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CINE SALON BEYOND with Leo Hurwitz’s Strange Victory (1948)
Uploaded 6 November 2020
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.
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.
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.