Filmmakers captured essence of pre-state, early Israel

The fact that we have this image in our mind's eye is due to photographer Natan Axelrod, proprietor of the Carmel newsreel. The fact that he was on hand at all may be credited largely to the Jewish National Fund for having kept Axelrod and his enterprise afloat over the years.

Though Axelrod was apparently not the only cameraman there, it is his vantage point that has survived.

JNF was a major force in local film from the lean years of World War II, playing a greater role than is generally realized in the minor boom of the late 1940s and early 1950s and supporting a fairly steady stream of news items, and sometimes entire newsreels. Interesting documentary work was sometimes also purchased from foreign filmmakers, if considered useful or relevant.

In the late 1930s, JNF was approached by a German immigrant, Lasar Duenner, who offered his services as a filmmaker. JNF was warned that Duenner was unreliable and prone to exaggeration but, luckily, the warning was not heeded, for this inauspicious beginning blossomed into the most prolific of all JNF film relationships, lasting several decades.

Immediately after the war, Duenner shot large quantities of color 16 mm footage — he was among the first in the country to specialize in the medium — and is responsible for much of the post-war, pre-state color films.

JNF's "Land of Hope" (1945-46), the surviving print of which unfortunately lacks cinematography credits, opened with horrific European concentration camp scenes and an address by future U.S. Ambassador to Israel James McDonald. In stark contrast, the rest of the film showed the work of "upbuilding" in Palestine, with narration by then up-and-coming American actor Jose Ferrer.

The emphasis in "Behind the Blockade" (1947) as one might guess from its title was also "upbuilding," in spite of British restrictions on Jewish immigration. It was narrated by Hollywood actor John Carradine.

In 1946, JNF brought to the screen a dramatic episodic featurette, "The Great Promise," which was designed to reach a wider audience. The film devices used by experienced Polish director Joseph Leytes may seem transparent to today's audiences, but "The Great Promise" nevertheless remains a highly worthy effort and has become a valuable document of its time.

The film opens in a concentration camp, where three Jewish Brigade soldiers encounter a Holocaust survivor who has lost all hope. The stories they each tell him of life in Palestine are clearly designed to communicate as much information about the country as possible.

One soldier tells of his last home leave in his settlement during harvest time; another tells of a little girl brought from Europe who eventually adjusts to a life of freedom on kibbutz.

The third soldier tells the story of a trip he took up the Jordan River's course from north to south, through the Hula Valley, the Naharayim power plant, all the way to the Dead Sea. Continuing beyond into the Negev Desert, the film then climaxes with the discovery and utilization of water in the wilderness.

Hot on the heels of "The Great Promise" came a full-length feature film, "My Father's House." This important film of the mid-'40s was written by Meyer Levin (who later made his historical documentary "The Illegals") and directed by Herbert Kline, who made "The Forgotten Village" with writer John Steinbeck in 1941.

"My Father's House" told of a young Holocaust survivor who comes ashore as an "illegal" immigrant to Palestine and, refusing to believe his father has not survived the war, searches for him all over the country — a deliberate device used to exhibit various features of the yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) — including the Dead Sea Works and the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra. The cameraman of this excellent film was Floyd Crosby, an Oscar winner for the 1931 film "Tabu."

It is not widely known that during a break in filming on Mount Scopus, the crew passed by the King David Hotel just after it blew up. Not only was the production's sound equipment damaged, but a British official who had been cast in a small role was killed.

The production of "My Father's House" turned out to be crucial to later filmmaking: Some of the local financing came from pre-sale of the excellent equipment that had been specially imported. This equipment later became the basis of Norman Lourie's company, Palestine Films, the most productive film unit of the late '40s and early '50s. The unit produced some of the most exciting and creative work in the period immediately before and after the birth of the state of Israel.