"Out of and in focus" sheds light on an aspect of West German film history that is largely unknown. The exhibition deals with Jewish filmmakers who were sometimes on the fringes, sometimes at the center of film production in the Federal Republic. It explores the fragile lives of stars such as Lilli Palmer and Peter Lorre and traces the confrontations with West German society of film producers such as Artur Brauner and film directors such as Imo Moskowicz, Peter Lilienthal and Jeanine Meerapfel.
The exhibition is based on years of research by film scholars Lea Wohl von Haselberg and Johannes Praetorius-Rhein, who also incorporate their work from the research network "German-Jewish Film History".
Excerpt from the two-channel video installation "Gegen/Stimmen" (2023) by director Ruth Olshan, in which current filmmakers speak about their experiences.
Out of and in Focus
Being in and out of focus serves as a metaphor for the respective visibility or invisibility of Jewish points of view in German film history. This question of visibility forms the subject of the exhibition’s first room, which serves both as its beginning and end; another focus is the attribution of Jewish identity (imposed from without). In a commissioned film, producer and director Ruth Olshan has recorded a wide range of contemporary filmmakers talking about what it means to ascribe the term “Jewish.”
In the mid- to late 1940s, Jewish movie producers, among them Artur Brauner, Gyula Trebitsch, and Walter Koppel, presented new films to German audiences. They’d returned to Germany as survivors, and in films such as Arche Nora (1948) and Morituri (1948), made the Shoah the subject of their cinematic work. Their brilliant careers ensured their place in the national narrative of reconstruction and economic miracle.
The German title of the 1948 feature film “Die Todgeweihten” (The Doomed) says it all: it’s World War II, and five prisoners manage to escape from a Nazi concentration camp. In a forest, they meet a group of families in hiding and join them to wait for the Soviet army in the hopes of being rescued. When the group captures a German Wehrmacht soldier, they hold an improvised trial and deliberate over the soldier’s life. The poster’s design is based on the idea that films can be monuments.
Filmstill from the movie Morituri, 1948
Headlights and Blinkers
In the early years of the Federal Republic, talk of Jewish filmmakers’ “international experience” acted as a code to conceal their background of flight and exile. At the same time, this euphemistic formulation offered Jewish filmmakers a real opportunity: alleged or real contacts abroad boosted their careers in West Germany, where the film industry hungered for international recognition. Lilli Palmer’s career had flourished in exile, and she became one of the most popular film stars of the 1950s. Peter Lorre, on the other hand, was unable to build on his success in the Weimar Republic, either in Hollywood or in the early Federal Republic. The films Feuerwerk (Fireworks, 1954) and Der Verlorene (The Lost Man, 1951) feature the two actors in their first roles following their return to Germany.
Lilli Palmer returned to Germany from the US as a celebrated film star. The film Feuerwerk (1954) also proved to be a huge success.
While Peter Lorre was unable to reproduce the success he’d enjoyed during the Weimar Republic in films like M. Eine Stadt sucht den Mörder (M, 1931), he proved his skill as a character actor in later films, such as Der Verlorene (1951).
Neither Stage nor Screen—Welcome to Television!
When television emerged as a new mass medium, it had an affinity to theater but was in competition with cinema: early TV plays were often static, reminiscent of filmed theater productions. Hence, for theater directors such as Imo Moszkowicz, the path from stage to television studio was not very far. Although they hadn’t come by the established educational routes, newcomers like Karl Fruchtmann and young filmmakers like Peter Lilienthal were also able to gain a foothold here. The horror of the Shoah is palpable in some of these early TV productions, although the great freedom the medium afforded in its earliest days was rarely used by Jewish television directors for explicit or confrontational commemorative projects. The films Striptease (1963) and Mein Freund Harvey (My Friend Harvey, 1959) are film adaptations of plays.
Lost in the Family Constellation of German Film
The Oberhausen Manifesto clearly formulated the break between post-war cinema and New German Film as a generational conflict, the end of “Papa’s cinema.” The positions Jewish actors took in this conflict varied. Artur Brauner appeared as an example of “Papa’s cinema,” but declared himself uncomfortable in the role, while remigrants like Erwin Leiser were accepted as teachers. Filmmakers such as Peter Lilienthal and Jeanine Meerapfel did not feel the generational conflict in the same way and remained to a certain extent marginalized, but found cinematic forms of expression for their positions in auteur films. In the feature film Malatesta (1969), Lilienthal portrayed the Italian anarchist Enrico Malatesta in London exile. Jeanine Meerapfel’s Die Verliebten (Days to Remember, 1987) portrays an encounter between a German with Nazi ancestry and a daughter of so-called “guest workers” who is also in search of her family.
It Was My Pleasure
Film still from the series "Der ganz normale Wahnsinn", 1979, Bayerischer Rundfunk
Poster photography for "Der Durchdreher", 1979, Constantin Film
Shot on the set of the feature film "Es war mir ein Vergnügen", 1963, Credit: Private estate Imo Moszkowicz, (seated in front from left to right: Axel von Ambesser, Esther Ofarim, Imo Moszkowicz, standing behind Abi Ofarim).
Gerhard Löwenthal im Studio, 1985 © ZDF, Arthur Grimm
Of Masks and Mirrors—Circumstances Surrounding the Memory Boom
When the Holocaust series was broadcast in 1979, it was a turning point in the audiovisual culture of remembrance. This not only marked the beginning of a period in which the mass murder that had taken place was finally recognized; it also meant a coming to terms with history, in which film and photography were to be the main media. Against this background, Jewish filmmakers received new offers for roles and were now publicly perceived, together with their personal biographies and family histories. They reacted in different ways to this new visibility and the function they suddenly had in a West German commemorative culture. In Der Passagier (The Passenger, 1989), Thomas Brasch formulated an ironic, self-reflective commentary on the task assigned to Jewish directors to come to terms with the cinematic past. In 1969, Karl Fruchtmann shot Kaddisch nach einem Lebenden (Kaddisch for the Living) in Israel for German television, but did not make his autobiography or his own story of persecution the subject of his films.
An diverse program will take place during the exhibition. You can find all events here.
The exhibition is presented in cooperation with the DFF - Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum and the Institute for Theater, Film and Media Studies at the Goethe University Frankfurt and is based on a cooperation with the Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf.
We would like to thank the following for their kind support of the exhibition, catalog and accompanying program:
Hessian Cultural Foundation
Georg and Franziska Speyer'sche University Foundation
Hannelore Krempa Foundation
Society of Friends and Sponsors of the Jewish Museum e.V.
Jewish Museum Frankfurt
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