One of the most compelling sidebars in Mendelsohn’s life (and in the film) involves a village he helped construct in the Nevada desert. The U.S. had entered World War II, but there were troubles. Allied bombs, dropped onto the rooftops of enemy cities, were failing to have the intended devastating effect; since Germany’s top-level topography was different than what America had reckoned. The government enlisted Mendelsohn’s aid (or rather, Mendelsohn volunteered) in designing a mock German village for purposes of target practice. Mendelsohn, the architect who in many ways built modern Berlin, was now helping to destroy it; there are unpursued parallels here between Einstein and the Manhattan Project. The German Village period might be the pinnacle of the Mendelsohnian tragedy, but Dror leaves it up to us to decide. With minimal editorial framing, we are stuck weighing the horrors of Allied firebombing against the evils of Axis aggression. We yearn for a third choice, and wonder if such a thing is possible.

Though for many Americans this will be the first they’ve heard of him, Dror is no rookie: Incessant Visions is his twentieth film. It carries forward one of the most consistent themes in his body of work: the inner turmoil of the displaced wanderer. His 2005 documentary The Journey of Van Nguyen tells the story of Vietnamese refugees in Israel who long to go back home, while Café Noah, from 1996, explores the musical lives of Iraqi and Egyptian Jews who fled their homes and rebuilt in Israel, finding support in their musical traditions. Dror is a documentary maker who cares deeply for, and empathizes with, his subjects, but he also has the cunning discipline of a cinematically-minded documentarian, never allowing sentimentalism or didacticism to trump the story.

If there is a philosophical statement in Incessant Visions, one can find it in the following brief scene, occurring about halfway through the film — Dror attempts to gain access to Ruperhorn, the private residence in Berlin that Mendelsohn built as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. He designed everything from the silverware on the kitchen table to the dresses that hung in his wife’s wardrobe. After leaving Berlin, the Mendelsohns never saw the house again. Ruperhorn, now privately owned, is closed to the public, and there is brief footage of the film crew sneaking in the gates, trying to capture the great Haus of a master, and being unceremoniously kicked out. Moments like this bring us back to the jarring reality of the present, and remind us of just how much of the past can never be illuminated, no matter how expertly a documentary maker like Dror tells the story.

Incessant Visions will be screening on March 6th at the JCC in Manhattan.


After a Q&A session at the Lincoln Center on Wednesday, January 25, I sat down with director Duki Dror to discuss his new film, his next film, and a rooftop childhood.

GALO: You mentioned that you first got interested in Mendelsohn in 2002, when Tel Aviv was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you learned more about the architecture of the city. But how did that lead to a film?

Duki Dror: It didn’t. It started with a kind of intellectual curiosity about the properties of my hometown, about who is responsible for how Tel Aviv looks. In 2003 there was a special conference on Mendelsohn in Jerusalem at the Van Leer Institute, so I said, “Oh, let’s go hear what the experts have to say. Maybe I can learn about the man.” The first lecture was by an architect who talked about Mendelsohn’s lost eye and how it is sort of reflected in his buildings [Mendelsohn lost an eye in 1921 due to a malignant tumor]. There was another lecture about his life story, and there were some pieces read from his letters. Slowly I discovered that Mendelsohn is the type of character I’m drawn to. Usually I’m drawn to dreamers who have to reinvent themselves in every place they go. The idea of fleeing Germany and taking a train to Amsterdam, and saying that he’s got a pencil and now he’s opening a new office – that’s the spirit of a dreamer, of a man who really cares about his art, his ideas. I thought, ‘Yeah, I should make a film about Mendelsohn.’

GALO: There’s a lot of historical research behind Incessant Visions. How did you decide on the structure of the film? What was the process like?

DD: I said to myself, “First let’s do the interviews with the experts and see what the structure of his life story is.” I wanted to know what the biography was and then try to understand how it would fall into the dramatic line of the story. Very early on, I discovered the memoir of Louise; when I read it, I said, “Ok, she’s going to be the storyteller.” Still, that was a very early stage. I had a sketchy idea about how I wanted to integrate the past and present, how I wanted to integrate voiceover from the past onto the present.

GALO: You say that you knew as soon as you read the memoir that Luise’s voice would be the one we hear most often, but why tell a story about Erich Mendelsohn using his wife’s words?

DD: Well, it’s not a fact that the film is about Erich Mendelsohn. It could be about Luise Mendelsohn at the same time. Some people who watch the film say this is a film about Luise just as much, or even more. I developed it with my wife [Galia Engelmayer-Dror] and we had this reflective story in between, trying to understand the roles of each character. She was the scriptwriter with me, but she did most of the work with Luise’s manuscript, and she — well, she stood up for Luise. There were two forces during this production, and Luise’s was strong. We would fight and my wife would say, “Oh, you’re so controlling, nobody can work with you.”

GALO: Did you feel in some ways that you were reliving the arguments between Luise and Erich? That you were fighting for Erich’s vision, and your wife was fighting for Luise’s?

DD: You know, you put yourself in the psychological context of these two people who are both in a way very creative and one has to give up her life or her career for another one and be his muse, be his mother, his comforter, whatever. One hundred years later there are many similarities and many dissimilarities.

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