After the documentary world’s boldface names of the 1920s and ’30s—Robert Flaherty, Joris Ivens, Pare Lorentz—the typical college-survey doc hit parade goes silent until cinema vérité. Anthology’s eye-opening 13-program series posits an intervening “New York School” of lefty filmmakers, and then focuses on one eye-opening blacklistee: Leo Hurwitz, forefather of cinema vérité and TV news broadcasting, forger of a soulful yet rigorous style of film essay.
“He wanted the documentary to speak not only to the committed, but to use techniques that would rival Hollywood in the service of social aims,” said his son, Tom, a cinematographer, who co-organized the series.
Born in Williamsburg to Russian immigrants (middle name: Tolstoy), Hurwitz did speak to the committed at first, newsreeling with the worker-oriented New York Film & Photo League and NYKino. But two longer dispatches-from-the-front, made under the Frontier Films shingle, have a visceral, startling sense of rhetoric. Heart of Spain (1937) rallies proper loyalist outrage, but its vivid, bodily sense of the sacrifices of war shows promise, and Hurwitz, molding received footage, previews his Soviet-strength compilation skills. Union-boosting Native Land (1942) stages hokey re-enactments of turncoating, but makes them menacing and morally tortuous nonetheless (aided by Group Theatre vets like Art Smith).
At this point, “he was already seen as a premature anti-fascist,” said Tom, whose father’s requisite FBI file dated from 1937. So Strange Victory (1948) was strange fruit indeed: a glum-to-bitter party-pooper reminding a triumphant nation of its lingering racism and anti-Semitism. The raw moodiness makes the film more than a cranky potshot. By now losing work left and right, Hurwitz made the extraordinary Museum and the Fury (1956) on a Polish commission. As audacious as Alain Resnais’s 1955 concentration camp doc—Night and Fog—yet largely unseen till years later, it shifts among the West’s greatest artistic achievements and, well, mass death. At once utterly improbable and wildly precocious in the preservation of memory and kinship, in museums and in life, the film is also hypnotic in its (creative) iterative use of inset photos and artwork pans.
Such innovation was why, a decade earlier, Hurwitz was tapped to build up the fledgling CBS News. “He was asked to train a generation of cameramen, floor directors, switchers, and technical directors,” recalled Tom. “When I used to go visit the set, everybody knew Leo, because he trained them.” Hurwitz was later recruited to coordinate coverage of the Eichmann trials.
In the meantime came The Young Fighter (1953). A vérité landmark for its synch sound, it’s an affecting look at a boxer juggling training with a wife and baby. Better-known pioneer Ricky Leacock viewed the results at Hurwitz’s house and went off to make his own vérité pitch, and many others passed through to learn from Hurwitz, the master editor. “Leo taught a seminar in our living room every week,” said Tom. “Larry Silk, Dede Allen came. These were the seminal New York editors.”
Hurwitz bucked up with public-television commissions in the ’60s, shifting to twilit meditations on artists, nature, New York, and, later, his late wife, Peggy Lawson. Manfred Kirchheimer, Hurwitz’s closest collaborator later in his career, describes Hurwitz as trying to “rescue cliché.” It’s apt for Hurwitz who, though at times preachy, did the hard work of experimentation that laid the groundwork for much more to come.