Why I cannot review Jonas Mekas’s Conversations with Film-Makers

by jhoberman.

Dear N,

I know I had asked to write on Jonas Mekas’s Conversations with Film-Makers but after reading Michael Casper’s article in the June 7 issue of The New York Review of Books I can’t do it, at least not yet.

“I have never been able, really, to figure out where my life begins and where it ends,” Mekas says in his film As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000). “I have never, never been able to figure it all out, what it’s all about, what it all means.” That may be true for many of us, but Casper’s article regarding Mekas’s youthful experience of World War II in Soviet- and Nazi-occupied Lithuania makes an extraordinary life and complicated personality all the more so.

Mekas is a titan of world cinema, not so much for his movies, although some—notably Walden and Lost, Lost, Lost—are great autobiographical documents, as for his organizational skills, passionate advocacy, formidable energy, creation of institutions in support of other artists, and capacity to enable careers, mine included. (In 1973-74, he published two pieces in The Village Voice, one on Flaming Creatures, the other—under a pseudonym—on some recent films by Stan Brakhage that I had simply sent in over the transom). It’s safe to say that, without Jonas Mekas, the American avant-garde cinema would not exist as we know it. It’s also possible that Mekas regards his film activity as secondary to his Lithuanian poetry or the voluminous diaries he has kept for much of his long life.

Jonas (I can call him that) is a contradictory man. He’s a sophisticated naïf; a self-described dreamer and a hard-headed tactician; an opponent of authority who operated from a succession of power bases; selfless yet self-absorbed; a farm boy adept at hobnobbing with the rich and privileged; a man fervently attached to his roots yet largely self-invented. “We thought he came over on a U-boat,” Andrew Sarris joked an event publicizing The Village Voice Film Guide in 2007 at which Jonas, the evening’s presumed star, was a last-minute no-show, leaving Sarris and me (uneasy colleagues at best) to discuss our respective debts to an empty chair.

Casper, a doctoral candidate in history at UCLA, working on a dissertation on how Jews negotiated the demands of citizenship and national identity in the interwar Republic of Lithuania where Jonas was born in 1922, has published a number of reports on Lithuania in The Forward and elsewhere. (Here’s one on the demonization of Jews and Roma in Lithuania’s annual carnival.) Arising out of his research, Casper’s NYRB article draws on Lithuanian sources and the work of Lithuanian historians, as well as Mekas’s writings, and several interviews.

Although Jonas has frequently referred to his wartime experiences, including an attempt to flee Lithuania in the summer of 1944 that landed him, and his brother Adolfas in a German forced labor camp, Casper’s research shows that for much of the German occupation, Mekas worked and wrote for two local newspapers that, in addition to his poems and literary essays, published virulently anti-Semitic, enthusiastically pro-Nazi articles (none, Casper has stressed, written by Mekas).

Casper has also questioned the dates of Mekas’s involvement with Lithuania’s anti-German underground and noted that, while ostensibly seeking to escape the Nazis, the Mekas brothers fled in advance of the Red Army, which captured Vilnius the day before they left their hometown Biržai and was perhaps perceived as more threatening than the Germans (which would explain why their goal was to reach the center of the Reich, Vienna). This was certainly the case with George Maciunas, a close associate of Jonas’s, who arrived in the U.S. from Lithuania, by way of Germany, around the same time.

It is precisely because Jonas’s art is so profoundly concerned with his life that Casper’s article landed like a bombshell in a portion of the film world. Initial response was intense. What did it mean? Had Mekas been a German collaborator? Another Paul DeMan? Who the hell was Casper—pushy nuisance or character assassin? Was Anthology Film Archives endangered? None of these are true but people did read Casper’s article wildly different ways. Apparently getting no further than Casper’s second paragraph, which characterizes Mekas as “one of the twentieth century’s most prolific and revolutionary filmmakers,” a publicist for his publisher tweeted a link (since taken down). Some of Jonas’s friends were shaken while others rallied to his defense. The art critic Barry Schwabsky published a letter in July 19th The New York Review of Books comparing Casper to an agent of ICE.

In short there was an urge to protect Jonas, more beloved at 95 than at any point in his life, from his past. Almost by accident, I learned that two years before the NYRB published Casper, a version of his article had been commissioned, fact-checked, legally approved and then mysteriously killed by The Nation. Neither Casper nor his assigning editor John Palattella received any explanation. When I asked the magazine’s publisher-editor Katrina vanden Heuvel told me she had “no clear recollection of why we chose not to publish it.”

Selective memory is at the heart of the Mekas affair. In my reading of the NYRB article, Casper attempts—with mixed success—to get Jonas, who spent the war mainly in and around Biržai, a small city where Jews were over one-third the population, to speak about the massacre of his neighbors, committed by Lithuanian nationalists several months into the German occupation during the summer of 1941. Jonas has defended himself (in a circulated but as yet unpublished letter) on the grounds that he has been grossly misrepresented and even invented by Casper. How painful it must be to have someone else telling his story!

Jonas ends by asserting that poets like himself know things others can’t. (The idea is credited to Jean Cocteau, perhaps not the best choice given his accommodationist behavior during the German occupation of Paris, but better certainly than Ezra Pound.) Begging the question as to who or what makes a poet a poet, this is a defense, if not an argument, that Mekas has made before.

Back in the day, I read The Village Voice primarily to read “Movie Journal” and that so closely that much of what Jonas wrote found a permanent home in my brain. So it was with the November 1974 column in which he took it upon himself to praise Leni Riefenstahl’s book of photographs, Last of the Nuba, and even Riefenstahl herself, whom he had recently met and who had mightily impressed him. “Here is my own final statement on Riefenstahl’s films,” he wrote. “If you are an idealist, you’ll see idealism in her films, if you a are a classicist, you’ll see in her films, an ode to classicism, if you are a nazi [sic], you’ll see in her films Nazism.”

I remember reading this syllogism and wondering if Jonas was really serious. Was he saying that anti-fascists looking at Triumph of the Will would see anti-fascism? And Jews could look at the movie and see… what? That his statement precludes the possibility of a Jewish viewer?

Susan Sontag was also negatively impressed by this assertion, quoting it in a footnote in “Fascinating Fascism,” published in the NYRB in February 1975. But there was more. As if engaged in free association, Jonas pivoted from praising Riefenstahl to reminiscing on the most popular German release of the 1939-40 season, the quintessential Nazi production, Veit Harlan’s Jud Süss [Jew Süss].

An all-star historical pageant based on the life of the 18th century financier Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, shown as the embodiment of evil, a conniving rapist who keeps an foolishly trusting German duchy in thrall, Jew Süss was according to the cinema historian Eric Rentschler, “conceived as a hate film [that] provided a preview of coming atrocities, preparing the German populace for the ‘final solution,’ the deportation and mass murder of European Jewry.” Presumably it was shown in Lithuania early in the German occupation, perhaps the spring of 1941.

Because it has never been reprinted and is not easily found on line, Jonas’s recollection, one of his few accounts of his mental state during the occupation, is worth reading in its entirety:

There was a film called “Der Jude Suss” [sic], made by Veit Harlan. It was made in Nazi Germany. The film was shown by Nazis as an anti-Jew film. Veit Harlan was punished after the war for making what they called the most cruel anti-Jewish film. “Der Jude Suss” is almost generally considered in this country and abroad on books and press as the anti-Jewish film.

I was a student during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania. We were actively engaged in underground anti-German activities. One evening we were walking along the busy city street and we saw the movie marquee and it said “Der Jude Suss.” We knew nothing about the film, we had never heard of it. We said, let’s go and see a German movie, see what they show. We saw the film and we left the theatre all deeply moved and I remember even now, how we sat long into the night talking about the movie. We thought we saw the greatest pro-Jewish film and anti-Nazi film. We could not understand how Germans could allow the film to be shown in occupied territories. We thought only the Jew in the film was portrayed as a human being and the Germans were portrayed as brutes and idiots. We told all our friends go see the film and they all thought the same.

While it is impossible to know when Jonas saw Jew Süss and with whom, it can be said that some 30 years later he remembered attending an explicitly anti-Semitic movie in German-occupied, soon to be ethnically-cleansed Lithuania and recalls that he and his friends deemed it a subversive celebration of Jewish humanity.

It is possible that Jonas and his friends so hated their German masters that the vampire-like Jew Süss appeared to them sympathetic. It was perhaps a goof for them to see a duplicitous Yid put one over, albeit temporarily, on the dumb Krauts. It is also possible that, at that moment, actual Jews were so abstract (or absent) for Jonas and friends that they freely ignored the movie’s objective. If such willful naïvete initially allowed Jonas to read Jew Süss against its intentions, he continued to do so.

Later, time went by, things changed. I found myself in the west. I remember reading in the papers about Veit Harlan. I remember reading about his trial, and I remember not understanding anything. How the hell can they try him for making “Der Jude Suss,” the most effective anti-Nazi film I ever saw?

How indeed? The war was over, millions of Jews were dead and the Nuremberg trials finally winding down. Had Jonas really learned nothing? In fact, Harlan was charged with crimes against humanity in 1949, exonerated by a Hamburg court and, even though his acquittal was reversed by a British court in 1950, able to resume his career. (Like Riefenstahl, he was an artist.)

I doubt Anthology Film Archives has ever shown this “most effective anti-Nazi film” but it has screened Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, a movie of which I would be fascinated to learn Jonas’s opinion. Lanzmann does not divide the world into poets and others. Shoah is largely a movie of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders, very few of whom even acknowledge their passive role in the extermination of the Jews. History decreed that Jonas would be one such bystander. Jews do not seem exist in his memories of Lithuania—nor do many exist there today.

I don’t judge Jonas. Almost all of us, each and every day, are bystanders to all manner of atrocities. During the occupation, Germans and Lithuanian nationalists murdered nearly 200,000 Lithuanian Jews—some of whom Jonas might have personally known. Yad Vashem lists approximately 900 Lithuanian “Righteous Among the Nations” who actively protected Jews. Some of the Righteous were killed by the Germans; others by their fellow Lithuanians. Jonas, then 20, was neither the best nor the worst. Who could ask this kid to risk his life? Or to fully understand the terror set loose on Lithuanian Jews. There were plenty of extenuating circumstances—youth, fear, the fog of war, concern for his family, perhaps the fact that, as a Protestant, Jonas was himself a member of a minority even less numerous than Lithuanian Jews.

Still, I would like to think that Jonas was haunted, if not traumatized, by the fact that while he found refuge in poetry (if refuge he found), thousands of his neighbors were slaughtered in the woods. Although Jonas’s heart-rending memoir I Had Nowhere to Go makes no direct mention of the Lithuanian Holocaust, Casper believes he has found evidence of trauma in Jonas’s writings. Some have taken this as an attempt to implicate Jonas in anti-Semitic violence. I hardly think so.

For the historian Casper, Mekas was a witness. He is not looking for evidence of guilt but knowledge of what took place. Mainly, he fails. (Not one Jew is remembered by name.) “I could not really relate to, emotionally, or understand rationally, the killing of Jews,” Mekas told Casper, “I live in a very tightly closed circle drawn around myself.” While such a failure of imagination might be fatal to a poet, lack of empathy is not a crime. It is, I’m afraid, an element of human nature—and that’s the aspect of Jonas Mekas with which I’m preoccupied now.

Best regards, Jim