Gerbert Rappaport

1 – 6 April 2008

It was in a small cinema that we gathered. Five mornings in a row in Graz during the Diagonale Film Festival to see about a third of all films directed by Gerbert Rappaport (1908–1983). For those who could spare the time, the retrospective initiated by the Austrian Filmmuseum and SYNEMA could claim the whole week’s attention at the Festival, for we were treated to fine introductions by the curators, the experts on Soviet cinema and on Austrian film history, Barbara Wurm and Olaf Möller (both regular contributors to Senses of Cinema), Brigitte Mayr and Michael Omasta, and their invited guests, namely Aleksandr Rappaport (architecture theorist and son of Gerbert Rappaport), and film historian Petr Bagrov, as well as various sidebar talks that created an air of a public privatissimum. This concentration was a gift, since, apart from a few films in a retrospective on exiled filmmakers in 1993, (1) none of Rappaport’s films have been shown in Austria before. Furthermore only a few have been screened outside Russia.

In 1934 the Austrian Gerbert Rappaport accepted an offer by Lenfilm in the Soviet Union. There he debuted with an internationally acclaimed anti-fascist masterpiece and stayed for 40 years – the only immigrant who established a constant career there – directing over 20 films, ranging from comedy to music, to War-Film Anthologies (Boevye kinosborniki), (2) spy and detective stories; recording diverse theatre and ballet productions; and (less of free choice) building up the state owned Tallinnfilm in the then Baltic Soviet Republic of Estonia.

The more we saw of Rappaport’s work, the more striking the question: why haven’t we seen it before? Yet, it is difficult to find an accurate form to approach a biography in its historical context, which has lay dark in cinema history for so long. Though only about a third of all works was screened, to structurally show the reasons for the oblivions, the spillings, was the great achievement of this curatorial effort.

Herbert Otto Jacob Rappaport was born into a notable Jewish family in Vienna in 1908. His grandfather was a doctor and writer working under the synonym Max Reinau; his father, Dr Moritz Rappaport, a psychoanalyst and expert on Freud. The young Rappaport went to school with Fred Zinnemann, who he met again in Berlin 1928, while he started working for Georg Wilhelm Pabst in Germany and France. (3) In the course of becoming his assistant director he followed Pabst to the USA, where he then separated from his mentor. According to his own notes the reason for this was ideological: while Rappaport then regarded himself as communist, he described Pabst as having become more reactionary. (4)

Nevertheless, Pabst’s reputation was beyond doubt in the Soviet Union. Rappaport received an invitation from Lenfilm in Leningrad (the smaller sister of Mosfilm in Moscow) to co-direct the anti-Nazi film Professor Mamlok (1938) together with Adolf Minkin, adapting the stage drama by Friedrich Wolf, who also worked on the script. The film is perhaps the widely most known in Rappaport’s career, clear and precise in play as in structure.

Professor Mamlok

The story, set in Germany (entirely filmed in Leningrad), unfolds with two characters; a Jewish doctor who believes science to be a free discipline, and his son, who can’t imagine approaching any discipline in a manner disentangled from the political reality of the rise of the NSDAP (Nazi party). When the word “Jude” (“Jew”) is written on the chest of the professor’s surgical jacket in an act of official anti-Semitic humiliation, the aseptic white acts as the screen for what before was beyond his grasp. In this image (exceptional casting in Semyon Mezhinsky), as well as that of the doctor wearing thick, dark gloves in the bright operating room, Georgi Filatov’s high-contrast photography brings anti-Semitic division to light – with haunting precision. The film’s ending differs from the one in the play: instead of dying by suicide, Mamlok provokes to get shot by the Nazis in order to save the life of his son and his communist comrades. The showdown is a dramatic balcony-set mise en scène with a bookshop named “Herman Hesse” in the background.

For all its resignation, Professor Mamlok still posits the possibility of a communist Germany, a topic that a much later film directed by Rappaport refers back to, at the end of WWI. Schwarzer Zwieback (1971), significantly, is a DEFA Studio (East Germany) and Lenfilm co-production. After the return of German prisoners of war from Russia, Lenin encourages a young revolutionary, Tanja (beautiful Natalya Varley), to lead a train of bread westwards and make a solidarity gesture to their starving comrades in Germany. In 1918 during the cessation of the constitutional monarchy, Karl Liebknecht had just declared the Free Socialist Republic (parallel to the declaration of the Parliamentarian Republic). Nevertheless, the film’s emotional center is the red coloured, joyful parade on the occasion of the first anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia. The folkloric disposal of the past for a shared future also stimulates the affection between Tanja and a German soldier. The catalogue text (5) refers to the film’s bad reputation, and one can only imagine that the nostalgic view of a past most people did not participate in, a Weimar motive two generations later, was not the (film) language of GDR viewers who would then look for unification in an autonomous way. Though 30 years separate them, Schwarzer Zwieback could be approached closely to Professor Mamlok. It is Rappaport’s only film in German. An impossible homecoming in a double-sense.

As is generally known, the revolution never came. In the course of time communism formally opposed 1920s German “bourgeois expressionism” with a full commitment to realism (allowing new objective aesthetics). There were a few anti-Nazi films, before 1939, however, as soon as the Molotow-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact was signed, films explicitly attacking National Socialist ideology were annulled – and so such was the fate of Professor Mamlok. Still distributed as anti-Fascist piece in France, Spain and England, the film was no longer shown in the Soviet Union (6) (and in contrast to Eisenstein’s Aleksandr Nevskiy (1938) it certainly wasn´t explicit enough to be rediscovered when the pact was broken).

Similar was the (mis)fortune of Rappaport’s second film in the USSR. Gost (1939), again co-directed with Adolf Minkin. Gost. is a spy-thriller, an adventurous drama, set against the background of the border conflicts in Manchuria (and assumable the population movements to Siberia during the time). One of the main characters here is a Japanese spy who pretends to be a doctor, thereby claiming the help of an indigenous Nenet nomad named Avok to lead him South to the border of Manchuria. The chasings and tracings through the Siberian High along the endless snow dunes involve fantastic photography (again, Georgi Filatov) and montage techniques of dislocation, complimenting a claustrophobic descent into in an environment with unreachable ends. Still, the adventure makes identification difficult, given the ethnic stereotypes of the ultra naive Avok (who takes so long to get what the viewer is told from the start) and the not very tricky but mean Japanese spy. No one can say how it would have been received in 1939, since the film was locked away until 2006. The reason for this seems that the year the film was due to be released, a peace treaty was signed with Japan on the Manchurian matter, and the negative depiction of the Japanese spy retarded its distribution. (7)

Professor Mamlok

Back in the late 20s, at a time when Soviet-German film distributors were still enjoying a good exchange, the young Rappaport, at that time living in Berlin, wrote a letter to Fred Zinnemann in Hollywood, speculating if “art is the worthy discrepancy between effort and matter (…) I consider that the less I need to obtain an impact, the closer I have come to art”. (8) He asked Zinnemann to excuse his generalisation, but in a way it grasps most of his early films’ intriguing simplicity.

Such is Sto za odnogo (1941, part of War Film-Anthology No. 2), a dense miniature of dialectical materialism, where Yugoslavian war prisoners perform a successful takeover against Nazi soldiers using the shovels that they were given to dig their own grave with.

The War Film-Anthology contributions are the furthest that Rappaport was allowed to go in the task of encouraging national defense (he expressed his wish to do more, but wasn’t given the opportunity). Nevertheless the director continued to make films during the war and due to his knowledge in music and composition, he diversified the Soviet music film – which was formerly situated in the genre of the kolkhoz musical comedy or Hollywood inspired productions. Musicals, operetta, dance productions and recordings all together dominate his career until the late ‘60s. Muzykalnaya istoriya (1940), directed together with Aleksandr Ivanovsky, is Rappaport’s fist work in this genre. It tells the success story of a singing cab driver who is discovered by an old conductor. The cabby’s rising career carries heavily the price of hard labour, even – or especially (!) – in art. The focus is now on the pure voice and all the places it can conquer. In a late sequence, we hear the same man, who has previously not known how to divide notes, on stage holding the last tone of his aria while a train (visually it’s all about trains, cables, clocks, and roundabouts!) moves towards the camera, while never reaching it. Certainly it is not the tone that stands still, it is the train, but both together create a fantastic image of movement. The subtle play with sound montage and the delusion of city life is what adds the lively operetta modernist accents – by someone, who called Dziga Vertov’s Chelovek s kinoapparatom (Man With a Movie Camera, 1929) “boring” (9) …and worse.

Rappaport’s solo directing debut Vozdushnyj izvozchik (1943) is similar in its affection for the decoupling of the voice. This is no pure coincidence, again it is a music film and both were written by the gifted Yevgeny Petrov. Here the transmission of Natascha’s (Lyudmila Celikovskaya) opera voice in the cockpit will give courage to her beloved Ivan, a pilot. He can finally, in the midst of war, gain back the adventurous heroism that he thought he had lost when “degraded” to a taxi driver in the air. The film was shown fully in War Film-Anthology No. 12 with Vera Stroeva’s Syn Boyca (1942). Vozdushnyj izvozchik and The War Film Anthology No. 12 had already been produced in the collective Exile Studio COKS [TSOKS] in Alma-Ata. Rappaport’s part in the album is Vanka (1942), a Yugoslav partisan film, a musical, a children’s film. And it remained his only children’s film. After the war, in 1947, he was sent to build up the Soviet studios in annexed Estonia, realising mainly theatre-, music- and dance-productions.

Coincidentally, or perhaps given his conceptual sincerity, in all the three films and sketches of the late ‘50s that were shown, Rappaport applies a similar technique, that merge templates, a montage of alien genres. Son bolelshchika (1953) and Kak verevochka ni v’etsya (1961) are both humorous short films from that period. Son boleiscika is a football game on the one hand, a ballet piece of pirouettes and turns on the other (ballet dancers in tricots meet a Hitler-moustached referee). The second is a newsreel-style fake-documentary in the midst of the Khrushchev Thaw. Announcing a successful way to transgress the quotas in plan economy, a commentator states that the amount of thick strings produced in factory A scientifically proves to be the ideal raw resource to produce thin strings in factory B, and vice versa. In addition, while the resources are exchanged beyond factories (producing surpluses to the plans), citizens would have become more inventive for living without strings at all (examples are given).

The end of the Thaw saw the release of internationally better-known Cheremushki (1962), an adaptation of Dmitri Shostakovich’s only operetta. In the line of an “art, that is closely entangled with the life of the people”, (10) the dictum of anti-formalism is still intact, when Rappaport here merges social-realism with the dreamlike, colorful, gay friendliness of the popular musical (popular in the US, but then rather unknown in the USSR). Again, it is this genre marriage that bears the fine irony. The social topic is the well educated stratum of young couples waiting for their keys to the new social building park, the artificial city outside the centre, namely Cheremushki; architectural utopia, geometry as the constructivist dream, administrated to a humanitarian nightmare. In the objectivity of the form mingles the network of the crooks, who (cushioning a possible critique) are in the end defective projections of the intact, socialistic body. The scientific allusion that makes its way subtly from the ether to the moon, could be (à la Richard Barbrook): who knows the future, owns the present.

Dva bileta na dnevnoy seans

This prediction is consolidated in Dva bileta na dnevnoy seans (1966), a patent spy thriller with the detached, mystic elegance (known of the new generation Russian and French filmmakers) and the calm concentration of Rappaport’s earlier films. The film is set between the bureau for socialist property and the scientific community, the quote here comes from a young scientist, “There is this sport, the ‘Sac Race’: the winner is not who jumps the best, it’s who has found a way with the sac”. Rappaport’s third period starts here, one that is dedicated to detective and crime stories.

The booklet (11) in German that accompanied the retrospective contains 48 pages of thoroughly edited introductions, biographic and historic research (including notes on a discussion with Fred Zinnemann about Rappaport), film reviews and cast data, a previously-unpublished autobiographical text as well as the letter from 1929 quoted. “Anyway, I can only say we have come to the world too late, for the quarter of a century.” Rappaport wrote, “Those Russians didn’t spare one anything of beauty.” (12) A quarter of a century is exactly the period that we have come too late as well, to pay the director the respect that would have been appropriate in his lifetime. Gerbert Rappaport died in obscure circumstances in his flat in Leningrad in 1983. In accordance with his will his wife ensured that his body was buried in his family grave in Vienna.

Let’s come back to the initial question of why Gerbert Rappaport was rather unknown to the (Austrian) audience. In A History of Russian and Soviet Film, Jay Leyda mentions Rappaport’s works a few times, but he is nevertheless guided by his attention for Mosfilm directors like Eisenstein and Dovzhenko. (13) Keep in mind that Soviet cinema during the Stalin era was nationalistic and rather monoethnic (suspicions directed towards individuals working in the industry of supporting separatism, a so called Trotzkyism, Internationalism…). In that light Rappaport’s career, as the retrospective demonstrated, was an exclusion, an exception. He was an Austrian from a Jewish family who was given a visa at the beginning of the war (legend has it, through the influence of Eisenstein’s Ivan-Star Nikolai Cherkasov), evading anti-Semite repressions or pogroms (like those towards Leonid Trauberg, or actress Carola Neher). A director who is strongly perceived as German but remains unaffected by the ethnic expulsion of the German/Austrian emigrant scene (Erwin Piscator, the closing of Mezhrabpomfilm etc.). Understandably studies on Soviet cinema would perceive his maneuvers through the classic Soviet genres as likeable, (14) but rather affirmative. The first apriority (the transnational, biographical interest and differentiation), however, is the starting point for Exile Studies, methodologically bridging a gap that classical Film Studies or Art History would rather produce. It is this engagement that then enabled film historians to locate Rappaport’s directing approach cinematically as well (p.ex. by importantly arguing, that due to his background his work was seminal for certain genres, like the tenor film). (15) Yet, no Austrian university holds a chair for Exile Studies, and extra-university research institutes like SYNEMA as well as the ÖGE (Austrian Society for Exile Studies) are keeping the issues alive. Compared to Germany, general consciousness is rising rather slowly. Still, for many current questions, one being arts and interculturality (reopening difficult discussions on nationalism and particularism), and the shift from ideological to structural research, we may expect another wake up in the future.

In sum, the retrospective realised by the sympathetic coupling of Wurm/Möller, SYNEMA/Austrian Filmmuseum (that then also gave the show a homeplay in Vienna), was far from a view through a large historic telescope on a single discovery. It put into perspective what lies beside our instruments. An approach, as humble as it is felicitous, and of highly current importance.

The Diagonale website: http://www.diagonale.at/


  1. The accompanying book to the first retrospective on Austrian filmmakers in exile is Michael Omasta and Christian Cargnelli, Aufbruch ins Ungewisse, Vienna 1993, a collaboration between the editors and SYNEMA Gesellschaft für Film & Medien, Austrian Filmmuseum and VIENNALE (director Alexander Horwath).
  2. These exceptions are Professor Mamlok (1938) in Europe, Cheremushki (US title: Song Over Moscow, 1962) and Mastera russkogo baleta (Stars of the Russian Ballet, 1953) in the US, and one or other in the former GDR.
  3. War Album as translated by Jay Leyda, informal English title: Collection of Films for the Armed Forces. Presented in German as: Kriegsfilmalmanach.
  4. Assistant director to G.W. Pabst in Skandal um Eva (1930), L’Opéra de quat’ Sous (Die 3-Groschen-Oper, 1931) and L’Atlantide (Die Herrin von Atlantis, 1932). Source: Möller, Olaf / Wurm, Barbara “Von forcierter Diskretion” in: Omasta, Michael / Wurm, Barbara (ed.) Regie: Rappaport, SYNEMA Publikationen, Vienna 2008, p.11.
  5. Olaf Möller and Barbara Wurm, “Schwarzer Zwieback” in: Michael Omasta and Barbara Wurm (eds), Regie: Rappaport, SYNEMA Publikationen, Vienna 2008, p. 30.
  6. Regie: Rappaport Ibid. p. 12.
  7. Regie: Rappaport Ibid. p. 13.
  8. “(…) Kunst ist die würdige Discrepanz zwishen Aufwand und Inhalt (…) ich bin der Ansicht, dass, je weniger ich bedarf, um eine entsrechende Wirkung zu erzielen, ich um so naeher an die Kunst heranrücke” Original: “Letter by Herbert Rappaport (Berlin) to Fred Zinnemann (Hollywood)”, 19.11.1929, estate Rappaport (4.3-83/40-2), Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin. Reprinted: Regie: Rappaport Ibid. p. 5.
  9. “ausgesprochen schlecht. Langweilig (…)”, in: Regie: Rappaport Ibid. p. 7.
  10. “(…) daß die einzig richtige, die einzige wahrhaft progressive Richtung in der Kunst die eng mit dem Leben des Volkes und mit den Quellen des Volksliedes verbundene realistische Kunstrichtung ist” Dmitrij Shostakovich, “Sowjetskikaja Muskyka”, No. 8, 1953, In: GDR Staatliches Komitee für Filmwesen Beiträge zu Fragen der Filmkunst, Heft 2, p. 15, German translation: Sigrid Kasan.
  11. Michael Omasta and Barbara Wurm (eds), Regie: Rappaport, SYNEMA Publikationen, Vienna 2008.
  12. “Jedenfalls kann ich nur sagen, wir sind in jeder Beziehung um ¼ Jahrhundert zu spät auf die Welt gekommen. Diese Russen lassen einem aber auch gar nichts Schönes mehr übrig. Was die leisten, ist ja nun wirklich phenomenal.” Regie: Rappaport Ibid. p. 5.
  13. Jay Leyda, A History of the Russian and Soviet Film, George Allen and Unwin, Great Britain, 1960.
  14. “likely likeable”, Regie: Rappaport, p. 8.
  15. The curatorial team argued, importantly, that it wasn’t scriptwriter Yevgeny Petrov who found a new way to merge the bourgeois operetta tradition with every day life. Since the main topic of the 30’s’ tenor film in Europe had the proletarian self-fulfillment already dramatised, Rappaport and Aleksandr Ivanovskij would both have known about the genre. Source: Regie: Rappaport Ibid. p. 22.