The website of Dan Erdman
I am reviewing the new University of Minnesota Press edition of Of Walking in Ice, Werner Herzog’s chronicle of his 1974 journey from Munich to Paris to visit an ailing Lotte Eisner, for Public Books. In preparation for this, I have been reading selected bits of Eisner’s 1984 memoir, Ich hatte einst ein schones Vaterland. As far as I know this has never been translated into English, so, as a badly-needed exercise for my fairly pathetic German skills, I have decided to translate the sections that I have been reading. Again, no false modesty here: my German is wretched, and the following should not by any means be taken as a definitive, or even wholly accurate translation. This should be regarded as an exercise for the writer; consult your own local Germanaphone before attempting to read.
This is the Forward to Eisner’s book, written by Herzog.
Already before the death of Lotte Eisner, der Eisnerin, it was mostly clear that here, somehow, the last mammoth dwelt among us, shoved about by a tremendous, awful century, through which she had cleared a path. As in life, in death she is without a place. There is no grave for her; her ashes were scattered in the woods, as she wanted.
Who was der Eisnerin for the New German Cinema? We are a generation of orphans – there are no fathers; at most, grandfathers from whom we could take over: Murnau, Lang, Pabst, the generation of the twenties. It is strange that continuity in German film was so radically demolished through the barbarism of the Nazi period and the ensuing catastrophe of the Second World War. But the chain was at an end before that already. That way led nowhere. There then opened a gap lasting a whole quarter-century. In literature and other areas this was not as dramatically obvious. Therefore we have Lotte Eisner’s sympathy for our fate, which served as a bridge in a cultural-historical connection.
What this means won’t be understood by the French, who overcome the same disaster, but nearly seamlessly carried on. Even the Italians, who at the end of the war immediately created Neorealism, don’t understand; the Americans don’t, and the Soviet Union doesn’t, nobody. Only we ourselves can understand.
Once when I was exhausted, mocked and desperate, there appeared der Eisnerin in a casually tossed-off sentence: “Listen, the history of film doesn’t allow you young film directors in Germany to give up.”
Meanwhile we are not young anymore. One of the most important of us, Rainer-Werner Fassbinder, who has finished great work in a short time, died before der Eisnerin, but we have found our way, and it has been a few years since we could be contradicted when we claim that Germany has a legitimate film culture. Legitimate not by virtue of simply declaring it is so, through a high-handed laying-down of the law, so to speak; we have been legitimized by the last authority, der Eisnerin. Through her have we have been awarded legitimacy. One may perhaps explain it like this: when in the middle ages someone was crowned as Emperor, it was on the basis of hereditary succession or through power, but he himself must obtain legitimacy from the Pope in Rome. Because to us der Eisnerin has been declared legitimate, we are also. And this has made possible our access to the public abroad.
Lotte Eisner’s books, before all her book on the German Expressionist film: The Haunted Screen – I am certain, it will be the definitive, the final study of this epoch. Also her book on Murnau and on Fritz Lang, and her work with the Cinematheque Francaise for the salvation and revivifying of our common cultural heritage – all that is her rich legacy. Behind these spiritual riches it seems that her dainty person disappears. One thinks not of der Eisnerin as an individual with a personality, with a particular fate, because her work stands in the foreground.
This common perception drove her in the last years. She wanted to tell her life story, she had not yet said everything. Thus she worked until her last breath on her memoirs, to round out her life. So these are her last words: