255: Leo Hurwitz’s Strange Victory

Archival Spaces 255

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

Uploaded 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 than 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

254: Giornate del cinema muto

Archival Spaces 254

Giornate del cinema muto: Limited Edition

Downloaded 23 October 2020

Given the continued worldwide 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 to 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 traveled 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 traveled 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 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 a 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!

253: White Nationalism Black Legion

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 right-wing 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 Legionnaire.

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

252: Digital Asset Symposium

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 audiovisual 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

251: Thanhouser Collection

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’s 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 sideshow, 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

250: Volker Schlöndorff’s Baal 

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 the 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 granddaughter 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 pressAt 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.            

249: Louise Brooks

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 an 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 lunchtime; 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 nightstand, 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 notebook 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.

248: Kevon Brownlow’s It Happened Here

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 that Brownlow and Andrew Mollo directed when Brownlow was 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 that 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 traveler, 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

247: Cinemateca Brasileira in Crisis

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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

246: Fall of France, June 1940

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 was 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.

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