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Mendelsohn's Incessant Visions [Blu-ray]

Erich Mendelsohn , Louise Mendelsohn , Duki Dror  |  Blu-ray

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This award-winning creative homage, illuminates the life of German Jewish Expressionist architect Erich Mendelsohn. The visionary Mendelsohn, a contemporary of Walter Gropius and Miese van der Rohe, produced works that have influenced generations of architects. His story unfolds through the letter exchange with Louise, a beautiful young cellist , who became his wife. The director, Duki Dror, gently breathes life into the correspondence of two passionate artists who helped each other weather a turbulent time in history. Mendelsohn s career followed the jagged trajectory of many German Jewish émigrés fleeing Nazism; he worked in England, Israel and finally, in the USA. Mendelsohn s drawings pulsate with energy and his buildings are stunning. His earlier work, the Einstein Tower, is one of the most important exemplars of modern architecture. Dror deftly juxtaposes the architect s original designs with contemporary images, weaving in reflections from architects and locals who use these unique buildings today - a testament to the integrity and timelessness of his visionary design.

Review

Equal parts 'film nerd' and 'architecture nerd,' I was always going to love this film. I already counted myself as a fan even before having seen it. A film about a deservedly renowned architect doesn't get released without catching my attention. (Can "How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?" please get released soon?) What makes "Incessant Visions" so wonderful is that it's not just a film about Erich Mendelsohn's work, it's about his life, his marriage and his passion. The film beautifully renders a picture of the icon's brilliance and his personality. This remarkable documentary receives my first five-star review. Mendelsohn was one of the foremost expressionist architects of his day. Nearly all of his sketches and a few of the designs that were brought to fruition would have fit right into any film from the German expressionist movement. Popular film class screener "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is aptly referenced to provide a bit of context for Mendelsohn's early work. We also learn of his relationship with filmmaker Fritz Lang and his involvement with Lang's classic film, "Metropolis." The audience quickly gets acquainted with the architect and his designs through a smoothly edited blend of interviews, sketches and photographs, as well as both new and archive footage. Just as we get to know Mendelsohn's work, we also get to know the man. While his architecture remains how we know him best today, the film's focus rests on the letters between him and his wife, Louise. The narration is a skillful blend of the letters read from both Erich and Louise's perspective as well as a dialogue between two voices; one belonging to a moderator, the other speaking as Louise. Allowing the audience to hear these letters equips the film with a unique emotional weight as we become involved in the lives and marriage of our central characters. Having already seen so much happen to Erich and Louise, by the time World War II begins, we are nearly caught off guard by the new turn of events. A nomadic journey starts as they flee to then-Palestine and then voyage to America, their final home. Though fleeing Germany saved his life, Germany turned their back on Mendelsohn when he served as a consultant for the United States government concerning firebombing tactics in Berlin. Though his complicated relationship with Germany kept them from championing him as one of their most important architects and many of his buildings were lost in the war, Mendelsohn's name deserves more recognition. Incessant Visions is a triumph for Mendelsohn and his legacy, as well as filmmaker, Duki Dror. --REEL GA by Cameron McAllister

Soon after the end of the World War II, in what must be regarded as an act not only of optimism but of defiant courage, members of Congregation B'nai Amoona in St. Louis commissioned the great architect Erich Mendelsohn to design a synagogue for them. A Jew, an artist and an intellectual, Mendelsohn fled Germany, Holland, the United Kingdom and even Palestine to escape almost certain death by the Nazis. He ended up in 1945 in America. He settled in San Francisco, where he died in 1953. The connection between the St. Louis congregation and him was Erwin V. Weichmann. As a young architect, Mendelsohn had designed a store for him, in what was then Silesia. When the time came to build a new house of worship for B'nai Amoona - the children of faith - Weichmann (who changed his name to Winston) suggested Mendelsohn. Although the synagogue's members did not universally embrace the choice, we must thank those who approved of this radically modern building. Their legacy is the building at 524 Trinity Avenue in University City. On Sunday (Nov. 13) at 3 p.m., in a marvelously appropriate selection, a movie called "Incessant Visions" will be shown in the synagogue, now art center, building. The visionary founders of the Center of Cultural Arts (COCA) saved the edifice, unmistakably Mendelsohnian, from probable destruction. It has been well used as a temple of learning and a vessel of the arts. The movie is a braid of three complex skeins: architecture, culture and personal biography. The latter is eloquently, poignantly addressed in the autobiographical words of Mendelsohn's wife, the beautiful, exquisitely articulate cellist Louise Maas Mendelsohn, and through letters written by her and Mendelsohn. The culture - well, the culture of Europe in the mid-20th century, especially as it affected intellectuals, avant-garde artists and Jews - is always and ever with us. Mendelsohn's buildings, and his drawings and his resolute commitment to the spirit and the manifestation of the new, give definition to the word genius. Giants of architecture tend toward grandiosity; forever, it seems, they regard their individual visions as the ones that will reinvent, purify, glorify and bring beauty and impose rationality on the chaos that distinguishes our world. Mendelsohn was no exception. As Louise Mendelsohn explains, he wanted to control everything he touched, including her. He was, of course, confounded constantly in ways both trivial and cataclysmic. "Incessant Visions," both the title of the movie and a profound condition of Mendelsohn's existence, is an affecting and telling documentary, a story of bravery, genius, infidelity, triumphs and tragedy. I hope many will make time for Duki Dror's fine picture. Once you see the show, you may wonder why he did not include the B'nai Amoona-COCA building is in the film. My guess is because, in the inventory of works by Mendelsohn, it is problematical. His "incessant vision" of it was on a Missouri hillside rather than an urban street corner. No matter. B'nai Amoona-COCA survives, and remains to enrich our regional treasury. The film provides a sweeping look at many other Mendelsohn buildings standing and lost. Filmed through a sheer veil of melancholy, it accomplishes what art is meant to, and that is to touch our souls and animate our intellects, while revealing to us worlds that for good and ill surround us and exist as well within ourselves. --St. Louis Beacon By Robert W. Duffy, Beacon Associate Editor

The documentaries on creative artists not only uncover fascinating biographies but raise awareness and appreciation of their oeuvres. Incessant Visions: Letters from an Architect intimately reveals the peripatetic life and stunning work of Erich Mendelsohn, supplemented by readings from the memoirs by his cellist wife Louise. From the tiny sketches for a new modern architecture that he sent to her from the trenches of World War I, he went on to design an astronomical observatory for Einstein (his wife s chamber music partner). Mendelsohn went on to become a popular architect of department stores, theaters, and factories in Germany (mostly for Jewish owners) he was so busy and controlling that his wife left him for an affair with a Communist poet. Since she always managed his practice and correspondence his eyesight was compromised by a war injury he wooed her back with a Berlin house he designed to every furnished detail (perfect for hosting soirees with artist friends like Wassily Kandinsky). They lived there until his expulsion from the architectural association cued them to flee. (His sleek, modernist gem of a community center in England still starkly stands out from a Victorian neighborhood; he boasted that as long as he had a pencil, he had an office.) Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann recruited him to create a new national architectural style for Israel through large-scale, institutional commissions, but Mendelsohn ended up frustrated that the European refugee intelligentsia instead imitated his German avant-garde work in the world s largest enclave of Bauhaus residences, now disappearing in Tel Aviv redevelopment. Illustrating with the voluminous records that the widow saved, director Duki Dror hunted down Mendelsohn s works on three continents (including his German Village practice bomb site for the U.S. War Department), finding international architecture tourist fans and preservationists who are enthusiastic about restoring his still-striking buildings of curved glass and metal. --Film-Forward By Nora Lee Mandel

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