Norfolk filmmakers behind documentary about refugees who fled the Nazis
- Credit: Capriol Films
A new documentary tells the story of the refugees who escaped the Nazi regime and found refuge in the UK through the remarkable images of photographer Lotte Meitner-Graf. Simon Parkin talks to the Norfolk filmmaker behind Through Lotte's Lens.
The extraordinary story of the 'Hitler Émigrés', the refugees – mainly Jewish - who escaped the Nazi regime in the 1930s and found refuge in the UK is told in a new documentary that receives its premiere next week.
Norfolk-based Capriol Films will screen Through Lotte's Lens for the first time in London on March 12 – the 80th anniversary of the Anschluss – Hitler's annexing of Austria, followed by Q&A screenings in Norwich and Bury St Edmunds.
For the filmmakers, who are based in Holt and whose previous projects have included the Cromer-set drama In Love with Alma Cogan, Benjamin Britten – Peace and Conflict and Norfolk comedy ChickLit, the documentary has been a long held ambition.
Director Tony Britten explains: 'I have been fascinated by the profound influence that the immigrants from Nazi Germany and Austria in the 1930s had on the arts, science and business of the UK. But it was specifically a book by Daniel Snowman called The Hitler Émigrés that was brought to my attention which I found myself absolutely fascinating.
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'It is a subject that a friend of mine, another local filmmaker Jim Ring, and I were going to make a film of, but we just couldn't find the thing that wound make it stand out, so we parked the project.'
The key proved to be the remarkable photographs of émigré taken by Austrian portrait photographer Lotte Meitner-Graf.
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Lotte's escape from Austria in 1938 mirrored many of her compatriots, and subsequent subjects. She settled in London and after the war opened a studio in Bond Street.
The discovery came by chance said Tony Britten. 'I went to an exhibition of John Sadovy [Czech-born photojournalist known for his photographs of the Hungarian revolution of 1956] and the chap who had organised it was also one of the trustees of the Lotte Meitner-Graf collection. So it was complete happenstance that I found what seemed like a wonderful door was opening on this project.
'In her studio from 1953 until her death in 1973 Lotte photographed virtually everyone that I wanted to discuss in the film, from scientist Max Perutz to the Amadeus String Quartet. At that point it became clear that now we could tell the story.'
The documentary attempts to 're-create' that studio, and those that passed through it, including recreations with Mary Lincoln playing the lead role of Lotte.
'Whenever we change from subject to another, from publishing to music to theatre to science, all these areas that were represented by these émigrés, we go via Lotte and her studio, which we recreated up here in Holt,' said Tony.
'Her actual studio was at 23 Old Bond Street in London, but we were also terribly lucky because when I walked down Old Bond Street wondering what was there now it was all boarded up and being turned into Stella McCartney's new headquarters. But they allowed us to inside to film amid this building site and we were able to go up to the attic where Lotte had her studio.'
Musicians, actors, artists, architects, scientists, publishers and historians are amongst the people whose stories are told. Despite many refugees being interned on the Isle of Man after war broke out, they brought a richness of endeavour and achievement to this country.
The breadth of the skills thesde people brought amazed Tony, who is also a composer as well as a filmmaker.
'Because I come from the music side I knew about the Amadeus String Quartet because they were so famous. I knew that three of them were Austrian Jews who had got out in 1938. But I have to say I didn't have any idea of the breadth of skills these people brought.
'That is what is so fascinating about it and I guarantee people will say 'I never knew that', because that was my reaction when I researching it. We've had to leave so many people out or it would be an eight hour epic.'
The storiwes are engaging and thought provoking and the film's epilogue, featuring the extraordinary sculptures of Ana Maria Pacheco, underlines the contemporary resonance of the plight of the immigrant.
The people featured shared a belief in the power of democracy and a loyalty to the country that had welcomed them and Tony felt it was a timely and important story.
'I keep saying it's not a political film though clearly it has contemporary resonances,' he explains. 'I am not making a diatribe about immigration but it is clear that those skills benefitted the country. I could be accused of making a film about the intellectual elite, but that's the story. There were a lot of people who got out who were just ordinary people, doing there best and looking after their families. But this film is a celebration, but also a quiet warning, that, whatever your political views, these sort of emigrés always benefit a civilation, whichever country you're in. I think it's an important story to tell.'
• Through Lotte's Lens receives its world premiere at the Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley, on March 12 with a Q&A session afterwards broadcast on Sky Arts.
• More information about the film at throughlotteslens.com