June 23, 1909|
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, United States
|Died||January 18, 1991 (aged 81)
Manhattan, New York City, New York, United States
|Alma mater||Harvard University|
Leo Hurwitz (June 23, 1909 – January 18, 1991) was an American documentary filmmaker. Among the films he directed were Native Land and Verdict for Tomorrow, the Emmy Award- and Peabody Award-winning film of the Eichmann trial. He was blacklisted during the McCarthy period for his strong left-wing political beliefs.
Born to Russian immigrants, Hurwitz grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. His siblings included dancer Sophia Delza and psychoanalyst Marie Briehl. He saw his first film at the age of four. Mesmerized by this medium of expression, he subsequently immersed himself in it. While in high school, he discovered the Harvard Club scholarship and decided to sit for the exam. Highly gifted and hard working, Hurwitz won the scholarship and attended Harvard University.
Although he graduated summa cum laude, he was not granted an international merit-based fellowship for which he'd applied. His tutor, among others, attributed this rejection to his Jewish roots. Despite his great achievements and education, Hurwitz then struggled to secure employment during the Great Depression. In his first few postgraduate years, he was the editor of New Theater Magazine and cameraman and co-writer of the acclaimed film The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) among others.
Workers Film and Photo League and Nykino
Eventually, Hurwitz discovered the Workers Film and Photo League. The League, created in March 1930, included directors and photographers such as Paul Strand, Irving Lerner, Willard Van Dyke, Ralph Steiner, Lionel Berman, Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers, Jay Leyda, and Lewis Jacobs. The organization was formed in the midst of the Depression and in response to the widespread social and economic disparities and despair of the era. There was a wealth of young intellectuals who, regardless of their education, had no outlet for their creativity. Between 1931 and 1934, there was an enormous increase in workers' art movements across the US. Dozens of leagues formed to support dancers, artists, and eventually filmmakers whose roots were in the working class. Some evidence exists that relates the establishment of these leagues to a Soviet Union-led initiative to promote art as a valuable weapon against oppression. These budding artists were spurred into expression by a need to reflect the world around them; but more, they desired to change the world. Although the Film and Photo League did provide a creative outlet, its main goal wasn’t artistic, and many of the filmmakers aimed to provoke audiences through their work without much regard to the aesthetic value of their films.
Disregard for film aesthetics was something that Hurwitz opposed; after studying the techniques employed by many of the Soviet filmmakers of the time, Hurwitz recognized the importance of editing and the complex beauty of the juxtaposition of shots (in filmic montage) to convey an otherwise undecipherable message. Hurwitz joined together with a few other members of the League to create Nykino, an organization that strove to use artistic measures to appeal to audiences while still conveying a meaningful message.
The formation of Nykino was not well received by the League, many of whose members saw the group as elitist, and veering away from the mission of the Workers Film and Photo League. The formation of Nykino also came while the League itself was in decline. As Nykino continued growing and attracting new filmmakers, the League faded to obscurity. Nykino, in producing films that emphasized aesthetic beauty in the interest of affecting audiences, allowed Hurwitz to create a new method of storytelling unlike that of conventional American films of the time.
In 1936, Nykino transformed into Hurwitz’s co-founded company, Frontier Films, the first nonprofit documentary production company in the United States. Whilst at Frontier Films, Hurwitz made "Heart of Spain", a film on the Spanish Civil War and "Native Land" about American labor struggles of the 1930s. In World War II, Mr. Hurwitz worked on films for the Office of War Information, the British Information Service and other Government agencies. After the war, in the early days of commercial television, he was a producer-director and chief of news and special events for CBS television. In 1947 he produced "Strange Victory," a documentary that dealt with racism in the United States after the war. The film won awards at the Karlovy Vary and Venice Film Festivals.
In the 1950s and 1960s, while blacklisted for his strong left-wing political beliefs, he continued to work as an independent film maker and, without credit, co-produced, directed and edited several segments for the "Omnibus" series on CBS.
In 1961, he directed the television coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, whose summary program, "Verdict for Tomorrow," won Emmy and Peabody Awards. From 1964 to 1966 he made a group of films for National Educational Television, including "Essay on Death," dealing with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, "The Sun and Richard Lippold" and "In Search of Hart Crane."
From 1969 to 1974 he was professor of film and chairman of the Graduate Institute of Film and Television at New York University. His work has been the subject of several retrospectives showings, including ones at the Museum of Modern Art, the Public Theater and the Cinemathique Francaise in Paris. At his death he was working on a script for a film on the abolitionist John Brown.
In the mid-1960s he and six other directors brought a lawsuit against the Directors Guild of America that resulted in a United States Supreme Court decision forcing the guild to remove a loyalty oath from its membership application.
- Dialogue with a Woman Departed (1981)
- Verdict for Tomorrow (1961)
- The Museum and the Fury (1956)
- Strange Victory (1947)
- Native Land (1942)
- "364 F. 2d 67 - Hurwitz v. Directors Guild of America Incorporated". openjurist.org. Retrieved January 21, 2015.
- Fowler, Glenn (January 19, 1991). "Leo Hurwitz, 81, Blacklisted Maker Of Documentaries". The New York Times. New York: NYTC. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 22 November 2014.
- "Filming the Eichmann Trial". UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies. 2009. Retrieved 22 November 2014.
- UCLA International Institute Videos