By Esther Zandberg, "Haaretz", July 7, 2011
Twelve hundred letters, which Erich Mendelsohn wrote to his wife Louise, are at the base of a fascinating new film about the famed architect.
"Architects think they leave something eternal. Their buildings are carved in stone and steel, but they too finally decay and vanish," writes Louise Mendelsohn in her memoire. "The mark Erich left is in his visionary sketches and his letters to me", she continues, revealing the relationship between eternity and memory and the relationship between herself and the man next to whom, or rather next to whose shadow, she lived. Louise Mendelsohn (1895-1980), from the Maes family, was a gifted cellist, a beautiful, breathtaking woman and a desired socialite in Berlin between two world wars. She was the wife of the Jewish German renowned architect Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953). Both are the protagonists of the new film by Duki Dror, Incessant Visions, which will screen Saturday and Sunday at the Jerusalem Film Festival.
Mendelsohn was one of the most prominent modern architects in the past century. His works form a chapter in the history of architecture and are scattered across several continents, marking his journey, which began in 1933, fleeing from Nazi Germany. In Germany he planned a network of stores for the Shocken family, the first modern cinema- the Universum, the Einstein Tower and many more. In Britain, where the Mendelsohns first settled, he planned the De La Warr Pavilion, the only modern building in the sleepy coastal town of Bexhill. In Palestine, where he had lived until 1941, he planned the presidential palace and the Weizmann institute in Rehovot, and the Hadassah hospital on mount Scopus. His works in the United States, over the last decade of his life, did not reach the peak of his earlier works.
Mendelsohn's most famous early work from the 20s is the "Einstein Tower" observatory in Potsdam near Berlin. The observatory is one of the few works built in the spirit of German expressionism and is a pilgrimage site for fans. The idea for the tower was born from tiny futuristic illustrations which Mendelsohn drew in the trenches, as a German soldier at the Russian front in WWI. He attached these sketches to letters which he sent to his wife. These illustrations were praised as much as his buildings were, and, as Louise puts it, they are assured eternal life.
Dror's film is a fascinating and a thrilling cinematic interpretation of the life story of Erich and Louise. Dror weaves on the border between truth and fiction and animates the memoirs of Louise and the letters, which Erich wrote to her since she was a 16 year old girl, until his death. These were the basis for the film. The story is an intimate biography and at the same time, the story of an entire era. Mendelsohn's work and life has been researched, and his accomplishments, frustrations and disappointments were discussed on many stages and in international forums. Louise's character remained a mystery, like the image of many women behind successful men, in that era and today as well. Louise, a young cellist and a mesmerizing enigmatic figure, has devoted her life to assure Erich's way to success. He became one of the most prominent and successful architects of his time while she gave up her promising professional musical career and her place in history, as too many women of her time to the present do. In her enacted memoir she writes: "nothing else existed any longer, but him". Even though Erich is the central character, the protagonist really is Louise. The film gives her a living space and an opportunity to be in the center of the plot. In 1925, when Erich was "deep in his work," which flowed from all sides after the success and publicity of the Einstein Tower, Louise went on vacation to the Engadine town in the Swiss Alps, "Four thousand feet beyond men and time, just me and my cello. An extreme sensation of freedom engulfed me". She then met the German Jewish playwright and revolutionary, Ernest Toller (1893-1939). He was a figure of romance and mystery, a socialist and a pacifist, antithesis of Erich. The two developed a deep friendship which, according to the film, turned into a romantic love affair. When Louise met Toller, he already had a rich history of radical activism, with 5 years imprisonment for high treason. According to the film's plot, Louise was attracted to Toller, "he pulled me like a magnet. I was lost to a fateful tie between us." When Louise lived in London, she heard of Toller's involvement in the Spanish civil war and later of Toller's suicide by hanging at his New York hotel room. "I couldn't share my grief with anyone", she says in the film. She then receives a letter from Erich, calling her to join him in Jerusalem. A new chapter then starts in her life.
The affair with Toller had caused a deep crisis in Erich and Louise's relationship and in order to start over, Erich decided to build a dream house for Louise, in Rupenhorn on the Toussaint Lake, a bourgeois suburb of Berlin. "He designed the house, the furniture, the silverware, my evening gowns and a full set of jewelry. Erich had to have complete control," wrote Louise. He documented the house, photographed it from all sides and perspectives, and put it in a book "so that he could take the house with him where ever he went," as Ita Heinz Greenberg, an interpreter of Mendelsohn's work and a central figure in the film herself, puts it. The family lived in the house for only 3 years. In March 1933, when Erich was expelled from the Academy of Arts, they left Berlin and started their wandering around the world. The house was confiscated along with all their possessions, but remained standing, impressive and awe-inspiring, to this day in its immense bulk – 4000 square feet. The house bears a memorial plaque in memory of Mendelsohn. The city of Berlin did not mention the name of Louise. The outcome of the new laws against Jews was, as Mendelsohn writes, "that I am not able to participate in the competition to design the new Reich's Bank building. Thirty German architects and I'm not one of them!" Louise did not regret leaving the house and she writes: "a new era begins, without the burden of any possessions."
Many years later, Duki Dror asks Mendelsohn's only granddaughter, Daria Joseph, if her grandfather is buried in San Francisco. "I don't think he is buried anywhere. Neither are my grandmother and my mother. Their ashes were strewn by the wind under the Golden Gate Bridge." Nevertheless, they left behind something eternal.
Original Hebrew Article