Lorentz, Pare

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Pare Lorentz (1905-1992) was founded and headed the 1935 government program, which became the United States Film Service in 1938, and ended in 1940. He established American precedent for the government use of documentaries, which would continue during World War II by the Armed Forces and the Office of War Information and later by the United States Information Agency, now the International Communication Agency. Lorentz directed The Plow that Broke the Plains, The River, The Fight for Life, Power and the Land, directed by Joris Ivens, and The Land, directed by Robert Flaherty.

From the description of Lorentz, Pare, 1905-1992 (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). naId: 10569036

During the 1930s, Pare Lorentz accomplished a rare feat in American cultural history; funded entirely by the government, he directed propagandistic documentaries that became critical and popular hits. In fact, this achievement may have been unique, since no one – including Lorentz himself – was ever able to duplicate it again.

“A fine picture,” he once said, “is really a symphony – a carefully orchestrated piece of work which plays on the eye and the ear to get an emotional reaction.” His films featured gritty footage, prose-poetic narration, and a dramatic score. He had no use for studio accoutrements. “The best light in the world is the sun,” he said. Nor did he care for stars. In his opinion, movies were “made by cutting and direction, and the actor isn’t important at all.” A documentarian’s documentarian, he influenced generations of auteurs. “His work is part of the heritage of all filmmakers,” Ken Burns, the acclaimed director, has said. “Lorentz showed us that documentaries need not be based solely on current events, or be filmed journalism. They could be of the heart.”

But Lorentz never made cinema for cinema’s sake alone. His films were political – even radical – and must be understood within the context of their production. His documentaries unmistakably belong to the creative milieu that inspired the photographs of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, as well as the writings of James Agee and John Steinbeck. The Great Depression provided these artists with both a message and a medium; the suffering of the 1930s offered subject-matter rich in pathos and courage, while federal agencies financed and promoted their projects.

Perhaps more than even these well-known figures, however, Lorentz’s career synced with the New Deal. His films were regularly screened in the White House, and Franklin D. Roosevelt once said of him: “He’s my shooter. He photographs America to show what it’s like to our people.” Lorentz embraced this role, entitling his autobiography, FDR’s Filmmaker. But, the opposite was even more emphatically true: Roosevelt was Lorentz’s president. In 1936, when the administration was pushing a farm resettlement policy, Lorentz produced his first picture, The Plow That Broke the Plain, a study of soil erosion. Two years later, when the Democrats needed support for the vast dam projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Lorentz obliged them by directing The River, which depicted the Mississippi’s chronic flooding. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lorentz was again eager to serve his chief. Attaining an officer’s rank in the U.S. Army Air Forces, he made pilot-training films and edited footage of the Nuremberg Trials.

As long as Roosevelt remained in power, Lorentz was assured of official accolades and a worthy cause. In later years, though, he could never recapture the synergy of that period. His career as a moviemaker spanned five decades and more, yet his third – and final – film to achieve wide distribution, The Fight for Life, was released in 1940. In part, this was a result of his temperament; Lorentz was a man who envisioned grand projects and then carried them halfway through. But, his politics were an even more fundamental hindrance to success. By the 1950s, his egalitarian populism may not have lost its audience, but it had certainly lost any chance for distribution. He wanted to make films about German war crimes and the development of the Hydrogen Bomb, but the Cold War demanded silence on these topics. Thus, a career that began with such promise ended in a series of frustrations.

Leonard MacTaggart Lorentz was born in Clarksburg, West Virginia, in 1905. “Pare,” the traditional family name, had already been taken by his father, a cousin, and an uncle. One more, his mother thought, would be one too many. But, after Lorentz came to New York City in 1925 to make a career as a journalist, he assumed his father’s name and used it for his byline. Working freelance, he began reviewing movies for several magazines, including Judge, Vanity Fair, and McCall’s. Lorentz also contributed essays and fiction to Harper’s, Scribner’s, and The New Yorker. Immediately recognized as an important critic, he was 25 years old when he published his first book, Censored: The Private Life of the Movies. He received his advance money – six hundred dollars – on the day of the stock-market crash.

During the early years of the Depression, when nearly one-quarter of the American workforce was unemployed, Lorentz blithely got himself hired and fired from a succession of magazine positions. In each case, dismissal came after he refused to soften his beliefs just to keep a paycheck. He further alienated some employers with his enthusiasm for the New Deal. His second book, The Roosevelt Year: 1933, was a pictorial record of the President’s first twelve months in office. A laudatory profile of Henry Wallace, the progressive Secretary of Agriculture, cost him yet another job – this time he was fired by William Randolph Hearst. But, the piece also helped bring him to the attention of policy-makers in the Resettlement Administration, an agriculture relief bureau that promoted its efforts through the work of such photographers as Evans and Lange. “Our job,” one agency artist recalled, “was to educate the city dweller to the needs of the rural population.” A film could spread the message even more effectively, and Lorentz was given the assignment.

Choosing the Dust Bowl as his subject, he traveled from Montana to Texas, filming the unprecedented erosion that was destroying billions of tons of fertile land. With a $6,000 budget, he was forced to shoot real people on location, as opposed to using actors in a studio lot. Money concerns proscribed the use of sound-film; he instead employed voice-over narration and a classical score. These became the hallmarks of the Lorentz style, but their origins rested as much with necessity as with preference. The Plow That Broke the Plains – which was half an hour long and had cost less than $20,000 to produce – premiered in the spring of 1936; “it tells the story of the Plains,” explained Lorentz, “and it tells it with some emotional value – an emotion that springs out of the soil itself.”

With Plow completed, Lorentz had gone from film critic to filmmaker. Next, he directed a masterpiece. In The River, he documented the devastating seasonal inundations in the Mississippi valley. During January 1937, after months of shooting, the crew was crating up its equipment when news arrived of an approaching flood. Lorentz flew to the set and remained at the disaster site for weeks, capturing the most remarkable footage of his career. The movie – which cost $49,500 to make – premiered in New Orleans to an enthusiastic reception. “It could have been filmed as baldly as a subcommittee’s report, with charts and graphs and the concomitant speeches of Congressmen,” the Times reviewer noted. Instead, it “has an epic quality ... To call it a great documentary does it an injustice. It is a great motion picture.” Throughout 1938, The River played before audiences in the United States and Europe, screening in commercial theaters – often as part of a twin-bill with Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The film was awarded the prize for Best Documentary at the Venice Film Festival, defeating Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad despite the close ties between Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany.

In August 1938, Lorentz was named director of the latest New Deal agency, the United States Film Service, which operated under the National Emergency Council, and drew funds from the Works Progress Administration. Intended “to coordinate the activities of the several departments and agencies which relate to the production or distribution of motion picture films,” the Service potentially could have economized Washington’s propagandistic and educational efforts. But, the agency faced a hostile Congress, which refused to fund it. The partisan, even radical, messages of Plow and The River further dampened enthusiasm. Nevertheless, Lorentz pushed ahead with his new projects, struggling to balance his artistic and official responsibilities. “I’m getting along on four hours sleep,” he told a reporter. “I don’t know anybody in the business who hasn’t got stomach trouble.”

So far, Lorentz had completed short documentaries on soil erosion and flooding. For his next project, he chose a feature-length fiction film about the all-too-human subject of unemployment. Again, this issue was timely for the administration, since President Roosevelt was preparing to launch a new campaign against joblessness. To dramatize a national crisis affecting millions, Ecce Homo! would focus on the odyssey of one single character, an out-of-work man referred to only as Worker #7790. The nameless protagonist was merely a prism through which to focus on the nation’s vast productive capacities; characteristically, America’s “gigantic industrial equipment and the magnificent amount of arable land” were to be the actual stars. In 1939, Lorentz and his crew set to work. Photographers scattered to find suitable locations. Researchers scanned employment and relief statistics. Film crews gathered footage of mass-production at Ford’s River Rouge facility, and captured shots showing the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. But, despite these efforts, funding problems grew insuperable and the project was abandoned. Later, in 1941, Lorentz attempted to revive the picture, with the new title, Name, Age and Occupation, as an RKO production, but again work had to stop. The film was never finished.

When Roosevelt prepared to launch a series of health-care initiatives in 1939, he called on Lorentz and ordered him to turn his attention toward medicine. The director decided to start at the beginning, with childbirth. The Fight For Life focused on the Chicago Maternity Center, an under-funded clinic that cared for poor mothers, and yet produced a better record than many local hospitals. For the first time in his career, Lorentz used professional actors – but only for a few key roles. Most of his dramatis personae were, as always, the American people. “Mothers in the waiting rooms of the Maternity Center,” a reviewer wrote, “undernourished children playing dangerously in the streets – the people of the tenements themselves, are the real actors of this film.” It premiered in the spring of 1940 to excellent reviews, and followed its predecessors in a wide commercial release.

That same year, however, Congress voted to stop financing the United States Film Service. Lorentz was too busy to pause over the demise of his bureau. The New Deal decade was over, anyway. The 1940s had arrived, and Roosevelt’s attention was turning away from domestic reform to focus on the international situation. The war decade had begun, and Lorentz – as always – would be there for his Commander-in-Chief.

In 1943, he received the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and the assignment to lead a specialized flying force, the Overseas Technical Unit, which was tasked to produce briefing films informing pilots of key landmarks along important routes. To compile the footage for this would require an enormous amount of effort, as well as thousands of hours of flight time. Lorentz was given one aircraft, and a skeleton crew. The plane was an obsolete B-24D, nicknamed “Peeping Tom;” the bombardier’s post was refashioned for a Mitchel movie camera, and a dark room was installed in the fuselage. During the next three years, “Peeping Tom” logged 425,000 miles, and made 93 crossings of the world’s oceans. She traversed the infamous “Hump” – the route over the Himalayas to Kunming, China – six times, and operated in temperatures ranging from 46 below to 137 above, in Alaska and the Persian Gulf, respectively. Twenty thousand military airmen – in the North Atlantic sector alone – watched the films, which proved their value in the most crucial moments. “When a pilot is fatigued from eight hours of flying, has one hour’s gas left, is caught in a rainstorm, and doesn’t know where the airport is located,” Lorentz explained, the briefing reels “keep him alert to terrain and altitude.”

Returning to civilian life, Lorentz quickly discovered that – with President Roosevelt dead – his access to high political circles was severely curtailed. It took longer for him to realize, if in fact he ever did, that the most productive years of his career were over. He had a New Deal sensibility, and always would, but now he lived in a Cold War world. Previously, his work had abetted the Administration’s political aims. Now, a series of controversies presaged a future in which his voice would be one of opposition and critique.

First, he spliced together millions of feet of historical footage depicting the Nazi regime – from the earliest putsches to the Trial of the Major War Criminals at Nuremberg – into a feature-length documentary called Nuremberg – Its Lesson for Today. Released in West Berlin in 1948, it received the usual applause. But, two years later the government removed its support. The national interest no longer benefited “from frank and vigorous opposition to the Nazis.” Germany was now an ally, after all. “As our focus necessarily shifted from Hitlerism to Stalinism,” a former official told the Times, all energy had to be devoted to “anti-Communist themes.”

For his next Cold War faux pas, Lorentz planned a propaganda film – No Place To Hide – that would depict the dangers of the Hydrogen bomb. The central character was to be a young doctor who had witnessed the atomic tests at Bikini Atoll. “Through his adventures,” wrote Lorentz, “movie audiences will understand for the first time, the fundamental truths, and the majestic implications, of the atomic age – the age in which we are living.” As in the old days, the director immersed himself in the topic, researching the science and politics of nuclear power. Critics wondered if Lorentz would be able to create a compelling film from the details of “this unpleasant subject.” Would “the average movie theater” be interested in screening it? In the event, this question was never answered. By 1952, after four years trying to find funding, Lorentz conceded that the project was so unpopular that he hadn’t been able to “raise two dollars and a half.”

As the decades passed, The Plow and The River remained politically controversial, even as their quality as films gained ever more acclaim. In 1977, Radio Station KDKA, in Pittsburgh, broadcast an interview with a man claiming to have been an FBI agent in the 1930s. On-air, he named Lorentz as a Communist; and not just any Communist: he “was one of the biggest communists in Hollywood.” Lorentz sued for damages, eventually receiving a check for $25,000 and a written apology, acknowledging “the distinguished list of [his] lifetime accomplishments which clearly demonstrates [his] outstanding record as an American citizen.” A minor incident, perhaps, but it reflected a larger historical trend: the man whom a President considered the most patriotic of filmmakers was, a few decades later, decried as a disloyal traitor.

In his later years, Lorentz grew increasingly dissatisfied with the nation’s progress. He was also critical of the medium he had helped pioneer, complaining about “the familiar disease of ‘talking heads.’” Other directors, in his view, had confused unsightliness for naturalism. “A lot of guys go out with their cameras,” he said, “they take a series of ugly pictures, they slap vocal captions on them against a background of harsh music and call them films of reality.” Lorentz himself continued to envision radical projects, factual films that would explain unpleasant truths to skeptical audiences. “If I were making documentaries now,” he said when he was in his 80s, “I’d like to see how bad the sludge in New York harbor is, see where the radiation is coming from.”

Pare Lorentz died in March 1992; he was 86 years old.

From the guide to the Pare Lorentz Papers, 1914-1994, [Bulk Dates: 1932-1960]., (Columbia University. Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Pare Lorentz Papers, 1914-1994, [Bulk Dates: 1932-1960]. Columbia University. Rare Book an Manuscript Library
referencedIn New Yorker records, ca.1924-1984 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
creatorOf PARE LORENTZ MOTION PICTURE, SOUND RECORDING, AND PHOTOGRAPHIC COLLECTION. 1936 - 1949. Pare Lorentz Films
creatorOf Lorentz, Pare, Jr. California year : a screen treatment of Wallace Stegner's All the little live things / by Pare Lorentz, Jr. University of Utah, J. Willard Marriott Library
PARE LORENTZ MOTION PICTURE, SOUND RECORDING, AND PHOTOGRAPHIC COLLECTION
referencedIn Rachel Carson papers, 1921-1989 Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
creatorOf Records of the Farmers Home Administration. 1918 - 1975. Motion Picture Films. 1936 - 1937. The Plow That Broke the Plains
creatorOf PARE LORENTZ MOTION PICTURE, SOUND RECORDING, AND PHOTOGRAPHIC COLLECTION. 1936 - 1949. Pare Lorentz Collection of Negatives of the Industrial Midwest
creatorOf Records of the Farmers Home Administration. 1918 - 1975. Motion Picture Films. 1936 - 1937. The Plow That Broke the Plains
creatorOf PARE LORENTZ MOTION PICTURE, SOUND RECORDING, AND PHOTOGRAPHIC COLLECTION. 1936 - 1949. Pare Lorentz Films
referencedIn National Board of Review of Motion Pictures records, 1907-1971 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
referencedIn Leo Goodman Papers, 1913-1982, (bulk 1937-1970) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
creatorOf Records of the Farmers Home Administration. 1918 - 1975. Motion Picture Films. 1936 - 1937. The Plow That Broke the Plains
creatorOf Records of the Farmers Home Administration. 1918 - 1975. Motion Picture Films. 1936 - 1937. The Plow That Broke the Plains
referencedIn Ford, J. mss., 1906-1976 Lilly Library (Indiana University, Bloomington)
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Carson, Rachel, 1907-1964 person
associatedWith Ford, John, 1895-1973 person
associatedWith Goodman, Leo, 1910-1982 person
associatedWith Lange, Dorothea. person
associatedWith Locke, Edwin. person
associatedWith National Board of Review of Motion Pictures (U.S.) corporateBody
associatedWith New Yorker Magazine, Inc corporateBody
associatedWith Roosevelt, Franklin D. (Franklin Delano), 1882-1945 person
associatedWith Stegner, Wallace Earle, 1909-1993. person
associatedWith Steinbeck, John, 1902-1968 person
associatedWith Thomson, Virgil, 1896-1989 person
associatedWith United States. corporateBody
associatedWith Vachon, John, 1914-1975 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Mississippi River.
Mississippi River Valley.
United States
Great Plains
Subject
Historical films
World War, 1939-1945--Aerial operations, American
Depressions--1929--United States--Pictorial works
Documentary films
Motion picture plays
Film adaptations
Atomic bomb--Social aspects
Documentary films--United States--History and criticism
Water resources development--Mississippi River Valley
Atomic bomb--Physiological effect
Atomic bomb--United States--History--20th century
World War, 1939-1945--Transportation
Documentaty photography--United States--History--20th century
Atomic bomb--Testing
Depressions--1929--United States
Occupation
Occupation
Activity

Person

Birth 1905-12-11

Death 1992-03-05

Americans

English

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