Leo Hurwitz (1909-1991) was my great-uncle. In this section on Characters on the Couch, I write about Leo Hurwitz’s Filmography and honor his contributions to the field of documentary film-making. Leo played an important role in the origins of documentary film in America. In fact, he took documentaries from newsreels to the social documentary form in the early 1930s with a handful of other documentary filmmakers including: Paul Strand, Ralph Steiner, Sidney Meyers, and Elia Kazan.
On this page, you will find a list of Leo Hurwitz’s filmography with links to a series of pieces I wrote in 2017 about a number of Leo’s most important films. They’re posted here on this site on my Characters on the Couch blog and are highlighted below in bold. You will also find links to watch the films on Leo’s website, created by his son, Tom Hurwitz.
My first three pieces are historical and set the stage for Leo’s life and work: Part 1, Leo’s History: Family Influences (READ HERE); Part 2, Leo’s History: Childhood Memories and Fantasies (READ HERE); Part 3, Leo’s History: A Radical Filmmaker in The Making (READ HERE). The fourth is a piece on Leo’s two psychoanalyst sisters, Marie H. Briehl and Rosetta Hurwitz, also pioneers in their own right, in the psychoanalytic world I myself now live and work in (READ HERE).
My historical articles are followed by pieces on Leo’s major films. My pieces are based both on the films themselves and on my personal musings. They’re my way of honoring the work of my great-uncle. I extend my thanks to psychoanalyst Arnold Richards, M.D., also an activist who knew Leo, for inspiring me. For making the films available, a very special thank you to my cousin Tom Hurwitz, Leo’s son and himself a cinematographer and documentarian, as well as to the late Nelly Burlingham, M.D., Leo’s widow. And, another thank you to filmmaker Manny Kirchheimer, Leo’s colleague and friend.
Leo’s History & Blacklisting
Leo Hurwitz’s creative documentary work came first out of his involvement with the Workers Film and Photo League in New York City in the early 1930’s.
As a socially conscious documentary filmmaker, devoted to human rights and exposing the fascist forces that undermine basic human freedoms, Leo’s early films (Heart of Spain, Native Land, and Strange Victory) particularly addressed these concerns. Later, the House Un-American Activities Committee blacklisted Leo during the McCarthy era, known as the “Second Red Scare,” lasting from the late 1940s through the 1950s. Leo was blacklisted for his affiliation with the Communist party and, although his filmmaking and creative work never stopped, many doors were closed to him. He worked in the shadows, during these years, as many of those blacklisted did, undercover and under aliases.
In spite of his blacklisting, Leo did complete some of his major works during the McCarthy period, between the years 1949-56 and in 1961. Each film was produced and financed differently: Young Fighter, 1953 (hugely important in the development of cinéma vérité); Museum and the Fury, 1956; Here at the Water’s Edge, 1961. Even USA, 1956, produced for Pan American and used by the United States Information Agency, was innovative in its implementation of photo animation and folk music.
Because Leo was blacklisted from working under his own name in television, Hollywood motion pictures, and usually in the industrial documentary field as well, he made Young Fighter for CBS, using a front; the film’s cameraman. The Polish Government commissioned Museum and the Fury. Charles Pratt financed Here at the Water’s Edge. The production company for the Pan American film USA brought Leo on to fix a totally broken film, which he did brilliantly. Finally in 1961, Milton Fruchtman and a small production company named Capital Cities hired him to direct the television coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. The blacklisting was over.
Vijay Seshadri Describes Leo
Before you begin reading my accounts of both Leo’s history and films, I want you to have a vivid picture of Leo in your mind.
Here is his friend Vijay Seshadri’s description of Leo Hurwitz, the man, from Seshadri’s moving memoir of their relationship, Which Side Are You On, Boys? The American Scholar Vol. 70, No. 2 (SPRING 2001), pp. 49-62.
“He had a short, solid body, which combined with his no-nonsense discursive style and his habits of indignation to leave the impression of overall bluntness, an impression mitigated by the look of keen rationality in his eyes and by his head and face, which were long and carefully sculpted, and would have been described in the nineteenth century as “fine.” But this was just his body. Inside this physical frame there lived, waiting to spring forth, the unresting champion of the poor and downtrodden, the immemorial working-class hero, intellectual-workers’ division—dissident, disenchanted, morally fervent.”
Leo’s filmmaking spanned a period of almost sixty years, from 1932 until his death in 1991.
He toured the world with his much-acclaimed film, Dialogue with a Woman Departed, completed in 1980, and worked on other projects, including a film about miners with his son, Tom, partly shot and edited. From about 1985 on, he had NIH funding and a panel of experts for a script called “In Search of John Brown.” The script was largely completed and he was working on its next steps at the time of his death.
All of Leo’s films have his particular stamp of deep poetic creativity intermixed with a passion for seeing and never forgetting the truth. Below is a chronology of Leo Hurwitz’s work in documentary film. The highlighted films I’ve written about have a brief introduction with a link to READ MORE. Each film also includes a link to watch free at leohurwitz.com. The films are a treat not to be missed. His early films are timely, addressing many of the problems and concerns we live with in the United States now.
Birth of Social Documentary
1932 – 1937
1932 Detroit Workers News Special, Director
1932 America Today and the World in Review, Director
1932 Hunger, Director, Cinematographer, Editor
1933 The Scottsboro Boys, Director, Cinematographer, Editor
1934 Sweet Land of Liberty, Director, Cinematographer, Editor
1934 Granite, Harbor Scenes, Pie in the Sky, Editor
1936 The Plow That Broke the Plains, Writer, Cinematographer
1937 China Strikes Back, Director of Editing
1937 People of the Cumberland, Advisor
Films Of Protest & Truth
1937 – 1948
1937 Heart of Spain, Writer (with Paul Strand) and Director of Editing
In a dictatorship, human hearts don’t matter. Leo Hurwitz shows this frightening reality in his powerful film, Heart of Spain 1937. America is now in a fight similar to that of Spain’s democratically elected republic against fascist General Francisco Franco. We need a conduit of empathy similar to Dr. Norman Bethane’s blood transfusions to soldiers in 1936 Spain. READ MORE & Watch Film
1942 Native Land, Editor, Producer, and Director (with Paul Strand) 1943
The Making of Native Land Leo Hurwitz’s Native Land is a 1942 expose of repressive forces against labor organizing. The film is based on the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee’s (1936-1941) 65 volumes of testimony to the Senate on their investigation. The investigation’s results couldn’t be more troubling. READ MORE & Watch Film
1942 Song of Freedom, Writer
1943 Bridge of Men, Writer
1943 Tomorrow We Fly, Editor
1948 Strange Victory, Director, Editor, Writer
Leo Hurwitz’s powerful 1948 WWII documentary, with its ironic title Strange Victory, is just as timely today as it was then because the film explores the inescapable question: “If we won, why do we look as if we lost? And, if Hitler died, why does his voice still pursue us through the spaces of America’s … READ MORE & Watch Film
1956 The Museum and the Fury, Director, Producer, Writer Editor
Let’s remember the threats of fascism. Forgetting is a very dangerous thing. And, Leo Hurwitz’s film, 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. Just as Leo’s 1946 film Strange Victory details the seeds for fascism in America: racism …READ MORE & Watch Film
First Cinéma Vérité (1953)
1951 – 1956
1951 This is the United Nations, Co-Producer
1952 An Evening for Richard Rodgers (TV), Director
1952 On this Day, Director, Writer, Editor
1952 Emergency Ward, Editor, with Cameraman Fons Iannelli
1953 The Young Fighter, Director, Editor, Writer
The Young Fighter 1953 is the 1st Cinéma Vérité film. “In 1953 Omnibus, a weekly CBS Sunday afternoon magazine program (before the days of football inundation), commissioned Filmscope to produce five “reality films” using the new technique. The first of the series was to be The Young Fighter, the real-life story of Ray Drake, an up-and-coming white boxer managed by two men from New York’s garment industry, a manufacturer of fur coats and his “cutter.” … All this was new — the filming of real scenes with sound, from moment to moment in the middle of people’s lives. The challenges were enormous …” READ MORE HERE by Manfred Kirchheimer.
The film begins with a tough Brooklyn narrator’s voice. Tough as the boxing world is tough, tough as Ray Drake’s manager and trainer are tough; tough as the decision Ray Drake had to make. Would he become the Champ his manager and trainer were bent on making, or the family man he also … READ MORE & Watch Film
1955 Dancing James Berry, with Mura Dehn and Herbert Matter
1956 USA, Director, Writer, Editor
Films Of Life & Death
1961 – 1968
1961 Eichmann Trial (TV), Director
1961 Here at the Water’s Edge (with Charles Pratt)
Leo Hurwitz’s film Here at the Water’s Edge, features the 1960 New York City’s waterfront. Made with photographer Charles Pratt, the film is a cinematic poem to the people who work on the water. Pratt, who largely financed the film, made it possible for Leo to use his vision as an artist and filmmaker … READ MORE & Watch Film
1962 Verdict for Tomorrow, Director, Editorial Supervisor
1964 Essay on Death: In Memory of JFK (NET-TV), Director, Writer, Editor
John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917 – 1963) was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22. 1963. I was sixteen years old when his murder was announced over the loud speaker in my high school English class. School was dismissed. I walked home along the train tracks with a close friend, both of us shaken by the …READ MORE & Watch Film
1965 Haiku, a film by Leo Hurwitz and Manfred Kirchheimer
1966 The Sun and Richard Lippold, Producer/Director/Writer/Editor
The Sun and Richard Lippold begins with Leo Hurwitz’s voice, reminiscing. “In the studio of Richard Lippold, where being a musician as well as a sculptor, he played Bach and Pachelbel for me, and where we talked for many hours, an idea came to me which is now this film.” This film, of course, is … READ MORE & Watch Film
1966 In Search of Hart Crane, Producer, Director, Writer, Editor
How do we find someone – the real person hidden inside? The one who’s been hurt/who struggles/who has his dark demons? How do we understand Hart Crane’s suicide; the suicide of an otherwise talented, lively, vivacious, and successful young poet? Leo Hurwitz’s penetrating and poetic script and his camera … READ MORE & Watch Film
1966 Do You Know a Man Named Goya with Peggy Lawson &Tom Hurwitz
Films Of Art & Seeing
1968 – 1980
1968–1970 The Art of Seeing (Series for the American Federation of Arts)
Seeing is an art for Leo Hurwitz. He sees what others refuse to see. And, he never turns away from truths that need to reach the light of day. In his, The Art of Seeing Series, which includes Light in the City, Discovery in a Landscape, This Island, we are once again privy to the depth of Leo’s capacity to see.
Light and the Country, a film by Leo Hurwitz and Peggy Lawson
Light and the City, a film by Leo Hurwitz and Peggy Lawson
In Light and the City, we are once again privy to the depth of Leo’s capacity to see; how his carefully trained eyes become a sensitive witness to the details of daily life. Leo Hurwitz is a master at candidly capturing people and their surroundings. The question is: how many of us go about our lives in a state of oblivion; too caught up in the immediacy of our narrowed focus to look very far beyond? How much do we really see? READ MORE & Watch Film
Discovery in a Landscape, a film by Leo Hurwitz, Peggy Lawson & Tom Hurwitz
It often takes another person’s eyes to help us understand something in a new way. This is how Leo Hurwitz uses his eyes and camera in his Art of Seeing series with its three films … made between 1968 and 1970 with fellow filmmaker and wife Peggy Lawson, Leo uses a form of empathic communication that he calls, “I will look with your eyes, you will see with mine.” Through this kind of seeing, Leo gives each of us a chance to make our own personal discoveries. READ MORE & Watch Film
Journey into a Painting, Director, Writer, Editor
The Island, a film produced by Leo Hurwitz with Peggy Lawson
This Island, a Leo Hurwitz film – directed and edited by Leo with co-editor Peggy Lawson and cameraman Manfred Kirchheimer – is a film about a museum: The Detroit Institute of Art. But This Island isn’t just about a museum. It’s about discovering the meaning in art; and that requires looking deeply and openly to see what is there. If we let him, Leo Hurwitz has a few things to teach us about seeing. We are witnesses to that fact as we watch all his films … READ MORE & Watch Film
1969 Discovery in a Painting, A film by Leo Hurwitz and Manfred Kirchheimer (completed in 2014)
Leo Hurwitz’s 29-minute film, Discovery in a Painting, is a beautiful sampling of his personal passion for seeing. Filmed at MoMA in New York City, this film is one of the various ways Leo explores the importance of seeing with open eyes. For Leo, seeing doesn’t just involve seeing what is there. More radically … READ MORE & Watch Film
A Film Of Love & Loss
1980 Dialogue with a Woman Departed, Narrator, Director, Producer, Writer, Editor
“Shoot Film, Not People”: this is the poster filmmaker Peggy Lawson, Leo Hurwitz’s wife, carried during a march against the Vietnam War. As we watch Dialogue with a Woman Departed, Leo’s 4-hour love poem to Peggy, we come back to this sign again and again. We come back to Peggy: marching in protest … READ MORE & Watch Film
All Leo Hurwitz’s films are about love. Love for Truth. Love for Equal Rights. Love for Freedom. Love for Art. Love for People & Life. And, of course, Love for Film.
Watch his films here at https://leohurwitz.com/films/
You’ll be intrigued, informed, engaged, touched, and never disappointed. Enjoy watching Leo Hurwitz’s Filmography and exploring https://leohurwitz.com/. Write to us. My cousin Tom Hurwitz and I would love to hear your thoughts.