Interviewing Philippe Mora: History and Hitler Deconstructed

Three Days in AuschwitzAt some point in the early 2000s, as a young cinephile burrowing into the nooks and crannies of Australian film culture, I came across the name Philippe Mora. At the time, like many others, I understood Philippe Mora to be a director of camp horror classics like The Beast Within (1982), The Marsupials: The Howling III (1987), and the outrageous superhero musical, The Return of Captain Invincible (1983). This, so far as I knew, was what Philippe Mora was about.

But over time, this picture evolved. As it turned out, Mora was also the director of a film that had thoroughly scarred me as a child, Communion (1989), the supposedly true story of Whitley Streiber’s abduction by aliens. The eerie combination of a frantic Christopher Walken and pear-headed aliens had made its mark on many of my earliest nightmares.

Instigated by all this I soon tracked down Mad Dog Morgan (1976), Mora’s account of the life and times of the mentally-unstable bushranger, Daniel Morgan. As in Communion, Mora had perfectly capitalised on the eccentricities of his lead actor, Dennis Hopper, to capture the manic nature of his subject.

And this is where my knowledge of Philippe Mora’s career may well have ended, were it not for an encounter with Jake Wilson’s monograph on Mad Dog Morgan late last year. Wilson had uncovered layers within this film that I had not previously identified. This was a work of cinema that had a great deal to say about Australian history; the history of its subject; the movie’s own cultural context; and the distinction (or lack thereof) between history and myth. I found myself taking a closer look at Mora’s oeuvre, and discovered a man who shared my passion for issues of historical representation within the medium of cinema.

In fact, I soon discovered that a large part of Mora’s career has been spent directing films that investigate, deconstruct and occasionally parody the challenges of exploring history through cinema. More than that, Mora’s work reveals a deep fascination with Hitler and the circumstances that lead to the rise of the Third Reich. All of which made sense given the hardships that his parents endured as French Jews during WWII.

Mora’s finest work came about when he and historian, Lutz Becker, noticed old photos of Eva Braun, Hitler’s partner, holding a 16mm camera. Eventually, they were able to track down her collection of films, unwatched since the end of WWII. They contained a great deal of footage of Adolf Hitler in far more serene and domestic situations than had previously been seen. Mora took this footage, combined it with available propaganda newsreels, and overlaid naturalistic sound and dialogue on to the largely silent material. When the final film, Swastika (1974), was complete, it did much to capture the circumstances that led to Hitler’s rise; the startling contradiction between his public and private image (this was a terrible person, not an anti-Christ); and the horrific consequences of his reign. When it screened at Cannes, the film was largely derided for “humanising” Hitler. Today, it is viewed far more positively.

Recently, I have had the good fortune to speak with Philippe Mora on several occasions, discussing all things cinema. But most importantly, we’ve spoken about the nature of conveying history through the cinematic medium. Below, I’m happy to report, is a summary of our discussions.

BAD DAY IN LONDON 1968: Popeye expelled from Paradise in my painting, with apologies to Albrecht Durer. At the Pheasantry photographed by Angus Forbes. The Beatles liked this painting and it was featured in the Beatles ILLUSTRATED LYRICS book but renamed The Ballad of John and Yoko.

BAD DAY IN LONDON 1968: Popeye expelled from Paradise in my painting, with apologies to Albrecht Durer. At the Pheasantry photographed by Angus Forbes.
The Beatles liked this painting and it was featured in the Beatles ILLUSTRATED LYRICS book but renamed The Ballad of John and Yoko.

Philippe, coming from a family of artists and people with a creative bent, the path you’ve taken in life probably wasn’t a radical surprise for your parents. How did they feel about your interest in film?

They were always very supportive. There was no film school or anything like that when I was a kid in Melbourne so my dad said early on if you want to be in films, go for it. He loved films. He bought me a 8mm camera when I was very young and then a 16mm camera when I was fourteen or something.  But he did tell me I’d have to go overseas to get into films, which I did.

I’m also a painter and I had a few exhibitions in the UK. I was always painting. That’s how I survived in the early days. I tended to do well in terms of sales. Then I did some artwork for the Beatles Illustrated Lyrics. I was very much a pop artist.

Is there a strong relationship between your painting and your films?

There’s always been a very close historical link between graphics and animation and film. It’s all a bit of a minestrone for me. The modernist avant-garde. Man Ray, Jean Cocteau. Dali. They all made films. They didn’t really see any difference. It’s a different medium but it’s all ideas and you’re getting your ideas out any way you can.

Your parents were French Jews who only just managed to escape in time to avoid the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Is this something that influenced your passion for exploring history though cinema?

I remember my dad taking me to see The Longest Day at the Atheneum in Collins Street, Melbourne in 1962. I recall vividly my father starting to cry when a Frenchman popped open a bottle of champagne as Allied soldiers came by his house after D-Day. Seeing my father cry had a huge impact on me. From that moment on I think history and film were branded or seared into my mind.

But it’s the nature of the medium as well. We are the first generation of human beings who can look back over a hundred years and see ourselves on film. That is remarkable. God knows what that’s doing to our heads. It’s really like a time machine and it fascinates me. So even as a kid looking at images of humans from another era intrigued me. I guess this started my enduring interest in history and the history of film.

But then of course, your work also often explores the dangers of cinema as a deliberate distortion of history and how that’s happened almost from day one, so I’m interested in how you’ve dealt with that risk in your work. Is that something you’re always thinking about when you’re making films?

Yeah, a lot of people believe that what they’re watching in newsreels, or news, or video is real in the sense that it’s the truth. But there is no truth. Let’s call it the Nanook Factor. When he made the documentary Nanook of the North in 1922, the first thing Flaherty did was build a larger igloo to fit his film crew in. You can be totally fooled by films, but at the same time they’re incredibly important in capturing history.

SwastikaA lot of your works seems to demonstrate an innate desire on your part to deconstruct, question and reconfigure assumed or accepted historical truths. Swastika is probably the most obvious example.  You’ve spoken a lot about how this film aimed to demistify the idea of “Hitler” and reveal that he was a mere human. Can you tell me a little about the intentions behind the project, and how you feel about Swastika looking back?

The intention was as you describe but I wanted to make it an immersive experience. I wanted to put you in Nazi Germany, and experience it as a German would have. And at the end I wanted to kick the viewer in the face with the outcome – disaster!

It’s bewildering looking back that people were so confronted by the film. That they could be offended by the reality that must be confronted: that Hitler was a mere mortal.

It’s interesting because watching Swastika and looking at its reception, one of the things that occurred to me is that people’s acceptance of what they see on screen was the issue. Hitler was represented as this Messiah in the propaganda of the Nazi regime. Afterwards, those images that positioned Hitler as something akin to a deity were the only images available. Rather than rejecting that imagery, people around the world digested it. They just inverted it and called him an anti-Christ. They actually bought into the propaganda…

Exactly. The criticism was that we humanised Hitler. What does “humanise” mean really? The fact is that Hitler was human. Can humans do terrible things? Yes. How we deal with it is another thing. The problem with films is that people do not really want to be challenged, lectured or confronted by films or any art for that matter. But it’s my view, often to my career detriment, that anything any good must be confronting in some way. Picasso said words to the effect that “if it’s in good taste it’s not art”.

And your right, looking back at what the Nazis did in twelve tragic years was astounding in terms of modern media. No other society except in science fiction has been subjected to such a deluge of sound, image and spectacle in the cause of one narrative–Hitler the Fuhrer–Messiah. They mixed the newest technology and media (film, radio, print, spectacle, television) with medieval ideals. That was the real disaster.

Goebbels personally had to okay every newsreel. That’s how important it was to him, and I love this little bit of irony. When we first showed Swastika in Berlin, after a ban of 34 years, we showed it in the very screening room where Goebbels okayed the newsreels.

Really?

Yeah. Spooky, but great.

And after Swastika, you went on to make Brother Can You Spare a Dime (1975). Essentially, this was an experimental film in which you cut together a huge range of depression era movie clips, a lot of which were from James Cagney films, to tell the story of the period?

Yeah. We got the rights to eight or nine James Cagney movies and then in the spirit of wanting to make a narrative feature film, I made a new story. He gets in jail. And he gets out of jail. And he gets a job. And it’s the Depression so he’s the kind of star of the movie, paralleled with FDR who I had in newsreels.

I realised that a 1933 James Cagney so called fictional film was just as revealing, if not more revealing, about 1933 than a newsreel made in 1933 because you had the fashion, the way people speak. You have what they were interested in. They’re interested in this fiction of the gangsters. It’s important. 100 years from now they’re going to look at Batman and they’re going to say, “What the fuck was that all about?”

One of the things that has become apparent to me is that every film in one sense is a documentary about a period. But when I intercut all these Hollywood features and newsreels together, at the time it was regarded as a kind of blasphemy by some film critics. Penelope Gilliatt who reviewed the film for the New Yorker rang me up and went through the whole film asking me for information on the film clips! She then said words to the effect: Well, if you know all that, why didn’t you put the information in titles on screen in the film? I explained that would defeat the purpose of the film, which was to be a kind of immersive experience.

Mad Dog MorganNow, from that point onwards your film career began to show evidence of going in two different directions: Mora the historian and Mora the director of genre films. Both of which were apparent in your next film, Mad Dog Morgan. The film is an anarchic mix of experimental film and editing, dialled up performances, historical record and extreme violence. Were you conscious that the film was an amalgamation of these two areas of interest at the time?

Ironically the genre films I’ve directed were commercially very successful worldwide which is why they keep popping up and genre fans are very loyal. For me they are pop art, which is what I was doing in earlier years. My genre films were never “straight”.

At the time I did not realise Mad Dog Morgan was doing what you just described, but I was conscious very much of wanting to put the story in historical context and with regret now cut out a scene with Queen Victoria in bed, and Frank Thring as visiting actor John Wilkes Booth from America doing Shakespeare in the bush. Lincoln remains as a reference as does early Darwinism racism and colonial references, and the massacre of aborigines and other historical elements. I look back on the film with great fondness and find it hard to believe it was done on schedule and budget considering everything involved.

The reception to Mad Dog Morgan was quite split wasn’t it?

Many of my films, historically, no pun intended, polarised audiences and critics. And I mean polarised. The London Financial Times’ Nigel Andrews used the word masterpiece in relation to Mad Dog. But the New York Post said everyone involved with this film should be locked up. That’s my definition of polarised.

Jake Wilson recently released a book about Mad Dog Morgan. What did you think of it?

Look, I thought the book was terrific. I really enjoyed it. There were things in there that I’d never thought of but I think are true. He did a good job of examining the film. I was very young when I made it so it was very instinctual if you like. I wasn’t analysing anything. I was very interested in Australian colonial history. I thought that was really interesting.

And from there you went on to direct The Beast From Within, before making another film that featured a fascinating collision of pop-culture and history, The Return of Captain Invincible. Here you have an American superhero (Alan Arkin) helping to win WWII, only to be blacklisted as a Communist. He descends into alcoholism before being brought back into the fold by the US government to fight America’s enemies once more. Oh, and it’s a musical! Were you happy with the film? It seems now like an interesting ancestor to the cynical superhero films of today.

Well I think it was ahead of its time in many ways. It was nice to see an article in The Guardian recently pointing this out. I get a kick out of the fact that before I made that film about an alcoholic superhero, superheroes never had problems. Now they all do. It came out of my love of comic books, knowledge of super heroes and so on. I loved the blacklist element in De Souza’s original script because I knew I could use newsreel footage. A newsreel scene was in his script also. My main contribution stylistically was to make it a musical. Why not, right? The film has many levels of satire and commentary on film and Hollywood. It traces some of the best and worst thing about America. Irving Berlin personally approved the use of his song God Bless America knowing what the film was about. He donated the money to the Boy Scouts Of America. De Souza went on to become a huge hit Hollywood writer (Die Hard) writing the very movies we had parodied in Invincible.

The movie is a lot of fun. I particularly enjoyed seeing Christopher Lee sing a few musical numbers as the villain. How did you get him on board?

At the time we made the movie, he was available and he loved the idea of singing. He wanted to sing and he was a fantastic singer. He’s just a talented guy so he thought the film was really funny and he liked sending himself up.

You worked with him a few times, and he ended up becoming a friend of yours. It must have been of interest to you that he had some involvement in World War II?

That’s absolutely right. He worked for the British intelligence in World War II. I remember when we landed in Prague to shoot Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985), there was a whole military parade waiting at the airport. I said, “I wonder who that’s for, Christopher.” He said, “Oh, that’s for me dear boy. I’m a war hero.” He was. He had helped in the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. After the war he was involved in the arrest of many top Gestapo officers. He showed me, in his apartment in London, all these epaulettes he’d taken off of officers as he arrested them. Who knew? Dracula hunted Nazis.

CommunionIn the years that followed you directed quite a few genre films. A Breed Apart (1984) with Rutger Hauer. Howling II, once again with Christopher Lee. Death of a Solider (1986) with James Coburn as the American military lawyer hired to defend an American serial killer in Australia – all based on the real life murderer, Eddie Leonski. After that was The Marsupials: Howling III. And then, you directed a film that tormented me as a kid. Communion.

I realise Communion is not what you or I (or most people) might consider a historical film, but it does share a trait with some of your other work. Like Mad Dog Morgan, it does seem to tie together the genre film and ideas of truth. It raises and interrogates notions of our understanding of the reality of things. How did you come to make the film adaptation of Whitley Streiber’s account of his own alleged alien abduction?

Well, first I knew Whitley in London before he was a famous writer. We were having lunch one time and I asked him what he was up to. He said, “Well, I don’t think I’ll tell you. You’ll just laugh at me.” I said, “I won’t laugh at you.” He said, “Well, I think I’ve been abducted by aliens. What do you think I should do?” It didn’t sound like a gag, so I told him, “I think you should get a psychiatrist and a publisher and write the story.”

Later, he sent me the book and I said to him straight off, “There’s a movie here. This is a film, whether it’s happened or not.” In the beginning, he didn’t know whether it happened or not. He just knew that he thought that it happened. I thought that was intriguing.

Once the book went on to be the number one nonfiction book in the New York Times, I was able to raise the money to make it for $5 million, but it was extremely difficult to make because I wanted to respect Whitney’s position. I had to get him to agree to the way I was portraying everything. That was particularly hard with stuff like the infamous anal probe. He’s swearing to me that that’s exactly what happened and that’s what it looked like and so on and so forth. I’d have to say, “Are you sure, because this will follow you around forever?” I did as best as I could with his blessing.

Yes, your approach was quite effective in its ambiguity, denying the viewer any clarity as to whether or not these creatures were aliens or merely figments of Streiber’s imagination. Walken’s performance seemed to further heighten this sense of confusion. Was this intentional?

Your interpretation is spot on. Is all this in his head or really happening? That was initially how the book read to me. 

Christopher Walken is a lot of fun in this film. He has this dialled up intensity, which feeds the idea that the protagonist might simply be falling apart.

Yeah, he was terrific. I think it makes it more convincing. He’s not reacting like someone reacts in a horror movie. He’s reacting like someone reacts in reality, which would be, “This can’t be true.” When that hits home it gets scary.

I’m very curious what Christopher Walken thought of the material. Did you discuss it with him?

He thought it was a complete and total load of nonsense. He’s a total cynic on it.

And was Whitley Streiber happy with the final film?

He liked it a lot. Again, it’s a polarising film. I remember a couple of distributors saying, “Philippe, you’ve made an alien movie but it’s an art movie. What are you doing?” It’s not an art movie. We just don’t know the answer to what happened. You see, Hollywood wants everything black and white. They want an ending. You can’t have any ambiguity in Hollywood, but we had to end this with ambiguity because if we took the position that it really happened, or that it was a horror film, well that’s not what happened.

It seems to have had a lasting effect on popular culture.

Yes, that particular type of alien became everyone’s alien. The beginning of the first episode of The X-Files was almost identical to Communion, the abduction scene. The funniest thing is South Park. The first episode of South Park was all based on the anal probe.

What’s the word for it? Albert Tucker, the painter, he was a friend of ours, a great guy and he called them breeders, meaning that he had one painting and it was a breeder. Other people would look at it and go off and do a whole series of paintings based on it. I think Communion was definitely a breeder.

Snide and PrejudiceLet’s talk about my favourite Philippe Mora film, Snide and Prejudice. The idea of eschewing the traditional biopic by instead focusing on a mental patient (Angus Macfadyen) who believes that he is the Führer, and having him re-enact the life and times of Hitler under the auspices of his therapist (Rene Auberjonois), is a really dynamic approach to the subject. It’s very dense in terms of the sheer amount of historical information presented, but the setting makes the story all the more compelling. What I find interesting is that using the device of re-enactment, you’ve averted some of the dangers of historical films that purport to be ‘true stories’. The whole movie becomes a question mark rather than a statement of fact. Was this intentional? I’d love to hear a little about why you elected to take this approach to the Hitler story?

I’m very proud of that film. I really like it. It started out as a traditional historical epic but it was impossible to get money to make it. It was just too hot a potato. Then I thought of this theatrical idea of setting it in a mental institution.

I could get the money to make that. It all came from the practical reality of finding a way to tell the story. How do we get this story out there? Originally the title was Prejudice, which in retrospect may have been a better title. But because of the black humour of the movie, I thought Snide and Prejudice might suggest a comedic edge. I loved The Great Dictator (1940). I loved To Be Or Not To Be (1942). I was trying to make it in that tradition.

I think Angus Macfadyen is outstanding, with Auberjonois great as the foil. Dean Martin to Jerry Lewis. We got some great reviews. F.X. Feeney at the LA Weekly named it one of the ten best films of that year. But again it breaks moulds and so was hard to market. The film as question mark… yes, that was deliberate because there are so many questions still about Hitler’s regime. But anyone really going through it will find it’s very factual, which makes the questions stronger in my view. Was Hitler mad? According to medical records, he wasn’t clinically insane. Although later on at the end of the war there is a convincing case for cocaine and speed psychosis according to records of what he was prescribed by his doctor. Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect, believed drugs affected his mind in the end.

I still love the device of staging it as re-enactment, simultaneously getting info across and parodying documentaries that do ridiculous and false re-enactments in my view.

There’s a huge cast in Snide and Prejudice… Mena Suvari, Jeffrey Coombs, Brion James, Mick Fleetwood. How did you about casting it? Are there a lot of friends in that movie?

Friends and also we had a good casting person. Felicia Fasano. She knew a lot of the actors that I didn’t know. There was an ensemble, but again, because all the actors were going to play three or four parts, we got an immediate good response because it’s a challenge for the actors to play those roles.

You’re just about to release another documentary about the Nazis, Three Days in Auschwitz, but this one’s going to be quite different from what you’ve done previously. I was fortunate enough to watch it recently (I’m just pulling together a review of the film now) and found it to be a really intimate and personal film. How would you describe it?

You know, I thought I’d be done with the subject matter after making Snide and Prejudice but really I keep hearing stuff and finding stuff. And then going to Paris and seeing where a lot of what happened in my own family history occurred… it got me started all over again. Three Days in Auschwitz is like a sketch for a movie in a way. It’s a sketch of my impressions of Auschwitz having been there three times. I went there and filmed but had no particular market in mind except my grandchildren. I just thought it might be fun piecing it together and then my friend Eric, to my great delight and surprise, offered to do the score. That was great.

Trouble in MolopolisEric Clapton?

Yeah. Eric was my first producer. He produced my first feature, Trouble in Molopolis (1969), in London with Arthur Boyd. They both put the money up. It’s the unlikeliest combination of producers in film history. Arthur Boyd the Australian painter and Eric Clapton.

You were a flatmate of Eric Clapton? Is that how it happened?

Yes. I lived with Eric Clapton in London before Eric was a superstar. Eric was a film buff. We used to watch movies together and then when Cream took off, he said to me, “Didn’t you want to make a film?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “How much would that cost.” I thought of the biggest amount I could, 5,000 pounds. He said, “Okay, let’s go get that,” so we went to his manager and we got it from him. That’s a whole other story.

How you’ve changed as a filmmaker since Swastika? What’s the difference between the director of Swastika, Snide and Prejudice and the man who directed Three Days In Auschwitz? It’s fascinating to me how these three films explore the idea of the Third Reich in such distinct ways.

I think I am basically the same but studying the period from different angles as I get older. I’m an artist, not a scientist so I approach the subject in different forms to get at some kind of truth. I now see my Third Reich films as the equivalent of a cinematic mural. No single film can possibly deal with all the history and ramifications. There are many books and films to be made.

I think the events of 1933-1945 are critical in the history of modern civilisation and the human condition. The events are still not explained in my opinion.

How has your thinking about historical representation in films has changed or remained the same over time? I’m particularly interested in your thoughts about what a good or bad account of history in films looks like. Are there key films that have influenced your work or stand out for you as triumphs of historical representation?

Enormous question, James!  I think Abel Gance’s three screen Napoleon (1927) is excellent. Regarding WWII films, my litmus test is an imaginary one: what would Hitler make of this film? If he is deeply offended and pissed off then it is successful! In my opinion he would laugh many of them off as sentimental and irrelevant. Nevertheless, I think that any film about the subject has some value.

It is interesting to note that Hitler and Goebbels both believed in the power of film, and Hitler even authorised soldiers to be taken away from the front to act in propaganda movies as the Reich collapsed. One time, Goebbels had a special screening of Gone with the Wind for his coterie of accepted directors. At the end he berated his directors saying that they should all be ashamed of themselves: “That is the kind of film we should be making”.

One of the distressing things about all of this is that so many films have this element of crying at our inhumanity. When you’re a young artist, a young writer, a young intellectual, you do that and when you’re an old one, you still do it. But the sad thing is, nothing seems to help. You’re preaching to the converted or you’re preaching to the bad guys who don’t care anyway. It’s really struck me recently. Maybe incrementally all this stuff helps. I don’t know. I’m just waxing a little bit philosophical.

Philippe Mora’s new film Three Days in Auschwitz will be available on DVD from Monday the 16th of May

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

9 thoughts on “Interviewing Philippe Mora: History and Hitler Deconstructed

  1. This was very professional, James, yet still managed to be entertaining, and to feel completely ‘real’. I really enjoyed ‘Communion’, after also being a fan of the book, and Walken was perfectly cast in that role. Also, it is great to see Angus Macfadyen getting some praise, as I have always respected his work, and consider him to be vastly underrated.
    I will look forward to catching up with some more of Mora’s films.
    Best wishes as always, Pete.

  2. Best interview I have read in years. Intelligent questions and enlightening responses. I have seen about half of these films, but never connected them to one director.Now I am looking forward to seeking out more of his movies. Thank you for doing such a fine job of bringing another major talent out of obscurity.

    • Thanks, Simon – that’s amazing feedback. I had quite a time trimming this back from the original 15,000 words I started with. So hearing that it works as a cohesive piece of writing is awesome.

  3. Glad to see Phillippe Mora getting a lot more respect in the last several year than he did in the earlier years of his career(the 70s and the 80s),since everyone has seen what an amazing film artist he is with whatever film he is working on.

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