I have for some years been fascinated by the profound influence that the immigrants fleeing from Nazi Germany and latterly Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the thirties had on the arts, sciences and business of the United Kingdom. Daniel Snowman’s fine book; The Hitler Émigrés’, which is a significant influence on the genesis of this film, explains in detail how a generation of disenfranchised and frightened people – mainly, but not exclusively Jews, re-energised serious thinking and creativity in Britain to the extent that their legacy resonates to this day.
In order to reflect the importance of this subject – and its contemporary relevance, I needed to find a unique visual image and when I discovered the archive of the eminent Austrian émigré portrait photographer Lotte Meitner-Graf everything else slotted into place. Lotte’s escape from Vienna in 1938 after the Anschluss mirrored the experience of many of her compatriots and subsequent subjects. She settled in London and after the war opened a studio at 23 Old Bond Street, now Stella McCartney’s London headquarters – which Ms. McCartney allowed us to film in. Between 1939 and her death in 1973 Lotte Meitner-Graf photographed pretty well everyone that I wanted to reference in the film and these beautiful images are our portal into a fascinating world of achievement against the odds.
We have recreated Lotte’s studio, based on advice and recollection from several people who knew her well. From this base we have explored the extraordinary lives of extraordinary immigrants, many of who were initially interned as ‘enemy aliens’ on the Isle of Man and subsequently made such an extraordinary difference to all aspects of post war life in Britain. Punctuated by re-enations of various stages of celluloid photography we hear about the extraordinary achievements of scientists such as Otto Frisch, Rudolph Peierls and Joseph Rotblat, who pioneered nuclear fission and subsequently embraced nuclear disarmament. Eminent architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw shares his understanding of major architects such as Erich Mendelssohn and Peter Moro, who helped design London’s Royal Festival Hall. We include performance elements at the actual London home of the ‘Laterndl’ Theatre club of the war years, where Viennese actors introduced Londoners to political cabaret and émigré actor Martin Miller gave his wicked and hilarious Hitler ‘speeches’. Whilst in our recreation of the Isle of Man internment camp, we explore the life and work of Hans Gal, another internee whose significance as a major composer of the period has only recently emerged. (Gal’s Fugues for piano provide the score for the film and his exquisite solo ‘cello Cavatina’ accompanies the end titles). And the inimitable Humphrey Burton tells us about working with internee Hans Keller at the BBC and the great lieder performances of Ilse Wolf with pianists Paul Hamburger and Martin Isepp.
Historians such as Eric Hobsbawm compete for our attention with economists like Friedrich Hayek. John Makinson, until recently Chairman and Chief Executive of Penguin Random House shares his stories about the great émigré publishers – George Weidenfeld, Andre Deutsch, Paul Hamlyn et al and Janis Susskind, Managing Director of Boosey and Hawkes does the same for the music publishers. Various galleries and collections have opened their doors to us, in order that we can explore the work of artists ranging from Schwitters to Herman and ceramicists Lucie Rie and Hans Coper.
Throughout the film we have commentary from author of ‘The Hitler Emigres’, Daniel Snowman and revered Austrian émigré composer Joseph Horovitz. At the beginning of the film Lord Alf Dubs, who escaped from Prague in 1939 on the Kinder transport, aged only six, tells us of his experiences and at the end of the film asks if we could not show the same generosity to Syrian orphans in 2018 as was shown to him in 1939. It is a fact that refugees fleeing for their lives from terrible regimes will almost always make positive contributions to their new country – a point made most eloquently by Lord Dubs.
Throughout the making of this film, many serendipitous connections and events have occurred and I have made a lot of new friends who have contributed to the project in different ways. There are, perhaps two things that make me particularly happy; At a recent screening I was able to introduce Joe Horovitz to Alf Dubs – two grand old men of music and politics, who over nearly eighty years have given so much to the UK, but had never met until that night. And Daniel Snowman’s response to the world premiere at London’s famous Phoenix Cinema: ‘A super film – which as we used to say at the BBC, managed to educate, entertain and inform!’
I hope audiences everywhere and on every screen format will be educated, entertained and informed by ‘Through Lotte’s Lens’.
Tony Britten – Director, Through Lotte’s Lens
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