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City in the Making

A long-lost film reveals an outsider's take on a city he revered.



"From Chicago you look down upon all the other cities of the world like looking at the past," wrote reporter, novelist, and photographer Heinrich Hauser. Born in Berlin at the turn of the last century, Hauser was fascinated by Chicago: in the summer of 1931 he shot a 70-minute black-and-white documentary titled Chicago--A World City Stretches Its Wings, and the same year he published his book Feldwege nach Chicago, in which he marveled at the city's might and strangeness. Hauser died in 1955, but nearly 30 years later his silent film turned up in a West German archive, and in 1998 two Germans, a radio producer and a sound designer, came to Chicago to create an allusive sound track with a voice-over drawn from Hauser's book. The English-language version will premiere this Tuesday and Wednesday, March 26 and 27, at the Chicago Cultural Center, giving Chicagoans a chance to revisit the city that struck Hauser as "a thunderstorm of fantastic, flashing impressions."

Irish author Liam O'Flaherty called Hauser "one of the most astounding men I ever met....I should not be surprised if I heard tomorrow that he had gone with a band of followers to seize Afghanistan or Tibet; had committed suicide; or set out on an attempt to fly to the moon." Hauser's family was steeped in the Protestant Prussian tradition, but it had its share of eccentrics--one uncle, a count, sculpted mathematically exact statues of prized racehorses. As a boy, Hauser nurtured a crush on his English governess; when war broke out in 1914, his mother accused her of being a spy and sent her home, and Hauser tearfully defended the woman from a mob of his playmates. "A disillusioned youth with a sharp eye for the rottenness of things," as he later described himself, he joined in the fusilier guard of the MŠrker Freicorps, a right-wing paramilitary outfit that participated in the assassination of socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg in 1919.

His first novel, Das zwanzigste Jahr, appeared in 1925, and four years later Hauser won the prestigious Gerhart-Hauptmann-Preis literary prize for his book Bitter Waters. In 1931 he made the transition to cinema with Die letzten Segelschiffe ("The Last Sailing Ships"), a chronicle of his prolonged sea voyage from Hamburg to Talcahuano, Chile. But his only other film was Chicago--A World City Stretches Its Wings, which premiered in October 1931 at the Alhambra movie house on Kurfurstendamm in Berlin. The Berliner Borsen-Zeitung hailed the film's vision of "an America stripped of illusions." Another reviewer called it "just a small piece of life as it really is."

Hauser's model for the film was undoubtedly Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), Walter Ruttman's classic chronicle of a single day in the German metropolis. Ruttman begins with a kinetic portrait of the industrial infrastructure: gently rippling water, geometric patterns resembling a steamship paddle wheel, other forms that look like the gates at a railway crossing, then a speeding train disgorging steam and smoke as it leads the viewer into Berlin. Hauser enters Chicago more slowly, via the Mississippi River, "thick as chocolate." Paddle wheels rotate, casting their shadows on the water. Riverboat smokestacks belch smoke. African-American stevedores roll barrels ashore and corral a pen of pigs aboard. Then Hauser hops into a speedboat, traveling up the Chicago River at 70 kilometers an hour as "the silhouettes of the high-rises fly by in an intoxicated dance."

The film is a vivid portrait of an industrial city soldiering through the Depression: el trains, stockyards, train yards, store windows, homeless men, the Maxwell Street market, a roller coaster at the Riverview amusement park. Hauser's camera work is striking, and he has a keen eye for incident (in one scene a boy fashions bargelike shoes from discarded boxes and shuffles along a sidewalk). Some parts of the film recall Conrad O. Nelson's 12-minute panorama Halsted Street, made the same year. The workings of an automated assembly line are interrupted by the intertitle "Wo ist der Mensch?" ("Where are the men?"), and in one didactic segment a montage of smashed cars and destitute men provokes the title "Wracks" ("wrecks").

Mechanized motion is one of the film's motifs. "The automobile people have fused with their cars to such an extent that they are like snails in their shells," he writes. "Twenty miles of cars stand along Lake Michigan in the evening, all their headlights turned toward the lake. That's where the moon rises. Every car is occupied by a pair of lovers. The new technology of the automobile has created a new technology of eroticism." The film's new sound track layers verbal over visual imagery: a tractor emerging from a factory is "a birth," a technician is "a midwife," the first sputterings of its engine "a baby's first cry."

As a writer for the newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung in the 1920s, Hauser had covered the speeches of Adolf Hitler ("The writer in me revolted against their illiterate crudities"), and during the rise of the Third Reich he wrote "industrial propaganda" for the German division of General Motors and scenic descriptions for road maps published by the Standard Oil Company. His commissioned books included puffery for motorcar races that were thinly disguised test runs for Nazi war technology. But in 1939, Hauser fled Germany with his Jewish wife and their two children, settling in upstate New York, where he used a book advance to buy a small farm.

Hauser's relationship with his adopted country was a complicated one. He castigated the fuhrer in his books Battle Against Time and Hitler Versus Germany, and after Pearl Harbor he volunteered for the armed forces but was turned down. But his book The German Talks Back (1945) delivered a lacerating critique of American culture. His portrait of the easy-living Yankee was scathing: "With a kindly, moronic smile of self-satisfaction on the bland wall of his face, he asserts, 'I'm just a plain American.' The new paradise created him, but he thinks he has created the new paradise."

Hollywood, he charged, had "made anti-American propaganda all over the world on a prodigious scale" with its obscene images of America's bounty: pie fights, casually smashed furniture, wheat shoveled into locomotives' fireboxes as fuel. "Never shall we forget--we, the unemployed of the depression years in Germany--those nauseating scenes that Hollywood projected for us on the silver screen as ostensibly representing the American way of life," he wrote. "Never shall I forget...the gleam of hatred in the people's eyes, or the discussions we had in the flophouses after the show, when cigarette stumps glowed in the dark and the air was heavy with unwashed, rain-drenched humanity. 'So that's the way those fellows live over there in America.'"

Hauser--who was married five times--returned to Chicago in the 40s, working as a gardener for the University of Chicago, as a security guard for Marshall Field's, and as a translator for the Henry Regnery Company in Hinsdale. He published science fiction under the pseudonym Alexander Blade (his story "The Brain" was published in the October 1948 issue of Amazing Stories--"A Giant Calculating Machine Decides to Rule the World!"). In 1945 he bought another farm, in a German immigrant community south of Saint Louis, and upon his return to Germany in 1950 he wrote the book My Farm on the Mississippi: The Story of a German in Missouri, 1945-1948. Fascinated by the idea of extraterrestrial visitors, he moved to an obscure quarry he felt would be a likely landing site for UFOs. By the time he died at age 54 he'd sunk into a deep depression, despondent about the state of his homeland and wounded that the U.S. government had barred him from returning to America.

Hauser's Chicago film was forgotten until 1984, when it turned up in the federal Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv in Koblenz. In 1995 film historian Jeanpaul Goergen screened Chicago: Weltstadt in Flegeljahren at a Berlin conference of the International Association for Media and History, arguing that Hauser "can be called the first modern multimedia journalist." Wilfried Reichart and Hans-Ulrich Werner of West German Radio in Cologne restored the film and then traveled here to record a contemporary sound track, assisted by Lou and Dawn Mallozzi of the nonprofit Experimental Sound Studio in Andersonville.

Werner, who has composed soundscapes of Lisbon and Madrid, calls the sound track for Hauser's film "an auditive Rorschach test." Voices, horns, whistles, sirens, and machinery mix with Reichart's voice-over. Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" drifts in and out. Drivers honk their old-fashioned ah-oo-gah car horns. Unseen kids ask, "Is this going to be on TV?" A receptionist says, "Good morning, WFMT, may I help you?" There's a teasing dissonance between past and present, as Depression-era automobiles jammed bumper to bumper are accompanied by drive-time radio hosts yammering about travel time on the Eisenhower. But for Werner the key element is the el trains, whose noise he describes as "screeching calls of urban dinosaurs...a frozen metal sound of the American Dream."

Goergen likes to translate Hauser's subtitle as "Metropolis in Her Teens" or "Metropolis at an Awkward Age," arguing that Hauser saw Chicago as "a person that is quite impolite, not really a hooligan as we know them today, but a loutish and boorish young man, not yet grown up." Yet in the end, his vision of the city is hardly the brawny city of big shoulders we like to imagine. "Something inhumane, a poverty of the soul hangs over these people," quotes Reichart in the narration, drawn from Hauser's book. "It's amazing with what certainty this people relies upon its wealth and well-being. We Germans won't realize for many years how much good it has done us to lose our wealth."

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