Lewis Gittler Brought Refugee Lives to Screen

Decade Before 'Exodus, 'The Earth Cries Out' Told Heroic Tale

By Suzanne Ruta

Published September 28, 2012, issue of October 05, 2012.
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On the beach at Normandy, Gittler and his good friend, Italo-American Albert Salvatori, swore that if they survived, they would make a film together. In 1947, a stay in Paris filled them with stories of the Exodus, providing them with the subject for their film. The two men chose Italy as the locale, expecting no interference from censors. They signed on with Lux Films, a company founded by Riccardo Gualino. A resolute anti-fascist, Gualino would later launch the careers of Carlo Ponti and Dino deLaurentis.

“Don’t call the film ‘Exodus,’” some relatives warned, according to Wendy Gittler. “No one will go to see it with a name like that.”

The film tells of Dr. Tannen, an Austrian surgeon and Auschwitz survivor who sails to Palestine from Bari. His son awaits him in Palestine. Traveling with him is his son’s fiancée, a survivor of sexual abuse at Auschwitz. A brave and stalwart Genoese sea captain outwits the British blockade and lands his shipload of refugees safely at their destination. Palestine on-screen was actually the dry hills behind Bari. On a kibbutz, three young men, former comrades in arms in the battle to defeat the Nazis in Italy, meet again as mortal enemies: an Irgun terrorist, a British soldier loyal to the Crown and a member of the Haganah who abjures violence. The poor old doctor and his young traveling companion watch, horrorstruck, as the three men meet their fates. The future beckons through the gloom.

Tullio Pinelli, who later co-wrote Frederico Fellini’s greatest works — “La Strada,” “I Vitelloni” and “La Dolce Vita,” among others — contributed to the storyline of the film. Carlo Levi, whose “Christ Stopped at Eboli” had just been published, and Alessandro Fersen, an important figure in postwar Jewish theater, were also involved. Writer Meyer Levin, Gittler’s longtime friend and fellow Chicago native, contributed ideas. Jewish ethnomusicologist Leo Levi was enlisted to teach the cast Hebrew folk songs.

But the documentary approach was strictly that of Lewis Gittler, the journalist and trained military intelligence record keeper. His daughter still has reams, single-spaced on onionskin paper, of his wartime writings. As an eyewitness to slaughter, he sought solace in writing long, unsparing letters to his wife in New York.

Shot in black and white, with a mixed cast of professional actors and “real people” in gritty outdoor locations in Rome and southern Italy, “The Earth Cries Out” has the convincing, intimately human look, if not the loose structure, of its neo-realist contemporaries.


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