A remarkable example of finding home movies in the attic that open a window on an entire world, “A Letter Without Words” provides a glimpse of Germany between the wars that is privileged in more than one sense of the word. Consisting mostly of footage taken by the present filmmaker’s wealthy grandmother between 1914 and 1938, Lisa Lewenz’s concise, highly evocative docu will fascinate anyone with an interest in 20th-century history and, despite its hourlong running time, could find limited theatrical and special-interest bookings before PBS broadcast and video release.
Ella Lewenz, born in 1883, was the daughter of an eminent Jewish banker and philanthropist whose German roots went back some 300 years. Ella was one of the first Germans to acquire a home movie camera, and one of the first bits of footage she filmed was the scene on the streets of Berlin on the very eve of the outbreak of World War I.
As the years went by, Ella and her camera became inseparable, and, unlike most amateur filmers, she gained sufficient ambition and expertise to edit, title and date her work, which came in very handy for her granddaughter Lisa when the latter discovered the cache in 1981 and began delving into it.
Lisa’s sense of discovery, both about her grandmother and herself, is intimately intertwined with the unveiling of the footage itself; raised Episcopalian, she didn’t learn of her family’s Jewish roots until she was 13, and never knew her grandmother. Paralleling the latter’s diary with the film material, Lisa was able to crack open her family’s legacy in regard to its German-Jewish identity, social standing, wealth and historical symbolism.
To the extent that the “finding your roots” genre has become rather overworked in contempo docus, this thread emerges as the least interesting, or certainly most conventional, in the picture. But then, how could it not, given the mesmerizing footage her grandmother shot. In 1929, Ella filmed a gathering of eminent Jews, among them Einstein and Gropius. There are candid glimpses of actress Brigitte Helm and author Gerhardt Hauptmann, travelogue material of Venice, Egypt and the Alps. So obsessed does Lisa become to glean every bit of info possible from the footage that she engages a lip-reader to translate what Ella’s photographic subjects were saying.
But, inevitably, the most haunting images are those of Nazi Germany. Some time before 1933, the film explains, future propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels moved into the home next to the Lewenz’s country house and inquired if he could use their tennis court. Politely pointing out that he might not want to avail himself of the hospitality of Jews, the Lewenzes from then on felt the slow encroachment of the Nazis in their lives. But, their identities as Germans having apparently been at least as strong as their religious ones, they stayed on, except for Lisa’s father, who left in 1935 for the U.S.
Although Goebbels, once in the government, banned all “independent filmmaking ,” pointedly including home moviemaking, Ella carried on. Acquiring some of the first 16mm color film, she took amazing shots of a Berlin suddenly draped in enormous and abundant red Nazi flags and banners, of sidewalks and plazas attended by gun-toting guards, of Mussolini’s visit and other events.
By late 1938, when villages were festooned with signs announcing, “Jews not welcome,” the message finally got through, and some of the final shots Ella took in Germany are of the moving van being packed up for the voyage out.
Subsequent Gotham footage again shows Einstein, this time at the 1939 world’s fair, and postwar material includes glimpses of a devastated Germany Ella took on a late-’40s visit. Ella died in 1954, and deeply reflective concluding section offers a recording of Lisa’s father admitting his “mistake” of abandoning his birth religion, as well as frank admissions by her Jewish relatives that, had they been on the “other” side, they doubt they would have had the moral courage to swim against the Nazi tide.
Film is technically fine, and transpositional moments in which Lisa sets up her camera in modern Berlin in exactly the same spots where her grandmother took pictures some six decades before are especially effective.