Leo Tolstoi Hurwitz makes films about memory. They are called documentaries, but that is a term he mistrusts. He is called the dean of the cinematic left. He is 73, with silver hair swept back and hand-rolled cigarette in hand, and class is still in session.
His most recent film is "Dialogue With a Woman Departed," an eight-year project completed in 1980. It is a four-hour remembrance of his late wife and colleague, Peggy Lawson, and of images of the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler, the Nuremberg Trials, racial prejudice in America, the shooting of student demonstrators at Kent State.
Although he once was employed for 13 weeks by Hollywood, Hurwitz is not a Hollywood sort of filmmaker. "Dialogue," which was shown Friday in the American Film Institute's "Screening Room" series, probably will not be coming to your neighborhood theater anytime soon.
Its lingering study of the shadows of the tree under which Lawson's ashes were scattered, its intoned poetic narrative and its arraignment of traditional society ("What are the hidden forces that lead to open murder?") make it an extremely personal statement. "Dialogue" won the Critics Prize at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival and, although undistributed in the United States, has been playing to sold-out houses in Sweden--with subtitles.
Hurwitz's father was born in Russia, and had four children there. Then he moved to New York and had four more children, among them Leo Tolstoi and his brother, Peter Kropotkin Hurwitz. Leo Hurwitz graduated from Harvard in 1930, and by 1937 had become a founder of Frontier Films, a collective determined to make politically aware social documentaries.
One such project was "Native Land" (1941), which used dramatic enactments, a narration by Paul Robeson and documentary footage of the La Follette Senate Civil Liberties Committee hearings to show an American labor movement battling against domestic fascism. America had just entered World War II, and the nation was not in a mood to criticize itself. It was withdrawn by its own board of trustees. In "Heart of Spain," which Hurwitz put together from film sent to him by friends there during the Civil War, the message had been even more forthright: Fascism was a close-up of the unbandaged stump of a soldier's arm.
Hurwitz was called to Hollywood--to join Frank Capra's "Why We Fight" film unit, he thought. "But that didn't work out, because I had been a 'premature antifascist,' " Hurwitz said. "So David O. Selznick hired me on a 13-week contract to film a nine-minute segment for 'Since You Went Away,' with Claudette Colbert.
"His idea was to show her working on ships. We shot extraordinary footage--40 ships being built at a time, with superstructures as big as apartment houses being lowered onto their hulls. I put together a rough cut of 15 minutes, but Selznick didn't have time to look at it. Then a cut of nine minutes. Then six. Then three. Selznick never looked at any one of them. I had made 'Native Land' for $65,000--a feature-length film--and I had already spent $150,000 just on the segment. When the 13 weeks was up, I left. When I saw the film in a theater, Selznick had used just one shot. I knew after that Hollywood wasn't for me."
A "premature antifascist," Hurwitz explained, was a standard term of the era, a euphemism for "someone who had gone against fascism before the war with Hitler. In other words, a Red, a Commie." His politics, he says, were progressive. "But any mention of the Spanish Civil War, you were characterized as a Red. And if you touched on the struggle of labor against the corporations, that was un-American."
After the war, when victorious America was enjoying itself again, he produced "Strange Victory" (1948)--an expose' of continuing racial prejudice on the home front. In an enacted portion of that documentary quoted in "Dialogue With a Woman Departed," a black pilot is shown applying for a job and being turned down. "I know the score," he says resignedly. The narration then states that airlines in America that year employed no black pilot or copilot, although 1,000 black servicemen flew in the war.
"The reviews in The New York Times and The Washington Post admired the filmmaking, but were somewhat uncomfortable with the 'clarity' of the ideas," Hurwitz said. "The News and the Mirror in New York , however, gave savage, one-paragraph reviews. I think it was the News which said, 'This is the filmmaking of Leo Hurwitz, but the ideas of Joseph Stalin.' "
He wasn't called before the House Un-American Activities Committee ("not enough publicity value"), but he was named by Elia Kazan and his name cropped up repeatedly in the committee files. He was listed in "Red Channels," which he recalls as "a pamphlet with about 100 biographies in it, including Mrs. Roosevelt's. These little booklets were dropped on the desks of producers at the networks, and that's how the word went out."
Blacklisted by the networks, he was able to make a half-hour film for the "Omnibus" series--without credit. That film, "Young Fighter," a documentary shot with specially modified, hand-held 16mm cameras by Fons Ianelli, was the first film on television in the cine'ma ve'rite' style, Hurwitz says.
In 1952 he directed a Richard Rodgers and Mary Martin special for NBC--this time, with credit--but despite good notices was not invited to work for the network again. " 'Oh, great job, Leo,' they said. "But they never hired me again."
His documentaries, low on budget but strong on point of view, continued. "The Salt of the Earth" (1954) was a heroic account of striking coal miners and their wives, and later was praised by feminists. In "The Museum and the Fury" (1956), made for Filmpolski, the theme is again memory, with juxtaposed scenes of a Nazi death camp and the memorial built in its aftermath.
Hurwitz does not deny the accountability of the filmmaker for his treatment of subject matter. Documentaries, he believes, cannot be objective.
"The word implies that film is a document--that 'it is what it is.' But you can't document with film. As soon as you begin to structure the footage, it becomes something more. Besides, there's always an angle. You cannot shoot in 360 degrees. What you do is create fragments of reality, and use them to build a coherent mosaic. It doesn't rely on the truth or beauty of each stone, but the effect of all of them." The use of dramatized enactments, he points out, is a documentary technique that dates to Robert Flaherty's "Nanook of the North" of 1922.
He is not an admirer of most commercial movies and television, in which "violence and social oppression have been converted into easily acceptable abstractions. You go to a movie and 13 people are killed and it has no effect. The entertainment industry has made death into non-death. A man dies, he falls in a pool of blood, and we move on to the kissing scene. This is a reason I left Hollywood."
The four-hour "love letter to his wife" (as "Dialogue With a Woman Departed" has been accurately called) is behind him now. He cut its running time from seven hours, and believes it can be no shorter. His next project is a film about abolitionist John Brown, for which he is off to Harpers Ferry, reading Thoreau.
"Thoreau's speech about Brown at Concord will make your hair stand on end. He knew what the center of the Brown case was--it was doing away with slavery, and it has relevance now." The film will cost several million dollars, but at the moment that is not the problem. "First I have to find the money to write the script."
If it gets made, Hurwitz's "John Brown" is not likely to come out wishy-washy, with a variety of views given equal balance. "A point of view, if it's overt, adds clarity," he says. "I never say, 'Here are the facts--you judge.' "