Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Film critic J. Hoberman on Carl Dreyer's Love One Another

A Scene from Carl Dreyer's Love One Another (1922)

J. Hoberman and Aviva Weintraub, Director of the NYJFF and Associate Curator of the The Jewish Museum.

J. Hoberman's mother, Dorothy.

Aviva Weintraub with musical accompaniest Ben Model.

This year, the New York Jewish Film Festival showed Carl Dreyer’s Love One Another (1922). This very rare silent film is a protest against anti-Semitism as it depicts Jewish life confronted by a Russian pogrom. During last Sunday’s screening of the film, audiences were treated to a newly restored print from the Danish Film Institute and live piano accompaniment by Ben Model.

Below is the introduction by author J. Hoberman that preceded the screening as well as the Q&A that followed.

Love One Another is by one of the greatest film artists of the twentieth century, Carl Dreyer. His best known film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), is one of the culminating films of silent cinema. He went on to make the great film Vampyr (1932), one of the strangest movies ever made. Day of Wrath (1943), dealing with witchcraft in Scandinavia, was probably his greatest hit. At that point he started to make movies about once a decade. His last two films, Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964), are both films of fantastic, uncompromising austerity. But Love One Another is not one of those.

The film’s German title translates to “The Stigmatized”. It is from Dreyer’s early period. He began making movies during the teens in Denmark, which had an extremely potent film industry at this point. Love One Another was the first film he made outside of Denmark. It was produced in 1921 for a small German studio located in Berlin, which evidently went bankrupt after this film was made.

The film was shot in the countryside around Berlin but was still a kind of Danish project. It was based on a novel by Aage Madelung
, a Danish novelist who spent a considerable amount of time in Russia and, in fact, was married to a Russian Jew. She wrote some travelogues and then this massive novel, which serves as the basis for this film. She actually reported on the Kishinev pogrom which figures in the movie as well.

The movie has certain similarities to other popular fiction such as The Yellow Passport, which was filmed in many versions, and Sholom Aleichem’s 1907 novel which was known usually as Mabl (The Deluge). Incidentally, both of these novels were filmed around the same time as Love One Another. Madelung'
s book had an international reputation. It was translated into Yiddish at one point under the title In a Groysn Tuml (In a Great Upheaval) that sounds as though was it chosen to echo the Sholom Aleichem title.

The story’s premise is typical of the writing about East European Jews not written by East European Jews. Hannah-Liebe, grows up in a Ukrainian shtetl and is, in some ways, alienated from the life around her. Her brother has gone off to St. Petersburg where he is a lawyer. To live there, he has had to convert. Hannah-Liebe is meanwhile sent to a Russian school in the village where she has problems, although she does make lifelong relationships with two classmates: one grows up to be a revolutionary agitator and the other, an anti-Semitic agitator. She eventually goes to St. Petersburg where she is reunited with her brother but when the revolution of 1905 breaks out, they have to go back to the shtetl.

The cast was largely made up of Russian émigrés who had come to Germany following the Revolution. Some of them were members of Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater, including Richard Boleslawski—the best known of them—who plays the anti-Semitic agitator. He wound up in Hollywood where he directed films such as The Painted Veil (1934) and Les Miserables (1935). So there was a certain authenticity that came from having all these Russians in the cast. As a matter of fact, a number of these Russian émigrés (some of them Jewish) worked on the décor and contributed to the large crowd scenes.

Dreyer was politically conservative so he sympathized with the Russian émigrés. One could look at the film as being more about what the Russian émigrés suffered in the early years of the Revolution rather than about what the Jews suffered under the Czar.

Dreyer complained that he had to simplify a very complicated novel to make this movie which accounts for some things that may seem schematic, particularly in the nature of the characters. There is a lot that happens in the film: It is really a kind of epic. But the performances can be terrific and the handling of the large dramatic scenes, which is not something that one necessarily associates with Dreyer’s later work, is done very skillfully.

Were there any other films that showed Jews as victims or were they mainly shown as perpetrators?
There were a fair amount of movies—though not an enormous amount—made in the late teens and early twenties in Western Europe that had, what one could call, Jewish themes. In other words, they showed Jewish characters whose lives reflect the situation of Jews in the Russian empire. But these films tended to be made from the outside and so, to some degree, they were sympathetic while, to some degree, they were insensitive. I would say that Love One Another is one of the more sympathetic films. There was a whole series of films that were made a bit later in the Soviet Union and in Poland which were done largely by Jewish filmmakers and had a somewhat different attitude toward the material.

Could you comment on the historical events that we see in the film, such as the proclamation from the Czar, the revolution of 1905, etc.?
There was a failed revolution in 1905 and one of the ways in which the Czarist regime defended itself was by stirring up popular discontent against the Jewish population, by scapegoating Jews. I mentioned the Kishinev pogrom in 1903 but there was another one in 1905 in the same town which coincided with this failed revolution. To that extent, I think the movie is, in some ways, reportage.

What kind of reception did the movie get when it came out?
It’s hard to tell as it was made for a very small company which went out of business after this one movie. So it wasn’t widely distributed. As far as I know, it was never shown in the United States or the U.K because the print we saw today was the first one with English intertitles. On the other hand, it was distributed well enough to have been shown in France, as this was the movie that began to establish Dreyer’s international reputation.

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