Friday, January 20, 2012

NYJFF ’12: Incessant Visions

One of Jewish German architect Erich Mendelsohn’s final projects in Berlin served as an SS prison during the National Socialist era. Wisely, he did not stay long enough to get a look at their renovations. Often dubbed an “expressionist” pioneer but frequently associated with the Bauhaus movement, his architecture would be very influential in pre-war Europe and post-war Israel. Duki Dror’s Incessant Visions: Letters from an Architect (trailer here), a documentary survey of the architect’s life and work, based on Mendelsohn’s collected correspondence and his wife’s memoir, screens during the 2012 New York Film Festival.

Like many Jewish Germans, the Polish-born Mendelsohn proudly served his country in WWI, frequently sending letters and drawings home to his wife Louise. A man resolutely of the left, Mendelsohn maintained his ideological leanings even when his wife’s affair with Communist poet Ernst Toller nearly scuttled their marriage. After the reception of his Einstein Tower observatory, Mendelsohn became one of the most successful and stylistically identifiable architects in Germany. He would be closely identified with the department stores he designed for Schocken, only one of which survives today.

Recognizing the prevailing winds, the Mendelsohns left Germany while that option was still open to them. Leaving everything behind, Mendelsohn never attained the same level of prominence in exile, but still produced a striking body of work, particularly in the once and future Israel.

A friendly admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mendelsohn’s work could be considered a link between the American’s distinctive modernism and the more austere International Style of Mies van der Rohe. Featuring dramatically curved prows, set-back terraces, and circular interior staircases, his work looks sleekly modern, but comfortably livable.

Dror captures the personality of the buildings quite well, often finding a hospitable host to provide a tour for viewers. It helps that Mendelsohn’s architecture is considerably more photogenic than that of his International colleagues. Incessant sufficiently covers biographical matters as well, but never obsesses over the couple’s infidelities and politics. As a result, the documentary moves along quite briskly, keeping its focus where it should be.

Indeed, Incessant is a rather smartly executed documentary. Saving the introduction of its talking heads for the final credit is a nice little touch, like a curtain call (after all, it is clear enough who they are from the context of their comments). Combining a fairly interesting story with some striking structures, lovingly shot, Incessant is a very solid architectural documentary. It screens this coming Tuesday (1/24) and Wednesday (1/25) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the 2012 NYJFF.