Leo Hurwitz's Film The Museum and the Fury 1957 on the dangers of fascism

LEO HURWITZ’S THE MUSEUM AND THE FURY 1956
Let’s Remember The Dangers Of Fascism

Let’s remember the dangers of fascism. Forgetting is a very threatening thing. And, Leo Hurwitz’s The Museum and The Fury 1956 shows us why. Yet we do forget when we don’t want to see what exists on our own soil. Leo’s other film Strange Victory (1948) details the seeds for fascism in America: racism, antisemitism, and White Supremacy. When we can’t call it what it is, history repeats itself. The Museum and The Fury 1956 offers the best reason for not forgetting: “History is the echo of an angry scream.” That echo is now, in 2020. We must stop it. Our voice is our VOTE.

(Watch here: The Museum and The Fury, Strange Victory, and other Leo Hurwitz films)

My great-uncle, documentary film-maker, Leo Hurwitz was meticulous about truth. He never forgot, even when the immediacy of WWII’s horrors were behind us. And, he knew that many in our country need reminders of the risks of indifference. Sadly, we now have a cult of Trump, caught in that denial and idealization of hate. Their hate provides an enemy, creating an insular sense of “community.” And, as Hitler and the Nazis did, it puts the enemy “out there.”  Let’s not forget that Trump glorifies authoritarian dictators, nor that he kept (or keeps?) a copy of Mein Kampf in his nightstand.

When, in 1955, Leo was contacted by a man in Poland, associated with the Polish Information Center, who asked him if he wanted to make a film about fascism and Nazism, Leo was ready: “It seemed to me it was necessary – because there was a forgetting … we’d won the war, the Cold War had come into being, and the meaning of fascism had begun to dissolve away.”

Museums as Memory

Leo decided the theme of The Museum and the Fury 1956 had to be about memory. He saw what could happen if we don’t remember and he knew we could not afford to forget. Now, in 2020, we must counteract the far-right forces that refuse to put aside their racism – their fear of “the other.”

Museums are places to remember history, to see history in a new way, and not to forget. For Leo, it made sense that the nucleus of this new film would be the Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, a memorial and museum in Oświęcim, Poland. This museum includes the German concentration camps, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which the German’s called simply Auschwitz.

We must see. And, there are many images of Eyes contained within The Museum and The Fury 1956. Eyes appear over and over again. This too makes sense, as much as remembering does. Seeing is a critical part of our capacity to remember and Eyes are a repeated image in many of Leo’s films.

As Leo began his work on The Museum and The Fury 1956, he found himself musing: “The event had passed [but] …. how do you hold memory as real? From that idea came the idea of the museum as memory; as an objective form of memory; the idea of museums and art as remembering the life of man; the experience of Nazism as an experience of memory. Memory is affected by all kinds of things … by what you have in your brain, by dreams, by talk; by poetry, by painting, by a vase that is broken, a shard. Anything can be a form of memory so long as it has truth in it.”

The Museum and The Fury 1956

The Museum and The Fury was first shown in New York City in 1956. As the credits rolled, the audience sat silently in their chairs. Then, murmurs rose out of that silence and people began to talk about the film’s importance. Yet the film was not shown either in Poland or distributed in the United States as hard as Leo tried.

Manny Kirchheimer, Leo’s longtime friend and associate, remembers that FilmPolski was “disappointed” with the finished product. The reason Leo gave was that the Poles did not want a film featuring Jewish victims of the Nazis, although Leo treated the Holocaust as a vast crime against an array of victims; Jews, Polish nationalists, Gypsies, Catholics, Communists, Socialists, and labor leaders. The focus on the Jewish genocide was too much for the Polish Film Office.

It’s possible that FilmPolski felt the film pointed to Poland’s own mistreatment of its Jewish residents. So, Leo bought the film back from them a few years later. With the rights, he tried to get the film distributed. Yet, when the distributor he approached learned the film’s subject matter dealt with the concentration camps, the project died. Why did no one want the film?

In the 1950s, a film-poem that connected the long history of art with humankind’s struggle to be free of oppression and the savagery of war was a hard sell. Perhaps people found the vision of the film frightening. Perhaps it raised questions that, in the binary world of the Cold War, were not in most people’s framework of “convenient thought,” the agenda of most of America then.

“Convenient thought” might be a way of thinking about Trump supporters in America now. The hate-cult of Trump is too expedient a way to displace their own fears. They do not want to see.

Why We Must See

There’s no question that some people don’t want to see the truth. Or that those in power can block the truth, falsify fact, or out and out lie. We need to build monuments of memory to a history whose shadow falls over us in the hate-speak of Trump and his followers; in his accusations of fake news and attacks on reality. We need to memorialize the past so it does not happen again.

The Museum and The Fury 1956 opens, with choral singing. We see the credits: Script written by Leo Hurwitz. Narration is written, by Thomas McGrath, a politically left poet whose compelling 405-page poem, Letter To An Imaginary Friend, I recently read. Not surprisingly, Leo and Tom McGrath were close friends and, in this film, we have Leo’s poetic vision merged with a poet’s words.

The narration begins: “Now as in the green and legendary past, man builds monuments to himself. Here a dream went by and its stone shadow remains.” McGrath’s voice continues to speak:

“All people have done this … introducing ourselves to each other. All people, in all ages, have done this, for we are all travelers together through the stations of time and the world. Different, we are alike. Because humanity is not a category in a textbook but a kinship of shared experiences.

We need to know our shared experience: “This the museum remembers.” Images, faces in mosaics, children’s art; human faces; different and, at once, the same: “We are all one family under the skin of our names … across the bridge of the eyes we see each other’s strangeness which then is no longer strange.” Images: here in the museum of memory. Eyes. Leo’s films always focus on Eyes.

He knew that we must see – to remember our commonality.

Remembering Brings A Kinship

Artists help us remember how we are the same: “It is a kinship we have revealed to ourselves through the … hand and visionary eye of our artists, for art is man’s way of remembering his experiences and his dreams … It is this common humanity we remember in our museums. [Artists] are silent witnesses of our labor, our hardship, our victories, our defeats.”

The Museum and the Fury 1956 takes us back to the most extreme and bitter desecration: “This, the museum remembers.” We enter the Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, once a concentration camp.

McGrath, our narrator acts as docent: “We come to this museum to remember that man the creator can also be man, the destroyer. In that kingdom of terror, ovens and chimneys discovered a different potential. Barbed wire changed the language of meaning. The guards … demons of this particular circle of the Nazi inferno.” We tour the museum, once a concentration camp, with Leo’s camera.

In actual photos and art, we see faces of guards and their prisoners: “for whom the small principles of daily life were redesigned.” Here was no recognition of common humanity, nor kinship, but imprisonment because of differences, not their similarities. And, there was no one to speak the truth.

Are We Prisoners Too?

If we cannot speak the truth, we’re prisoners too, of a fear of seeing and standing up for what is right.

Through Leo’s eyes, we tour the museum; see prisoners in a painting – skeletal, emaciated, starved. We see the faces of museum-goers, looking through cell bars, now part of the horror. We, the audience, are in those cells with emaciated, naked prisoners (captured in photos). These are the prisoners who had their dignity; their hope, their lives – their everything – stripped away.

Images come onto the screen. News footage. Nazis march through the city with their swastikas. The narration reminds us of the ways that Hitler’s doctrine of hate caused divisions and dehumanization. We are reminded of what happened; what is happening now. We must not forget:

“It began with a doctrine of pure people and mongrel people … in 1939, the Germans came to Poland and the long hunt was on. It began with searches of islands of resistance. They arrested union members because they were organized … intellectuals because they had the power of the word. They used terror to create terror. An intricate system began to appear. People were divided from people and the Jews were herded to new ghettos and branded with stars. A new order arose, a system of forced labor. This, too, the museum remembers …”

Images. We see Jews herded into cattle cars; old women threatened and mistreated: “Trains [pull] into stations; midnight arrivals of the walking dead; the destruction of families under the brass command; noonday terror and midnight unrest.” Images. Men lined up; their mouths taped, waiting – to be shot: “lucky is the hero whose death came quick, in their dark cellars.”

Some survived.

Surviving Isn’t Enough

We are reminded of those that wouldn’t give up: “Now in the awful cold of that country, our common humanity driven out of us, we began to forget we were people. So, we labored and labored to survive … against the Nazis, against their cold system of terror; something was being born. The Jews were speaking the endless word of the Warsaw ghetto. We fought with what arms we had stolen, with our hands, with our blood, we fought in the streets, in the houses, in the incandescent rooms where we had loved. We were shot down, burned out … and in the economics of terror, nothing was without value; the hair of women; toys; wooden legs. The oppressor was a thrifty people.”

Some refused to be their victims: “To survive was a victory and some of us survived.” American Armed Forces released the prisoners in 1945. Some went home. Yet, for those who fought to survive, what was the cost? The camera shows us in images and newsreel footage.

We see prisoners walking out of the camps: children, frozen, moving stiffly out into the snow. A woman in black is crying. There are the dead, everywhere: “a whole continent with a floor of corpses under it. In the end, the oppressor … left ten million shoes with no place to go; and he left the gas chambers, the terrible tool of his craft.” We took them to trial for their monstrous crimes.

But, even in the aftermath (and evidence) of brutality and hate – the oppressors denied their guilt.

Trials and Denial of Guilt

McGrath’s words continue to speak in the voice of those oppressed: “We tried the guards because we must remember the nightmare of our experience as we remember our long dream towards freedom. We couldn’t understand them. They looked human like us. But these had accepted themselves as part of the elect; denied humanity and made man into a thing, an object for use.”

“This too, the museum remembers.” Images. The laughing faces of murderers; the arrogant belief they did the right thing. At the Nuremberg trials, we hear over and over: “I consider myself not guilty.” We hear it from Rudolf Hess, from Wilhelm Keitel, from others. “In the end, no one it seemed, was guilty. Accidentally – forty million were dead. No one remembered his guilt.”

Thomas McGrath’s powerful voice does not relent: “We buried our dead with the last of our weeping, in the remembering earth, and turned to the alien streets of our broken cities, wreckage of memory, where the nightmare had passed and his shadow was burned on the stone. How do you start to build a city out of broken stone – a wreckage of what you knew? Plan the impossible.”

How do we reconcile ourselves with the truth that the impossible has already happened?

Re-claiming Life Is Up to Us All

Each move of restoration is a remembering: “… at last reclaiming our history, building with our own hands, we saw our human potential. We found again the continuity the artists had told us before of creative labor … freed our powers and drew us once more to deep sources of life.” The Museum and The Fury 1956 shows us hopeful images in the midst of the remains of a defiling war.

Images. We see a bird soaring. Smiling men with hammers and tools rebuild the city. Under sunny skies, children smile, men carve a stone gargoyle; mothers walk contentedly with their babies. There is a school for children who have never known terror. Medical and nursing students learn “the old art of healing where before there had been only wounds.”

There are no more soldiers in the streets or shelters to hide from bombs. This is a time for dancing. Men and women and children frolic and whirl in the freedom to move their bodies without fear.

Javelin throwing, swimming, and track are the dance of sports. Children hold hands in a circle with their teacher; while other children wave from trains on the way to summer camp “where happiness is circular and repeatable. There is time now for the young; for sea-charmed sailors (and young lovers); time for the flying man in his high and lonely joy.” This is the celebration of victory.

Yet darkness and danger are not as far behind us as we wish. It lives in the survivors. It lurks in the hearts of would-be oppressors. We see a sign: “Arbeit Macht Frei – Work sets you free,” the slogan used for Auschwitz, a part of the trickery. “In the time of peace and long forgetting, it is necessary to remember, to go back ….”

Crying with Open Eyes

The Museum and The Fury 1956 takes us back to what the Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau remembers: “Tears for the weeping of all nations and all times. War … the maker of orphans, widow maker.” We see images: of a naked woman, left emaciated, abandoned, dead in the snow; of children holding out empty plates, vigil candles lit with tears. Leo Hurwitz knew we must grieve.

Have we not grieved? Because it is happening again, now, here in America as Trump destroys our democracy. Is it because some of us, here, in our country do not see and cannot call fascism and authoritarianism by their names? Is it because hate has taken over and blinds too many of us?

We must grieve the past. We must remember: “Stations of the nightmare, endless Auschwitz, tears for the hungry, tears for all those enslaved or in exile under the whips of the oppressor, speaking with strange tongues … tears for the innocent and the injured in courtrooms of the mighty … Litany of pain and struggle against the makers of evil; chapters of ice and fire under the Eye of time.” We must feel and see the heartache of those hated; who are now and have been hurt.

We see images of eyes – open eyes. Eyes that see and do not forget. Let’s remember the dangers of fascism. We must see Trump and his cronies for who they are; must speak the word – fascism. We must face the truth for what it is. Otherwise, our democracy is in very grave danger. Now.

The Past Still Lives, In Our Hands

Leo Hurwitz’s The Museum and The Fury 1956 ends with the mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki dissolving into an image of Goya’s Colossus with these words: “No, we will not endure it … plain people, giants, this is our challenge. Must we finish in fire what we have built, in one hundred centuries of struggle? We will not endure it again.”

In a change of rhythm and focus, our narrator gently addresses the viewer, over portraits of human faces drawn from all periods of art: “Consider, as you go out to your many distractions. Remember: the past still lives in our hands. And the world is reborn each day in the shape of our love.”

Love means never forgetting the horrors and tyrannies of fascism. Leo’s voice is the voice of now: “We need to hold onto the evanescent disappearing past.” We must remember. It is up to us all.  We can say the word: “fascism.” Our voice is our VOTE.

 

 

 

 

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