314: Holocaust Remembrance Day

Archival Spaces 314

Schächten (2022)

Uploaded 3 February 2023

Marking Holocaust Remembrance Day (27 January), the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival under Hilary Helstein, in cooperation with the German and Austrian Consulates, mounted the L.A. premiere of a new Holocaust-themed film, Schächten (2022), which deals not so much with the Holocaust, but with its utterly shameful aftermath. For decades after the liberation of Auschwitz and other Nazi extermination camps, the Germans and Austrians collectively swept their culpability under the carpet, allowing most of the participants in the genocide of European Jewry, to live in peace and prosperity.

Except for a relatively small group at the top of the Nazi hierarchy, and concentration camp officers, few were prosecuted:  the “soldiers” in the Einsatzgruppen who gunned down tens of thousands, the staff in the Concentration camps, the Nazi officials that ran the railroads to the death camps, others that carried out the “Aryanization” of Jewish capital and property, the judges who sentenced tens of thousands to death, the police forces that rounded up Jews for deportation, at least not until the late 1960s, but even then only those with real blood on their hands. Austrians and Germans had turned themselves from a nation of perpetrators to a nation of victims who had suffered under allied bombs and a dictatorship. They were supported in that endeavor by the American government which categorized Austria as a country occupied by the Nazis, rather than an enthusiastic German province, while also cutting de-Nazification short in favor of bolstering American-led anti-Communism.

Schächten opens in Winter 1944 in the mountains of Austria, where a very young Viktor Dessauer watches his grandparents being hunted down and killed by the SS, while he survives alone in a cave. Cut to Vienna in 1962, Viktor has come home from his schooling in England to celebrate his birthday and take his place as the head of the family textile business, both he and his father the sole survivors of the Holocaust in his family. Through friends, they learn that Kurt Gogl, the SS officer who shot Viktor’s sister and mother in front of the father is alive and leading a quiet life under an assumed name as a school teacher in romantic St. Wolfgang Lake, near Salzburg. With the help of Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Viennese Nazi hunter, they go to court to bring Gogl to justice, but the justice system and the police are filled with former Nazis and younger anti-Semites, so Gogl is acquitted, despite Viktor’s father giving eye witness testimony. Viktor continues to harass Gogl and is brutally beaten by Gogl’s Nazi friends, leading him finally to kidnap the SS officer and trap him in the same cave he had hidden in during the war.

the real Simon Wiesenthal

Starring Jeff Wilbusch (Unorthodox, 2020) as Viktor, Christian Berkel (Downfall, 2004) as Simon Wiesenthal, and Paul Manker (The People Vs. Fritz Bauer, 2015) as Gogl, the film is directed by Austrian Thomas Roth who also wrote the script. It is based on the true case of Johann Gogl, a former SS man who was acquitted on 12 February 1975 at his last trial for crimes committed in the Mauthausen and Ebensee concentration camps. However, most of the characters and events are fictional, although aspects of the Dessauer family are based on a similar Viennese Jewish family.

 Having lived in Germany as a teenager in the 1960s, the child of a concentration camp survivor, I’m very familiar with the feeling that you are surrounded by former Nazis. I used to sit in the tram and wonder just how many of the 40-70 year-olds around me had committed crimes in the war; my 8th-grade German teacher in my Gymnasium constantly droned on about being a soldier fighting the “Ivan” on the Russian front. In the film, there are a couple of very uncomfortable scenes between Viktor, his Catholic girlfriend, Anna (Miriam Fussenegger), and her parents, where the daughter insists on knowing what her father did during the war, but doesn’t get an answer; the parent’s fear and repressed anti-Semitism is palatable. Her father eventually forbids Anna from seeing Viktor, but she joins him anyway when he emigrates to America. The scenes also reminded me of when the broadcast of the American tv-miniseries, Holocaust (1979, Marvin J. Chomsky) on German television led to countless such discussions around German dinner tables, at that time the first such national discussion of German’s culpability for the Holocaust.

Salzburg, 1938
Heinrich Himmler, Commandant Franz Ziereis inspecting Mauthhausen KZ

To the film’s credit, the relationship between Victor and Gogl is complicated and nuanced. After the trial fails, Viktor attempts to kill Gogl and even has him in his gunsight, but then thinks twice about committing murder. Gogl keeps his friends from killing Viktor. When he kidnaps the old, fat, and out-of-shape Gogl, he must literally help him across a stream and up a mountain, taking his hand, an image of perpetrator and victim that is poignant in its irony. On the other hand, when Viktor returns to the scene of the crime and finds the cave empty, the scene seems to serve no other purpose than to absolve the central character of guilt for the disappearance of Gogl.         

Like The People Vs. Fritz Bauer, which covers much of the same territory from a German perspective, Schächten – the title refers to the ritual kosher slaughter of animals – is relevant not only as a correction of history but also applicable to Europe today, when anti-Semitism, racism, and the exclusion of minorities are still virulent.

Postscript: In 1946, the largest trial by the American Military Government of crimes committed at the Mauthausen concentration camp took place in Dachau, during which sixty-one defendants were convicted, of which 58 were sentenced to death and 49 were actually hanged. The selection of defendants was intended to represent a cross-section of perpetrators. After the end of the Allied occupation of Austria, the Austrians rapidly ended any further prosecutions of Nazis. Of the former members of the SS given prison sentences, by 1955 all had been released. After 1955 the number of Austrian trials against Nazi perpetrators dropped dramatically. 

Bochnia Massacre, December 1939

313: Irmgard Keun

Archival Spaces 313

Irmgard Keun: Child of all Nations

Uploaded  20 January 2023

Irmgard Keun, ca. 1929 Berlin

A couple of weeks ago, my colleague, Andréas-Benjamin Seyfert, announced on Facebook that a previously lost German film from the early 1930s, Eine von uns (1932), starring Brigitte Helm, had turned up on YouTube. The film was an adaption of the sensational, New Realist novel, Gilgi, eine von uns (1931), by Irmgard Keun. Her first novel had turned her into an icon of the new woman, independent, self-assured, sassy, and sexually liberated. Her second novel, Das kunstseidene Mädchen /The Silk Girl (1932), about the downward slide of a 20-year-old Berlin flapper, none too bright, was written in a stream-of-consciousness, slangy style  – comparable to that of today’s Instagram influencers. It was another literary and commercial sensation. Then came Hitler, her books were banned, and her wealth confiscated, not because she was Jewish, but because her image of German womanhood contradicted Nazi ideology.

Eine von uns (1931)

Coincidentally, I have just been reading Irmgard Keun’s 6th novel, Kind aller Länder (1938), published in Amsterdam in German. By that time, Keun had been in exile for several years, constantly looking for jobs, money, and visas, living on the edge in Belgium, later Holland. While her first two novels had been bestsellers, in the case of Silk Girl selling more than 50,000 copies before being banned,  her exile novels reached only a few thousand.  Amazingly, she managed to write four novels on the run. Kind aller Länder is narrated by Keun’s ten-year-old self, working through her adult experience of exile. Like The Silk Girl, Child of all Nations stylistically reproduces the voice of her female protagonist, in this case, the child Kully’s syntax, sentence structure, and unfiltered opinions of the adult world around her.

The novel begins in medias res, without chapter headings, without character introductions, a continuous stream of short sentences and even shorter paragraphs, in the first person voice of a very young girl:  possibly writing in her diary about how the staff in her hotel treat her as a cute little thing, i.e. until her dad disappears to find money to pay the bill. She and her mother stay behind without a penny as  „a security deposit.“ The novel’s first sentence ends with the statement that people say her father should have never married. Thus from its opening lines, the reader perceives a child who has grown old far beyond her years, constantly imperiled but innocently accepting her fate.

The Beach at Ostende, 1936

While her father travels to Prague, Budapest, Paris, and Poland, obsessively searching for work and cash, mother and daughter are stuck in a luxury hotel in Ostende, unable to buy food, often starving for days. When Kully’s birthday present arrives from her father, they can’t pay the import duty, so it remains in customs. Meanwhile, her mother cries, because she is unable to borrow money, unlike her husband who bums change from waiters, doormen, the mailman, friends, other women he seduces, fans of his writing, his Dutch publisher who pleads poverty. Kully understands that her father is a well-known novelist who hates Hitler and the Nazis hate him, so they can’t return to their home in Germany.

Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth in Ostende, 1936. Keun was Roth’s lover

Between her mostly absent and alcoholic father – he sometimes forgets her in cafes when he is drunk – and her emotionally paralyzed mother, Kully studies a bit in two school books, but doesn’t go to school, spending her time collecting stones, mussels, and sea stars on the beach, at least until they move on to Brussels.  There, she and her mother take long walks “My mother says, that’s almost as healthy as eating.“ In the meantime, long letters from her father to her mother arrive and are quoted extensively, letters filled with hope and dreams that never go anywhere. Things hardly change when they move on to Amsterdam. And so it goes. At one point, Kully and her father travel to New York and Norfolk, VA, – her mother missed the boat and was left behind – but eventually return to Amsterdam, where the novel ends. We know her future is uncertain because the Wehrmacht will soon overrun the country.

Kindertransport arriving London, in 1938
German Refugee Children, 1941

On the novel’s last page, someone asks her, whether she is homesick. She says, she is, but always for a different country. Then she writes she is almost never homesick, if her mother is there, and never when her dad is with them. Child of all Nations is remarkable for its focus on children. While the autobiographical literature on German-Jewish intellectual refugees from Hitler is now voluminous, I know of no other work of fiction that describes the fate of their children in such an unsentimental fashion.

Arrival of Reichskomissar Arthur Seyss-Inquart in Amsterdam, 1940

Irmgard Keun’s own fate was unique. In 1940, with Germans in the streets of Amsterdam, Keun staged her own suicide – as reported in a British newspaper -, then got a SS officer to issue her a passport under her former husband‘s name, allowing her to return to her parent’s home in Cologne. She remained there in hiding for the duration of the war and lived the rest of her life in utter obscurity, unable to find publishers to reissue her famous novels. She was not republished until the 1970s in Germany, when feminist critics rediscovered her work, shortly before she died in 1982.

Happily, this century has seen the publication of much of Keun’s amazing work in English: Gilgi, One of Us (2002), The Artificial Silk Girl (2011), After Midnight (2020), Child of All Nations (2008), and Ferdinand, the Man with a Kind Heart (2020).        

Irmgard Keun, late 1970s

312: Em Gee Film Library

Archival Spaces 312

Murray Glass – Em Gee Film Library

Uploaded 6 January 2023

I’ve been thinking about Murray Glass for the last couple of months because I had planned to interview him for a blog, only to realize that he had died in 2019 shortly before the pandemic started, completely forgotten, certainly without any recognition of his passing in the media. Murray Glass owned and operated Em Gee Film Library, a 16mm film distributor which was in business for more than fifty years. I knew Murray for approximately 30 years, first as a client when I was researching my Lovers of Cinema on the early American avant-garde, later as a colleague and sympathetic ear after I moved to Los Angeles and became Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive. The role of film collectors and 16mm film distributors in the history of American film preservation has yet to be written, although Dennis Bartok’s A Thousand Cuts (2016) makes a good start.   

Murray Glass’s Jewish parents were Solomon and Celia Glass who had emigrated in their twenties in 1921/22 from Ostrołęka, Poland to New York, and were living in the Bronx when Murray was born on 25 October 1924. We know from the 1950 census that young Murray gave his profession as a musician and was still living in the Bronx, but no longer with his parents. By then Murray was also a film collector. His father had given him a 16mm film projector with a handful of short films in 1937. He was in the U.S. Army in 1945/46. In 1946, Murray took avant-garde filmmaker and artist Hans Richter’s film course at City College of New York, lending Richter a couple of Chaplin shorts for class; weeks later he received a $ 10.00 check in the email, which constituted his first film rental.  In a 1995 L. A. Times article, he said, “I began going to the Museum of Modern Art, and I became a film junkie.”

Last unpublished catalog

It would not be until 1962 that Murray Glass was able to turn his passion into a profession by founding Em Gee Film Library and quitting his day job as a chemist. He had also moved to Los Angeles in 1951 and married in 1952. Shortly after starting Em Gee, Glass got a call from a film professor friend who asked whether Fritz Lang could come over to see Murray’s print of Lang’s M (1931).  As Murray enthused in the Times article:  “… here was this famous director in my house. I took it as a sign. I felt like a million dollars.”

Em Gee Film Library

As a lover of American silent film, Murray probably grew his collection by purchasing public domain material and then renting it out. According to Em Gee film catalog 83: “the direction of our effort… (is) namely to offer one of the finest collections of historical films currently available, to which we are making daily additions.” While this sounds like salesmanship, the fact is, Glass had an astonishing breadth of historical films in all genres. With over 6,300 titles at its peak, the film library spanned the years 1893 (Edison’s Fred Ott’s Sneeze to 1965 (Roman Polanski’s Repulsion). The catalog featured Charlie Chaplin films from his Keystone, Essanay, and Mutual periods, Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, D. W. Griffith, as well as silent and sound features, American and foreign, like De Mille’s King of Kings (1927), Cavalcanti’s Dead of Night (1945) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13 (1963). It is an extremely eclectic collection, and I suspect Murray distributed any film he could get his hands on, when duping prints were not protected by copyright, including exploitation films about drug use and some blue movies. Murray claimed that „he acquired whatever there was a demand for.“

Lullaby (1925, Boris Deutsch)
Lot in Sodom (1934, James Sibley Watson)

He also distributed newsreels, documentaries, silent and sound animation, and avant-garde shorts from France, Canada, and the United States.  My first contact with Murray was in the early 1990s, when I purchased a print of Boris Deutsch’s Lullaby (1925), for the George Eastman Museum. It was a film I could find nowhere else when researching the early American film avant-garde, and it illustrates the bridge Murray Glass and other 16mm film distributors played in preserving American film history, when few public institutions, other than GEM, MOMA, and Library of Congress were engaging in such film preservation efforts. The print was in very good condition – who knew about the film – so I designated it a master positive for preservation, not to exploit it, but to guarantee its survival.

Ben-Hur (1907)
Evolution (1923, Max Fleischer)

Murray was proud of the fact that he had found a 1907 one-reel version of the Kalem Film Company’s  Ben-Hur, purchasing a 35mm nitrate print at auction and donating the original film to the Museum of Modern Art, while distributing 16mm reduction prints. Glass also claimed credit for preserving Max Fleischer’s feature animation, Evolution (1923) from a tinted and toned nitrate print, he distributed most of Fleischer’s output from Koko, the Clown, and Betty Boop to Popeye, but also Lotte Reininger’s German films.  Em Gee Film was unique in that Murray Glass emphasized film preservation in his introduction to catalog 83: “… because of a variety of factors including carelessness, indifference, greed, and economics, much of our film heritage has long since disappeared into either dust, gummy messes, or disastrous nitrate conflagrations.”

David Shepard (1940-2017)

By the time I got to UCLA in 2007, Glass was shopping the collection around. He was asking $ 1.25 million, which according to most experts was over-valued. I went out to see the Em Gee Film Library sometime in 2010; Murray knew the Archive could not buy the collection, but he was hoping an “angel“ could be found to purchase the collection and donate it. In a KCET-TV interview on Life & Times, Glass noted that “universities interested in the collection plead poverty.” My “angel” wasn’t interested. David Sheppard eventually purchased the entire collection in 2011 for Blackhawk Films – now owned by Serge Bromberg’s Lobster Films – with the proviso that Murray could still access his negatives – deposited at the Academy Film Museum – for occasional collector’s prints as long as he was alive. Another proviso was that the used distribution prints would be donated to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, CA.  According to an email David sent to Serge Bromberg on 22 January 2011, “This is the most extravagant gesture I have ever made. I could have bought a nice house plus a new car for the money. Let’s hope that the Museum endures for a long, long time.”

Murray Glass died in Van Nuys, CA. on 27 September 2019. It is good to know that his legacy will live on at Niles and in Lobster’s preservation of some gems from the Em Gee Film Library.  

Charles Chaplin ay Keyston, ca. 1915

311: Sirk-Fassbinder-Haynes

Archival Spaces 311

Douglas Sirk’s All I Desire (1953)

Uploaded 23 December 2022

All I Desire, opening dissolve

For the past couple of months I have been researching and planning a lecture course for UCLA, FTV 113 Film Authors, which will focus on the careers of Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Todd Haynes. Not only have all three specialized in melodramas, but Fassbinder and Haynes see themselves as heirs to the Sirk legacy, both directing quasi-remakes of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1954), Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul (1954) and Haynes‘ Far From Heaven (2002). It has been exciting to rediscover many of the Fassbinder and Sirk films I had previously seen, sometimes decades ago, but more exciting to see films by Sirk, Fassbinder, and Haynes in a comparative hall of mirrors, each marked by the times in which they were made,  each a product of a different decade, ethnicity and gender. One film I had previously not seen was Douglas Sirk’s All I Desire (1953), a black & white film that marks the beginning of Sirk’s famous series of melodramas, including Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1957) and Imitation of Life (1959).

All I Desire stars Barbara Stanwyck who plays Naomi Murdoch, a less-than-successful actress who returns to her family in small-town America, the fictional Riverdale, Wisconsin after she had abandoned them a decade earlier. The film opens with a voice-over, during which Naomi comments on her failed stage career, which has sunk to the level of vaudeville, “not quite at the bottom of the bill.” When her daughter, Lily, invites Naomi back to see her in the Riverdale High School play, she spontaneously decides to return home. No sooner does she arrive at the local train station, when the town gossips start spreading their deadly poison so that all eyes are on Naomi when she shows up at the high school play. Her straight-laced, still husband, Henry Murdoch, the high school principal, and her oldest daughter, Joyce, are also hardly enthusiastic about her arrival, Henry now being in a relationship with schoolmarm, Sara Harper, and Joyce engaged to a “respectable” young man. Lily, on the other hand, hopes her mother will take her back to New York to become a famous actress. In the course of the narrative, we learn that Naomi had had a long affair with Dutch Heinemann, who Naomi ends up shooting when he tries to force himself on her after her return. Henry forgives her in a happy end that has Naomi receiving a house key.

Originally, Universal considered Joan Crawford and Bette Davis for the role of Naomi Murdoch but settled on Barbara Stanwyck because she was willing to work for “little or no salary,” being in desperate need of a comeback after her career went into decline in the early 1950s. Stanwyck was also not a big enough star anymore to justify Technicolor, which, according to Sirk, would have given the domestic scenes in All I Desire a warmth and glow, like his later domestic melodramas. Instead, Sirk and cameraman Carl Guthrie created an expressionist space of light/shadows and half-truths. The film was written by James Gunn and Robert Blees, based on an adaptation by Gina Kaus of Carol Brink’s 1951 novel, Stopover. Kaus was a German refugee who had been famous for writing feminist novels in Vienna and Berlin before Hitler, and who became a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, primarily at MGM.

In his famous interview with Jon Halliday,  Sirk on Sirk (1971), Sirk also complained that producer Ross Hunter had insisted on a happy ending, although Sirk wanted to retain the darker tone of the novel’s ending in which Naomi is forced to leave Wisconsin and her family behind. That ending and the original title, Stopover, “would have deepened the picture and the character – at the same time the irony,” he said. Sirk liked Barbara Stanwyck, because “in this picture, she had the unsentimental sadness of a broken life about her,” which perfectly contrasted with the cheerful hypocrisy of the people of Riverdale and the “rotten, decrepit middle-class American family she found there.’ Indeed, one can think of All I Desire as a film noir melodrama.

But my favorite characters in All I Desire are the German cook and houseman who have worked for the Murdoch family for decades; there is a running joke about the middle-aged couple getting married, but postponing at every family crisis. Lena and Hans were played by Lotte Stein and Fred Nurney who were both German refugees from Hitler, like Sirk himself; Nurney, in particular, had had bits and supporting roles in more than half a dozen Sirk films.

Mary (1931, Alfred Hitchcock)
Summer Storm (1944, Douglas Sirk)

Born in Berlin in 1894, Lotte Stein played supporting roles in thirty-five German silent and 12 sound films. She was a character actress even in her youth, given her face made for comedy. She appeared in From Morning to Midnight (1921), one of six bona fide German expressionist film classics. After a stopover in Vienna to make a film, Stein eventually emigrated to Hollywood. Like many German-Jewish refugee actors to Hollywood, Stein’s first American film work was in an anti-Nazi film, The Strange Death of Adolf Hitler (1943), after which she continued to appear in credited and uncredited film roles, often appearing as a cook or housekeeper, as in Wallflower (1948). She briefly returned to Germany in 1951, then re-emigrated to Munich after All I Desire, where she continued acting in film and theatre until her death in 1982.

The German-American actor, Fred Nurney, was born in Des Moines, IA in 1895 as Fredrich Nurnberger-Gelingk before he returned to Germany to act in theatre, while only appearing in one uncredited role in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). His first film in Hollywood was, like other émigré actors, an anti-Nazi film, Sirk’s Hitler’s Madman (1943), followed by further examples of the genre, They Came to Blow Up America (1943), Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo (1943), and Fred Zinnemann’s The Seventh Cross (1944). Playing Hollywood Nazis in postwar war films, as well as in the Sirk films sustained his career until his retirement in 1960. 

 Finally, if anyone doubts that Douglas Sirk was a master of expressionist lighting and not just color, one need only view All I Desire. Sirk had cameraman Carl Guthrie light the many night scenes like a film noir, another indication that Sirk still wished for a dark ending.

Barbara Stanwyck, Browning’s “How do I love thee, let me count the ways…