by Russell Campbell
Cut, no. 14, 1977, pp. 23-25
The Workers Film and Photo League in the United States (known as the Film and Photo League after 1933) was part of an extensive cultural movement sponsored by the Communist International and its affiliated national parties in the interwar period. Specifically, it was a section of the Comintern-control led Internationale Arbeiterhilfe or Workers International Relief (WIR), founded at Lenin’s Instigation in Berlin in 1921.
The WIR’s initial function was famine relief in the Soviet Union. After the crisis had passed, the organization—with branches established in most countries of the world—became an international support force for strikers and their families. In the U.S., for example, it provided food, clothing and shelter during the Communist-led textile and cotton workers’ strikes at Passaic, New Bedford, and Gastonia in 1926-29, and the miners’ strikes of 1931-32.
But the WIR’s activities extended also into the mass media and many cultural fields. In Germany, under the leadership of the remarkable Communist entrepreneur and propagandist Willi Muenzenberg, the WIR built up a flourishing publishing empire encompassing daily and weekly newspapers, illustrated periodicals, and books, all with a leftwing perspective. Elsewhere, with the exception of the Soviet Union, the WIR concentrated on ventures requiring little or no capitalization. Thus in the United States the WIR organized, during the early thirties, revolutionary drama groups (the Workers Laboratory Theatre), dance groups (the Red Dancers), symphony and mandolin orchestras, bands, choirs, art workshops, etc.
Muenzenberg was especially interested in film. In a 1925 article he decried the fact that “in the main the labor organizations and even Communist Parties and groups have left this most effective means of propaganda and agitation in the hands of their enemy,” and called for “the conquest of this supremely important propaganda weapon, until now the monopoly of the ruling class.” “We must wrest it from them,” he concluded, “and turn it against them.”(1)
The WIR’s first motion picture activity was in Russia, where in 1922 it began distributing German films. In 1924 it formed the production company Mezhrabpom-Russ (later Mezhrabpomfilm, “Mezhrabpom” being the abbreviation for the Russian name of the WIR). This company was to be responsible for many of the more significant Soviet features of the period, including Pudovkin’s MOTHER, END OF ST. PETERSBURG, STORM OVER ASIA and DESERTER, Vertov’s THREE SONGS ABOUT LENIN, and the first Soviet sound film, Ekk’s ROAD TO LIFE. Muenzenberg was to claim credit for the WIR for the international perspective of many of Mezhrabpom’s productions, such as STORM OVER ASIA, which he termed “the first film to thrust deeply into the chaos of imperialist politics.”(2)
In Germany the WIR entered production via the Prometheus company, acquired in 1925. Prometheus produced a number of films with a working class point of view, the best known of which are Jutzi’s MOTHER KRAUSE'S JOURNEY TO HAPPINESS (1929) and Dudow’s KUHLE WAMPE (1932). It also pioneered in the distribution of Soviet films in Europe, scoring a notable success with POTEMKIN in 1926. In 1928 Muenzenberg founded Weltfilm to handle nontheatrical distribution of workers’ and Soviet films: this firm first popularized the use of 16mm for such screenings.
The WIR’s next move was clearly to stimulate indigenous production in the other countries in which it operated. Since capital was not available for studio production, emphasis inevitably came to be placed on low cost documentary and especially newsreel forms. There were also good political reasons for this choice. To undertake such production the WIR had an instrument ready at hand. Workers’ photo leagues had already been widely established to provide visual coverage of working class subjects for the leftwing press. Where feasible, existing leagues were charged with movie production, and others were formed. By 1930 or a little later film and photo sections of the WIR were operative in Germany, England, France, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Japan and the United States.
In the U.S. the WIR affiliate, at first known as the Friends of Soviet Russia, had been involved with film distribution since its founding in 1922. Throughout the decade it arranged nationwide release of documentaries about the Soviet Union designed to counteract the hostile propaganda emanating from Hollywood. Beginning in 1926 it also handled nontheatrical distribution (and, effectively, exhibition) of Soviet features. This distribution arm of the WIR was to become closely allied with the Workers Film and Photo League.
In 1930 the breakthrough into production was made. On March 6 of that year a Communist-led demonstration of the unemployed had resulted in probably the largest such crowds in U.S. history jamming into New York’s Union Square. However, the capitalist press had minimized the event, and commercial newsreels of the demonstration had been suppressed at the behest of New York police chief Grover Whalen—no doubt partly because they exposed the brutality of his officers in action. As the economic situation worsened, protest marches, rallies and manifestations became more frequent and the bourgeois media continued to ignore or distort them. It was clear that there was an urgent need for workers’ newsreels.
In May, Daily Worker film critic Samuel Brody wrote
Less than two weeks later, again in the Daily Worker, the call for workers’ movie production was reiterated. Radical poet and film critic Harry Alan Potamkin argued:
Even as the call was being made, the WIR was mobilizing its cinematic forces. The same month it was able to announce,
The film may have been obtained from an independent source, or it may possibly have constituted the first output of a fledgling Workers Film and Photo League, whose exact founding date I have been unable to pin down. In any case, it is fair to assume that within a few months the League was in operation, filming workers’ events and exhibiting the results at workers’ gatherings in precisely the fashion of these 1930 May Day movies.
The key New York WFPL participants at the beginning were, as Leo Seltzer indicates, Sam Brody (practicing what he preached), Lester Balog, Robert Del Duca, and a little later Seltzer himself. Of the group members Del Duca had the most practical experience, having worked as a newsreel cameraman and laboratory technician. Brody was clearly the theoretician and political overseer. Handling the WIR’s film department, and thus intimately involved with arranging distribution and exhibition of, and often finance for, the League’s productions, was Tom Brandon. In Chicago, key FPL members were Maurice Bailen, John Freitag, Gordon Koster, William Kruck, John Masek, C.O. Nelson, and Dr. J. Twig.
This core group was augmented in subsequent years by a larger membership, outstanding among whom we're the writers and critics Potamkin, Lewis Jacobs, Leo T. Hurwitz, David Platt, Jay Leyda (for a short period prior to his departure for the Soviet Union), and Irving Lerner, and the still photographer and experimental filmmaker Ralph Steiner. For the most part these men were less involved with the League’s production work than with its other activities. Such activities included publications (program notes, contributions to New Theatre, the Daily Worker, and Filmfront) lectures and discussions; film series screenings; photographic exhibitions; anti-censorship agitation; boycott campaigns; film school and photo courses. By 1934 Balog was in California—where, as a member of the San Francisco FPL, he was jailed for showing ROAD TO LIFE and COTTONPICKERS’ STRIKE to agricultural workers. In the fall of that year, Hurwitz, Lerner and Steiner broke away to form Nykino. Soon after, Seltzer secured work as a filmmaker with the WPA. Most of the League’s production in the last year or two of its existence seems to have been handled by Del Duca, Julian Roffman (who, like Brody, Brandon, Hurwitz, Platt and Lamer wrote on film topics for the Daily Worker) and Vic Kandel. Nancy Naumburg and James Guy did pioneering work, with the League’s assistance, on the dramatized political documentary in 16mm.
The nature of the League’s output may be gauged by reference to the filmography. But “output” is perhaps a misleading term. As Seltzer insists, the group was not challenging Hollywood on it own terms, manufacturing motion pictures as merchandise. Rather than individual “films,” it is more correct to speak, for the bulk of (W)FPL production (which is probably much greater than that indicated here) of “footage.” By footage, I mean news film which was processed and printed rapidly and then roughly edited for the quickest possible screening and maximum impact. Once the topical moment had passed, of course, the footage became available for recutting into later compilation documentaries. It is to this class that most of the League’s major productions—NATIONAL HUNGER MARCH, BONUS MARCH, HUNGER 1932—belong.
Though the newsreels did sometimes receive theatrical screenings (particularly during 1932 at New York’s Cameo Theatre), they were mostly exhibited by the (W)FPL members themselves, often along with a Soviet film, in a specifically political context. Taking films to the workers became a potent organizing device, as the following quotation from a Communist Party unit organizer indicates:
As might be expected, the content of (W)FPL newsreels and longer films was conditioned by the particular campaigns being undertaken by the CP. Here it is essential to recall that the period 1929-34 was one of militant class struggle for the world Communist movement. Party strategy in the U.S. (as elsewhere) was to build the strength of the movement by stimulating recruitment into (a) the “revolutionary” unions—those affiliated to the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL), (b) the Party’s “mass organizations”—of which the WIR was one, and (c) the Party itself.
Thus the footage devoted to the miners’ strikes of 1931 and 1932 played its part in assisting the drive to organize the coalminers of Western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee—then destitute and disillusioned with John L. Lewis’s leadership of the United Mine Workers—into the TUUL-affiliated National Miners Union (NMU). On the West Coast there was an energetic campaign to build the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, reflected in several of the Los Angeles WFPL productions.
Organization of the unemployed was undertaken via the Unemployed Councils around the demands for immediate relief and a comprehensive program of social insurance. These demands were dramatized by numerous local and two national hunger marches. The national marches, held in December 1931 and December 1932, became occasions for coordinated newsreel coverage by WFPL cameramen around the country—the WIR arranging the filmed record along with food, shelter and medical care for the marchers. A hunger march in Detroit on March 7, 1932, filmed by members of the local League, became a massacre when police opened fire and killed four demonstrators. The film survives.
The Bonus March of 1932 was not Communist-led, but the Party did try to extend its influence among the out-of-work veterans through the participation of its “mass organization,” the Workers Ex-Servicemen’s League (WESL), whose banners are prominent in the powerful League film devoted to the march, camp, and eviction.
The Scottsboro Case was used by the Party to focus attention on lynch law in the South and the oppression of blacks generally. The CP conducted a militant defense through its International Labor Defense organization and held many rallies demanding the release of the accused men. This activity was reinforced by several newsreels and a short film made for the ILD, with assistance from the League, by Leo T. Hurwitz
Other films, as their titles and descriptions indicate, focused on further pressure points in the class struggle and helped fulfill the League’s reported purpose of
Cinema-verité has dulled our appreciation of participant camerawork, but in the Thirties the handheld, close range cinematography of street actions which the League footage offered must have struck spectators with great novelty and force. Leo Seltzer stresses the importance of his physical involvement in the events he was shooting in conveying excitement. Writing of his participation in the filming of HUNGER 1932, Brody makes a similar point. Brody, however, lays emphasis—as Seltzer does not—on the political commitment of the filmmakers:
It was in camerawork, and not in editing, that the newsreels were distinguished, but in the longer compilation films there are some striking sequences of montage in the Soviet manner. BONUS MARCH, for example, edited by Leo Seltzer and Lester Balog, opens with a prologue which sketches the background to the contemporary situation. This sequence is a model of savage political comment in film. Without detailing the complete editing of the prologue, it is possible to give an indication of the sequence’s content, and its power, by listing the shots and groups of following shots, which appear basically in the order given here. Some of these shots appear several times at key points, adding considerably to the drama and commentary of the prologue.
Following documentation of WESL agitation, the march to Washington and the encampment, the film begins it sequence of the eviction with a quick reprise of the opening statement. We see a title “1917...” and shots of marching troops, tanks on the battlefield, an explosion, the wounded given a garden party reception—then “1932...”, and the U.S. infantry attacks down Pennsylvania Avenue, backed up by the cavalry, and the armored division.
The montage of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the AMERICA TODAY sequence referred to in the interview by Seltzer offers another example of creative montage used to make a political point forcefully and economically. The CP line at the time was that Roosevelt was preparing for aggressive war and that the New Deal represented incipient fascism. The sequence is cut as follows: troops parade through streets/Mussolini salutes/troops march, give fascist salutes/fascist salute, PAN to reveal arm is Hitler’s/U.S. battleship, TILT UP to following ship/FDR signing document, reaches for blotter, lays it down, makes a fist to blot/ cannons fired on navy cruiser/front view, guns are raised/interior, gun barrel/cannons fired/ FOR looks up and smiles/dark cloud, DISSOLVE to NRA Eagle sign and inscription: “We Do Our Part.”
Seltzer was quite content working strictly within a newsreel/documentary mode. By 1934, however, some dissatisfaction was being felt among other League members with this approach. It was in recognition of this and anticipation of arguments to come that Brody wrote the article, “The Revolutionary Film: Problem of Form,” reproduced in this issue. The riposte came in New Theatre three months later, when Hurwitz described the work being done by an experimental group at the League’s Harry Alan Potamkin Film School, and stated:
The plan encountered rough going, and the issue remains a controversial one among former FPL members. There is not space here to develop the ramifications of the dispute, which centered on financial priorities rather than either/or aesthetic commitments. The upshot was that the FPL did not approve Hurwitz’s proposal for a “shock-troupe of full time film workers.” In the fall of 1934 he, Steiner, and Lerner broke away to form the nucleus of a radical filmmaking collective known as “Nykino.” Theoretical statements issued by Steiner and Hurwitz at this time are listed in the bibliography.
Meanwhile, in September, the FPL rededicated itself to the business of unvarnished newsreel production at a National Conference held in Chicago. Reference has so far been made primarily to the New York section of the League, but in fact branches existed in many cities of the country. Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles were the most active in terms of production, but there were strong groups also in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. Local FPL organizations were reported at one time or another in Pittsburgh; Hollywood; New Haven, Connecticut; Perth Amboy, N.J.; Laredo, Texas; and the University of Wisconsin.
The Conference resolved,
16mm was adopted as the basic stock for local use, 35mm being retained for original photography at the national level. A National Film Exchange was set up, and a National Executive Committee elected—with David Platt as National Secretary and Tom Brandon a member.(10)
Work continued. In 1934-35 Leo Seltzer produced, with Ed Kern, his much-praised MARINE, and Nancy Naumburg, with James Guy, directed two longish political films (with acted sequences): SHERIFFED and TAXI, the latter of which became an official FPL production. All these films are lost, and reviews provide only frustrating hints as to their content and technique.
It was evident that there were weaknesses in the movement. In November 1934 novelist and Daily Worker columnist Michael Gold expressed his disappointment:
And invoking THREE SONGS ABOUT LENIN, he concluded:
In response, Platt could only admit that the charge was
He promised to do better in the future.(12)
The League members no doubt continued to struggle, but history was against them. The WIR, reeling under the annihilation of its German operations in the Third Reich, suffered a second grievous blow in 1935, when the CPSU abolished its Russian section. Muenzenberg, now devoting himself to antifascist propaganda from Paris, was no longer with the organization. It managed to survive in several European countries (amalgamated with the International Red Aid), but in the U.S. its activities seem to have come to a standstill by mid-decade. The League might have kept going as an independent entity—it did continue into 1936. But without the organizational backing, financial support, or political directions its parent body was able to provide, there must have seemed little point in keeping it alive. After editing a feature- length documentary on the Chinese Revolution from commercial newsreel footage as a noble last gesture to the League, filmmakers Julian Roffman, Vic Kandel and veteran Robert Del Duca formed themselves into an independent production company, and an era in U.S. radical cinema was at an end.
I would like to thank Leo Seltzer, Tom Brandon, and David Platt for assistance with my research into the League.
1. Willi Muenzenberg, “Capture the Film!” Daily Worker, July 23, 1925, p. 3.
2. Willi Muenzenberg, Solidarität: Zehn Jahre Internationale Arbeiterhilfe 1921-1931 (Berlin: Neuer Deutscher Verlag, 1931), p. 513.
3. S(amuel) B(rody), “The Movies as a Weapon Against the Working Class,” Daily Worker, May 20, 1930, p. 4.
4. Harry A. Potamkin, ‘Workers Films,” Daily Worker, May 31, 1930,åp. 3.
5. Daily Worker, May 28, 1930, p. 16. Party Organizer, 5, No. 8 (August 1932), 27.
7. S(eymour) S(tern). “A Working-Class Cinema for America,” The Left 1, No. 1 (Spring 1931). 71
8. Samuel Brody, “The Hunger March Film,” Daily Worker, December 29, 1932, p. 4.
9. Leo T. Hurwitz, “The Revolutionary Film—Next Step”, New Theatre 3, No. 6 (May 1934), 15.
10. David Platt, “The Movie Front: National Film Conference,” New Theatre 1, No. 10 (November 1934), 30.
11. Michael Gold, “Change the World,” Daily Worker, November 5, 1934. p. 7.
12. David Platt, “World of the Movies: A Reply to Michael Gold,” Daily Worker, November 16, 1934, p. 5.