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Michael Roemer and The Rite of Rediscovery

The discovery of an unknown work, or the rediscovery of a forgotten artist and subsequent revelation, reappraisal, or variations thereof, have a tendency to happen very slowly, and then all at once. Commercial trends, critical misunderstanding, archival neglect, outright bias and artistic insecurity all play a role in work being obscured, ignored and forgotten. Yet, once reintroduced and reassessed positively—and there is interest in a career in full—the widespread acknowledgement creates a continuum of excitement for the release of a body of unseen works. A major exhibition may present dozens of canvases in one fell swoop, numerous films maybe restored and screened in a retrospective all at once, but rarely, once the seal is broken, does the available work not get seen or disappear once it has.

A film may be commissioned, discarded and salvaged from a junk heap by the filmmakers themselves. Or a film can be released to initial acclaim, and then find an even more enthusiastic audience as years pass. It could also never be released at all, by the filmmaker’s own decision, only be rediscovered (by the filmmaker himself!) two decades later, play major festivals, and then be forgotten again. Or, a film can wait forty years to be released, receive wide acclaim, and occasion a retrospective at the school the filmmaker attended seventy years prior. And there could even be one more feature still waiting a much-deserved theatrical release. In the most extreme example, this can all happen to the same artist, and it did, to one of the great and serious filmmakers of the twentieth century, Michael Roemer.

Michael Roemer was born in Berlin in 1928 and escaped to the UK via Kindertransport in 1939.  After his time at a British school for refugee children, he arrived in America to attend Harvard in 1945. It was during these first two decades of Roemer’s existence, before his arriving in the United States, that he became conscious of the contradictory notions that he has ruminated on throughout his life and which appear in all his work: the interceding of fate that allowed him to live when so many other Jewish children died, and (persuaded through his schooling) that he was neither victim nor survivor due to chance, and was to assume responsibility for his own life.  However obliquely presented in his narrative features, documentaries, published screenplays and essays, there is no separation from these concepts in Roemer’s work. Given the intensity of the films, but also of the actual productions and Roemer’s self-admitted complete surrender to the making of his films, it shows not just an eternalization of these ideas, but a life led under their direction.

So, to begin at what would be, for someone else, their sentimental education, but, for Roemer already what can be considered, after Europe, the rest of his life: Harvard, where his dedication to cinema began in earnest. Jews were forbidden to see films in Berlin during his childhood, and Roemer saw only a dozen or so films in England during the war. At Harvard, Roemer joined the newly founded campus filmmaking society. Previous classes had graduated students that went to work in the film industry, but it was Roemer’s class, the Class of 1949, that produced five future film professionals. Around this time, Roemer met his close friend, and future collaborator, Robert Young.

Most extraordinarily, Roemer directed, to those who are even aware of this historic, precocious feat, what is generally thought to be (recently other contenders for this title have appeared), the first student feature, an hour-long film entitled A Touch of the Times. Premiering at the University Theatre, well-timed on the weekend of the Princeton game, with an enormous crowd gathered in Harvard Square, the film made all its money back from the one show. Commercially, Roemer jokes, it remains his most successful film. All but completely lost to history, this is just the first instance in Roemer’s career of an achievement that should, but did not, carve his name, even lightly, into history. This retrospective at Harvard Film Archive will mark the first time Roemer has been invited back to campus to present his work since that weekend.

Following graduation, Roemer spent most of the following decade working, in nearly every capacity, for Louis de Rochemont, co-creator of The March of Time newsreels. He also made nearly one hundred educational films, including a hard-to-fathom nearly sixty in the years 1957 and 1958. (Apparently, however remarkable, this was not unheard of.) Around the same time, Robert Young, who had been making scientific films, was now employed at NBC’s documentary division, and it was at Young’s invitation, and a long-shared desire to work together, that Roemer joined him to travel to Palermo, Sicily to start production on their first collaboration as writers-producers-directors-photographers-editors, Cortile Cascino.

One thing becomes evident to any contemporary viewer as soon as Cortile Cascino begins, and must have, too, to those at NBC who decided to destroy the negative; this is not the kind of documentary one was used to seeing at the time, and as a few minutes pass, another realization, now, as then, how did they expect this would get on the conservative television of the day? (CBS had broadcast Harvest of Shame in 1960, but Cortile Cascino is something else entirely.) First, a title card states that the film has “Spoken commentary based on actual recorded conversations,” a curious preface, and for the next three quarters of an hour, we meet the residents of Cortile Cascino, per the voiceover, an “ancient slum.” Roemer abhorred the narration, and he would remove large segments of it for the version that now exists, but it does deflect somewhat from the extremity of the images by giving people names and identities. Animal slaughter, child labor, crippling poverty and prostitution are all presented as facts of life in Cortile Cascino, as they are facts of life across the earth, should someone look, which American television might not have thought its postwar audiences were yet ready to, even if it was the reality in their own cities. NBC cancelled the broadcast days before the scheduled airdate, yet remarkably, the person tasked with junking the negative admired the film and made a dupe, which is the source that allowed the film to be saved.

In addition to solidifying the Roemer-Young partnership and hinting stylistically at how their non-fiction tendencies would be adapted to their future fiction work, Cortile Cascino most significantly reveals a hint of Roemer’s inclination and insight, available to very few people, of someone who experiences things—work, conversations, relationships, emotions—more deeply and thoroughly then most and exists separately from the rest of us.

Faces of Israel was the product of a commission from NET to make a film about Martin Buber, an assignment accepted because it could also serve as a research trip for an option Roemer and Young had on Elie Wiesel’s Dawn, ultimately abandoned as unfilmable. Shot in 1966, for which Roemer spent six weeks of research in Israel before cameras rolled, the resulting film Dialogue was eventually aired on PBS. It was a decade later, while teaching at Yale, that Roemer revisited the footage and recut it as Faces of Israel, the film never shown, or even intended to be shown, save for a few screenings, and often mistaken as airing in 1966. The film opens with a single still image of an emaciated dead body, presumedly a Nazi victim, in a camp or a ghetto, held for just a few seconds: no sound, no text, no narration. Nothing is needed. And then the contemporary images begin. It is as simple and striking an opening as the documentary form has produced.

Nothing But a Man, Roemer’s first feature film as writer and director (co-produced and shot by Young) was warmly received on release and has continued to grow in stature with each passing generation, and achieving its stature as a classic, it was still twenty years after its opening, when re-released by New Video at Film Forum, that the film began to reach larger audiences. Routinely described as “a landmark,” while accurate, perhaps somewhat reduces its significance and greatness as a work of art, as well as the extraordinary performances by the great Abbey Lincoln, Ivan Dixon, Gloria Foster, Yaphet Kotto and Julius Harris. As a depiction of Black American life, it was unprecedented, rightfully lauded for decades, and remains Roemer’s most widely known work. Even so, it has been in and out of circulation over the years, most recently re-released in 2012 by Cinema Conservancy from a Library of Congress preservation which premiered at the New York Film Festival. Currently out of print on DVD (a new restoration and Blu-ray release are forthcoming in 2023). Nothing But a Man, like all of Roemer’s films following, allows for generational discovery, because unlike the majority of their contemporary work, the films simply do not date.

Seeing connections between Black and Jewish life, Roemer incorporated into the script for Nothing But a Man his own childhood experience of the dissolution of family through his father’s abandonment of him as a child, and his displacement due to Nazism. Yet he began to feel, once the film had been released, that the hope he had felt during the making—the notion that the honorable and upstanding wins—was not going to bear itself out in the reality of life. Thus, a reconsideration of storytelling methods began to take shape in Roemer’s mind. By Roemer’s estimation, in a reversal of centuries-old myths and folktales in which the major events of the protagonists lives are controlled by destiny or the will of gods, the typical American movie premise highlighted stories in which characters had agency, who could shape their fate, even if it ultimately ended in tragedy. Roemer felt he could no longer tell stories with this premise at their center, an aversion that solidified after the release of Nothing But a Man, when he was courted by Hollywood, wrote and developed unproduced scripts for studios and producers, and turned down assignments (including Goodbye, Columbus). These experiences, and his aversion to telling stories he felt were lies, lead to his second independent production, The Plot Against Harry

The story of a small-time Jewish bookie freshly out of jail and trying to regain his lost turf, The Plot Against Harry is one of the great New York films and, to a contingent of true believers, a total masterpiece, beautifully shot in black and white, again by Young. However, in keeping with Roemer’s new path as a writer, Harry is an increasingly desperate and unheroic character who keeps losing, propelled by unbelievable coincidence as he attempts to work his way out from under increasing obstacles completely beyond his control. It is also deadpan in the extreme, specifically ethnic—warts and all—and refuses to telegraph its intentions. Thus, early screenings were met with bafflement, most significantly from anyone who would possibly distribute the film. Roemer decided to shelve it. The Plot Against Harry is not a film that was released and failed. It is a film that the creator decided failed and was never released. 

The disaster that The Plot Against Harry had on his career trajectory as a filmmaker was matched by Roemer’s own despondency. It was nearly twenty years later, when transferring the film to video in the lab, that a technician laughed, and Roemer reconsidered the film. On a whim, he submitted it to festivals, and The Plot Against Harry finally made it to screens twenty years after it was made, with a major run including Cannes, New York, Toronto and Sundance, followed by a theatrical release, a rave review on At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert, and even coverage on The Today Show. Here is where the film permanently re-enters consciousness, fully appreciated. And that happens, somewhat, except for the permanent part. Though truly beloved, and, like Nothing But a Man, enough of a singular achievement for an entire career to rest, The Plot Against Harry also faded from availability over the decades. The DVD, thankfully released by New Video, is out of print, but this too will soon change with a new 4K restoration completed by Duart, and a new 35mm print that will screen in this retrospective and remain in the collection of the HFA.

It would be over a decade before Roemer again shot a narrative film. It was the wide acclaim of Roemer’s next film, the documentary Dying, that convinced German television to offer a budget towards what resulted in two new films (Pilgrim, Farewell and Vengeance is Mine). While continuing to teach at Yale and write scripts, Roemer was asked by WGBH if he would be interested in making a film about the rites and customs of death. Roemer was interested in exploring the topic, but only from the point of view of those in the process of dying. Three and a half months of interviews with forty people lead to a two-year project and would eventually leave Roemer physically and emotionally depleted. But as a result, Dying is unlike any other film in its attempt to address the still most taboo of all subjects, saying on camera what few would under any circumstances. 

The reaction was swift and brutal from some, who sputtered in asking why he had made the film, though others recognize it rightfully as a crucial and unique contribution not to only the discussion of death, but of open discussion at all. It is not easy to see Harriet, the soon to be young widow, admit that she is terrified of being alone with two teenage sons, and if her husband Bill is going to die, “Why can’t it just be quick,” so she could still have a chance to re-marry? Roemer remembers being told at a screening that such an admission would ostracize Harriet from her community. This turned out not to be the case, the community far more understanding of Harriet’s honesty than predicted. Painful truth, people’s unpredictability and emotional brutality reoccur in Roemer’s films, narrative or non-narrative. As he says, “I don’t make decisions, I let facts decide for me, just like my fiction films.” 

Dying remains Roemer’s last non-fiction film and its wide acclaim (more widely written about at the time than any of Roemer’s other films), lead directly to his final two films. His next, Pilgrim, Farewell, revisits themes of Dying, but inverts the drama. There is no outward anger displayed by the people in Dying who are, in fact, dying. Whereas it was the dying man’s wife who was angry in the earlier film, for this narrative of a young woman dying, it is she who is furious at her family and the world. Co-produced by American Playhouse, the film would play festivals and receive very positive reviews when broadcast on PBS. Having not made a narrative film in two decades, and in need of raising money to make the film, Roemer conceived of a project that he could not be stopped from making. Staged minimally, in one setting with a small cast, Pilgrim, Farewell could be called a four-hander or chamber piece, but more elegantly described as a small symphony. It too remains virtually unseeable.

Earlier this year, at Film Forum in New York, Roemer’s Vengeance is Mine, originally titled Haunted, received its first ever theatrical release, in a new 35mm print from a 16mm blowup, nearly forty years after it was made. Along with Pilgrim, Farewell, this was the least known of Roemer’s work. More so, the new title, Vengeance is Mine, did not reference what little writing existed on the film. Following the discovery of The Plot Against Harry twenty years after it was made, here is another masterpiece receiving its premiere forty years later. Any scenario like the delayed appreciations of Nothing But a Man and The Plot Against Harry happening to the same filmmaker would be incredible, but with Vengeance is Mine, the centerpiece of this series, let’s try a third time, work back from there, and make sure all of Roemer’s work can now be made available and seen.

Premiering on PBS’ American Playhouse in March of 1984, Vengeance is Mine screened at the London Film Festival and Berlinale the same year. According to Roemer, the film screened nowhere else at the time, and virtually nowhere since, with the exception of a few retrospectives. Vengeance is Mine is not a lost film, and not necessarily even a forgotten one, as so few saw it to begin with (and those who did would have known it as Haunted). Nearly no writing contemporaneous to the television airing exists, with the exception of a New York Times review (not positive), a small capsule in People (positive), and a review in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine. Roemer was never entirely happy with either Haunted or Vengeance is Mine as titles (Haunted, he thought “weak”, Vengeance is Mine too explicit). Nothing But a Man, by comparison, was originally titled Duff Anderson, Roemer thinking the final title tipped the hand of his intentions a bit too much.

Vengeance is Mine opens with Jo (Brooke Adams), in an unbroken take of over a minute, smiling, thinking, closing her eyes, as she flies into her New England hometown, slightly tipsy from onboard drinks. We do not yet know she is fleeing a physically abusive relationship, nor that she is returning to attempt reconciliation and say goodbye to her adoptive mother, before flying back out again to start a new life in Seattle. Within moments of her return, Jo, having shortened her name from the Mary Jo of her childhood, runs into an old boyfriend for whom she has no nostalgia or sentimentality. Through a quick series of occurrences—not wanting to return to her sister’s house after being attacked by her estranged husband and instead going to the home of the neighbors she has just met—Jo finds herself witness to a family coming apart under the stress of mental illness, and instead of backing away, is suddenly compelled, or willed, to become more involved in their lives. 

In this film, Roemer’s ideas of character come to fullest fruition.  Roemer has said that his characters believe themselves to be proactive, but are, in fact, reactive. They may think they know what they are doing, but, in the end, they are at the mercy of chance. What all of Roemer’s work shares is an assuredness of its own pace, in step only with itself, all utterly original works confronting major themes in a minor key. 

It is a career not rare in its eccentricities, but unheard of. Singular, brilliant films, all of them. Gratefully, we now have access to all, more widely with each passing day. As if by message in a bottle sent to himself, we are fortunate for the filmmaker’s foresight in preserving the original negatives, allowing for new scans and prints to be made.

Since the early 1970s until his recent retirement, Roemer taught at Yale, and has continued to write screenplays, collected in the four volume collection Film Stories, as well as essays, notably Shocked But Connected: Notes of Laughter. Roemer lives in Vermont. 

The author is grateful for the participation of Michael Roemer, with whom many conversations form the basis of much of this piece. – Jake Perlin

The HFA is thrilled to screen new 35mm prints of both The Plot Against Harry and Vengeance is Mine, and welcome Michael Roemer who will grace our theater for three evenings and will be joined by Brooke Adams for the the discussion following Vengeance is Mine. The Harvard Film Archive is also honored to screen a beautiful 35mm print of Day of Wrath, with Michael Roemer—who personally knew Carl Theodor Dreyer—on hand to introduce and discuss this heralded master work of world cinema.

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