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A LETTER WITHOUT WORDS

USA, 1998 (MIFF 1999, Documentaries)

Director: Lisa Lewenz

"A remarkable example of finding home movies in the attic that open a window on an entire world, A Letter Without Words provides a glimpse of Germany between the wars that is privileged in more than one sense of the word. Consisting mostly of footage taken by the present filmmaker's wealthy grandmother between 1914 and 1938, Lisa Lewenz's concise, highly evocative doco will fascinate anyone with an interest with 20th Century history.

"Ella Lewenz, born in 1883, was the daughter of an eminent Jewish banker and philanthropist. She was one of the first Germans to acquire a home movie camera, and one of the first bits of footage she filmed was scenes on the streets of Berlin on the very eve of the outbreak of World War I. As the years went by, Ella and her camera became inseparable, and, unlike most amateur filmers, she gained sufficient ambition and expertise to edit, title and date her work.

"Lisa's sense of discovery, both about her grandmother and herself, is intimately intertwined with the unveiling of the footage itself; raised Episcopalian, she didn't learn of her family's Jewish roots until she was 13, and never knew her grandmother. Paralleling the latter's diary with the film material, Lisa was able to crack open her family's legacy in regard to its German-Jewish identity, social standing wealth and historical symbolism.

"Although Goebbels, once in the government, banned all 'independent filmmaking', pointedly including home moviemaking, Ella carried on. Acquiring some of the first 16mm colour film, she took amazing shots of a Berlin suddenly draped in enormous and abundant red Nazi flags and banners, of sidewalks and plazas attended by gun-toting guards, of Mussolini's visit and other events. The transpositional moments in which Lisa sets up her camera in modern Berlin in exactly the same spots where her grandmother took pictures some six decades before are especially effective."

Todd McCarthy, Variety

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