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91 Chapter 4 The Symphony of a Great Heimat: Zionism as a Cure for Weimar Crisis in Lerski’s Avodah Ofer Ashkenazi Drought teaches magic and prayer.1 —­Aby Warburg In the mid-­ 1930s, shortly after the National Socialists secured their control in Germany, a very unlikely team of German-­ speaking bourgeois émigrés with ambivalent relations to Zionism set off to produce a groundbreaking Zionist-­socialist propaganda film in Palestine. According to a contemporaneous report, the crew included the producer, a “Berlin stockbroker”—­ who “was also the driver”—­ the inexperienced assistant (“previously a university professor in Berlin”), and the esteemed cinematographer Helmar Lerski.2 The production took advantage of the recently opened film studio of NathanAxelrod, the first in Mandate Palestine. The postproduction, namely the delicate synchronization of Paul Dessau’s musical score, was done in Budapest, using German-­ developed sound technology under the supervision of two eminent veterans of the pre-­ Nazi German film industry .3 The result of this transnational effort, Avodah (Work, 1935), a montage of sights and sounds that combined documentation of Jewish labor with staged scenes, was heralded by some reviewers as a triumph of Zionist aesthetics; others , however, scorned its “artificial” imagery and lamented its “poor propaganda value.”4 This article argues that Avodah was not merely a stylized (and somewhat fuzzy) culmination of Zionist symbolism. It excited and confused its viewers because it brilliantly interwove two cultural paradigms, which corresponded with two disparate sets of experiences, anxieties, and hopes: the paradigm of the Labor-­ Zionists in Mandate Palestine in the years between the disillusioning eruption of Jewish-­ Arab violence in 1929 and the Arab Rebellion of 19365 ; and 92    Three-Way Street the discourse of the liberal bourgeois urbanites of 1920s Germany, who experienced the violent demise of the Weimar Republic. Helmar Lerski, the film’s director, spent most of his creative years in Weimar-­ era Berlin, where he made films and exhibited photographs that seemed to convey a variety of contradicting sentiments, from sympathy for socialist objectives to procapitalist propaganda, from Jewish ethnocentrism to cosmopolitanism . Preceding most German-­ speaking immigrants, he arrived in Palestine shortly before Hitler came to power and quickly found his way into the Zionist propaganda endeavor. After the Second World War, however, he left the Land of Israel and sought refuge back in Central Europe.6 Echoing Lerski’s biography, Avodah intertwines several different narratives and values without obliterating the tensions between them. In what follows I argue that Lerski’s “poetic version of Eretz Israel” relied heavily on the cinematic imagery developed during the Weimar years to contemplate the crisis of subjectivity in the modern city.7 A close reading of the similarities between Avodah and two exemplary Weimar films—­ Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (Berlin, Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt, Walther Ruttmann, 1927) and Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927, in which Lerski had a vital role)—­ shows that Lerski skillfully envisioned Zionism as a remedy for the maladies of modern experience. His Zionism did not only instigate a new type of modernity, disposed of the crisis otherwise implanted in an increasingly mechanized reality; it also implied a new type of Heimat, namely a landscape where people, nature, and machines lived in productive harmony. This modernized Heimat gave rise to a new type of community—­ universal and idiosyncratic; secular and mystic; archaic and modern.8 Helmar Lerski and the Zionist Film in the 1930s Similar to many German-­ speaking Jewish artists and intellectuals of the early 1900s, Helmar Lerski’s biography comprises multiple emigrations, efforts of assimilation, experiences of antisemitism, and an ambiguous approach to Jewish nationalism.9 As a recurrent immigrant who experienced and absorbed different cultural traditions, and endeavored to integrate them within various national contexts, Lerski embodied the notion of transnational art. Born Israel Schmuklerski to Polish-­ Jewish immigrants in 1871 Strasbourg (then Germany ), Lerski spent most of his childhood in Zurich, Switzerland. At the age of twenty two, after completing his training as a bank clerk, he immigrated to the United States where he started a career as an actor in a German-­ speaking theater.10 In 1909 he gave up acting and opened a photography studio with his The Symphony of a Great Heimat    93 first wife. In the early 1910s, after he published his first photo in a midwestern German language newspaper, Lerski’s experimental use of mirrors and light won him some recognition among American critics and scholars.11 Despite his considerable success in the United States, in the fall...


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