In making her documentary "A Letter Without Words," Lisa Lewenz collaborated with a woman who died nine months before Lisa's birth.
Her name was Ella Arnhold Lewenz, and she was Lisa's paternal grandmother. When she died in 1954, she orphaned her life's work, a trove of home movies she shot about her family in Nazi Germany. The 16-millimeter films ended up in boxes in a Baltimore attic, where they were all but forgotten for more than 20 years until Lisa rediscovered them.
Nearly 20 more years have passed since then, and in that time, Ella's films have been Lisa's life's work. The moment she first saw them, she came to a decision: She would finish the work she was convinced her grandmother wanted to share. The result is an elegiac 60-minute documentary that has been warmly reviewed and made Lewenz a coveted guest at film festivals around the world from Sundance to Berlin to Jerusalem.
Lewenz, an acclaimed multi-media artist, expects the film to be shown on PBS in the spring. The Senator Theatre plans to screen the film sometime after the first of the year as a fund-raiser to help Lewenz defray the debt she accumulated during production.
The documentary's reception has been gratifying, but no more so than the other surprising discovery Lewenz made in the process of completing Ella's film: the keys to Lisa's own buried past.
For "Letter Without Words" is not only a valuable addition to the library of Holocaust memoirs. It is also a haunting exploration into family identity and legacy.
Until she was 13, Lisa did not know of her Jewish roots. Her father, Hans Wolfgang Lewenz, had covered up his Jewish identity upon his emigration to the United States before World War II. He married an American Protestant, and he brought his children up in the Episcopal church to shield them from the prejudices that had driven his family from his country.
Ella's films introduced Lisa to a world she knew almost nothing about. The footage depicted a slice of humanity so thoroughly obliterated in the Holocaust that evidence of its existence was all but swallowed up as well. But there in Ella's rough, unedited films are images of a German-Jewish community that was as care-free as it was affluent: playing tennis and picnicking, skiing and riding horses. The vibrancy and optimism of Ella's family transcends the years, and in their contentment you can still detect a self-assurance about their value to their own beloved country.
They are people in lethal denial.
That would change, and, luckily for Ella's family, it would change in the nick of time. As Ella continued to make her movies, her
appreciation of the jeopardy threatening them grows. Her films show enormous Nazi banners billowing from buildings and zealots goose-stepping down the boulevards. Her camera lingers on the anti-Jewish signs that were materializing around them, each day further hemming in the activities of Ella's family and her friends.
Her films captured the beginning of the process that would end in death camps.
But not for Ella. She left Germany in 1938, soon after Kristallnacht, when the Nazis went on a rampage, destroying synagogues and Jewish homes and businesses.
By then, the Nazis had relieved her of her wealth and her house.
She and one daughter were the last of their family to leave. Ella would eventually settle in New York. Lisa's father, Hans, was already in the United States, where he had reinvented himself as a non-Jew. No one else in the family took so dramatic a step, but they all shied from their past. It was as though they wanted their escape from Germany to be psychological as well as physical.
"They just moved on to a new future," Lewenz, 43, said recently during one of her rare, brief visits home to Baltimore between film festivals. "They were living in a new culture with a new language and new struggles."
A family viewing
It was Ella's films that carried them back.
After Lisa discovered them, she arranged to gather her grandmother's surviving children - all in their 70s by then - to watch them. Their reaction was powerful and instantaneous.
"It was like a burst of incredible energy," Lewenz recalls. "When people saw people they recognized in the films, they would call out the names, start to tell stories, squabble about their memories. 'No, she left in '37, not '38!' or the like, and clarify details. I ended up starting and stopping the projector every 10 seconds or so. It was amazing."
There they all were in their youth, vamping for the camera on the grounds of their imposing Berlin home or their villa in Cladow. Nothing seemed to stretch before them except prosperity and happiness.
As she watched with them, Lewenz was startled to recognize a familiar figure, a kindly-looking man with a drift of unmanageable hair and a bushy mustache. It was Albert Einstein who, Lewenz learned for the first time, was a close friend of Ella's and her family. "He helped me with my math homework in the back of the car," Lewenz's aunt Annemargret told her.
In the months and years that followed, Lewenz's relatives identified others in Ella's films who were famous in their country and beyond: the actress Brigitte Helm, star of the film "Metropolis," the author Gerhardt Hauptmann, and Rabbi Leo Baeck, a world-renowned theologian.
But Ella was not a paparazzi. She was herself part of a rarefied circle. Until watching Ella's films, Lisa had no idea that she had descended from one of Germany's most prominent Jewish families, with roots stretching backward in the country for centuries.
"I was absolutely flabbergasted," she says. "I almost fell over."
Ella was the daughter of an eminent banker and philanthropist, and her husband was a wealthy industrialist who manufactured the earliest telephones in Germany. It was not out of the ordinary for Ella to host a dinner at their mansion with 100 guests.
The family felt itself thoroughly assimilated into German society. Like many Jews in Western Europe, they were not in the least religiously observant. As Lisa's older relatives saw in the film, they weren't made to feel Jewish until the Nazis came along.
Ella, a small, round woman with tortoise-shelled glasses, was of keen intelligence and a passion for art and poetry. At 47, when she was already the mother of six, she first picked up a movie camera. She apparently was among the first in her country to shoot home movies and to do so in color. She took the camera everywhere, and when Lisa worked her way through the footage, she found evocative travelogue scenes from Egypt, Paris, Venice and the Alps. Some of the most memorable footage shows a gathering of prominent Jews - including Einstein - to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.
Widowed in 1932, Ella continued to film after the Nazis came to power in 1933 even after Joseph Goebbels forbade independent filmmaking. (Goebbels was himself a neighbor at Cladow and once asked if he could use the family's tennis courts. Ella told him that he wouldn't want to use their tennis courts. They were Jews. He agreed and left.) She filmed until her final departure from Germany in 1938.
Her moviemaking didn't end when she reached the United States and New York, where she settled into an apartment. "A Letter Without Words" includes footage of a Macy's Day Thanksgiving Parade and the 1939 World's Fair (and another shot of Einstein, who was there the same day.) Ella also visited Germany after the war, and filmed her former country in rubbles.
Although "A Letter Without Words" is built on the foundation of Ella's films, it includes new footage shot by Lisa. Some of the most arresting additions are contemporary shots taken from the precise spots where Ella stood with her camera all those years ago. Sometimes, the only difference in the scenery is the presence of Nazi banners in Ella's films. Lisa would hold a monitor in her left hand, enabling her to see Ella's footage, while she shot new footage with a videocamera in her right hand. It was like being in a time warp.
"I was so thrilled that several times, I would grab onlookers and hand them the equipment so that they could see the astonishing scene."
Work on the film was an obsession for Lewenz. If it had been otherwise, the film could not have been made. Although Lewenz received some financial help and in-kind contributions, for most of the time, she was a one-woman operation. She restored Ella's film, edited it, wrote the script, shot new footage, conducted interviews, recorded the narration, even composed some of the music. She did all the research herself, which meant poring over family letters and diaries that kept surfacing after she started work. At one point, she even employed the services of a German lip-reader to try to learn what people were saying in Ella's silent films.
Eventually, she gave up university teaching jobs to devote herself to the film. She drove herself to exhaustion and past the point of financial prudence. "It was always a question of how was she going to survive the next two months, how was she going to pay her bills and keep going," says Christian Rogowski, a literary scholar, who in 1994 helped her secure a one-semester fellowship at Amherst University where he is an associate professor.
She is more than $82,000 in debt, which even the positive reviews won't diminish. "There's been this incredible response all over the world, and yet, she's broke," says Lewenz's friend, Susan Silas, an artist in New York. "That's difficult after working so hard and getting such a credible response."
Even now, with the film complete, Lewenz keeps a frenetic pace, flying from one festival to another, while also trying to handle her own promotion. She often wishes she could clone herself just to handle her unanswered telephone calls and E-Mail. Trying to reach her is like trying to catch a rabbit, as she zig zags around the globe.
Although work on the film has taken nearly two decades, Lewenz says she always felt enormous time pressure, knowing that her aunts and uncles - her primary sources - were ever more aged. "When they die, it will be like a library burning down. All their recollections will be gone forever." By the time she started working in earnest on the film, her father was already suffering from a disabling illness and could no longer communicate. He died in 1987.
Of course, she never met her most crucial source, Ella, whom she spent years trying to understand. Still, when anyone asks Lisa if she now feels she knows her grandmother well, her answer is surprising.
"If I would meet her on the streets, would I know her? I don't think so. Partly this is because I've been told such dramatically different things about her. One person may say that she was the most generous person they ever met, while others would say that she was self-centered or oblivious to other people's feelings."
On the other hand, she adds, "I've read her diaries, closely scrutinized her films, interviewed family and friends and have found that I probably know her differently from anyone who knew her in life."
Although Ella was an amateur filmmaker, Lisa said her grandmother knew what she was doing and got better as she went along. "At the beginning, she was pretty rough, but she learned how to film people and how to draw attention to things."
Naturally, the initial fascination of "A Letter Without Words" is Ella's footage, but the questions Lisa raises about identity give the film its wistful resonance. She establishes a a fascinating dialogue between her father, Hans, and his younger brother Helmut, who died of yellow fever in Peru in 1937. In a letter home only months before his death, Helmut implored one of his sisters never to turn her back on her Jewish roots.
"My birthday wish for you from my heart," Helmut wrote, "is that you may preserve your Jewishness through all storms. May you never, even if you have to suffer a lot from it, deny your Jewishness...because in the end you will be the one who will suffer."
Helmut's prophesy came true for his brother Hans, who chose to hide his Jewish origins, a decision that came to plague him. In 1969, he secretly made an audio tape, which Lisa discovered years later. In the recording, Hans asked himself if he had been right to deny his Jewish heritage, even if his motive was to protect his children.
"Now I am asking did it really make sense," he says in the tape recording, which Lisa includes in "A Letter Without Words." "I would honestly have to say, no."
Lisa's mother, B.J., says her husband always suffered for the lie he was living, just as Helmut predicted. "In his final years, he struggled with facing the truth, but never could do it," she said.
But Lisa understood her father's choice. The question she asks in the film is how to preserve the past without drowning in it. "The essential challenge," Lisa's voice says near the conclusion of the film, "how to let go but not forget."
For her, Ella's footage allowed her to bridge the gap between present and past. The final image in "A Letter Without Words" is the last footage Ella shot only days before her death. Two luminescent swans glide across a black pond, independent of each other but also of a pair - like two women, working separately and together, on a work of comprehension.
"The unfinished last work," Lisa's voice says in their film, "we all leave them behind, waiting for completion."
Pub Date: 11/27/98