Lights, camera, activism! Doc shows the work of humanitarian Herbert Kline

By Mike Robinson

Doc Films proudly announces a special screening of Herbert Kline’s groundbreaking films Heart of Spain (1937), Lights Out in Europe (1940), and The Forgotten Village (1941) on Saturday, May 22 at 2 p.m.

These three documentaries examine the Spanish Civil War, the coming of the Second World War, and life in rural Mexico from a liberal ideological position, and with overwhelming humanitarianism. With contemporaries like his associate Joris Ivens, Herbert Kline applied the methods and perspective of the leftist documentary film movement of the 1930s to current international events, aspiring to serve as the foreign correspondent of motion pictures.

While in Chicago between 1934 and 1937, Kline’s involvement in the arts and theater brought him in contact with the documentary film movement. Before arriving in Chicago, Kline traveled the United States extensively, wrote a one-act play, and wrote articles on the poverty he observed for leftist magazines. In Chicago, Kline served as editor of the leftist theater magazine New Theater. Kline’s politics matched those of many documentarians who used the medium for political and ideological argument as much as for artistic expression and exhibited their work almost exclusively at non-theatrical venues, like the recently formed Documentary Film Group at the University of Chicago (now Doc Films).

Kline did not intend to make Heart of Spain when he left Chicago; he left to enlist in the Loyalist struggle against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. However, soon after he arrived, an acquaintance of Kline’s approached him about making a documentary about Norman Bethune’s medical activities. A humanitarian doctor, Bethune abandoned practice in Canada to come to Spain, where he developed the lifesaving techniques of blood transfusion and blood banking. Kline and his new partner, Giza Karpathi, undertook the documentary project, living with the medical unit and filming it in operation. Their material, edited and augmented with newsreel material by Frontier Films’ Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz, resulted in the 30-minute documentary Heart of Spain. Along with Joris Ivens’ The Spanish Earth, Heart of Spain provided American audiences with a graphic depiction of a war overlooked by Hollywood (except for the muddled 1938 Blockade), and served as an excellent fundraiser for Bethune’s operation.

For many observers, the war in Spain served as a proxy war for larger global forces and a rehearsal for wars in the near future. Kline felt strongly that a broader war would come, and he was determined to be there when it happened. He traveled to Czechoslovakia. In 1938, German demands for territorial concessions in Czechoslovakia pushed Europe to the brink of war. Herbert Kline enlisted the experienced and artistic Czech filmmaker and photographer Alexander Hackenschmied to assist him in documenting the impending war. War never came, but Czechoslovakia lost its independence to German expansionism. Kline and Hackenschmied documented the occupation in Crisis: A Film of the Nazi Way, which, along with a short, “Inside Nazi Germany—1938,” presented a harsh view of Nazis not normally explicit in contemporary American motion pictures.

Kline expected the events of 1938 to mark only a postponement of war in Europe, and in the summer of 1939 he and Hackenschmied began work on their next film, putting them in a unique situation when Germany invaded Poland and a wider European war erupted. Released six months after the invasion began, Kline had no intention that their film, Lights Out in Europe, would compete with newsreels for sensational breaking news items. Rather, Kline and Hackenschmied focused on the effect of the war on ordinary people and the profound, often horrible, changes in their lives. They documented the British putting out the lights of Piccadilly Circus and digging air-raid shelters in anticipation of aerial war, and they showed Polish horseback cavalry departing to face the coordinated Blitzkrieg assaults of German panzers and aircraft. The film shows an elderly Polish woman surveying the abject wreckage of her home and revealed the last moments of a woman shot by a German aircraft as she slowly dies, her family unable to help her.

James Hilton, the British author of Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr. Chips wrote the narration for Lights Out in Europe, and Frederic March provided the voice. Like Crisis, Lights Out in Europe met with favorable reviews from the United States, and Kline returned to find John Steinbeck interested in collaborating on a documentary about rural Mexican life. Steinbeck described the plot of the film as one family’s struggle. The goal was to present this narrative as a microcosm of greater issues, especially the need for modern medicine to come to remote areas. As Steinbeck said, “It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving, unless you know one Chinese who is starving.”

Though the film is regarded as a documentary, John Steinbeck wrote the narrative (with the narration read by Burgess Meredith), Kline and Hackenschmeid scouted locations, and they cast locals to play parts. For films like Crisis and Lights Out in Europe, Kline allowed the events in the films to unfold without a structured script and without a cast. However, any documentarian must have influenced the events he recorded to some degree, whether deliberately (such as asking Nazi storm troopers to stop grinning at the camera) or not. Still, the issues of altering occurrences or staging events raise questions that still persist today. In the 1930s and 1940s, the popular March of Time series of short features routinely used dramatic re-creation of news events, occasionally using the actual participants. The issue “Inside Nazi Germany—1938” featured film shot in Germany of innocuous activities and everyday life with recreated shots of anti-Semitism, book-burning, and attacks on the Church. Predictably, the German government would not have released films of such events; March of Time had enough difficulty getting the banal footage past German censors. The question remains, Which images represented a more accurate presentation of Germany?

The Forgotten Village also received praise for its message and for Hackenschmeid’s presentation of the Mexican landscape. Released in 1941, The Forgotten Village represented one of the last American documentary films of the pre-war period, marked by a cadre of filmmakers with a generally leftist message, sometimes in the employment of President Roosevelt’s New Deal administrations. With the outbreak of World War II, the position of the documentary film in American society changed. Many of the most important documentary assignments went not to successful documentarians, but to Hollywood’s successful directors, most of whom had never been associated with documentary filmmaking. John Ford made the official story of the attack on Pearl Harbor, while John Huston chronicled the war in the Aleutians, and the far-reaching Why We Fight series were made by Frank Capra.

Though Kline’s films greatly influenced the American documentary tradition, they remain virtually unavailable to American audiences today. Kline’s films have not been released on commercial video, and Heart of Spain and The Forgotten Village are screened only rarely. Lights Out in Europe can only be found at the Museum of Modern Art, and it is only through the kind cooperation of Anne Morra at MoMA that Doc Films can present it on May 22nd.