Obituary: Herbert Kline

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AN ACCOMPLISHED and committed maker of documentary films, the left-wing activist Herbert Kline was one of the first Americans to go to Spain during the civil war and capture on film the strife and suffering there. He later obtained graphic footage of Hitler's occupation of Czechoslovakia (with the unwitting help of the Nazis themselves) in Crisis, described by The New York Times as "one of the finest political documentaries ever made".

He documented Hitler's conquest of Poland in Lights Out in Europe, and worked with the writer John Steinbeck on a film about peasant life in Mexico, The Forgotten Village. Later he made a moving film about the Holocaust and other documentaries distinguished by their fresh approach, fine photography and personal commitment.

Born in Chicago in 1909, and brought up in Davenport, Iowa, Kline was interested in radical politics from an early age. In his twenties he became one of several editors for Left Front magazine in Chicago, and from there he moved to New York, becoming the editor of New Theater magazine, whose coverage soon expanded to include films and dance. He was among the first to publish the plays of Clifford Odets. He also became part of the New York Film and Photo League, a socio- political documentary movement, in the early 1930s.

In December 1936 he resigned from New Theater and went to Spain to cover the civil war for several publications. By March 1937 he had teamed up with the Hungarian photographer Geza Karpathi to make Heart of Spain, about a Madrid mother who meets the young soldier whose life she had saved with a blood transfusion. Kline and Karpathi later admitted that neither could load a film camera when they started on the project.

In order to make Crisis, the Jewish film-maker bluffed his way into Czechoslovakia by pretending to be pro-Nazi. While he filmed rallies and parades, storm troopers carried his equipment and followed his directions before the camera. He wrote later, "It seemed strange for one of my verboten and despised racial origin to have a troop of SA men to do my bidding and march and heil and shout as they were told." Frank S. Nugent wrote in The New York Times when the film opened in 1939:

It is the study of a beleaguered democracy in the dark days after the Nazi Austrian putsch, in the still darker days after Munich. It ends with the betrayal of the republic, with the streets groaning under the dirgeful tread of bewildered men and women marching, singing, sobbing, protesting, looking forlornly for a leader . . . a concise, complete, obviously authentic and extraordinarily graphic record of a significant and tragic historical event.

Crisis had been Kline's first collaboration with the great Czech cameraman and editor Alexander Hackenschmied (later Hammid) and the pair teamed again, with additional photography by Douglas Slocombe, for Lights Out in Europe (1939), described by B.R. Crisler in The New York Times as

not just another well-intentioned "documentary" but the most beautifully comprehensive report on the recent neurological prelude to war in existence . . . Lights Out in Europe gives the first panoramic picture of the world crisis in all its infinite political, economic, racial, propagandistic and brutally military ramifications which has yet reached our screen.

Kline said later, "Crisis and Lights Out were conceived as a dramatic statement of an anti-Fascist point of view. They were definitely on the side of the democracies, but they were not blatant `propaganda'. They were movies of the real-life drama of various aspects of anti-Nazi resistance."

Recently reshown by Anthology Film Archives, the avant-garde group headed by the film-maker Jonas Mekas, Lights Out in Europe, for which James Hilton provided the commentary, spoken by Fredric March, still impressed: "It has a stimulating energy and freshness," stated the historian Howard Mandelbaum. "Many documentaries are basically compilations of archive footage, but this was obviously specially shot material, beautifully photographed and edited and with a strong viewpoint."

Kline was always the first to credit the contribution made by his cameramen, writing some years later that Henri Cartier-Bresson (with whom he worked on a second film about the Spanish conflict, Return to Life, in 1938) and Alexander Hammid were two of the greatest talents he had ever worked with. "I've worked with James Wong Howe, Lee Garmes, Douglas Slocombe and other notable cameramen, and I would say they're all of the same level. Their eyes can do no wrong."

John Steinbeck provided the narrative (spoken by Burgess Meredith) for Kline's next production, The Forgotten Village (1940), shot in Santiago, Mexico, with Hackenschmied co-directing, photographing and editing. When shown at the Brussels World Film Festival in 1947 it won first prize as Best Feature Documentary.

The film depicted the struggle between superstitious ignorance and new ways of science. A young peasant tries to help a medical unit save his village from colitis caused by a poisoned well, but they are constantly hampered by the villagers, who are under the influence of the local Wise Woman. Finally driven out by his father, the peasant goes with the unit to Mexico City to study medicine, stating, "I must be a doctor and help save the lives of my people."

"The working method was very simple and yet required great patience," said Steinbeck:

A very elastic story was written. Then the crew moved into the village, made friends, talked and listened. The story was simple: too many children die - why is that and what is done about it, both by the villagers and by the government? What we found was dramatic - the clash of a medicine and magic that was old when the Aztecs invaded the plateau with a modern medicine that is as young as a living man.

The film writer Roger Manvell described it as "a minor masterpiece". He wrote:

The photography is bright with the harsh sunlight and the contrasting shadows of black foregrounds of cacti and village walls . . . The film is full of beautiful and expressive close-ups: the mother who smiles with her shawled head tilted, the friendly simplicity of the father, joyful at the birth of more children, as he wipes the sweat and the flies from his face. When his son dies an unforgettable shot turns from the villagers dancing before the funeral to the still face of the mother, resigned in fatalistic sadness.

In 1947 he joined the novelist-screenwriter Meyer Levin to direct My Father's House, an acclaimed feature-length film dramatising the struggle of former Holocaust prisoners to establish a homeland in Israel, but his attempts to move into mainstream film-making were less successful. In 1944 he had co- scripted the Val Lewton production Youth Runs Wild, about teenagers left undisciplined by parents at war or working in defence plants, and in 1949 he directed a poorly received commercial feature, The Kid From Cleveland, in which a sports reporter befriends a delinquent who loves baseball.

After directing The Fighter (1952), a taut but minor thriller set in Mexico and based on a story by Jack London, Kline found himself, like most overt left-wingers in Hollywood at the time, blacklisted, and he did not make another film until Walls of Fire (1973), about the Mexican artists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, which won an Oscar nomination.

He followed this with further documentaries: The Challenge: a tribute to modern art (1974), narrated by Orson Welles and also nominated for an Oscar as Best Feature Documentary; Acting: Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio (1981); and Great Theatres of the World (1987).

From 1980 to 1992 Herbert Kline lived and worked in London on a variety of projects, including a book, New Theatre and Film 1934-1937. He returned to Los Angeles in 1992.

Herbert Kline, documentary film-maker: born Chicago, Illinois 13 March 1909; married Josine Ianco-Starrels (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Los Angeles 5 February 1999.