Cinematography of the Holocaust
Materials relating to films
EXODUS D: Preminger. (USA, 1960)
Pure Flight or Exodus
Otto Preminger's film about Israel
by Ronny Loewy
The deportation of 4500 displaced persons, who arrived in Palestine on the "Exodus 47" and were then sent back via France by the British, finally to arrive in the Pöppendorf internment camp in Lübeck, Germany, in September 1947, was a media event which the Aliyah Beth people helped organize, even if not of their own choosing. It was up to Aliyah Beth officials to stop the organized transport of refugees at Port de Boue in southern France and thus to prevent their further transportation to Germany. The Aliyah Beth activists, Zionists as well as Revisionists, created a successful enough refugee drama out of the situation to ralley international pressure, particularly against British Mandate rule, and to speed up the decision-making process in favor of founding a Jewish state. The images of British war-ships and of forlorn children, women and men, forced to leave Haifa after having just arrived, created ripples throughout the world and significantly enriched the iconographic arsenal of the Exodus metaphor.
The 1960 Exodus film deals with this metaphor, which seeks to provide a pre-modern explanation for a modern community of Jews. When Exodus reached the cinemas, many film critics referred to it as "Birth of a Nation". They were in fact sharing a misunderstanding (the birth of state does indeed come at the end of the film) with the director Otto Preminger, as well as with Leon Uris, the author of the book on which the film was based.
One of the Zionist leadership's reinterpretations - dating from 1945 at the very latest - of the Zionist movement's establishment, but of a homeland in Eretz Israel as a collective movement of the Jewish people, not of an Israeli nation, served the Exodus metaphor as a meeting point of history and the present. The terrific impact of Holocaust survivors, gathered together by Aliyah Beth in an extremely well-organized, daring and highly risky ship's passage to Palestine, was used to heighten the dramaturgy of an act of foundation.
From the Zionist standpoint, the complex identity debate surrounding interpretations of the Jewish state - a community based on a common faith versus people, faith versus nation - was to have superimposed upon it the powerful image of the "birth of a Jewish nation" as an act which liberated the Diaspora through settlement of the land by "Jewish Israelis" in "Eretz Israel". The powerful image is all important, since it enabled the "Jewish Israelis" to achieve their goals through a politically and militarily radical liberation movement - goals which ranged from forcing the British to exercise their duty as the mandatory power in Palestine, to triumphing over their Arab competitors for land possession, and even to restraining religious opponents within their own camp.
The film Exodus gives an account of the secular triumph of Zionism. The second half of the film deals with the diverse conflicts within Palestine at the time of the founding of the State of Israel. The myths the film reveals are those that pertained at the time of the state's foundation: "the birth of the Jewish state" as a conscious act of "the saved", of those who survived the destruction of European Jewry, the focus of the first half of the film. Exodus takes place between the middle of September and the end of November 1947. The decision of the Haganah to concentrate all its efforts on getting the displaced persons held by the British in a Cyprus detention camp onto a ship to Palestine, was lent additional weight when news filtered through that 4500 Jews had been put back on ships the previous week and transported to a camp near Hamburg, even after they had gone ashore in Palestine. This is in fact the only direct reference to the real "Exodus 47". The film ends just after the United Nations vote on 29 November 1947 in Flushing Meadow on the UNSCOP draft for the division of Palestine, paved the way for the foundation of the State of Israel the following May and put an end to the British blockade policy.
Prior even to the film's premiere in the USA, there were angry protests by Soviet diplomats over the scene in the film where the results of the vote on the division of Palestine is officially declared. This, despite the fact that the decision regarding the division of Palestine dated back to a 1947 Soviet foreign policy initiative. The scene was filmed in the Russian Compound, a square in Jerusalem which belongs to the Russian Orthodox church and which the Soviet Union had claimed as its property. Through Exodus, the Soviet Union in 1960 was embarrassingly reminded of its former policy, which in the meantime it no longer expoused.
Preminger concentrated the action of his film into a three month period. Some of the events which did in fact take place and which are presented in the film actually occured out of the time framework adopted. For example, the bombing of the southern wing of the Kind David Hotel took place on July 22sc 1946 and the spectacular escape of Irgun terrorists from Acco prison on May 4th 1947. The film documents how the flight of Holocaust survivors from Europe translated into the powerful movement for return to Palestine and into the lands' claims of a legitimate national people. While Preminger was shooting the film in 1960, the previous illegal immigration into Palestine, which he filmed as an heroic act of foundation against British Mandate rule, was declared the lawful right of return by the new state. The Exodus, once a return from slavery and presently a return of Holocaust survivors, would from now on determine the Israelis' right to statehood.
At the beginning of the film a person is introduced who stands outside the field of action of the other protagonists and who remains throughout the film the only character not to take on a representational historic role. Kitty Fremont (Eva Marie Saint), a non-Jewish American is more or less by chance confronted with the problem of the Jewish displaced persons on Cyprus. In the course of the film she encounters a series of people, or is witness to meetings between people, all of whom are representatives of the conflicting parties involved in the struggle for Israel. Coming across Karen (Jill Haworth), a Jewish girl from Germany, separated from her parents during the Holocaust and now in a detention camp, Kitty believes she can help out by adopting the child and taking her back to the United States. The solution which seems so obvious to the American proves naive and unrealizable. Karen is drawn to Palestine to look for her father, but not only for that reason. Instead of taking Karen back to the United States, Kitty ends up accompanying her to Palestine; she had decided in any case to make herself useful as a nurse on the ship. Through Haganah activist Ari Kanaan (Paul Newman), whose life partner she later becomes, she learns in Cyprus and Palestine about the struggle for Israel. At the end of the film two friends are buried. Karen is shot dead by Arab terrorists, and Tarah, Ari's Arab friend from childhood, is executed on a charge of "collaboration" with Jewish settlers.
The two opposing Jewish parties compete for our sympathies: the political realists of the Zionist Haganah, represented by Ari and his father Barak (Lee J. Cobb), and the romantic partisans in the revisionist Irgun Zvai Leumi (Etzel), represented by the young concentration camp survivor Dov Landau (Sal Mineo) and Ari's uncle, Akiva (David Opatoshu). The Zionist political realists determine the outcome of the conflict in their favor, both in the film and in reality. The power of the two conflicting parties was and is secure in the myth that one can build a state with a religion and people, while ignoring all national imponderables. It would have done good to learn from Americans like Kitty how things could have been done better, but Israel consistently refused to take this lesson on board. In its political and economic dependency, Israel is still akin to the 51st state of America; only its intransigence makes it really sovereign.
When Mayer Levin filmed The Illegals on a genuine immigrant ship, "The Unafraid", between 1947 and 1948, the Exodus functionaries appeared as helpers on a dramatic and arduous journey. All the rhetoric which connotated the Exodus was genuine, since the film was largely documentary in concept. In that film it is easy to distinguish between reality and interpretation. There was an Exodus, but first and foremost there was the pure flight of the survivors.
Published in: Filmgeschichte. Newsletter der Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, Nr. 13, Juni 1999