Free Thaelmann
Thaelmann's trail

by Bert Hogenkamp

from Jump Cut, no. 21, Nov. 1979, p. 27
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

In his reply to my "Workers' Film in Europe" (Critical Dialogue, JUMP CUT 19) Russell Campbell commits an error in attributing the authorship of the film FREE THAELMANN to Ivor Montagu. I can't blame Campbell for this error; he mentions his sources. Yet doing historical research on the workers' film movements in the 1920s and 1930s is like fooling around with an unfamiliar jigsaw puzzle. In the FREE THAELMANN case, the pieces do fit, but they form a totally different picture from the one we would expect.

Several writers assumed that FREE THAELMANN had been compiled by Ivor Montagu, an assumption that I have made public in my article "Film and the Workers' Movement in Britain, 1929-39," Sight and Sound, 1976. [1] During a conversation with Tom Brandon at the 1976 Berlin Film Festival, where Tom presented one of his famous inspiring lecture-filmshows, he confessed to me that he had positively identified the British FREE THAELMANN as a Film & Photo League (i.e., American) production. Brandon said that he had recognized the titles of the film, which he had seen previously in London. I told this to Jonathan Lewis, when he was preparing his film BEFORE HINDSIGHT (which, as Russell Campbell correctly mentioned, contains a clip from FREE THAELMANN).

Lewis told me he had heard somewhere that there had been three different Thaelmann films: a French, an American (produced by the Film & Photo League) and a British (produced by Ivor Montagu for the Progressive Film Institute) one. These three films had used the same footage on Thaelmann that had been smuggled out of Hitler's Germany and brought to Paris. In a letter from Ivor Montagu to me, Montagu stated that he had received film material from German exiles in Paris and compiled a film of it, but that he could not be considered the "author" of the film FREE THAELMANN. [2] It is a well-known fact that Paris was an important center of campaigns against fascism in Western Europe. The British Relief Committee for the Victims of Fascism, of which Montagu was a leading member, used the Thaelmann film in its campaigns and was in close touch with the people in Paris, where eventually Willi Münzenberg moved his WIR headquarters.

There are two different sources left to check these statements: the film itself as it has survived (i.e., the British version) and the contemporary sources. To start with the last. There is only one mention of a film for the Thaelmann liberation campaign in the French CP's daily L'Humanité:

"THE AMERICAN FILM WORKERS JOIN THE STRUGGLE FOR THE LIBERATION OF THAELMANN: New York — The Film & Photo League, composed of film workers and amateurs, has decided at a meeting convened for this purpose to join the worldwide struggle for the liberation of Thaelmann, leader of the German working class. The League starts working immediately on a film that can be used widely for the Thaelmann campaign in the United States. An appeal has been made towards all those working in the film industry and the theatre world, as well as a motion demanding the immediate release of Thaelmann cabled to the German consulate, to the German embassy in Washington and to chancellor Hitler. Sydney Howard, famous American playwright and scriptwriter, member of the national committee of the Film & Photo League, has joined these appeals." [3]

There is, however, no mention in L'Humanité of a French Thaelmann film or, for that matter, of a release in France of the American film.

There is a British source that should be taken very seriously. It quite explicitly credits the American Film & Photo League with the film. Kino News (No. 1, Winter 1935) mentions that FREE THAELMANN "is almost exclusively composed of actual newsreel material from Germany before and after Hitler, assembled in America" (my italics). [4] The film was released on Friday, July 26, 1935, at a meeting of the Relief Committee for the Victims of Fascism in London. The British Board of Film Censors banned public exhibition of the film. One of the shots in the film showed Thaelmann behind prison bars, which led the British film censors

"so far as to suggest that Thaelmann must be a criminal as he was in prison, citing some law against publicity being given to criminals. Interesting to note that this law was apparently forgotten when newsreels of Brun [sic] Hauptmann, of the Lindberg kidnapping case, were shown." [5]

In fact, the rather clumsy photomontage of Thaelmann behind bars was realistic enough for the British censors to ban the film.

The print of FREE THAELMANN that has survived shows enough proof of its American origin. For example, Thaelmann is introduced on one of the first titlecards as a "longshoreman." Britons would never use this word; they would say "docker." Given the fact of the American origin of this titlecard, one wonders if the original Film & Photo League film on Thaelmann was a sound film at all and if so, of what the soundtrack was composed (music, a speech by Earl Browder?). Towards the end of the film an American cop appears, and certainly not a British bobby. This is further proof of the American origin of the film. Given the length of the British version, it seems highly probable that Ivor Montagu reedited and adapted the American version of the film. Montagu is probably quite right in remarking that he received the footage for the Thaelmann film through Parisian anti-fascists. But it was edited footage, assembled by the Film & Photo League. For this film, the FPL people used footage on events in the Weimar Republic leading up to the Nazi takeover, footage taken from German workers' films like: BLUTI1AI 1929 (Phil Jutzi), MAY 1930 IN BERLIN (Weltfilm), DER ROTE FRONT MARSCHIERT (Prometheus Film), etc. There are some shots from Pudovkin's DESERTER. The post-1933 footage seems to be enacted or is composed of photos and photomontages (c.f. Thaelmann behind bars). Through Weltfilm, the German workers' films had been spread over Europe, and it was therefore possible in the U.S. to have access to this footage. It was certainly not true that all of the footage had to be smuggled out of Hitler's Germany.

I would call FREE THAELMANN a Montagu version of a U.S. Film & Photo League production. In medieval history it is common to establish pedigrees for manuscripts. In the history of workers' cinema one could do the same, as the above story makes clear. There are other examples: the Scottsboro footage (shot by the FPL people and used by the Belgian ILD), the sequence of the Ambridge strike (shot by an RKO-Pathé newsreel cameraman, used by the FPL for AMERICA TODAY and subsequently by Joris Ivens and Henry Storck in MISÈRE AU BORINAGE) or footage from the French Communist Party's 1936 election film LA VIE EST A NOUS, directed by Jean Renoir, used in the Dutch Communist Party's LAUD IN ZICHT (LAND AHEAD; 1937) and Ivor Montagu's PEACE AND PLENTY (1939). Rather than make an academic sport of this, one can only stress the internationalism of the 1930s workers' film movement, but on the other hand prove its typical national character.


1. "Interview: Ivor Montagu," Screen, 13, No. 3 (Autumn 1972); Jonathan Lewis, "Before Hindsight," Sight & Sound (Spring 1977).

2. Ivor Montagu, letter to the author, March 10, 1978.

3. L'Humanité (July 14, 1934), p. 4.

4. Kino News, No. 1 (Winter 1935), p. 4.

5. Daily Worker (London) (July 30, 1935), p. 4.


Talking about the FREE THAELMANN jigsaw puzzle, I must confess that I have tried to fit in one piece that was likely to be right, but in the end was not. Relying on my memory (unreliable, it turned out) and the article quoted from L'Humanité, I attributed the original Thaelmann film ERNEST THAELMANN — FIGHTER AGAINST FASCISM, to the (American) Film & Photo League. In fact, the film was produced by Garrison Film Distributors, Inc., edited by George Moscov and supervised by Tom Brandon who was responsible too for the titles including the one in which Thaelmann was called a longshoreman. Brandon wrote me this in a letter in October 1975, so I have no excuse at all! The fact that the original Thaelmann film was produced by Garrison makes even more sense, if one knows that Ivor Montagu in an interview (1974) stated that Garrison was the only foreign film group with which the Progressive Film Institute had a regular exchange in the 1930s.