FilmFest: Re-tracing Mendelsohn

Welcome to the yowLAB Film Festival discussion for our first film, Mendelsohn’s Incessant Visions, by Duki Dror, Zygote Films. Our reviewer this month is yowLAB co-director Sarah Gelbard. Her review/synopsis is included below.


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We hope you enjoy the film and the discussion. Without further ado. . .

Re-tracing Mendelsohn

This fascinating documentary starts in Germany. The film crew is standing in Potsdamer Platz with a photo, trying to locate the site of one of Mendelsohn’s buildings. The only remaining landmark seems to be the clocktower.

Potsdamer Platz, Berlin

Potsdamer Platz, Berlin. Source: Mendelsohn’s Incessant Visions

Like many parts of Berlin, the square was decimated by air raids that wiped out Nazi control and presence. It lay in ruins through most of the Cold War and today bares few traces of its past.

Like many German Jewish artists and thinkers, Mendelsohn’s prolific work in Germany before WWII, was also nearly eradicated and erased. The film traces through the traces of Mendelsohn’s buildings in Germany and takes us through the journey of how, as is stated in the film:

The famous German architect who built Berlin,
later helped Americans to destroy Berlin.

With a couple detours through England and Palestine along the way.

Part 1: Forgotten home

bet_taharaThough almost always referred to as a “German Jewish architect”, Mendelsohn was originally from Olsztyn (present day Poland).

Similarly, he is almost always exclusively known for his monumental, modern, sculptural sketches and buildings. So the inconspicuous Bet Tahara in Olsztyn was an unexpected surprise.

Apparently as forgotten as Mendelsohn and the rest of the Jewish presence in this town, the building is undergoing restoration to reconnect with an almost lost history.

It was hard to get a proper appreciation of the space of this modest funerary building. It reminded me of another Jewish architect’s humble beginnings – Louis Kahn’s Trenton Bath House.

Part 2: Erich, Louise, and Einstein

Following his service in WWI, Mendelsohn settles in Berlin with his wife Louise. The film uses the couple’s correspondence to weave the story together. It is a storyline I will set aside for the most part in this review with the exception of this one point I find particularly intriguing:

einstein_tower_potsdam_2Mendelsohn is probably most recognized for one of his earliest projects – the project that launched his prolific career in Germany before WWII and typically shows up next to his name in architecture history textbooks – the Einstein Tower in Potsdam. The tower is an astrophysical observatory designed to validate Einstein’s theory of relativity.

How did theoretical physicist meet experimental architect? Louise was a cellist who occasionally played in quartets with Einstein.

It paints such a fascinating picture of the time and place. The Academy. Intellectuals and artists of all disciplines interacting, collaborating, and developing history-changing ideas and movements.

Part 3: Inter-war Berlin

The skeptics who thought Mendelsohn could never transform his suggestive sketches into actual architecture now had concrete proof that he could. Mendelsohn became one of Germany’s most sought after architects. Theatres. Offices. Department stores. Residences.

schocken berlin berlin_2

And then what I imagine is one of the most difficult client and rewarding project of any architect’s career; his own home. The film describes the obsessive extremes of detailing everything down to the furniture, the dining wear, and even Louise’s dresses and jewelry.

mendelsohn_residence2Mendelsohn photographed his residence and compiled it into a book, which the narrator comments: “with this book, he had the opportunity to take his house with him”. And shortly after its construction, he would have to.

In 1933, he received notice that non-Aryans would no longer be recognized as members of the Academy. Mendelsohn and Louise, like many other Jewish members of the Academy, left their home and chose self-exile, narrowly escaped Germany before the war. And the Nazis began to erase the traces they left behind.

Part 4: England’s “wake up call to the 20thC”

bexhill_de_la_warr2The Mendelsohns find themselves moving to England where Erich was awarded the competition for the De la Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on the South coast.

In addition to its shockingly modern design (arguably the first “modern” building in England), the award of the contract to a German architect as war seemed eminent caused significant controversy.

He was cast out of Germany for his Jewish heritage. It appears his German heritage would continue to shadow him everywhere else.

Part 5: A national architect for the old/new Jewish homeland

While in England, Mendelsohn befriended Chaim Weizmann, president of the Zionist Organization and later the first president of Israel. Weizmann convinced Mendelsohn to move to Palestine and design his home. Mendelsohn convinced Weizmann that this home needed to be the expression of Jewish culture finally made concrete in architecture.

weizmann_residenceThe Weizmann residence is often described as a ship, resting majestically on the mountain tops of Rehovot – A utopian metaphor for the Jewish Diaspora finally finding their way back home and settling in the land of Israel.

Once again, Mendelsohn seemed to be the architect of choice, primarily cultural institutions. Libraries. Universities.

mount_scopusAnd if you couldn’t get Mendelsohn, Mendelsohnian would do. He never built in Tel Aviv but his influence on the “white city” is often claimed/rejected.

But once again, it would appear his German identity was standing between him and success. Despite his stunning design for Mount Scopus, the committee rejected the rest of his proposal for the campus. How could Israel’s national architect be German? The film plays up this point – which I assume was not insignificant but I also assume was only one of many concerns.

Part 6: America

Perhaps disillusioned and disappointed, or perhaps to follow the path of many of the other German Jewish exiles, the Mendelsohns head to the US. Erich connects with Frank Lloyd Wright who shows him sketches for the Guggenheim – which bear striking resemblance to the sculptural sketches Mendelsohn must have shown him on an earlier visit. A retrospective of his work is planned at MoMA and expected to launch his career in America.

german_villageberlin_bombedThe retrospective opens the same week as Pearl Harbor. All focus shifts to war. Unlikely to restart his career now, Mendelsohn offers his service to the US Defense Department. He takes a prominent role in assisting with the development of the incendiary devices used by the allies in the air raids over Germany. His knowledge of German construction was used to build the testing grounds of the “German Village” in Utah.

And so:

“The famous German architect who built Berlin,
later helped Americans to destroy Berlin.”

“What was left of our lives – of Erich’s buildings – Erich chose not to know.”

note: all images included above are screenshots captured from Mendelsohn’s Incessant Visions.

Please help to continue the discussion by submitting your observations and comments below!

  1. krishna said:

    Good article. I didnt know who Mendelsohn was and how influential architects can be.
    Heard about this site from Click Here radio show.

    • Sarah Gelbard said:

      I’m so glad you stopped by to check it out.

  2. Pingback: yowLAB 36 | yowLAB

  3. Margery Gelbard said:

    Finally got to see Mendelsohn Incessant Visions, truly amazing designs and an astounding spirit that moved forward through such hard times.

    • Sarah Gelbard said:

      Certainly makes you wonder what he achieved because of the circumstances, in spite of them, and what he might have without them.

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