Eisner, Lotte (1896–1983)
Eisner, Lotte (1896–1983)
German-born French film critic and one of the major film historians of the 20th century, who argued that German Expressionist cinema must be viewed as a major element in the evolution of modern film art. Name variations: (during World War II) Louise Escoffier. Born Lotte Henriette Eisner in Berlin, Germany, on March 6, 1896; died in Paris, France, on November 26, 1983; daughter of Hugo Eisner and Margarethe Feodora (Aron) Eisner (died in a concentration camp in 1942); University of Rostock, Ph.D. in art history, 1924; never married; no children.
Lotte Eisner was born in Berlin into a wealthy, assimilated Jewish family in the closing years of the 19th century. Three days after her birth, the Lumiére Cinematographe made its first public appearance in London, marking the international birth of motion pictures, a phenomenon with which Eisner's life and career would be closely linked. Her father, a textile merchant, created a prosperous and cultured environment in which his daughter experienced various aspects of the art world from her earliest years. After a leisurely course of study at a number of German universities, she received her Ph.D. in art history in 1924 from the University of Rostock, with a dissertation topic about ancient Greek vase paintings.
Although qualified to pursue an academic career, Eisner decided to enter the exciting world of Berlin journalism. While still a student, she had already been contributing articles on art and theater subjects to noted journals and newspapers including Die literarische Welt and the Berliner Tageblatt. In 1927, a chance encounter at a party would forever change Eisner's life. She met Dr. Hans Feld, a journalist and critic with Berlin's Film-Kurier, the world's first film journal to be published on a daily basis, who suggested that she join the staff. Eisner began writing for Film-Kurier in 1927, thus becoming Germany's first female film critic to work on a full-time professional basis.
Along with Hans Feld and other Film-Kurier contributors like Willy Haas and Béla Balázs, Lotte Eisner was determined not only to inform her readers of new trends in cinema, but to raise their artistic appreciation for what was still in the 1920s a relatively new art form. While Film-Kurier, the German film industry's main newspaper, was a practical guide to the mundane problems of film production, the journal also saw itself as part of an intellectual crusade centered "upon furthering experiments, the young avant-garde, and following a film-political line of a widening cultural horizon." Eisner's Film-Kurier articles were closely linked to the journal's crusade for better German films. Thoroughly enjoying the exhilarating artistic environment of Berlin, Lotte Eisner met regularly with most of the creative talent of that great metropolis including world-renowned film directors like Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst. She also became acquainted with the path-breaking Soviet Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. Artists of other disciplines, too, became part of Lotte Eisner's circle of friends, which included the playwright Bertolt Brecht, renowned director Max Rein-hardt, and actresses such as Louise Brooks, Asta Nielsen, Lupu Pick , and Leni Riefenstahl (before she emerged as a film director).
In 1933, Adolf Hitler's Nazis seized power in Germany. Almost immediately journals like Film-Kurier that were branded as "un-German" and "Jewish-infected" found themselves "Aryanized" and purged of their Jewish and liberal staffs. Both Hans Feld and Lotte Eisner emigrated from Germany, with Feld settling in London and Eisner choosing Paris, where her younger sister Stephanie Eisner had recently settled. The transition from respected film authority in Berlin to an insecure life as a refugee from Nazism in a foreign country was not easy for Eisner, but she was able to support herself by working as a secretary, translator, and freelance researcher. With her well-established reputation as a critic, she also found work as a film correspondent for a number of French journals as well as English-language periodicals, including Film Culture, Sight and Sound, and World Film News.
While in Paris in 1934, Eisner met a French journalist and film enthusiast named Henri Langlois (1914–1977) who had hopes of creating a major film archive and research center, which in later years was to emerge as the world-famed Cinémathèque Française. Immediately sharing his vision, Lotte Eisner became an indispensable collaborator with Langlois as he lobbied tirelessly to find support for his project. Eisner and Langlois worked together throughout the next years at his organization, the Cercle du Cinéma, which made it possible for him to share with a growing group of enthusiasts his own unique private collection of silent films. In the fall of 1939, their dreams of a great film center went up in smoke as World War II began. German refugees in France, including Lotte Eisner, were arrested and interned by panicked French authorities despite the fact that virtually all of them were ardent anti-Nazis, with the overwhelming majority of them being Jewish refugees from Hitlerite racism as well. Along with many others, Eisner was taken to the infamous Gurs concentration camp, where she remained for three months.
With her life at risk during the German occupation of France, Lotte Eisner began an underground existence that was to last four years. With forged identity papers that turned her into "Louise Escoffier," she chose to live in Départment Lot in the Vichy-controlled part of France. Besides saving her own life, Eisner was able to successfully hide a number of important films entrusted to her by Henri Langlois, who feared the Germans would find and destroy them. Boldly, she lived her life under the noses of the Gestapo and French collaborators, even working for a while in the kitchen of a restaurant at Figcac.
The end of the Nazi occupation made it possible for Eisner to return to Paris, where she immediately rejoined Langlois. From 1945 to her retirement in 1974, Eisner worked as archivist and chief curator of Langlois' now expanding Cinémathèque Française. An indefatigable enthusiast for films, she spent three decades arranging programs for film retrospectives, festivals, exhibitions and collections. Working closely with Langlois, Eisner was successful in tracking down and saving thousands of films that were in imminent danger of complete physical deterioration. Eisner was also able to collect a staggering number of costumes, set designs, scripts and other film memorabilia that Henri Langlois turned into his brilliant exhibitions, which eventually found a fitting permanent home at the Musée du Cinéma at the Palais de Chaillot. Eisner genuinely enjoyed being involved in the hunt for film artifacts, and one of the proudest moments of this aspect of her busy career took place when she came back to Paris from a trip to Rome with the cart that Giulietta Masina had pulled in the film La Strada.
Relying on her sharp mind and excellent memory as well as on a journalist's ability to write quickly and clearly, Eisner published a large number of essays and reviews in the journal Revue du cinéma (later Cahiers du cinéma), starting in 1945. More important, she began to plan a number of ambitious book-length research projects. The first of these, which was initially published in France in 1952 and which appeared in an English-language translation as The Haunted Screen in 1969, was her masterful study of the films influenced by the spirit of German Expressionism. Relying not only on her vast sum of knowledge of films that included firsthand contacts with directors and actors in pre-Nazi Berlin, Eisner also drew upon her early training as an art historian for additional insights into the aesthetics of the film art.
Other highly acclaimed film history books by Eisner appeared during the next years, including definitive studies of the director F.W. Murnau (1964) and Fritz Lang (1977). Her study of Lang was of value, not only because of her 50-year friendship with the director but also because, un-like her previous books that were written in French, this volume was written in German so that Lang, who was still alive, could read the text carefully and annotate proofs of the manuscript with his own comments and suggested changes—which he did up to the time of his death.
Rooted in France after a period of many decades there, and profoundly embittered by her mother Margarethe's death in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942, Eisner remained alienated from Germany until the final years of her life. She began resolving her deeply ambivalent feelings toward her German homeland by working on memoirs entitled Ich hatte einst ein schönes Vaterland (I Once Had a Beautiful Fatherland), a book that would be published posthumously in 1984. Starting in the early 1970s, however, she entered into a series of friendships with Werner Herzog and other members of a new generation of brilliant young German film directors. On their visits to France, Herzog and other German film personalities visited the physically frail but mentally alert Eisner in her small, exquisite apartment in the Paris suburb of Neuilly sur Seine, which she had over the years transformed into a virtual modern salon for many of Europe's most talented cinema artists.
In her final years, Lotte Eisner enjoyed not only the friendship and admiration of many of the most talented film personalities of Europe, but also became the object of public acclaim from her adopted French homeland. In 1965, she was awarded the Prix Armand Tallier for her study of F.W. Murnau, followed in 1967 by the award of the title Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. In March 1983, she became a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. At the time of her death in November 1983, France's Minister of Culture Jack Lang declared the passing of Lotte Eisner to be "a great loss for the French cinema" which would be "felt with profound sadness by her numerous friends in the film world."
Becker, Klaus. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau: Ein grosser Filmregisseur der 20er Jahren. Kassel: Stadtsparkasse Kassel, 1981.
Eisner, Lotte H. Fritz Lang. NY: Da Capo Press, 1986.
——. Murnau. Revised and enlarged edition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.
——, and Martje Grohmann. Ich hatte einst ein schönes Vaterland: Memoiren. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1988.
Hake, Sabine. The Cinema's Third Machine: Writing on Film in Germany 1907–1933. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Horowitz, S.M. Lotte Eisner in Germany. NY: New Yorker Films, 1980.
"Lotte Eisner," in The Times [London]. December 3, 1983, p. 8.
Passek, Jean Loup, Jacqueline Brisbois, and Lotte H. Eisner. Vingt ans de cinema allemand, 1913–1933: Catalogue. Paris: Centre national d'art et de culture Georges Pompidou, 1978.
"The German Film: A Conversation with Lotte Eisner," conducted by Harold Reynolds. Los Angeles: Pacifica Radio Archive BC 0181, 1986.
John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia
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