Film producer and distributor Ben Barenholtz, who spent his youth hiding from Nazis in the Ukrainian woods and grew up to popularize midnight movie screenings, died June 27 at a Prague hospital. He was 83.
His death was reported by his executor, Sony Pictures Classics executive Tom Prassis, who said that Barenholtz, who had been living in Prague since last year, passed in his sleep surrounded by friends.
A champion of offbeat filmmakers like David Lynch and the Coen Brothers, Barenholtz operated two prominent New York theaters beginning in the late ‘50s. In December 1970, at his second theater, the Elgin Cinema in Chelsea, Barenholtz broke with a longstanding movie house convention by screening Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” at 12:00 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays, with 1 a.m. screenings on Friday and Saturday nights.
Something told Barenholtz that Jodorowsky’s bloody and subversive flick — described as an “Acid Western” and featuring a cast of performers with dwarfism and physical deformities — would play well to New York kids looking for a different kind of late-night recreation.
Barenholtz’s hunch proved correct. Crowds packed the Elgin and lines formed around the block. It helped that Barenholtz let his patrons smoke marijuana in the theater.
The film ended its exclusive run at the Elgin when none other than John Lennon, having seen the movie there, got Beatles manager Allen Klein to buy the rights. Barenholtz was gifted another ripe-for-midnight film in 1972 with John Waters’s “Pink Flamingos,” which infamously ends with the drag queen Divine consuming dog excrement.
“The movies were told in a way that was further out,” Barenholtz told The New York Times in 1995 of his curation of made-for-midnight fare, “where you felt that if you showed it through the normal channels it would be impossible for it to get a normal audience.” Other area theaters soon picked up on the trend with cult hits like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
While Barenholtz was a patron of youth culture, his own childhood was disrupted by world events. Born Berl Barenholz in Kovel, Poland in October 5, 1935 to Aaron, a timber merchant, and Paula, a homemaker. The New York Times reports his family fled the ghetto, in what is now the Ukraine, in 1942 when occupying Nazis and Ukrainian nationalists began to murder the area’s Jews.
At eight years old, Barenholz took refuge with a family of Polish farmers who sheltered Jews in a barn. He, his parents and older brother, Rubin, lived with seven others splitting their time between the farm and different outposts in the woods, a history Barenholtz recounted in a series of blog posts from 2010.
The Barenholzes survived as a unit until March 15, 1943. On that day, Aaron was murdered during a raid by Ukrainian fascists. Berl was next to him at the time.
“Yes, it was a horrible thing that I went through,” Barenholtz told The Times in 2017. “But it’s not unique — a lot of people went through it. I’m not special. I’m certainly an atheist, a convinced atheist. I’m alive because the Ukrainian who was shooting at me was probably drunk.”
Berl managed to escape to an Austrian refugee camp and left for America with his mother in 1947 while Rubin left for Palestine. It was in New York that he began working in film, starting as an assistant manager at the RKO Theater in Bushwick in 1958. Barenholtz’s energy proved too big for Brooklyn, where he came of age.
Throughout the late ‘50s to the early ‘60s he resided in Greenwich Village and worked odd jobs as a bartender, carpenter, house painter and postal worker in between social drinks with artists Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline at the Cedar Tavern. He made his return to movie management in 1966, running Village Theater, known for screening classic and cult films.
Shortly after he made a name for himself with midnight movies at the Elgin, where he started in 1968, Barenholtz expanded into distribution, launching Libra Films. While the company began with revivals of films like Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Les Enfants Terribles” and Claude Chabrol’s “Just Before Nightfall,” it made its biggest impact with untested auteurs.
In 1977, Barenholtz took a chance on a young visual artist named David Lynch, who was completing his first feature film: “Eraserhead.” Barenholtz not only agreed to distribute the movie, he put Lynch up in his New York apartment while he was tweaking the final print. Lynch stayed for two months until he got the black-and-white film’s darkness to his liking.
“Ben saved my life in films,” Lynch said in 2010 in a video tribute delivered at the Hamptons Film Festival. “To oversee getting a good print, Ben gave me a room in his house. He gave me money to get food. He said I only ate McDonalds and only drank coffee. Thank you, Ben. You deserve awards.”
In 2016, Barenholtz received recognition in the form of the Berlinale Camera award from the Berlinale Film Festival to honor his contributions to the independent film.
Barenholtz earned the award through his own good taste, backing films that went on to win Oscar nominations. In the 1980s, shortly after selling Libra, Barenholtz began producing films. Among his prospects were a pair of Jewish brothers hailing from Minnesota who asked him to sponsor their first full-length project. Barenholtz agreed to distribute the film: 1985’s “Blood Simple.” His support for the brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen, didn’t end there. He helped to finance their follow-up, “Raising Arizona,” and was an executive producer on “Miller’s Crossing” and “Barton Fink.”
“Ben was our guide,” Joel Coen said in his part of the tribute at the Hamptons Film Festival. “He taught us to take work seriously and that you can have fun doing it.”
Ethan Coen echoed the sentiment, adding, “Our first two deals with Ben set an example and standard for integrity that we haven’t seen matched since.”
Later years would see Barenholtz’s name on the credits to Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” and horror masterGeorge A. Romero’s “Bruiser.” By the 2000s, Barenholtz was producing films he had made himself.
His first foray was “Music Inn,” a 2007 documentary about the titular Massachusetts inn that hosted performances from Alan Lomax, Pete Seger and Woody Guthrie. Another documentary, “Wakaliwood: The Documentary,” about a filmmaker who lives in the Ugandan slums in Kampala followed in 2012. His first narrative feature, “Alina,” was released in 2017 and told the story of a Russian woman who leaves her Moscow home to find her father in New York City — Barenholtz financed the film himself.
“At my age, how could I ask someone for money?,” Barenholtz, then 82, told The Times. “They’d laugh at me.”
Prassis told The New York Times that “Alina” was meant to prepare Barenholtz for a more personal project, a film called “Aaron,” about his father’s death and his time in hiding, a subject he only began to speak about in 2010 with his blog posts. It’s unclear how much progress Barenholtz had made on the film before his passing.
Barenholtz continued to work and stay nimble until the end. While doing press for “Alina” he explained part of the reason for his continued industry: “People started bugging me about retirement, which pissed me off.”
Barenholtz is survived by his brother, Rubin, who lives in Israel. His finances are to be donated to children’s charities.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.