The Jewish Film That History Overlooked

Meyer Levin's 1948 film 'The Illegals' became an unsung inspiration for 'Exodus' and other movies about Jews' frantic efforts to reach pre-state Israel.

In July 1947, journalist and author Meyer Levin followed from afar the affair of the Exodus, the ship that illegally ferried Jewish refugees to pre-state Israel. Levin, an American Jew who was one of the first journalists to set foot in Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, was living in New York at the time. He was glued to the reports about the ship and its 4,500 passengers. These people, after the months-long exhausting journey that followed years of indescribable suffering, were not allowed to enter British Mandatory Palestine and were forcibly returned to Germany.

Levin decided to create a film documenting the journeys of displaced Jews. Levin had never directed a film, but that didn't stop him. He set out for Europe and created a cinematic document of historical importance and impressive quality.

The Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive

The filming of "The Illegals," which Levin wrote, directed and produced, began toward the end of 1947. He raised money and put together a small film crew that spent months traveling throughout Europe. They accompanied hundreds of displaced Jews who had set out on a long and arduous journey; they documented them crossing through countries, stealing across borders, crowding into dusty trucks and forbidding trains, hiding from soldiers and spending many days on an illegal immigrant ship.

Two fictional characters - Sara and Mika, a young Jewish couple - are expecting a child and head for pre-state Israel hoping their child will be born there. The fictional part of the narrative blurs the boundaries between feature and documentary filmmaking. Not only were the two actors full partners to the real-life refugees' journey during the seven months of filming, some of the displaced persons, Holocaust survivors, lent a hand and acted in scenes.

The Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive

"This isn't an ordinary feature film - only rarely will a feature achieve the high tension of this film. This isn't an ordinary documentary - only rarely will a documentary be on a subject as sublime," gushed a review of "The Illegals" in the now-defunct newspaper Davar. These words were written in June 1950, when the film was screened in Israeli movie theaters.

Still, the film wasn't a success at the time. Today, Friday, January 20, the film will be screened at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque at an event held in cooperation with the journal Takriv and the Israeli Documentary Filmmakers Forum.

Director's cut

Film historian Ariel Schweitzer, who will speak about the movie at the event, says that for years "The Illegals" had been "emasculated." From the original 73-minute version, Levin edited a 55-minute version in the 1960s, commissioned by the Jewish Agency. It came out in four languages: Hebrew, English, French and Spanish. Now Schweitzer will present the uncut version.

Over the decades, most Israeli film critics have treated "The Illegals" mainly as historical material. "Unfortunately, over the years the reading of this film became only a sociological and ideological reading, much more than aesthetic discourse," says Schweitzer.

According to Tereska Torres, Levin's wife for many years and the lead actress in "The Illegals," "When my husband made up his mind to make the film he went to the 'Americans for the Haganah' organization in New York and tried to persuade them to give him some money to make the film.

"They told him this would be an impossible mission. They told him: They'll arrest you, you won't be able to film them the whole time, you won't be able to cross borders and you definitely won't be able to board the ship. But he persisted and convinced them. They gave him some money and no less important, they gave him a list of connections: Haganah people around Europe organizing the immigration operations."

With his list of contacts and the money ($35,000, according to Davar in 1958 ), Levin set out for Europe. To star in the film, he recruited two French Jews. One was Torres, a young veteran of Gen. Charles de Gaulle's London-based Free French Forces whom Levin had known for years and to whom he had recently proposed marriage. The other was Jacob (Yankel ) Mikalovitch, a young man who was living in Paris and taking care of Jewish orphans who had survived the war.

"Meyer told me about the project, and I agreed immediately," says Torres, who was born in 1920, by telephone from her home in Paris. "The adventure appealed to me and I wanted to learn about the situation in Palestine at the time. I realized that if a Jewish state arose there, a film like that would be an extraordinarily important historical document."

They began filming in Poland. In an early scene, Sara and Mika arrive in Warsaw and walk around. They reach the area where the city's Jewish ghetto had been. What used to be buildings were now only endless hills of stone and rubble. Mika climbs up one of those hills and looks around. The camera reveals huge expanses of destruction and ruins. The silent soundtrack underscores the obliteration.

"I decided that the plot in my film would be flexible so it could adapt to the biographies of the refugees: A young couple who married in a camp return to Poland to see whether they could renew Jewish life," Levin wrote in Maariv in June 1950. "Then the woman finds out she's pregnant and they decide their child will be born in the Land of Israel. I thought this deed would represent the history of all Europe's Jews. The dialogues I prepared for the film were in effect an echo of conversations with a dozen pregnant women: 'A child? Not here.'"

In Poland, Levin made contact with people from organizations, including the Haganah, that were smuggling displaced Jews to pre-state Israel.

"We didn't follow any one specific group but rather a number of different groups of displaced persons," says Torres. "When you watch the film there's a feeling it's the story of one group of immigrants making their way to the Land of Israel, but actually that was impossible, because it often took a group like that about a year to complete the journey. So in every country we came to we filmed the illegal immigrants who were there at the time. The role of the two actors in the film was to create the sense that it was about one group of illegal immigrants."

According to Schweitzer, Levin "realized that the magnitude of the destruction and killing in Europe had been so huge that for viewers at the time it might have been incomprehensible. So he thought a fictional story would let the viewer identify with one specific couple, with a love story that included an element of suspense." (Mika gets arrested at one stage of the journey and the couple is reunited only on the illegal immigrant ship. )

Levin, who was born in Chicago in 1905, began his career as a journalist and first became renowned for his coverage of the Leopold and Loeb affair involving two Jewish students who in 1924 murdered a 14-year-old boy in Chicago in an attempt to commit the perfect crime. (Three decades later, he was to write a best-selling novel about the crime, "Compulsion," which was made into a film as well, starring Orson Welles. )

When he was 22, Levin set out for Mandatory Palestine and spent half a year here at Kibbutz Yagur. Over the years he often wrote about Jewish issues. He and Torres, who also became a writer, married in 1948 and divided their time between the United States, Europe and Israel.

In 1972, The Los Angeles Times called Levin the most important Jewish writer of his day. Norman Mailer said Levin was one of the best American authors writing in the realist tradition. Ernest Hemingway said Levin's book "Citizens" (1940 ) was one of the best American novels he had ever read.

During World War II, Levin covered the events in Europe for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and was one of the first American journalists to write about the Holocaust. In 1946 he wrote the script for a feature film; "My Father's House," which was filmed in the pre-state Israel and directed by the American Herbert Kline. With a plot about the absorption of an orphan Holocaust survivor in Israel, it was one of the first full-length feature films in the history of Israeli cinema.

Levin was one of the first Americans to have read "The Diary of Anne Frank." He reviewed it in The New York Times, published an interview with Anne's father, Otto Frank, and received permission from him to adapt the diary into a play. The play went into rehearsals on Broadway but was never performed there because Levin quarreled with Otto Frank, who gave permission to two other playwrights, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, to write their own theatrical adaptation of the diary. Their version became a huge hit, and is still performed today.

The affair of the adaptation of Anne Frank's diary plagued Levin. The legal battle between him and Otto Frank lasted more than 20 years. Levin was highly critical that Goodrich and Hackett's play was a "universal" version of Anne Frank's story and eliminated nearly every Jewish element in the story.

In 1966, Levin's own Anne Frank play, with a Jewish and Zionist angle, was finally performed onstage: This happened in Israel, at Beit Hahayal in Tel Aviv, in a production directed by Peter Frye. The production was a big success, but after only 50 performances Otto Frank's lawyers brought the curtain down. Levin wrote two books based on the affair, "The Fanatic" (1964 ) and the autobiographical "The Obsession" (1972 ), in which he claimed that communists had encouraged Otto Frank to turn against his play.

Levin died in Jerusalem in 1981 at 76. In his autobiographical book "In Search," which he published in 1949, Levin wrote that the work on "The Illegals" was the richest and most rewarding experience in his life.

Torres says that throughout filming, Levin, the two actors and the cameramen became absorbed in the lives of the DPs they were accompanying. "We lived exactly like they did, in the same conditions," she says. "We ate with them, slept with them, were together with them on the ship. I don't remember finding this difficult. I mainly remember it as a great adventure."

Sometimes they had to reconstruct events for the film. "Thus, for example, when we were crossing a border with a group of illegal immigrants, one of the Haganah people said to them: 'Hurry, get rid of all your papers now," recalls Torres.

"Meyer wanted to film the original event as it was happening, but the Haganah man who gave the order didn't agree to be filmed. He explained that if hostile elements confiscated the film, someone might identify him as one of the organizers of the operation. So we had to reconstruct the scene in front of the camera, and Meyer himself played the Haganah man who orders the members of the group to destroy their documents."

Meyer took steps to prevent the film from being confiscated. "Meyer left all the filmed material with friends in Europe," says Torres. "When we got close to the shores of Palestine and the British boarded our ship, we hid everything we had filmed on board for 13 days in the machine room. The Haganah people knew that the passengers would get off in Cyprus, the ship would return to the Haifa port where a cleaning crew, including a number of Haganah people, would board it. They promised us their people would take the film out of the hiding place, and that's what happened."

But Levin and his team were not able to hide the footage they filmed after the British boarded the ship. "They saw us filming them," says Torres. The British sent the ship with all its passengers to a camp in Cyprus and sent Levin and his crew to prison for several days in Haifa - "on the grounds that we had entered the country without permission," recalls Torres.

A few days later, after they were released, Levin and Torres went to meet the British officer who was holding some of the reels. "He explained that he intended to send the film to Britain; they would watch it there and decide whether it should be destroyed. Then Meyer said to him: 'Imagine you were living in the time of the Bible, when Moses was leading the Children of Israel on their long journey through the Sinai Desert to the Land of Canaan. Imagine that someone had immortalized that journey on film and then someone else came along and destroyed the film. Try to think how history would judge that person,'" says Torres.

'Which are empty?'

"The British officer listened, smiled and said to Meyer: 'Look, there are a number of canisters here, some of them with footage and some with empty film that hasn't been used. Can you tell me which you've used and which are empty?' Meyer replied that if he were allowed to go into a darkroom with the film, he'd be able to sort them out. The officer smiled again and Meyer really did go into a darkroom. When he came out he handed the officer the canisters of unused film and kept the film that had been shot."

Immediately after that, when Levin returned to Europe, he gave some of the material he had shot to a French company that made newsreels. That was in the middle of January 1948, wrote Levin in "In Search." Pathe News released a special capsule version of the voyage and the capture of the refugees. "We went to several theaters to watch the audiences. The effect was overwhelming," Levin wrote. "That five minutes on the screen did more to explain the Jewish problem than years of talk. At last the public saw the faces of the people, at last they witnessed the exodus itself."

The full version of "The Illegals" was shown in New York and Paris in 1948. About the screening in New York, Levin wrote, "Those who did see the picture were undoubtedly moved. But it had to be recognized that, in general, people did not want to face reality." According to Schweitzer, the film did well in Paris and was screened there for about two months. "This film is above all an extraordinary cinematic testimony," he says. "These are historic events documented in real time, but because of all kinds of historic circumstances, they were not given the attention they deserved."

Schweitzer says the film's special quality stems from the blurring of the boundaries between feature film and documentary. "I don't know of any other cinematic project that has such an ambivalent, disturbing and paradoxical character. The relations between reality and fiction in this film stir questions that are very current in contemporary cinema, which is constantly working to undermine the traditional distinction between the two genres."

In his book, Levin says that for "more than a year I carried on a virtual battle to have a copy sent to Israel. Incredible as it may seem, I had to engage in a campaign in the Hebrew press before this was done."

The film was screened in Israel only in 1950. It was not a success and it closed very quickly. Schweitzer suggests that timing was one reason. "The film came out in Israel after the declaration of its independence, the gates had already opened and the immigrants were flowing into the country freely, so it was perceived as somewhat irrelevant," he says.

Over the years, "The Illegals" has had its share of influence on Israeli cinema. According to Schweitzer, director Amos Gitai - for example in his 2002 film "Kedma" - based all the opening scenes on "The Illegals."

In the 1979 documentary "The Last Sea," by Haim Gouri and Jacques Ehrlich, scenes from "The Illegals" were integrated as archival documentary material. Schweitzer notes that the film did not mention that some of those scenes were fictional and some of the people filmed were actors.

In an interview with Yosef Lapid in Maariv in 1960, Levin talked about the bleak fate of "The Illegals" in Israel.

"Parts of this film crop up in all kinds of television programs about the history of the state, and there's a passage in the film 'Exodus' that's an exact copy of my film. That's typical of my fate," said Levin. "'Exodus' has done wonderfully while hardly anyone knows my film."