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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Director Duilio Coletti and male romantic lead Andrea Checchi were well-known veterans of Fascist-era film. But the cast consisted of mostly non-actors. In fact, Jewish refugees, Holocaust survivors from Central and Eastern Europe, were interned in a camp outside Bari, waiting to emigrate. Because of heavy bureaucracy, they had to be smuggled out of the camp in order to play the role of refugees about to be smuggled into Palestine.

“I wanted to let the facts speak,” Lewis Gittler said on the occasion of the film’s first showing in the United States, in New York during the summer of 1949. He aimed to present the positions of the British colonist, the Irgun terrorist and the Haganah soldier with maximum clarity and accuracy. For a scene in which an Irgun terrorist is tried in a Palestinian court for planting a bomb at British military headquarters, Gittler managed to get a hold of the records of Mandate military trials and culled them for quotes.

In search of authentic dialogue for a bitter argument between the Irgun terrorist and the nonviolent Haganah member, Gittler and Salvatori invited representatives of the two warring Jewish factions to dinner at a restaurant in Rome. The two groups, not generally on speaking terms, were ready to get up and walk out. Salvatori, playing the diplomat, convinced them that that would look bad in front of the other diners. They sat down and waited until the crowd thinned out, and then pursued their argument, “the same battle between opposing philosophical and political positions” that are fought in Israel today, Wendy Gittler notes.

When “The Earth Cries Out” opened near Times Square in August 1949, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times gave it a mixed review but conceded that “the countless ‘bit’ players and extras, many of them actual soldiers and émigrés, are wonderfully vivid and authentic. The integrity of the picture owes much to them.” Note the delicate use of the word “émigrés” for refugees, displaced persons and concentration camp survivors.

Gittler never made another full-length film. In 1949, after returning to the United States with his family, he worked in public relations, traveled widely and collected 20th-century European art. He made a few short documentaries, including one about Konrad Adenauer’s friendship with the Austrian painter Oscar Kokoschka. He created a magazine, German Cultural Review, for the German Information Center, his last employer. Gittler died in 1974, at the age of 60.

Wendy Gittler talks about the film with passion and filial piety, as if it were her father’s autobiography: “It’s the culmination of my father’s years in Europe. After experiencing the rise of Hitler, anti-Semitism, the Nazi mind as revealed in the interrogation of German POWs, after plowing through battlefields strewn with corpses, after the death camp. His film about the struggle for the creation of a Jewish state came out of his own heart.”

Suzanne Ruta is translator, book critic, and author of the novel ‘To Algeria, With Love’ (Virago, 2012).


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