FilmMaterialien 6 - Paul Dessau.


Von Mildred Norton

In: Unbekannte amerikanische Zeitung, 1948,
(Ausschnitt aus dem Paul-Dressau-Archiv der Akademie der Künste, Berlin)

The refuge many of Europe's displaced children have found in Palestine is the subject of a privately made film, the English title of which is EARTH, filmed in Palestine and about to be distributed in this country through the agency of the Hadassah organization.

Documentary in treatment, it was produced by Dr. Siegfried Lehmann, a school teacher in a small village on the Arabian border, and photographed by the Swiss photographer Helmar Lerski, who has lived in Palestine since the advent of Hitler in Germany.

The actors are the children themselves, flotsam from the concentration camps of Europe, who were learning to forget their memories of terror, in the safety of the schoolroom, healthful toil in the fields and the normal fun of normal children. The story of all is dramatized by the gradual rehabilitation of one boy from a repressed, antisocial being to a hale young teen-ager.

Midway of the film, the village is threatened by attack and the children are forced to leave their classroom and fields, taking their few farming implements on the long journey by truck to the »Hill of Youth« (Aliyah) established as another sanctuary in a bleak and rocky terrain.

At once they set to work clearing the land of huge boulders to enable them to plant the necessary foodstuffs, and the slow accomplishment of this heart-breaking task lends documented proof of their unswervable purpose.

The complete film, except for a prologue made in this country, was flown here and cut down to average running time in the laboratories of Consolidated Pictures. A narration was provided, spoken by radio commentator Sam Balter, and a 35-minute musical score was written by Paul Dessau.

Craftsmanlike score

Although he worked under stringent conditions, with three weeks to compose the score and 10 hours to record it, Dessau incorporated several fine craftsmanlike touches into his musical background. One of the most impressive is a five minute passacaglia in three-quarter time which Dessau fabricated upon a 4/4 marching motive. The original theme, Dessau is careful to point out, was given him by a Mr. Eisenstadt, the music teacher of the village school, who also provided the film's theme song, based on the Hebrew »Adamah«, meaning »Earth«.

For his passacaglia, Dessau was faced with an unwieldy motivic length of 16 bars, a problem he solved neatly by folding back the last eight measures on top of the first, using them as a counter melody through the five variations he wove upon the original theme.

This provides the background music for the sequence in which the boys and girls clear the land of boulders, carrying out the feeling of monotonous, heavy toil and providing also, by its reiterated motif, a unifying framework for scenes that are necessarily disjunctive.

A disciple of the 12-tone-technique, Dessau found effective use for this in another five minute sequence during which the film's chief character, the »problem boy« from Buchenwald, is haunted by visions of the tortures he witnessed there and frantically tears down the barbed wire enclosing the school gardens form the livestock in a delirium of memories.

This is the only place in the film where the 12-tone system is used, however owing to the short time Dessau had to write his score, and the difficulty such organically involved music poses both to the creator and the performers. For this sequence it is extremely effective, heightening the emotional tension of the scene immeasurably. For the film's final sequence, Dessau utilized a traditional Hebrew hymn, meaning »Hope«, from which he made an inverted canon, using the bass as an inversion of the melody.

Classical fragments

Also present in the film is a fragment of Mozart's A-Minor Quartet, which the boy repudiates as the kind of music which served to muffle the screams of the tortured in the concentration camp. He finds his first gleam of solace, however, in the sight of a group of children playing Haydn's »Children's Symphony«, and from then on his difficulty begins to vanish.

For the 10 hours' recording time permitted him, Dessau had several top-flight players from the Philharmonic, while a children's chorus under Roger Wagner provided the vocal sequences.

Lerski, who cranked the camera, is a 78-year-old Swiss whom Dessau met in Paris several years ago. While much of the film has the gauntness of documentary treatment, Lerski's ingenious touches are frequently evident. He once photographed the features of a single man in 150 different poses and holds the somewhat Lockeian belief that »where the light falls on a man, that is he«.

Next month Dessau is going to Europe to conduct several of his works in Paris at the invitation of Rene Leibowitz, the French disciple of the Schoenberg system. While abroad, Dessau will also visit Bertolt Brecht, the poet now in Switzerland, who has collaborated with him on an oratorio.

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