Archive for May 12, 2020

How to Succeed in Nazi Cinema without Really Trying

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , on May 12, 2020 by dcairns

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I’m hoovering up Gunther Peter Straschek epic series Filmemigration aus Nazidetschland with my eyeballs and earballs. It is just interviews with German film professionals who fled their homeland to escape the Nazis. Five hours of just that. I wish there were fifty.

Anatole Litvak tells a remarkable story, more remarkable perhaps than any he ever filmed. I like A.L. quite a bit as a director, though perhaps he never made a masterpiece. But I think THE SNAKE PIT is aces.

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Litvak was working in Berlin in the early thirties, and suddenly he was arrested. He spent a night in a jail cell, unable to understand what had happened. He knew that as an expat Russian he could rely on no embassy to help. Fortunately, he got a message to his employers at UFA asking help.

The next day he was questioned by a,,, “Not a policeman.” Litvak is telling his tale in German, he only occasionally struggles for a word. The man who interrogated him is a puzzle, in fact, because he seems like a kind of Kafkaesque authority figure representing obscure forces…

He asks Litvak, “Did you take photos of the border between Italian and French territories in 1929?”

Litvak is roughly as puzzled as you or I would be if asked that question, but then he recalls that he was a camera assistant on an Arabian Nights adventure shot in North Africa and the French and Italians did have some territory there. He tries to explain. He didn’t take any photos. They were making a film. He was a camera assistant.

The not-a-policeman, who has a big file on Litvak in front of him, nevertheless writes down that his information is confirmed. Then he asks Litvak if he took photos of French fortifications in Paris in 1932.

Again, Litvak is baffled. But he was in Paris, directing COEUR DE LILAS with Jean Gabin in that year. And he remembers that the district he was in had a spot called Les Fortifs — Napoleonic era fortifications, nothing left of them now, grassed over. He tries to explain this but the notcop writes down again that it’s true.

Fortunately, the UFA lawyer gets him out. Then the lawyer asks him, is there anyone in Berlin who could confirm your story?

“Certainly, there’s an assistant, Leschke, and there’s the great cameraman, Curt Courant…”

Well, it turns out Courant is away from Berlin but his mother is at home and she has also been the victim of an anonymous denunciation. At which point Litvak realises that the assistant Leschke, “because he had a fit of madness, and because h was a Nazi, and because he wanted to get ahead in films, had…”

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And at this point, an extraordinary thing occurs. Litvak, a Russian who had learned German to work in Germany, and French to work in France, and the English to work in America, and is now living in France again… all his languages desert him. Tens of seconds drift by. It’s the longest pause I’ve ever seen performed by a living human being. Straschek’s rigorous technique of simply recording in unbroken takes from a single set-up is electrifyingly justified her.

Litvak is NOT not overcome by emotion. But there are just no WORDS for this. Not in German, nor French, English or Russian. His hands are moving, his fingers are literally making tiny snatches at the air as if to grab the elusive, intangible, slippery words he needs.

Eventually he quietly says something like “…made up this story…” and it’s obvious that he’s not happy with these words, but they will have to suffice.

Georg Leschke’s last film credit is 1935, though who knows, he may have gone on being uncredited as he was on the two films where he worked with Litvak. His career certainly doesn’t seem to have flourished. Maybe, even in the Third Reich, film crews didn’t much care for a rat.