storm in the Skull (1921, Carlo Campogolliana) is an Italian comedy about a wealthy writer who believes he may be going insane, due to an hereditary predisposition, and experiences a series of surreal adventures that let me indeed doubt his sanity, but turn out to be an elaborate trick played on the writer by his fiancé and his friends to convince him he is indeed sane. Another newly discovered comedy, this time a musical from Greece, Oi Apachides ton Athinon/The Apaches of Paris (1930), follows the fate of an impoverished nobleman, known as “The Prince” in the bohemian quarters of Athens, who is roped into a scheme to fool a nouveau riches and falls in love with the daughter, only to return to his fiancé from the working classes. Based on an operetta, many songs were performed off camera to accompany the film.

Abwege (1928, G.W. Pabst)

The most modern film at the Giornate was G.W. Pabst’s Abwege/The Devious Path, 1928, a new digital restoration first screened at the Berlinale in 2018. Starring Brigitte Helm as a bored wife of a wealthy lawyer, the film subtly displays the breakdown of a marriage, as both partners are seemingly unable to communicate their feelings to each other, their displeasure coded through minute movements of lips and eyebrows. Meanwhile, the search for excitement is embodied in a continuously moving camera that glides through 1920s Berlin’s luxurious world of nightclubs, drugs, and kept women. It is the economy of its means, embodied in Pabst precision editing, – the film was produced as a quota quickie – that makes Abwege an unqualified masterpiece of Weimar modernity. At the opposite end of the modernity spectrum is Cecil B. DeMille’s old-fashioned The Romance of the Redwoods (1917), a “western” starring Mary Pickford as a plucky young woman who travels West during the California Gold Rush and successfully negotiates the all-male world of the prospecting camps, converting through her love an outlaw into an upstanding citizen.  Although I missed the last day of screenings, including a program of Laurel and Hardy shorts, it was a great week of films.

Nevertheless, I really missed not being in Pordenone, because, of course, a big part of the festival is social, meeting friends and colleagues between screenings, having an Aperol Spritz at the Bar Posta, across the square from the Teatro Verdi or eating a meal at one of the many great restaurants, whether the Osteria Al Cavaliere Perso, the Prosciutteria DOK, Al Lido or Al Gallo, all within minutes of the theatre. The center of town is almost exclusively pedestrian zones, so it is always a pleasure to just promenade past the many shops to clear out your head when you have spent ten hours in the cinema. Hopefully, next year!

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Archival Spaces 253

White Nationalist Terrorism is nothing new in America: Re-Viewing The Black Legion (1937)

Uploaded 9 October 2020

White Nationalist Terrorist i n Kenosha

Last week at the first presidential debate, Donald Trump refused to condemn the white nationalist and racist organization, “The Proud Boys,” just as he has encouraged other racist groups, like the American Nazis, whom he characterized as “good people” after Charlotte. In Kenosha, a 17 year old white nationalist calmly shot two BLM protesters dead and walked merrily past police; he is now a “blood hero” of the Right. Only yesterday, thirteen Michigan “militia” men were arrested for conspiring to kidnap the Michigan Governor, because she defied Trump, who verbally abused Gretchen Whitmar as the murder plot hit the news.

Radical rightwing groups have always been a part of the American fabric, just as racism runs deep throughout American society, but until this President, they have remained splinter groups. The Guardian recently quoted Southern Poverty Law statistics that noted a 55% increase in such hate groups, exerting enormous influence online, since Donald Trump became president. During the Great Depression, the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations thrived. Economic stress fueled hatred then as now, but white nationalists under Franklin D. Roosevelt could not count on covert support from the highest level of government, as they do today.  In the Warner Brothers’ film, The Black Legion (1937, Archie L. Mayo), white, racist terrorists are successfully prosecuted.

Lobby Card for The BVlack Legion (1937)

The film is based on the actual “Black Legion,” a white nationalist group in the 1930s Midwest, especially in Michigan(!), a Ku Klux Klan splinter group that numbered as many as 135,000 members. The film fictionalized the actual kidnapping and murder of Charles A. Poole in May 1935 in Detroit, a Works Progress Administration organizer, for which the government prosecuted 49 members of the Black Legion, of which eleven were convicted of murder, thanks to the testimony of Dean Dayton, a former Legionaire.

Dean Dayton at 1937 Detroit Trial

In the film, Humphrey Bogart plays factory worker Frank Taylor (a fictionalized Dayton) who is passed over for promotion to foreman in his factory and becomes embittered by the “foreigners who are taking away jobs from red-blooded Americans.” He joins the Black Legion, which burns down the farm of foreman Joe Dombrowski allowing Taylor to get the job. However, he is quickly demoted for not handling a machine malfunction on the floor, because he was in the lavatory recruiting for the Legion. The next foreman is also tortured, but he doesn’t get the job back. Taylor alienates his wife and slips into drunkenness, finally killing his friend, Ed Jackson, who threatened to expose the Black Legion. Like Trump and his white nationalist followers, Taylor articulates grievances and rage against nebulous scapegoats, because he believes that “native-born Americans,” i.e. white people, experience economic hardship at the hands of the other.  

Black Legionaires
Klu Kllux Klan, n.d.

In a speech to the Legion, Alf Hargrave claims that foreigners who have enriched themselves with American jobs, hold an alien, un-American doctrine, “and are plotting to seize our government and overthrow the republic.” He states further that the Legion will purge the land of traitorous aliens, creating a “free, white, 100% America.” Like the dog whistles used today, the American fascists in the 1930s used code words to stoke racial fear and hatred. But like the Nazis and Communists of the 1930s, the Black Legion also terrorized its own members into silence and submission: In a midnight initiation ceremony in the woods, the gathering garbed in black KKK robes, Taylor swears an oath that binds him to undying loyalty, demanding damnation of his eternal soul, if he betrays the organization. To further undergird the oath, Hargrave gives Taylor a shell casing, saying the bullet will find him or his family, if he betrays his oath. When he is arrested, a Black Legionnaire posing as a lawyer appears in Taylor’s cell to remind him of the bullet waiting for his family if he talks. Interestingly, in a scene added by Warner Brothers after production was completed, Taylor’s lawyer states to the judge in private chambers, he was unaware of Taylor’s murderous activity. The Academy’s MPAA files would probably tell us why the after-shoot, but I suspect it has to do with absolving the legal profession of any culpability as fascist collaborators.

Humphrey Bogart

Warner Brothers became interested in the case as early as the Black Legion trial in 1936, sending a staff member to observe the trial and come up with story ideas. The original story was written by Robert Lord, who also produced the film and insisted on casting Bogart (at the time a supporting player), because he felt Edward G. Robinson, who was originally cast, looked too much like a foreigner, i.e. Jewish. The Black Legion maintained KKK secrecy protocols from hoods to humiliation, leading the Clan to sue Warner Brothers for patent infringement; the suit was thrown out of court. Like the KKK, the Black Legionnaires hated all foreigners, as well as Jews, Catholics and other minorities, although no African-Americans or other people of color actually appear in the film. That is surprising, given that Detroit was already heavily black, just as it was a Black Legion stronghold, but Warner Brothers, like other Hollywood studios, still practiced – by a process of exclusion – a different form of racism. The film was praised by the critics and earned Robert Lord an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, while the National Board of Review named Black Legion Best Film of 1937.

In the movie trial, — true to WB’s support of Roosevelt’s administration, —  the judge reaffirms American ideals, grounded in Democracy, as he scolds the accused white nationalist terrorists: “Your idea of patriotism and Americanism is hideous to all decent citizens. It violates every protection guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, contained in our Constitution. The Bill of Rights, assuring us all religious freedom and the right to person and property, is the cornerstone of American patriotism…  We cannot afford to have racial or religious hatred stirred up, so that innocent citizens become the victims of accusations brought in secrecy or of terrorists who inflict their vigilante judgment.”

I used to see Black Legion as a melodramatic treatment of an isolated historical moment, but, in the age of Trumpism, I realize that,like Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949), it is a warning that American Democracy and our liberty have to be actively protected, even when the terrorist is our own president.    

Trade Periodical Advertisement for The Black Legion

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Archival Spaces 252

DAS – Digital Asset Symposium (Online)

Uploaded  25 September 2020

The Digital Asset Symposium – DAS – , originally scheduled for New York’s Museum of Modern Art in June, finally took place online on September 16-17, 2020. Organized by the Association of Moving Image Archivists, and sponsored by a host of vendors from the archival field, it was the tenth meeting of digital film/media specialists since 2007, the last four at MOMA. I had not attended DAS since 2012 when it was held in Los Angeles (https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/blogs/archival-spaces/2012/11/08/das-2012-lifecycle-digital-asset).  Given the East-West coast time difference for a virtual event, the symposium was limited to four hours of programming each day, beginning at 1 PM EST/10 AM PST.

After AMIA President Dennis Doros welcomed everyone, moderator Nick Gold introduced Ant Rawston of Microsoft Research, who discussed “Project Silica,” an initiative to utilize glass as a long term storage medium for digital media. Unlike hard drives or even clouds, which have a limited lifespan, fused silica promises to remain stable for storage over ten thousand years and is not subject to environmental decay, whether by heat, humidity or cold (unlike any other known media carrier). So far, Microsoft has proven the concept, but both write and read speeds of data are apparently not yet viable for commercial exploitation. Another issue: once written, data is baked in and can’t be written over, unlike all plastic media. While Rawston gave no indication of when archivists will be able to purchase the silica medium, he indicated that its sale is only a matter of time.

Example of Microsoft’s Silica digital storage media

Next, Kyle Evans from Tape Ark/Seagate, discussed “Digital Data Preservation Across Industries – A Shared Experience,” focusing on the energy sector’s data. Unfortunately, other than noting that analog tape should be transferred to digital, the talk offered little to archivists who have been dealing with decaying audio and videotape for decades. More interesting was Sally Hubbard, Maureen Harlow, and Athena Livano-Propst’s discussion of the Public Broadcasting Corporation’s efforts to combine semantic and machine learning technology to create richer metadata sets for non-textual content, while employing standards-based cataloging procedures. Semantic technology is text-based, for example, Google searches, in contrast to machine learning technology which is image-based. Google Images searches work by searching text around images. Combining the technologies will eventually allow for complete searches of text and images, giving researchers the ability, e.g., to find an image of Elmo eating vegetables.

The final presentation of the day saw Ricky Riccardi, Director of Research at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, New York, introduce the Museum, in particular, its massive digitization efforts over the past several years. Few people know that the jazz trumpeter and singer, Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), spent his free time in the last twenty years of his life, personally archiving all his recordings, film and television shows, tapes, scrapbooks, and even trumpets in a house he purchased in 1951 for his wife, Lucille. In 1986, the Collection was transferred to Queens College and in subsequent years a professional archivist was hired, the collection opened to researchers (1994), and the house refurbished as an historic landmark (2003). With a $2.2 million grant from Robert Smith’s Fund II Foundation in 2016, the Armstrong House hired Deluxe and other vendors to digitize the entire collection, creating more than 60,000 digital assets. Since the 2019 COVID Pandemic shut down the house temporarily, Riccardi has created numerous online exhibits on various topics, where visitors can experience media by simply registering. In 2021 a new research center is scheduled to open across the street from the House.    

Louis Armstrong at home in Queens

Thursday began with another museum intervention, the Museum of Modern Art Film Department’s presentation of their new exhibit, “Private Lives – Public Images,” which for the first time explores the Museum’s amateur and home movies.  That collection goes back to the days of Iris Barry (1930s), when the Museum accepted the home movies of Biograph Film Co. executives, as well as those of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, while later collections came from artists and others donating their work. Curated by Ron Magliozzi, Katie Trainor, Brittany Shaw, and Ashley Swinnerton, the exhibition attempts to find an adequate presentation form for moving images, beyond the usual screenings in theaters. The question they asked themselves was how to differentiate various kinds of film images, so they don’t all look the same? After searching cataloging records, the curators viewed over 600 films, before selecting more than one hundred, viewable on different-sized, custom-made monitors (digitally) and in analog film projections. The exhibition is open to the public through 21 February 2021.

“Private Lives – Public Images,” Museum of Modern Art Exhibition

Next, Chris Lacinak, President of AVP, presented “Bursting the Inverse Bubble: Audio and Video in the Information Economy,” which picked up the earlier thread on creating new search mechanisms for audio visual information.  Noting that full text searches, which became possible 25 years ago have revolutionized our lives as much as anything in the net, Lacinak decried the still inadequate tools for searching audio and video, given that the amount of such data on the web alone (as well as in archives) is staggering. Challenges to creating such search engines include: 1. The private nature of many collections, 2. Lack of interoperability, 3. Closed loop systems, 4. Lack of democracy. AVP is currently developing a search machine (Audiovisual Metadata Platform) that will search metadata, e.g. transcripts of podcasts, to make the search on non-text material easier.

Decomposed analog videotape.

Next, Kelly Pribble, Studio Engineer at Iron Mountain, and Gregory Maratea, the Company’s Director of Global Client Solutions, discussed Iron Mountain’s workflow, policies, and procedures for the storage of physical and digital assets. In particular, they discussed decay, stabilization and digitization of analog tape formats, then presented their preservation work on the Tupac Shakur Collection, which includes non-media and media assets. Finally, Mike Castro and Randal Luckow, VP of the HBO Archive and Director, Archives and Asset Management, respectively, discussed the monumental task of collecting, archiving, and preserving literally everything associated with the eight seasons of the hit television show, Game of Thrones (2011-2019). Once the show was a success, HBO management decided to collect everything, in order to have material for various fan experiences, including exhibitions and a studio tour. Apart from 3,707 hours of actual footage, they collected sets, props, costumes, photos, designs, other material from 18 different departments. In their workflow, they were careful to follow standard archival practice regarding diplomatics, respect de fonds, provenance, and original order. They are presently building a new archive facility outside Belfast and a studio tour will hopefully open there in Summer 2021.

Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-2019)

Overall, this abbreviated DAS was extremely interesting for moving image archivists and librarians. Interestingly, five of eight presentations came from private industry, rather than archivists at non-profit institutions. This is a profound change in the archival field over the past twenty years, indicating the degree to which private industry has adopted scientifically based archival practice. On the other hand,  organizers should consider how they can differentiate themselves better from AMIA’s own annual conference and “the Reel Thing,” since several DAS presentations were firmly entrenched in analog archival practice with only brief nods to digital asset management. 

DAS in the age of COVID

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Archival Spaces 251

The Thanhouser Collection DVD, Vols. 13, 14 & 15 (1911-1916)

Uploaded 11 September 2020

Ned Thanhouser, the grandson of the founder of the Thanhouser Film Company, Edwin Thanhouser, has been busy over the past decade, finding lost films and preserving them in conjunction with various film archives, including the British Film Institute, the Library of Congress, the Academy, UCLA and George Eastman Museum. He has now released a three-DVD set that includes twenty one-reel films, made by the Thanhouser Company between 1911-1916, which American film historians consider the “transitional era” from a cottage industry of individual producers of short films to the vertically integrated studio era, uniting production, distribution, and exhibition. The Thanhouser DVD Collection, Volumes 1 through 12 with 57 films from 1909 to 1917, had been previously made available. Releasing them also online (https://www.thanhouser.org/index.html), makes Thanhouser one of the best documented film companies of the period. The DVD sets can be ordered at the same site.

Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser, ca. 1951

Founded in New York in 1909 by Edwin Thanhouser, his wife, Gertrude, and brother-in-law Lloyd Lonergan (the company’s chief writer), the Thanhouser film Company evolved from Edwin’s work in legitimate and vaudeville theatres in Milwaukee and Chicago. The studio began producing films in New Rochelle at the very end of 1909, quickly establishing a stock company of actors who would appear repeatedly in the Company’s films over the next seven years, including Marie Eline, Florence LaBadie, James Cruze, Muriel Ostriche, William Russell, Marguerite Snow, and Harry Benham, among others. In 1912, Thanhouser was absorbed by the Mutual Film Corp., a newly formed distributor that brought together other independent producers, like Keystone, Majestic, and Kay-Bee, in order to protect them from the monopolization efforts of the Motion Picture Patents Trust.  After the New Rochelle studio burned to the ground in January 1913, Thanhouser moved operations to Florida and Los Angeles, before returning in May 1913 to a rebuilt studio in New Rochelle, with other films were still being shot in Florida/California and in Chicago.

Thanhouser Film Studio Fire, January 1913

Vol. 13 opens with two adaptations of Henrik Ibsen plays, The Pillars of Society (1911) and A Doll’s House (1911); produced on tiny stages in medium long shots with actors and furniture crowded together, both short films reduce complex dramas to melodrama. The adaptation of literary works by Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, George Elliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Oscar Wilde, etc. became a specialty for Thanhouser. Next, The Austin Flood (1911), one of Thanhouser’s few actualités, documented  the complete destruction of the town of Austin, PA., Northeast of Pittsburgh, a day after the Bayless Dam broke,  killing 78 inhabitants. While the great majority of Thanhouser films portrayed members of the middle class, The Star of the Side Show (1912) is a somewhat perverse look at “freaks” in a circus side show, including a romance between little people. Shot in a Florida orange grove, The Girl of the Grove (1912) is a melodrama with a feminist twist, in which a philandering husband is sent packing by a young woman he attempts to seduce, after she has rescued his wife from suicide. In The Thunderbolt (1912), money embezzled by a broker finally makes it back to its owner after lightning reveals its hidden location.

Star of the SIde Show, (1912)

Vol. 14 continues with the melodramas, Cross Your Heart (1912), Idol of the Hour (1913), The Girl in the Cabaret (1913), Coals of Fire (1914), and Their Best Friend (1914), all of which involve middle class families, often children, threatened by greed, avarice, and lust.  All are ultimately resolved happily, the exception being Idol, which follows the slow decline of an artist model from toast of the town to charwoman.  No longer stage-bound, these films include many outdoor scenes in city and country that visualize American life before World War I. One of the great pleasures of these films is really seeing the fashions, the faces, the cars, architecture, body language, and other signs of modernism. Far from modernist, but charming, the DVD also includes the fairy tale, Jack and the Beanstalk (1913).

Toodles, Tom and Trouble (1915)

The final DVD, Volume 15, begins with The Mother of Her Dreams (1915), a touching  melodrama of an orphan girl who yearns to find a family. She dreams of a fairy mother who guides her to a real lost little rich boy in the woods. In the missing final scene, the boy’s family adopts the girl. Thanhouser’s success rested on its policy of good cheer, a policy directed specifically at the American middle classes, who were beginning to venture into the cinema in ever greater numbers. The Twins of the GL Ranch (1915) is a western that visualizes a robbery/rescue, and features the famous “Thanhouser Twins,” Madeline and Marion Fairbanks, who appeared in over thirty films between 1912 and 1916.  The volume continues with three comedies, John T. Rocks and the Flivver (1915), Toodles, Tom and Trouble (1915), and Guiders (1916). Like Twins, the first two comedies feature extended chase sequences, while a gaggle of Keystone like cops make an appearance in Guiders, shot in Florida, partially on ostrich and alligator farms.

The DVD concludes with a “bonus,” An American in the Making (1913), part industrial, part immigrant story. Financed by U.S. Steel with scenes shot in Chicago (e.g. at Berghoff’s famous German restaurant, where I ate as a kid) and at a steel mill in Gary, IN., the film highlights safety features in industrial work, while showing a young European immigrant establishing a family in America, thanks to his job in the steel industry.

An American in the Making (1913)

Given the fact that these films have been digitized from preserved analog sources, without a significant amount of digital clean-up, the visual quality of the films is generally good with nitrate decomposition only marring a single early title. All the films are accompanied by well-known silent film musicians, Nathan Avakian, Stephen Horne, and Ben Model, making this collection a delightful journey into a past, now over 100 years gone

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Archival Spaces 250

Volker Schlöndorff’s Baal  (1970)

Uploaded 28 August 2020

Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Baal (1970)

When I was a teenager, I was fascinated with Bertolt Brecht. I saw my first Brecht play, “The Rise and Fall of Arturo Ui” at the Ruhr Festspiele in 1965, which featured 20 foot high puppets. For my senior thesis in Betty Nichols’ English honors class at Frankfurt American High School, I wrote about Brecht’s “Epic Theater.” I did the research at the Goethe University Library in German and English sources. During my sophomore year at University of Delaware, I finished a paper on “the young Brecht” of “Baal” and “Man is Man” for a graduate level German course. That same year 1970, Volker Schöndorff’s television film, Baal, starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder, was broadcast on German television exactly once, then immediately disappeared when Helene Weigel, Brecht’s widow, filed an injunction against the film. It was not released again until 2014, when Brecht’s grand-daughter finally granted permission for public exhibition, leading to a restoration by the Criterion Collection; it is now also available on Kanopy.

Bertolt Brecht, Berlin, 1920s

That fate somewhat mirrors the original German production of “Baal” in Weimar Germany. Brecht’s first play was written in 1918, in just four days, according to Martin Esslin, when Brecht was a student in Munich. A first version was performed in Leipzig in 1923, after Brecht had received the prestigious Kleist Prize for his first three plays. But Brecht was unhappy with it, and completed a revised version, which was performed exactly once in 1926 in Max Reinhardt’s Junge Bühne, when it ignited a near riot in the theater. Influenced by Brecht’s evolving conception of epic theater, “Baal” featured a Rimbaud-like poet who speaks in free verse, ravages both men and women, whom he discards like toilet paper, and ultimately drinks himself to death. No one could have realized in 1970 that Rainer Werner Fassbinder was playing what would become his own biography down to the t, but today it is not possible to see the film except through that lens.

Financed by German television, Baal is a quintessential 60s-70s German art film from the Munich film scene, populated with then mostly unknown actors who would define Fassbinder’s and New German Cinema. Shot in 16mm color in contemporary dress with a roving camera by Dietrich Lohmann, who filmed almost all of Fassbinder’s 1970s films, Baal opens with the poet hero walking through a wheat field, reciting verse, before getting thoroughly drunk at a reception in his honor. Lohmann often smears Vaseline around the edges of his lens, leaving only Baal in focus in center frame, thus mirroring the poet’s blindness to his surroundings. The remainder of the film follows Baal drinking, insulting patrons, mistreating women (including raping one), reciting poetry, and ultimately crawling into the bushes to die. In keeping with the alienation techniques of epic theater, Schlöndorff retains Brecht’s poetic verse, the actors reciting expressionlessly, often directly to the camera. Non-synchronous musical interludes feature Fassbinder reciting poetry (off camera) over Klaus Doldinger’s iconic jazz-rock score.

Miriam Spoerri, Guenther Kauffmann, Fassbinder, Hanna Schuygulla in Baal

Many of the actors in the film were or would become familiar to audiences through Fassbinder’s 1970s work. There is Hanna Schygulla, playing a pretty waitress and lover of Baal, who would star in no less than nineteen Fassbinder films, including Effie Briest (1974), The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), and Lili Marleen (1981). We see tall and thin as a rail in a walk on as a land-lady, the late Irm Hermann, her inevitably dour presence graced eighteen Fassbinder films, almost always as an impression-making secondary character, but starring memorably as the embittered house wife in RWF’s masterpiece, The Merchant of Four Seasons  (1972).  It was the first film for Günther Kaufmann, a black German actor who was to become one of the director’s discarded lovers, appeared in fourteen Fassbinder films, and starred in Whitey (1971) and had a major supporting role in Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). Another supporting actor, Walter Sedlmayr, already had a long career in Bavarian roles, before playing in eight Fassbinder films, as well as several Schlöndorff films. Finally, Margarete von Trotta plays one of Baal’s abused lovers, but not a victim, rather she chooses out of strength to sacrifice herself, an interesting interpretation in the light of her subsequent work. Starring in several Schlöndorff films, as well as being his wife, von Trotta would go on to become one of Germany’s most important explicitly feminist directors with films, like The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum (1975), Marianne & Juliane (1981) and Hannah Arendt (2012).

Margarete von Trotta and R.W. Fassbinder in Baal (1970)

However, Rainer Werner Fassbinder dominates every scene, just as he would in star turns in his own Fox and His Friends (1975) and his last role in Wolf Gremm’s Kamikazi 89 (1982, which co-starred Günther Kaufmann). Throughout Baal, Fassbinder wears his trademark leather jacket, an updated version of Brecht’s leather gear from the 1920s; I saw RWF in the same jacket at a press conference at the Berlinale Film Festival in 1974 after the premiere of Effie Briest, feigning indifference when he was criticized by some of the press. At the time, I thought it was his Brecht act, echt anti-Kapitalistisch, but maybe he really was the same on screen or in person. In Baal Fassbinder is sullen, aggressive, violent, insolent, driven, pathetic, self-centered, drunk and drunk again, totally focused on his own desires without a second thought for those around him, but also a brilliant, funny, caustic, serious lyricist. He is the romantic 1960s version of the expressionist artist who wallows for his art. In retrospect, we see Fassbinder is Baal, just as Baal was a version of Brecht, and like Rimbaud and Baal, Fassbinder died at the age of 37 after too much drink, too many drugs, too much anguish, but leaving behind an immortal body of work.            

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Archival Spaces 249

The Last Days of Louise Brooks

Uploaded 15 August 2020

Louise Brooks died 35 years ago this week on 8 August 1985. I met Louise Brooks for the first time in 1975, long after her Hollywood career had ended, when she was living on N. Goodman Street in Rochester, N.Y., around the block from my apartment. At the time, I was a paid post-graduate intern at George Eastman House and confess that when I met her in Curator George Pratt’s office, she was to me just another silent film actress. She had come to Rochester in 1956 at the invitation of James Card, the founder of the George Eastman Museum Film Collection and my boss. Rumor had it that she had been living in poverty in New York City, working as a part-time salesgirl at Macy’s, occasionally selling herself, and drinking full-time. In 1957, James took her to Paris, where Henri Langlois celebrated her as a goddess and resurrected myth, while Jim took her as his lover. However, she still drank, and soon the legendary screaming matches between Brooks and Card became the talk of the local bar scene. When the relationship finally ended sometime in 1963, Louise began a friendship with George Pratt that only ended with her death.

James Card and Louise Brooks, Rochester, ca. late 1950s

George was gay. He loved Louise for her strength, but was also well aware of her weaknesses. It was George who encouraged her to write her memoirs, but she balked. Instead, he helped her research and write a series of articles, which were eventually collected together in Lulu in Hollywood (1982), a book that has remained in continuous print since then and established her as one of the most well-known actresses from the silent era. George told me he thought Louise’s career had ended, because she was personally and professionally completely undisciplined. George had been hired by Card as Assistant in 1953. By the time I got there, Card and Pratt had not talked for more than ten years, except through the departmental secretary, Kay McRae, possibly because of Louise’s switched allegiances.    

Louise by that time had long silver gray hair, her face was extremely thin, almost anorexic, but with shiny eyes and still beautiful fingers. She wore a simple house dress with flats and no make-up. Her movements and speech were measured and deliberate. Had she really been a star? I saw her again a few weeks later, wearing a gray raincoat that looked like it was cut for a man, as she walked past my apartment around lunch time; my kitchen faced the street. From then on, I saw her regularly on my lunch break, walking towards East Ave., then returning a short time later with a brown bag under her arm. George told me her diet consisted mostly of Vodka, at least until she stopped drinking a couple years later.

It was not until weeks after my first meeting that I saw my first Louise Brooks film, The Beggars of Life (1928). I now began to understand why Card had endeavored to collect every Louise Brooks film he could find. Could this wonderful young woman with black hair and a square face really be the same person I had met? After viewing all her other films at Eastman, I knew that she wasn’t. Louise Brooks in black and white existed only as a star image on the screen, in photos, and in the desire of thousands of later-born. Louise, herself, maintained a healthy skepticism about her and understood that she was not identical with the image on screen.

In September 1984, eight years after having left Rochester, I returned as George Pratt’s successor. Soon after, George suggested we visit Louise, driving to her apartment with Kay McRae. Louise opened the door, then turned around and went straight back to bed. I was flabbergasted to see that the living room décor consisted of a Formica kitchen table and two chairs, which we brought o her bedroom to sit with her. Except for her bed and a wooden night stand, there was no other furniture, no pictures on the wall, no books. George introduced me again, but there was no conversation, because Louise wanted to write everything down. She had a little black note book and a pencil, but her arthritic fingers were bent and shook, due to emphysema. It took her minutes just to write down my name. I asked her a question, which she had to write down, “for her next book,” before she could answer. After twenty minutes, we were all exhausted, so we decided to postpone the meeting for another day. It never came.

Louise was not as isolated as the above implies. She did have a small circle of friends who called and visited her regularly, many of them younger gay men.

Louise’s Apartment Building on N. Goodman St., Rochester, N.Y.

Her funeral service took place in a local Catholic Church with not more than thirty people: a few relatives from Kansas, local film critics and friends, and the Eastman Museum crew. Much to the surprise of her friends, Louise had converted to Catholicism at the end of her life. Jack Garner, the national Gannett Newspaper film critic and himself a devout Catholic – who passed away earlier this year – gave the funeral speech and served as an altar boy. Having had a Catholic education, I’ll never forget that image of Jack in red and white alter cassocks, almost seven feet tall and as wide as an armoire, towering over the presiding priest. Louise’s estate was donated to the Museum a few weeks later in a ceremony at Eastman. It consisted of two cardboard boxes with a few letters, some books she had been sent and her little black notebooks. The latter were completely illegible.

The late John Kuiper, Director Film Dept. and Eastman House Board member with Associate Curator at presentation of Louise Brooks estate to the Museum.

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Archival Spaces 248

Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here (1964)

Downloaded  31 July 2020

I can’t believe it has taken me nearly fifty years to catch up with Kevin Brownlow’s first feature film, It Happened Here, which had its UK premiere at the London Film Festival on 1 November 1964. I first became aware of the film sometime in late 1971 – long before I met Kevin – having taken my first film course in Spring of that year, –  when I purchased Brownlow’s BFI monograph, How It Happened Here (1968, Doubleday & Co.).  Perused, I added it to my embryonic film book collection, but never had an opportunity to see the film, initially because it wasn’t available in America until Milestone released it theatrically and on DVD in 2000; don’t know why it took another twenty years, given that my dissertation analyzed anti-Nazi films made in Hollywood during WWII. Thanks to Amy Doros and Milestone, I finally screened the film and was frankly flabbergasted at its quality and modernity  I knew it was an amateur production which Brownlow and Andrew Mollo directed when Brownlow as a teenager; it took eight years to complete the film. Mashing up documentary, newsreel recreations and fictional scenes in a then completely unconventional style, It Happened Here presages the alternative universes of The Man in the High Castle, down to its use of newsreels.   

Kevin Brownlow ca. 1963

The film visualizes the fictional occupation of Great Britain in 1944, after the German Wehrmacht had successfully invaded the island in 1940 and eliminated any resistance.  When the film opens, armed resistance has flared up again in the Western half of the British Isles, now supported by the Americans.  Brownlow opens with a fake German newsreel that relates the above, and not only totally convincingly mimics the Deutsche Wochenschau of World War II, but also uses a German narrator whose inflection and accent imitates exactly the Nazi original. The film then slowly focuses on Pauline, an apolitical nurse who survives a massacre when she is supposed to be evacuated to London, then slowly slips into the role of a Nazi collaborator, who may or may not have betrayed her friends to the Nazis.

It Happened Here (1964)

Throughout the film, Brownlow returns to German and British “newsreels” that are strikingly accurate in capturing the ambience of 1940s Britain under Nazi occupation. Some newsreel footage restages known historical events, e.g. the execution of refugees by  “Sonderkommandos” (recalling  some of the only surviving atrocity footage in Poland), the 1914 Christmas truce along the Western Front; the snowball fight quotes Abel Gance’s Napoleon (and was at that time only to be found in Brownlow’s 9.5mm print of the film). Equally amazing is the footage of Pauline walking through the ruins of London, shot in the late 1950s, when signs of the Blitzkrieg were still visible, as well as the footage of German soldiers on leave, taking in the sights of London. Brownlow scrupulously populates his images with perfect little details, like the sidewalk sale of “Das Signal” (an important Wehrmacht bi-monthly illustrated magazine), the Picture Post advert on a London bus, sidewalk sales of household goods by ghetto inhabitants or the German/English signage at the edge of the Jewish Ghetto.

It Happened Here (1964)

In keeping with the realism of such imagery, Brownlow stages British Nazi Party rallies, ceremonies, and lectures which reproduce both the original words of British Fascists from the 1930s and the ideology of German National Socialism. Indeed, some of this footage is actual documentary footage of British Fascists. The UK Nazis argue that the English are enjoying a high standard of living, because the “International Jewish Capitalist and Bolshevik” conspiracy has been defeated, while also blaming the Jews for the bombing of London, because British politicians rejected Germany’s peace feelers. In another jaw-dropping scene, a British Fascist argues perfectly “rationally” that euthanasia is necessary, because the State cannot be expected to support those individuals who cannot help support the State.    

It Happened Here (1964)

Such vile, racist content is articulated without contradiction within a filmic text that demands realism, leading critics in the 1960’s to condemn the film as fascist and anti-Semitic. One can counter that there are no anti-Semitic stereotypes visible in the film, while the arguments of the Fascists are themselves clichéd and stereotypical. When a young woman asks how Jews could be blamed for Communism and Capitalism, the instructor responds nonsensically, there are no conflicts between the Jews of the Kremlin and those in London.

Other critics thought the film unrealistic, because British people would never have accepted Hitlerian rule, without a whimper. Obviously, not even twenty years after the war, the wounds were still too fresh for such an uncomfortable truth. But as Marcel Ophuls’ film about France under the Occupation, Sorrow and the Pity (1969) and Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1997) demonstrate, mild mannered, middle class citizens can indeed become fascist collaborators; a lesson we have learned yet again in Texas detention camps and on the streets of Portland.

The film’s penultimate scene proves the point most shockingly. German SS troops who have surrendered under a white flag are led into a field by the resistance  and massacred, as an American Army jeep drives by without intervening. Meanwhile, Pauline, who has been captured by the Allies and identified as a Nazi fellow traveller, begins working as a nurse for the American military; like millions of collaborators (and war criminals) after 1945, she slips back into an invisible, conventional life.    

UK Premiere in Leicester Square, London, November 1964

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Archival Spaces 247

Cinemateca Brasileira in Crisis

Downloaded  17 July 2020

Earlier this year in an article in The Journal of Film Preservation (No. 102, 2020), I noted the following: “While archives and libraries are perceived by the general population to be bastions of stability, their existence and mandate to conserve and preserve consciously welded together, the real world fact is that the operation of an archive is indeed no guarantee that its contents will ultimately be preserved… While factors external to the archive often lead to its demise, internal issues can also come into play.”   Sadly, another example of this truism recently made headlines, when the Cinemateca Brasileira in São Paulo was restructured and defunded by the right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro and may now disappear altogether; A tragedy, given this is the largest and one of the oldest film archives in Latin America.

Cinemateca Barsileira, Sao Paolo

In January 2019, the President of Brazil eliminated the Ministry of Culture, under whose aegis the Cinemateca operated, and turned it into a special secretariat. Throughout the year, the government removed qualified employees from the Archive, in order to place political patrons in those jobs. In December 2019, the government revoked the contract of the privately-owned non-profit, the Associação de Comunicação Roquette Pinto (ACERP), which had been managing the Archive since March 2018, thus eliminating all funding for the Cinemateca. Since then the Archive has been operating without funding from the government. Disaster struck again in February 2020  when a huge flood damaged the Cinemateca’s screening facility in downtown Sao Paolo, causing the destruction of 100,000 dvds.  A meeting between ACERP and the Brazilian government in late May failed to reach an agreement, when ACERP asked to be refunded $2 million for expenses in 2019. According to press reports, ACERP has spent another $ 750,000 on the Cinemateca so far in 2020, without reimbursement. Other newspaper reports indicate that the government plans to close the Cinemateca Brasileira, which would orphan all its valuable collections.

Limite (1929, Mario Peixote)

Like many moving image archives in Third World countries, but especially in Latin America, the Cinemateca Brasileira has had a troubled history, moving from feast to famine and back. Founded in 1949 as the Filmoteca do Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (The São Paulo Modern Art Museum Film Archive), its Board of Directors created a non-profit organization in 1956, the Sociedade Civil Cinemateca Brasileira (renamed Fundação Cinemateca Brasileira in 1961) to fund the organization. Its greatest public champion in the early years was the internationally known film historian and critic, Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes, who was a friend of Henri Langlois and published an important book on Jean Vigo.

In 1984, the Cinemateca was taken over by the federal government, becoming a public corporation under the Fundação Nacional Pró-Memória (Pro-Memory National Foundation), transferring to the Ministry of Culture’s Audiovisual Secrretariat in 2003.  In subsequent years, the Ministry of Culture under the leftist government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva funneled generous subsidies to the Archive through the Sociedade Amigos da Cinemateca (SAC – Friends of the Cinemateca Association), allowing the Cinemateca to expand its physical plant, especially its screening spaces, and personnel budgets. In 2006, the Cinemateca Brasileira hosted the FIAF Congress (International Association of Film Archives). Unfortunately, its visible success also brought criticism from filmmakers, producers, and researchers who accused the directors of a lack of transparency in access policies and expenditures. These issues lead to an audit by the Federal Budget Control Office in 2013, and incoming President Dilma Rousseff’s Ministry of Culture replacing archive leadership and instituting and staff cuts, but failing to deal with the Archive’s systemic problems.

Nitrate Vault Fire, Cineteca Brasileira

A fire in the Archive’s nitrate vaults in February 2016, caused, according to some by the Ministry’s negligence, precipitated the transfer of the Cinemateca’s preservation activities to ACERP, in essence offloading the government’s responsibility to a private entity. Thus, the Cinemateca’s problems began long before the present government, as noted by Rafael de Luna in a blog on 2 June 2020 (http://preservacaoaudiovisual.blogspot.com/). For example, the Archive had in the well-funded years before 2013 failed to establish a nitrate film preservation program, unlike most other international archives, so that when the fire occurred, 40% of the lost films were unique and irreplaceable. Furthermore, the Cinemateca’s laboratory, which featured analog and digital reproduction capabilities, never worked at full capacity, thus often wasting valuable public funding.

In any case, we can only hope that the Cinemateca Barsileira survives any attempts by the present fascist government to kill it. Brazil has a rich history of moving image production from the early avant-garde masterpiece, Mário Peixoto’s Limite (1930) to the Cinema nuovo movement of the 1960s, including Glauber Rocha, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Ruy Guerra, and Carlos Diegues, to the telenovelas brasileñas of the 1990s. That history is now in danger of being lost. You can support the Cinemateca Brasileira by signing a petition at this link. https://secure.avaaz.org/po/community_petitions/governo_federal_secretaria_especial_de_cultura_sec_cinemateca_brasileira_pede_socorro/?rc=fb&utm_source=sharetools&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=petition-1021104-cinemateca_brasileira_pede_socorro&utm_term=omAFqb%2Bpo&fbclid=IwAR2k50GZwE4YHe-hFwRiYtf5Nfkg6mly0Nj2gFFR62pEWSxGbcp0j91g8LM

Nelson Pereira dos Santos in Los Angeles with author, 2012

Archival Spaces 246

Lion Feuchtwanger and the Fall of France, June 1940

Downloaded 3 July 2020

Nazi dictated Armistice signed on 22 June 1940 at Compiegne, France

Eighty years ago, the German Wehrmacht began its invasion of France and Benelux (10 May 1940), surrounding British and French forces at Dunkirk, and occupying Paris on 14 June. It was a staggering defeat for the French, whose military simply collapsed almost without a fight, leading to the signing of a Nazi dictated Armistice on 22 June in a railroad car at Compiégne. Adolf Hitler insisted on the location, because it was where the German Imperial Army agreed to the 1918 Armistice, where the nation had been “stabbed in the back.” The terms of the Armistice allowed the Germans to occupy all of northern France, the country’s Atlantic coast and hinterlands, while southern France remained in the hands of a new proto-Fascist French government at Vichy, headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain, while the Provence and most of Savoy were occupied by Italy, which had declared war after the French capitulated. The French government had imprisoned thousands of anti-Nazi Germans, Austrians and other Central Europeans in internment camps as early as September 1939, but the Armistice now called for the Vichy French to deliver these “enemies of Germany” to the Nazis for deportation to Concentration Camps. Among those interned were countless, German-Jewish writers and intellectuals, including Lion Feuchtwanger.

Although most Americans don’t necessarily remember the name today, Lion Feuchtwanger was one of the most successful German writers of the first half of the 20th century. Born in Munich in 1884, Feuchtwanger came to prominence in 1925 when he published the novel, Jud Süss, translated into 17 languages, and available in English under the title Power (1926). Subsequent novels, including Success (1930), Josephus (1932), The Oppermanns (1933), The Jew of Rome (1935), The Pretender (1936), and Paris Gazette (1940), were all best-sellers in translation for Viking Press. Meanwhile, the Nazis burned all of Feuchtwanger’s books on 10 May 1933, declaring him “No. 1 Enemy of the People,” and ransacking his Berlin villa, destroying his priceless library. Feuchtwanger was on an American book tour at the time, which allowed him to relocate with his wife, Marta, to Sanary-sur-mer, near Toulon in Southern France. With the beginning of World War II in September 1939, Feuchtwanger was interned by the French at Les Milles, near Aix-en-Provence, but released after 10 days, due to international protests. He was imprisoned there for a second time on 24 May 1940. The story of his internment and miraculous escape were published in his book, The Devil in France. My Encounter with Him in the Summer of 1940 (Viking Press, 1941), which was republished by USC Libraries in 2012.

Rainer Ehrt, “Les réfugiés de Sanary-sur-Mer, Midi”, 2018.
German emigres in exile in Sanary-sur-Mer: On the quay wall on the left Egon Erwin Kisch and Marta Feuchtwanger Sitting in the front row from left: Walter Benjamin, Thomas Mann, Katia Mann, Heinrich Mann, René Schickele, Julius Maier-Graefe, Alma Mahler-Werfel, Franz Werfel In the second row from the left: Erwin Piscator, Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Zweig, Lion Feuchtwanger, Friedrich Wolf, Christiane Grautoff, Ernst Toller, Erika Mann, Nelly Man, Klaus Mann, Golo Mann, Hermann Kesten, Joseph Roth.

Given his extremely exposed position, and the certainty that war was an inevitable consequence of Hitler’s lust for power, why hadn’t Feuchtwanger left France sooner? He may have been lulled by Sanary’s amazing community of German exiles that included Walter Benjamin, Thomas Mann, Franz Werfel, Erwin Piscator, Arnold Zweig, Ernst Toller, and Klaus Mann, among others. His income allowed him to live anywhere, but as Feuchtwanger noted in The Devil in France:  “What held me was the pervasive comfort of living in Sanary, the beauty of the place, my well-fashioned house, my beloved library, the familiar frame of my work that suited me and my methods down to the last detail, the hundred little nothings of our life there that had become dear habits which would have been painful to give up.” (p. 30) Feuchtwanger would recreate that environment from scratch, down to the world-class library, in Pacific Palisades, CA., moving into the Villa Aurora in 1943.

Les Milles Internment Camp

The internment camp at Les Milles was nothing more than an abandoned brickyard, where thousands of internees slept on bare dirt floors in a three story factory with broken windows, but spent their days and meals outside under the hot unforgiving sun. The latrines were dugouts, there was no place to wash and water was so scarce that it had to be used for drinking only. These conditions worsened, as more prisoners arrived once the French decided to arrest all Czech and Austrian nationals, even those who had become French citizens or had been in the Foreign Legion. According to Feuchtwanger, this horrendous situation was not a product of French maliciousness, or any deliberate intent, but rather the (French) “Devil of Untidiness, of Unthougtfulness, of Sloth-in-Good-Will, of Convention, of Routine, the very Devil to whom the French have given the motto, ‘je m’n fous’ = ‘I don’t give a damn.’ (p. 53)”

Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger in Pacific Palisades, CA.

On the day the Armistice was signed, Feuchtwanger and other internees were put on a train, which traveled to Toulouse, then to Bayonne on the Atlantic (where it was rumored they would be handed over to the Wehrmacht), then back East to Nimes, where they were deposited in an open field surrounded by barbed wire and kept there for months in makeshift tents. With the help of the American Consul in Marseilles, Hiram Bingham, Feuchtwanger flees and is hidden in the Consul’s home, while his wife, Marta, escapes from an internment camp at Gurs and joins him. After an attempted escape by ship from Marseilles fails in August, the Feuchtwangers travel to Cerbère on the French Spanish border in September 1940, accompanied by Waitsell Sharp, an American Unitarian minister with Red Cross papers. From there, the party climb by foot over the Pyrenees, illegally cross the border, and then make their way to Lisbon. Even though Lisbon is crawling with Nazi spies with orders to kill the novelist, Lion Feuchtwanger manages to board a ship for New York with an American visa under the name of Wetcheek (a literal translation of his last name). Marta follows two weeks later on another ship.

After World War II, Lion Feuchtwanger was hounded by the FBI as a supposed “premature anti-Fascist” with leftist sympathies and denied American citizenship in 1948.  Feuchtwanger died in Los Angeles in 1958, followed by Marta in 1987. Feuchtwanger’s Villa Aurora is now a German Cultural Center.

Villa Aurora

German writer Walter Hasenclever was not so lucky. He committed suicide in Les Milles the day the Armistice was signed, while Walter Benjamin, fearing being returned to France after being arrested by the Spanish police in the Pyrenees, hanged himself on 26 September, a week after the Feuchtwangers had passed the very same location. Robert Liebmann, Weimar Germany’s most successful scriptwriter, was arrested in Paris by the French police, sent to the Drancy Internment Camp, and eventually transferred to Auschwitz, where he was murdered in July 1942.  Nearly 75,000 French, German, and Polish Jews were deported by the French to Nazi Germany and almost certain death. Not until 1995 did the French government apologize for its role in the Holocaust.

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Rounded-up foreign Jews in Paris in August 1941, Courtesy Bundesarchiv, Berlin.

Archival Spaces 245

50th Anniversary, The Strawberry Statement (1970)

Downloaded 19 June 2020

The Strawberry Statement (1970, Stuart Hagmann), based on a bestselling book by James S. Kunen, premiered 50 years ago on 15 June 1970. That academic year I was a college freshman in Athens, Ohio, where reading the novel was de rigeur. as were other youth movement favorites, including One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest (1962, Ken Kesey), Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (1966, Richard Fariña), Getting Straight (1967, Ken Kolb), and Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968, Tom Wolfe). I read them all, was active in the peace movement, travelling to Washington in November 1969. Early March saw large demonstrations at Ohio U. against a planned tuition hike, where local farm boys were given badges and billy clubs to beat up students. Two months later, the University closed prematurely, due to four days of partially violent anti-war demonstrations, in the wake of the invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State killings at our sister school. Naturally, I had to see the movie, The Strawberry Statement.

Starring Bruce Davidson, Kim Darby, and Bud Cort, Statement’s locale was moved by Hollywood from Columbia University, the site of book’s action to a fictitious university in Stockton, CA, representing San Francisco State, a hotbed of student radicalism at that time. In the film, an apolitical male student joins campus protests, because he is getting a lot of sex meeting young women at demonstrations. Even though the film won a Jury Prize at Cannes, The Strawberry Statement flopped miserably, attacked by American critics and shunned by under 30 audiences as completely inauthentic. With a production budget of $ 1.5 million, the film’s domestic gross amounted to $ 804,274, a $ 2 million loss, if you add advertising costs. For me and my friends, the film was a typical Hollywood cop-out, which disappointed as much as the studio adaptations Getting Straight (1970, Richard Rush) and Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (1971, Jeffrey Young) would be. In truth, I remember very little about The Strawberry Statement, except for the climactic scene which featured John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band performing “Give Peace a Chance,” while riot police toss tear gas and beat up students.

The Strawberry statement would hardly be worth a mention, much less a blog, except for the fact that the film had a strange afterlife. In the Communist German Democratic Republic, of all places, a dubbed version became a huge box office hit, a symbol of resistance for young people living under East Berlin’s authoritarian regime. I first heard this story from Prof. Jörg Schweinitz, who had grown up in East Germany and I met at a conference in Leipzig in 2016. He later sent me an article, published in 2010 in an anthology on film reception, “Ein amerikanischer Spielfilm als ‹Kultfilm› in der DDR” (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/278749912_Ein_amerikanischer_Spielfilm_als_Kultfilm_in_der_DDR_1968_The_Strawberry_Statement_und_die_Dialektik_der_Rezeption). According to Schweinitz, the West German synchronized version of Strawberry, Blutige Erdberren (Bloody Strawberries), premiered in the GDR on 3 March 1973. While West Germans have no cultural memory of the film, hardly any East German who entered adulthood in the 1970s has forgotten it, many having viewed it multiple times. Even after German reunification, the “cult film” remained popular in the East, a worn out 35mm print playing weekly for years in an East Berlin cinema. As late as 2003, the German distributor purchased a new print, specifically for screenings in East Germany.

For Germans born in the GDR in the postwar period to 1960, The Strawberry Statement became a part of their collective imaginary, identifying them as community, much as The Rocky Horror Show (1975) functioned for British and American kids coming of age around the same time. The question is why? Schweinitz notes that the GDR under Erich Honecker was going through a particularly repressive period, during which the Communist government rigorously controlled all aspects of daily life, especially public media. The Strawberry Statement offered youth there a vision of sexual liberation, “a playfulness, desire to break out, youthful romance, moral commitment, and gentle irony” (Schweinitz, p. 459), so completely different from the humorlessness and prudishness of Stalinist bureaucrats. The film’s soundtrack alone, featuring rock stars John Lennon, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Neil Young, Buffy St. Marie, and Thunderclap Newman, presented songs that were unavailable for purchase and could only be heard on West German radio.

Like Cat Ballou (1965), To Sir With Love (1967), and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), The Strawberry Statement was one of the few American films purchased by the Communist state film distributor for screening in the GDR. One can speculate that the government thought the film’s unflattering view of the United States fit in with its anti-American policy. But as Schweinitz notes, the reception context is everything. Whereas American youth saw the film as a disingenuous product of Hollywood fantasy, East Germans viewed the film in an environment of a repressive regime. East German youth clearly identified with the students in The Strawberry Statement, seeing their (sexual) revolution for the hell of it in stark contrast to the tired, old revolutionary slogans of their elders, and offering them a powerful fantasy of liberation.

Kristen Van Buren and Bruce Davison in The Strawberry Statement (1970)

Given the film’s importance in the collective imaginary of his generation, Schweinitz makes the final theoretical point that we must modify our parochial notions of national cinema, including not just domestic productions, but also widely distributed foreign titles, if we are to understand how cinema enters into our cultural memory. I would add that moving image archivists should probably be preserving dubbed versions of foreign language films that have had a demonstratively similar impact on the collective imaginary, a practice that is rarely implemented at the moment.

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Archival Spaces 244

Orphan Film Symposium Online 2020

Uploaded  5 June 2020

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Orphan Symposium, which was to be held in Amsterdam from 23-26 May, was moved online via Vimeo, beginning Tuesday, May 26th and continuing for four days. The original interrelated Symposium themes, “Water, Climate, and Migration” were kept for the live streamed version, although I’m assuming the event was slightly abridged, given time constraints and rights issues. For Orphan founder and organizer Dan Streible, Professor at New York University’s Moving Image Archive Program (MIAP), however, it was no small feat to move online, after almost a year of planning with the Eye Institute in Amsterdam, the Symposium’s announced host. Thanks to former MIAP students, Paula Suárez, now Director of the Mexican documentary group, Ambulante, and Walter Forsberg, the Symposium was able to piggy back on Ambulante’s online film festival infrastructure, ably assisted by Edgar Domínguez and Manuel Guerrero. As a result, the Orphan Symposium ran like clockwork, except for a few minor streaming glitches, and was rewarded with an online audience of usually more than 100 participants for any individual event.

Being on West Coast time, I missed the first morning’s live stream, although I didn’t actually know it initially, because I mistakenly watching a couple pre-recorded presentations, including a 1911 Thanhauser film about death and destruction caused when the Bayless Damn broke in Austin, Pennsylvania. By the afternoon session I had gotten into the groove, although it wasn’t until the next day that I figured out how to get into the simultaneous chat room (on the left side of the screen), which was a really great feature, because it allowed all the participants to comment, ask questions, and communicate with each other, as the presentations were unfolding, making for an extremely lively and interactive experience. For those that missed the Symposium, some of the films and presentations are still available (https://vimeo.com/user5490513).

If the Antarctic Ice Cap Should Melt? (1929, Fox Newsreel)

One of the most iconic images of the Symposium, seen repeatedly in the opening trailer, was of the Statute of Liberty sinking into the ocean, an image taken from a 1929 Fox newsreel outtake, If the Antarctic Ice Cap Should Melt?, introduced by MIAP students Shiyang Jiang, Zoe Yang, & Zhen Lai. Apparently never published at the time for being too phantasmagoric, 90 years later the image has become very real. Water as both a life-sustaining and hostile force informed other interventions, including Thanhouser’s Thirty Leagues under the Sea (1914), William Beebe’s Bathysphere in Haiti and Bermuda (1927-1934), Heinrich Hauser’s The Aran Islands (1928), and Les Blank’s The Ways of Water (1971).

Ironically, Tuesday afternoon began with Linda Tadic of Digital Bedrock discussing the adverse environmental impact of digital archives (and by extension) the digital infrastructure that made the Symposium possible. While we often assume that digital is “clean,” it in fact leaves a huge carbon footprint from tons of ewaste containing heavy metals to extreme energy needs for cloud servers. Digital technology does come at a cost to the planet, just as previous forms of modernization have.

Becoming Ocean (2018, Scott F. Foley)

In just how the present ecological disaster is taking its total on all forms of human life was visualized by Eiren Caffall in a brave and shocking film.  In Becoming Ocean (2018), she maps planetary climate change onto her own body in painful detail: she has a rare kidney disease and is “drowning” from within. That Caffall has outlived doctor’s predictions for decades, suggests a ray of hope for the earth.

Countdown to Collision (1972)

That became clear watching Jennifer Lynn Peterson’s presentation of two 1927 National Parks Service films on road building, Wheels of Change andRoads in Our National Parks, which both still exuded an optimism about future development. The Public Health Service’s Sources of Air Pollution (1962) and Countdown to Collision (1972) offered nearly apocalyptic and surprisingly prescient visions of our present ecological crisis. The latter film contains an ingenious scene of someone peeling off layers and layers of packaging, capturing in a visual nutshell our religion of waste. Equally prescient, if more depressing, was Rolf Forsberg’s short fiction film, Ark (1970), in which a man attempts to create a sustainable biosphere in an industrial wasteland, where survival is only possible with a respirator and a clear plastic hazmat suit, only to have it destroyed by other humans. Wildlife conservation and the anthropocene was also the subject of a group of silent era German nature films (Bird Images at Feather Lake, Around the World in 2 Hours, 1914-15), the former title featuring Lena Hähnle (1851-1941), an early leader in nature conservation,, as well as Western Greenland (1935) .

Leni Haehnle
Western Greenland (1935)

A completely different perspective on water was offered by Charles Musser and Walter Forsberg who presented the Union Films production of The Case of the Fisherman (1947), a previously lost film, recently found in the Pearl Bowser Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Shot in San Pedro, CA. for CIO’s fisherman’s union, the film countered the government’s suit to convict the union of Sherman Anti-Trust violations,  claiming the fisherman were businessmen, rather than workers engaged in collective bargaining. Given the virtual disappearance of a fishing industry in San Pedro, the film seems as anachronistic as the following film, the Soviet Let’s Get Acquainted (ca. 1972), which visualized fresh water fisherman in a pre-industrial never-never-land. On the other hand, Fisherman’s discourse on labor issues is as relevant today as ever.

Case of the Fisherman (1947, Carl Marzani, Union Films)

Labor, but also migration, informed the somewhat strange, industrial film, Hands Across the Border (1963), made by the Great Western Sugar Company about the so-called “Braceros,” Mexican workers imported by the agricultural industry from the 1940s to 1964. As presenter Jessie Lerner noted of this new digital restoration, the film is tinged with racism, even as it tries to assuage the white fear of brown people. Equally disturbing for their revelation of subconscious societal racism were Polish Settlements in Brazilian Wilderness (1933), which treated aboriginal people as fauna, Schwertmühle  (1967-69), about migrants living in Germany in temporary displaced persons housing from the 1940s, and the Swedish, Medical Age Assessment (2017), whose subject were Middle Eastern émigrés.

Polish Settlements in the Brazilian Wilderness (1933)

However, the Orphan Film Symposium 2020 offered not only darkness, but also light in the guise of a series of remarkable avant-garde films, including Helen Hill Award winners Martha Colburn and Jaap Pieters, as well as the films of Tatjana Ivančić, Zora Lathan, and a sneak preview of Bill Morrison’s in progress The Village Detective. Apart from the films still available on line, I should mention the great Orphan Symposium blogs, which can be read at https://wp.nyu.edu/orphanfilm/.   

Martha Colburn’s My Secret Shame

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Archival Spaces 243

Hugo Haas’ The White Sickness (1937) restored; a Plague Allegory

Uploaded 22 May 2020

Thanks to my archivist colleague and friend, Adrian Wood, I learned that the Národní filmový archive in Prague has restored Bílá nemoc (1937) from the original nitrate negative (the sound came from a nitrate print) and made it available online on their You-Tube channel with English subtitles (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJMUIBEzYnI).  An adaptation of a play by Karel Čapek, The White Sickness or Skeleton on Horseback, as it was called in the United States, was one of the few films my dad consistently mentioned to me when we talked about films that he remembered from his youth. I was also interested in the film, because it was directed by Hugo Haas, who fled Czechoslovakia after the Nazi occupation in 1939 – he was Jewish – and had an interesting career in Hollywood as an actor and low budget filmmaker, one of many Central European refugees. Finally seeing the film, I realized that it visualized a world-wide pandemic as a political allegory.

BILA NEMOC (1937)

The film opens with a superimposition of soldiers marching towards the camera and a camera moving in  to a balcony where “the Marshall” gives a bellicose speech, while a large crowd cheers below; he declares the nation ready to enlarge the country’s borders by force.  The camera then pans down over the crowd, where we see a bearded gentleman, who we learn later is Dr. Galen, turning away. In the following scene, the camera tracks horizontally from a crucifix to medical charts hanging above bedposts, as patients below muse off camera about their illness which first appears as a form of leprosy with white dermatological spots , but inevitably leads to death. Hugo Haas thus sets up through contrasting camera movement two harbingers of death: 1.) An unnamed fascist regime that glorifies war rather than peace, consciously symbolizing Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany; 2) A highly communicable,  mysterious and deadly disease, for which there is no apparent cure and which originates in China and is expanding to a world-wide pandemic through hand-shaking. Fascism sacrifices the youth of humanity, the virus kills the elderly who are usually responsible for making wars, i.e. war is like the virus. Indeed, we never see the concrete manifestations of the disease, just as the war itself remains hidden off screen, amplifying the allegorical nature of the narrative.

Dr. Galen (Hugo Haas), who we see in the first scene, has found a cure, but he is not ready to make it public, unless the Marshall and other world leaders agree to forsake their armies and all wars. Instead, he only treats the poor who are unable to pay and are most often the victims of war.  The ensuing conflict rages between the forces of the military-industrial complex which are unwilling to give up war profits for peace, and the doctor who steadfastly refuses to treat the representatives of power, as they successively succumb to the white disease. It is only when the country’s megalomaniac dictator becomes ill, after he has attacked a small neighboring country (clearly Czechoslovakia) with disastrous effects for his army, that there seems hope to end the plague. However, the masses crazed by mindless nationalism have other ideas

Published play

Born in 1890 in what is now the Czech Republic, Karel Čapek achieved world renown with his expressionist play, “R.U.R.” (1920), which coined the term robot, and his satirical dystopian science fiction novel, War with the Newts (1936). In 1937, his anti-Nazi play, “Bilá nemoc,” premiered at the Czech National Theatre in Prague, starring Hugo Haas, who also directed. Haas then wrote the screenplay and hired virtually the whole cast of the original for his filmed adaption, which premiered on 12 December 1937. The film was partially funded by the Czechoslovak government, certainly a courageous move at the time. While the film was banned in Nazi Germany, it was released in other European countries before World War II began in Europe. While Čapek died in December 1938, just before the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, – the Gestapo tried to arrest him only to learn he was already dead –  Haas supposedly smuggled a print into the United States when he emigrated; it was released by Carl Laemmle in 1940.

Baron Krog – the Capitalist Arms Manufacturer and his nameless secretary

Given its theatrical origins, Bilá nemoc is heavily dialogue driven, but is striking for both its leftist political stance – the capitalist armaments manufacturer Baron Krog (Vaclav Vydra) is clearly identified as a willing supporter of the militarist dictator (Zdenek Štepanek), who believes himself to be the savior of the nation and immune to any disease. He recklessly and knowingly shakes hands with the stricken Baron Krug. Thus, the rich and powerful fall prey to their own machinations, while the film saves its sympathies for the urban poor. However, the film ends on a highly cynical note when the masses protest the Marshall’s call for an end to the war. However, for today’s audiences, the film’s depiction of the pandemic, the overriding sense of fear it engenders in the not yet afflicted, the helpless victimization of the innocent, and the incredible arrogance of a leader who believes he is immune with a “I don’t need to wear a mask” attitude, all strike a very contemporary chord for anyone living in corona virus America.

JEALOUSY (1945, Gustav Machety) Jane Randoph, Nils Asther and Hugo Haas

An incredibly popular star in Czech cinema in the 1930s, Hugo Haas would play mostly supporting roles in Hollywood during the 1940s, but in 1951 saved enough money to set up his own independent film production company, where he began producing, directing and starring in a series of lurid, low budget melodramas. Most are variations on the theme of older men who form liaisons with much younger, often amoral women, including Pickup (1951), The Girl on the Bridge (1951), Strange Fascination (1952), The Other Woman (1953)and Hit and Run (1957).In 1961 he returned to Europe, settling in Vienna, where he occasionally appeared on Austrian television; he died there in December 1968. The White Sickness remains his most enduring work, one of the only anti-Nazi films made in Europe before the  Holocaust

For my dad as a seventeen year old high school student in Prague,Bila nemoc probably represented a political awakening; less than two years after the film’s premiere, he was incarcerated in KZ Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg and would eventually be active both in the anti-Nazi and the anti-Communist underground. 

Poster, 1952

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Archival Spaces 242

Will Movie Theatres Survive the 2020 Plague?

Down loaded 8 May 2020

On Thursday, 30 April, Ross Melnick and the Carsey-Wolf Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara hosted an online panel discussion, “Moviegoing in the Age of COVID-19,” with Manohla Dargis (New York Times) and Alison Kozberg (Art House Convergence) about the future of movie theatres. While there was some pessimism about the present state of cinema culture, the general tenure of the discussion was positive, noting that they (and hopefully many other people) miss not seeing films with an audience in a big theatre and that the hunger of moviegoers for that experience will survive the present plague. Such a positive attitude is not surprising, given their expressed nostalgia for movie theatres and their professional attachment to them. But this may be a minority view of patrons, certainly of those under the age of 30, who seemingly prefer smart phone viewing. The fact is that Disney, Warner Brothers and Universal are now launching online platforms for the release of new films, as well as their back catalogs. Indeed Universal released the new Trolls movie online, leading AMC to ban Universal from their screens.

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Disney’s Trolls World Tour (2020)

These developments make me less optimistic about the survival in this country of all but art houses and subsidized non-profit screening spaces. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle (5-3-30), Jonathan Kuntz, himself a long-time moviegoer, notes that the present pandemic is accelerating online delivery of moving image entertainment, and that except for special event screenings, “everything else will be streaming.” What is certain is that this crisis will change the film industry, just as the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 had huge consequences for the structure of the film business. The 1918 influenza pandemic killed 50 million people across the globe, including 675,000 Americans in 1918/19.

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Richard Koszarski was the first modern day film historian to remind us of the Spanish Flu’s horrific influence on film-going in the 1918 pandemic, a fact that film historians, like Benjamin Hampton, Maurice Bardèche/Robert Brasillach, and Lewis Jacobs took for granted. In an article in Film History (2005), Richard noted that “Photoplay estimated that 80 per cent of the movie houses in the United States and Canada had closed for between one and eight weeks, losing $40,000,000 in revenue and putting 150,000 employees temporarily out of work. Production in California was said to have been cut by 60 per cent, while the eastern studios ‘ceased completely’.”

https://pmcvariety.files.wordpress.com/2020/04/variety-magazine-flu-pandemic.jpg

While the first outbreak of the Spanish Flu in the United States may have been on a military base in Kansas is early 1918, the Flu raged mostly in Europe until September, when it hit Boston, New York, and Philadelphia hard. Surprisingly, theatre owners refused to close until ordered by city officials, although New York’s theatres remained open with show times staggered to avoid crowding on subways in and out of Times Square. It also banned smoking and standing-room admissions in theaters, but allowed theatres to fill seats without social distancing. However, even where cinemas stayed open, the audiences stayed away for fear of contracting the deadly virus, attendance dropping often below 50%. By November 1918, the Flu was everywhere, although some cities, like St. Louis, which had instituted social distancing early, had significantly fewer deaths than San Francisco, which reopened prematurely. Los Angeles had closed all theatres and places of amusement on 11 October, later mandating the wearing of masks. Many other cities, like Indianapolis also ordered the wearing face masks, although they seemingly did little to stop the spread of the virus.

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Seattle Tram Conductor with face mask (Courtesy NARA Archices)

The National Association of the Motion Picture Industry announced an embargo on their release of new films in October, and film production in and around Hollywood ground to a halt during October and November, while the shooting of crowd scenes was banned even longer. Even though film production recovered by early 1919, many smaller producers and countless mom and pop exhibitors went out of business. So how did the Spanish Flu change the industry structurally?

Adolph Zukor

Even before the virus hit, Paramount’s Adolph Zukor was in a huge struggle against First National Exhibitors’ Circuit, a distribution network formed in 1917 to amalgamate 26 first run cinema chains.   Adolph Zukor, who had been producing films since 1912 through Famous Players, and distributing films through Paramount Pictures since 1914, saw his theatre clientele suddenly disappearing. According to Benjamin Hampton, Walter Irwin told Zukor that he could destroy First National, if he built first run cinemas in every city where First National owned theatres. After a merger with First National failed, and the incredible losses independent theatre owners suffered during late 1918 and early 1919, due to the flu pandemic, Zukor went into action. He secured a $ 10 million loan from Wall Street and purchased 135 theatres in Southern States in 1919; by 1921, Paramount-Publix had acquired a total of 303 first run theatres in major cities across the country, creating the first vertically integrated film company in the United States, controlling production, distribution, and exhibition. Given that in Europe Nordisk, Pathé Frères, and UFA had previously already gone that route, which would become the model for all the American majors by the mid 1920s, it is likely that Zukor would have consolidated, regardless of the pandemic, but it undoubtedly created an economic opportunity.

New York’s IFC Film Center on COVID-19 hiatus

Similarly, the move to digital distribution of movies directly into the home is a trend that has been accelerating for the past ten years, but the corona virus pandemic of 2020 may actually deal the coup de grace. AMC Theatres, which is carrying $ 4.9 billion of debt, is likely to file for bankruptcy shortly with its stock plummeting. John Fithian, CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, predicted in a speech to Congress in late March that the great majority of this country’s theatre owners will go bankrupt, if Congress does not give them financial relief in Corona Virus rescue legislation. If we are witnessing the death of cinema(s), I will be in mourning. Unlike my daughter’s generation who has grown up watching movies on smart devices, I have always been happiest in a darkened space where dreams can be real. 

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Oriental Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Archival Spaces 241 

Thomas Doherty’s  Show Trial. Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist (2019)

Uploaded 24 April 2020

Thomas Doherty’s Show Trial Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist relies on original historical evidence, including documents, newsreels, contemporary newspaper reports, and the official protocols of the HUAC Hearings of October 1947, to recreate an historical event that constituted on of this country’s  greatest violation of the Bill of Rights on a grand political stage. Doherty’s book on the HUAC’s hearings sifts through the insignificant to give weight to the consequential, vigorously cutting through the Committee’s noise. But make no mistake about it, just as today we have our dangerous and now deadly struggle with a President who believes he can rule by fiat, so too were Congressmen then willing to violate the rights of defendants  to eliminate enemies and further their own political careers.

Doherty opens his book with “Backstories,” where he enumerates the numerous historical reasons why the House Un-American Activities Committee took such a lively interest in the film industry; an industry that had more or less faithfully toed the government’s line for decades. They included the founding of the Screenwriters Guild in the 1930s, and the cartoonist union strikes of 1941 against Disney, and 1945 against Warner Brothers, labor actions which constituted a direct threat to the absolute power of the studio bosses. Then, there was the issue of Hollywood’s premature anti-Fascism, leading to the first HUAC hearings in Hollywood in 1940 under Martin Dies, which was supposed to investigate the German-American Bund, but quickly pivoted to anti-Communism, but thanks to united industry resistance failed to generate any publicity.

Warner Brothers Strike, 1945

The Book’s next section, then, gives a detailed accounting of each the Hearing’s nine days. Doherty emphasizes that these hearings are “show trials” constructed for their publicity value, as much as to eliminate any opposition, just as the Stalinist purges in Russia of the late 1930s had; caught, like HUAC’s  hearings by the motion picture  camera. Doherty described Committee Chairman,  J. Parnell Thomas, thus:

“(he) refused to permit lawyers to coach or advise their clients, although Consultations between attorneys and clients were usually permitted in congressional hearings. He allowed some witnesses, usually the Friendlies, to read opening statements, but denied the right to others, usually the Unfriendlies. The hearing was too public to be a star chamber and too open-ended to be a kangaroo court, but it was not a judicial proceeding either. It was a bastard hybrid, part show, part trial.”  (p. 105)

           

Lauren Becall, Humphrey Bogart, Committee for the First Amendment

Each witness receives a short biography before Doherty characterizes their testimony. Among the “friendly” witnesses were studio bosses Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, und Walt Disney, the actors, Adolphe Menjou, Robert Taylor, Robert Montgomery, George Murphy, and Ronald Reagan, the director’s Leo McCarey and Fred Niblo Jr., as well as an array of lesser industry lights. Many happily named names of supposed Communists in Hollywood, others were more reluctant, like, Gary Cooper, who just mumbled he “weren’t no friend of the Commies, … because it isn’t on the level.” (p. 171)

In subsequent chapters, Doherty describes the efforts of the Committee for the First Amendment, an ad hoc group of Hollywood liberals, who after one trip to Washington and rallies throughout the USA, caved in the face of the anti-Communist onslaught. Among them: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Becall, Edward G. Robinson, Danny Kaye, Marsha Hunt, und Paul Henreid. The actor’s staged events outside the HUAC Hearing rooms and dramatized the violation of human rights in the chambers. Most members recanted their participation to save their careers, or ended like Marsha Hunt and Paul Henreid  on the Blacklist.

The real war of words began with the testimony of John Howard Lawson, one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood, and surreptitiously the acknowledged cell captain to the town’s Communists. Like his fellow accused, the so-called “Hollywood Ten,” e.g. Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz und Alvah Bessie, Howard was first gaveled into silence by the hammer of Committee Chair Thomas, and then forcibly removed from the room by D.C. Police when he continued to insist on reading his opening statement. They believed in their in the Constitution guaranteed right to free speech, meaning they refused to answer the question of their membership in the CPUSA. Thomas destroyed numerous gavels during the hearings, especially when Samuel Ornitz noted the extremely high percentage of Jews among the Ten, accusing the Committee of Anti-Semitism. The efficiency with which the Committee asked the essential question, “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” increased daily, so by the time Lester Cole appeared, he was gaveled out of the room in less than six minutes.  

House Un-American Activities Committee Hearings, October 1947

The 1947 HUAC Hearings ended with a victory for the liberals, because HUAC was not able to make its case to the public that Hollywood brimmed with Communist propaganda, but that victory was turned into a defeat, when the major studios released “the Waldorf Statement,” which pledged to no longer hire known Communists, leading to the creation of the “Hollywood Blacklist.”  Fearing losses at the box office, just as they were relinquishing their monopoly power over film exhibition, due to the government’s Paramount Consent Decree, the studios betrayed some of their most productive and valuable artists, then turned around and hired them surreptitiously for pennies on the dollar of their previous wages. Dalton Trumbo won two Oscars for screening writing under fake names, while hundreds of film industry workers were unemployable for a decade or longer.   

Given the meticulous documentation of the events around the 1947 HUAC Hollywood Hearings, the book offers a superb introduction to the complexities of the era to a younger generation; many may not realize that the Trump presidency is not the first American government to ignore basic Constitutional rights.

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Thomas Doherty (second from left)

24 thoughts on “Blog

    1. Wow… Not a very profound word. However, I am totally entralled by your ability to capture the moment of truth through enlightenment of diametrical pose. What a wonderful worldly resource of knowledge you embody. Please sign me to your blog.

      Graciously:

      Timothy Patrick Prince Princetimothy58@gmail.com

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  1. Chris, Sorry to tell you there is no “page 3” on this site and no link. We should talk. Joan’s father and mother lived across the street from Villa Aurora, to the right of the photo. Her mother was also called up by one of the HUAC subcommittees.

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  2. Thanks for sending me the link to your blog. Reading your blog was eye-opening for me!
    I was impressed you had saved the Winterim program from 1971. There was a lot of unrest at the University of Delaware(as at many other college campuses). In retrospect, I see Winterim 1971 as an attempt by the university to engage the students on a not so formal academic basis.

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  3. Much of the information in the Jan-Christopher Hiram regarding my rediscovery 6 year involvement with the 1969 Harlem Cultural festival is incorrect and incomplete. It is a shame I was not contacted for this piece. The Mia information continues!

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