Archival Spaces 243
Hugo Haas’ The White Sickness (1937) restored; a Plague Allegory
Uploaded 22 May 2020
Thanks to my archivist colleague and friend, Adrian Wood, I learned that the Národní filmový archive in Prague has restored Bílá nemoc (1937) from the original nitrate negative (the sound came from a nitrate print) and made it available online on their You-Tube channel with English subtitles (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJMUIBEzYnI). An adaptation of a play by Karel Čapek, The White Sickness or Skeleton on Horseback, as it was called in the United States, was one of the few films my dad consistently mentioned to me when we talked about films that he remembered from his youth. I was also interested in the film, because it was directed by Hugo Haas, who fled Czechoslovakia after the Nazi occupation in 1939 – he was Jewish – and had an interesting career in Hollywood as an actor and low budget filmmaker, one of many Central European refugees. Finally seeing the film, I realized that it visualized a world-wide pandemic as a political allegory.
The film opens with a superimposition of soldiers marching towards the camera and a camera moving in to a balcony where “the Marshall” gives a bellicose speech, while a large crowd cheers below; he declares the nation ready to enlarge the country’s borders by force. The camera then pans down over the crowd, where we see a bearded gentleman, who we learn later is Dr. Galen, turning away. In the following scene, the camera tracks horizontally from a crucifix to medical charts hanging above bedposts, as patients below muse off camera about their illness which first appears as a form of leprosy with white dermatological spots , but inevitably leads to death. Hugo Haas thus sets up through contrasting camera movement two harbingers of death: 1.) An unnamed fascist regime that glorifies war rather than peace, consciously symbolizing Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany; 2) A highly communicable, mysterious and deadly disease, for which there is no apparent cure and which originates in China and is expanding to a world-wide pandemic through hand-shaking. Fascism sacrifices the youth of humanity, the virus kills the elderly who are usually responsible for making wars, i.e. war is like the virus. Indeed, we never see the concrete manifestations of the disease, just as the war itself remains hidden off screen, amplifying the allegorical nature of the narrative.
Dr. Galen (Hugo Haas), who we see in the first scene, has found a cure, but he is not ready to make it public, unless the Marshall and other world leaders agree to forsake their armies and all wars. Instead, he only treats the poor who are unable to pay and are most often the victims of war. The ensuing conflict rages between the forces of the military-industrial complex which are unwilling to give up war profits for peace, and the doctor who steadfastly refuses to treat the representatives of power, as they successively succumb to the white disease. It is only when the country’s megalomaniac dictator becomes ill, after he has attacked a small neighboring country (clearly Czechoslovakia) with disastrous effects for his army, that there seems hope to end the plague. However, the masses crazed by mindless nationalism have other ideas
Born in 1890 in what is now the Czech Republic, Karel Čapek achieved world renown with his expressionist play, “R.U.R.” (1920), which coined the term robot, and his satirical dystopian science fiction novel, War with the Newts (1936). In 1937, his anti-Nazi play, “Bilá nemoc,” premiered at the Czech National Theatre in Prague, starring Hugo Haas, who also directed. Haas then wrote the screenplay and hired virtually the whole cast of the original for his filmed adaption, which premiered on 12 December 1937. The film was partially funded by the Czechoslovak government, certainly a courageous move at the time. While the film was banned in Nazi Germany, it was released in other European countries before World War II began in Europe. While Čapek died in December 1938, just before the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, – the Gestapo tried to arrest him only to learn he was already dead – Haas supposedly smuggled a print into the United States when he emigrated; it was released by Carl Laemmle in 1940.
Given its theatrical origins, Bilá nemoc is heavily dialogue driven, but is striking for both its leftist political stance – the capitalist armaments manufacturer Baron Krog (Vaclav Vydra) is clearly identified as a willing supporter of the militarist dictator (Zdenek Štepanek), who believes himself to be the savior of the nation and immune to any disease. He recklessly and knowingly shakes hands with the stricken Baron Krug. Thus, the rich and powerful fall prey to their own machinations, while the film saves its sympathies for the urban poor. However, the film ends on a highly cynical note when the masses protest the Marshall’s call for an end to the war. However, for today’s audiences, the film’s depiction of the pandemic, the overriding sense of fear it engenders in the not yet afflicted, the helpless victimization of the innocent, and the incredible arrogance of a leader who believes he is immune with a “I don’t need to wear a mask” attitude, all strike a very contemporary chord for anyone living in corona virus America.
An incredibly popular star in Czech cinema in the 1930s, Hugo Haas would play mostly supporting roles in Hollywood during the 1940s, but in 1951 saved enough money to set up his own independent film production company, where he began producing, directing and starring in a series of lurid, low budget melodramas. Most are variations on the theme of older men who form liaisons with much younger, often amoral women, including Pickup (1951), The Girl on the Bridge (1951), Strange Fascination (1952), The Other Woman (1953)and Hit and Run (1957).In 1961 he returned to Europe, settling in Vienna, where he occasionally appeared on Austrian television; he died there in December 1968. The White Sickness remains his most enduring work, one of the only anti-Nazi films made in Europe before the Holocaust
For my dad as a seventeen year old high school student in Prague,Bila nemoc probably represented a political awakening; less than two years after the film’s premiere, he was incarcerated in KZ Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg and would eventually be active both in the anti-Nazi and the anti-Communist underground.
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Archival Spaces 242
Will Movie Theatres Survive the 2020 Plague?
Uploaded 8 May 2020
On Thursday, 30 April, Ross Melnick and the Carsey-Wolf Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara hosted an online panel discussion, “Moviegoing in the Age of COVID-19,” with Manohla Dargis (New York Times) and Alison Kozberg (Art House Convergence) about the future of movie theatres. While there was some pessimism about the present state of cinema culture, the general tenure of the discussion was positive, noting that they (and hopefully many other people) miss not seeing films with an audience in a big theatre and that the hunger of moviegoers for that experience will survive the present plague. Such a positive attitude is not surprising, given their expressed nostalgia for movie theatres and their professional attachment to them. But this may be a minority view of patrons, certainly of those under the age of 30, who seemingly prefer smart phone viewing. The fact is that Disney, Warner Brothers and Universal are now launching online platforms for the release of new films, as well as their back catalogs. Indeed Universal released the new Trolls movie online, leading AMC to ban Universal from their screens.
These developments make me less optimistic about the survival in this country of all but art houses and subsidized non-profit screening spaces. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle (5-3-30), Jonathan Kuntz, himself a long-time moviegoer, notes that the present pandemic is accelerating online delivery of moving image entertainment, and that except for special event screenings, “everything else will be streaming.” What is certain is that this crisis will change the film industry, just as the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 had huge consequences for the structure of the film business. The 1918 influenza pandemic killed 50 million people across the globe, including 675,000 Americans in 1918/19.
Richard Koszarski was the first modern day film historian to remind us of the Spanish Flu’s horrific influence on film-going in the 1918 pandemic, a fact that film historians, like Benjamin Hampton, Maurice Bardèche/Robert Brasillach, and Lewis Jacobs took for granted. In an article in Film History (2005), Richard noted that “Photoplay estimated that 80 per cent of the movie houses in the United States and Canada had closed for between one and eight weeks, losing $40,000,000 in revenue and putting 150,000 employees temporarily out of work. Production in California was said to have been cut by 60 per cent, while the eastern studios ‘ceased completely’.”
While the first outbreak of the Spanish Flu in the United States may have been on a military base in Kansas is early 1918, the Flu raged mostly in Europe until September, when it hit Boston, New York, and Philadelphia hard. Surprisingly, theatre owners refused to close until ordered by city officials, although New York’s theatres remained open with show times staggered to avoid crowding on subways in and out of Times Square. It also banned smoking and standing-room admissions in theaters, but allowed theatres to fill seats without social distancing. However, even where cinemas stayed open, the audiences stayed away for fear of contracting the deadly virus, attendance dropping often below 50%. By November 1918, the Flu was everywhere, although some cities, like St. Louis, which had instituted social distancing early, had significantly fewer deaths than San Francisco, which reopened prematurely. Los Angeles had closed all theatres and places of amusement on 11 October, later mandating the wearing of masks. Many other cities, like Indianapolis also ordered the wearing face masks, although they seemingly did little to stop the spread of the virus.
The National Association of the Motion Picture Industry announced an embargo on their release of new films in October, and film production in and around Hollywood ground to a halt during October and November, while the shooting of crowd scenes was banned even longer. Even though film production recovered by early 1919, many smaller producers and countless mom and pop exhibitors went out of business. So how did the Spanish Flu change the industry structurally?
Even before the virus hit, Paramount’s Adolph Zukor was in a huge struggle against First National Exhibitors’ Circuit, a distribution network formed in 1917 to amalgamate 26 first run cinema chains. Adolph Zukor, who had been producing films since 1912 through Famous Players, and distributing films through Paramount Pictures since 1914, saw his theatre clientele suddenly disappearing. According to Benjamin Hampton, Walter Irwin told Zukor that he could destroy First National, if he built first run cinemas in every city where First National owned theatres. After a merger with First National failed, and the incredible losses independent theatre owners suffered during late 1918 and early 1919, due to the flu pandemic, Zukor went into action. He secured a $ 10 million loan from Wall Street and purchased 135 theatres in Southern States in 1919; by 1921, Paramount-Publix had acquired a total of 303 first run theatres in major cities across the country, creating the first vertically integrated film company in the United States, controlling production, distribution, and exhibition. Given that in Europe Nordisk, Pathé Frères, and UFA had previously already gone that route, which would become the model for all the American majors by the mid 1920s, it is likely that Zukor would have consolidated, regardless of the pandemic, but it undoubtedly created an economic opportunity.
Similarly, the move to digital distribution of movies directly into the home is a trend that has been accelerating for the past ten years, but the corona virus pandemic of 2020 may actually deal the coup de grace. AMC Theatres, which is carrying $ 4.9 billion of debt, is likely to file for bankruptcy shortly with its stock plummeting. John Fithian, CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, predicted in a speech to Congress in late March that the great majority of this country’s theatre owners will go bankrupt, if Congress does not give them financial relief in Corona Virus rescue legislation. If we are witnessing the death of cinema(s), I will be in mourning. Unlike my daughter’s generation who has grown up watching movies on smart devices, I have always been happiest in a darkened space where dreams can be real.
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