Erich Mendelsohn, a German Jewish architect, left his creative mark across Europe and pre-independence Palestine, but aside from his work with the U.S. Army during World War II, he remains largely unknown.
That’s a compelling reason to see “Mendelsohn’s Incessant Visions,” which JFilm and the Pittsburgh Design Center are screening for one night only, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 7 p.m. at SouthSide Works Cinema.
A richly layered documentary by Israeli filmmaker Duki Dror, “Mendelsohn’s Incessant Visions” follows the journeys of this famed architect of the expressionist school from his earliest days in Germany to his flight to the Netherlands in 1933, then to Great Britain, to Palestine, and finally to the United States where he and wife Luise finally settled and lived modestly in the Bay Area until their deaths.
Based on Luise’s memoir, Dror takes us to the landmarks of Mendelsohn’s career: The Einstein Tower in Potsdam — a neoclassical observatory for the famed scientist that established Mendelsohn’s reputation — as well as several cinemas and department stories in Germany, his own house, which he designed right down to the furniture, and his works in Palestine, including the residence of Chaim Weizmann in Rehovot, three laboratories at the Weizmann Institute of Science, the Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus and the Rambam Hospital in Haifa.
But this is not just a film about beautiful buildings; this is a character study of a driven (some say controlling) man who forced himself to overcome several obstacles in life to achieve his artistic success, including the loss of an eye to a tumor, his wife’s infidelity, the rise of Hitler and perhaps his own perfectionist tendencies.
Dror uses several vehicles to tell Mendelsohn’s story, including simulating an interview with Luise, played by a voice actor, period snapshots of the buildings he designed (which are held up by hand then quickly removed before the camera trains on the real edifices) and grand tours of his works by people who know them best.
Berlin is a particularly important backdrop for the film. The site of many Mendelsohn buildings, the Nazis would later confiscate them and the Allies would bomb them into oblivion — a realization with which Mendelsohn struggled, according to the dialogue.
Ironically, Mendelsohn may have contributed to the destruction of his own works. Towards the end of the film, we learn that he leant his services to the U.S. Army during World War II to build German Village — replicas of typical German working-class housing estates at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, which proved important as the military developed its expertise for incendiary bombing of Germany.
Western Pennsylvania makes a cameo appearance as the 70-minute film delves into Mendelsohn’s friendship with Frank Lloyd Wright who designed Falling Water. The house is briefly pictured in one scene.
“Mendelsohn’s Incessant Visions” is a compelling picture, not just for fans of modern architecture, but for movie goers who love a good, true story.
Want to go?
Contact JFilm at info@JFilmPgh.org or 412-992-5203 for tickets or information. There are separate rates for general admission and students.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)