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Obituary

Herbert Kline; Pioneering Documentary Filmmaker

February 12, 1999|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Herbert Kline, an important figure in the early history of American documentary film who fought fascism in Spain and posed as a Nazi sympathizer in Czechoslovakia, has died in Los Angeles after a lengthy illness.

He died Feb. 5 at 89.

A native of Davenport, Iowa, who bummed his way around the United States as a youth, Kline was one of a number of independent documentary filmmakers who found the growing crisis in Europe in the 1930s alluring.

He is best known for 1938's "Crisis," about Hitler's conquest of Czechoslovakia; the 1940 documentary "Lights Out in Europe," about the Nazi invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II; and a 1941 film about peasant life in Mexico, produced with John Steinbeck and titled "The Forgotten Village."

Calling himself a "foreign correspondent of the screen," Kline saw his job as going beyond the surface reporting found in newsreels to interpret events as they unfolded.

He loved the adventure in his work and appreciated some of its ironies. During the filming of "Crisis," for instance, Kline, who was Jewish, had Nazi storm troopers carrying his equipment and following his directions before the camera.

"It seemed strange for one of my verboten and despised racial origin to have a troop of SA men to do my bidding and march and heil and shout as they were told," he once wrote.

Although he later tried to break into mainstream Hollywood as a writer and director, his chief success was in nonfiction cinema.

One of his last films, 1971's "Walls of Fire," about Mexican artists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, got an Academy Award nomination. "Crisis," one of the National Board of Review's 10 best films of 1939, was recently re-released in Europe.

Kline had a gypsy spirit long before he started filming civil wars and blitzkriegs. He grew up in a middle-class household in Davenport, which he regarded as an "intellectual Sahara."

At the age of 14, he started running away from home to visit places that interested him--Mount Vernon, Valley Forge, New York City, Niagara Falls. He missed out on much formal education this way but read widely on his own, particularly Whitman, Sinclair, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Dos Passos.

The Great Depression raised Kline's social awareness, and he began writing sketches on the plight of the lower class. He became the editor of a leftist magazine called New Theater in Chicago and was the first to publish and help stage the plays of Clifford Odets.

The Spanish Civil War gave Kline his break into documentary film. Like many young artists and intellectuals then, he traveled to Madrid to support the Loyalist forces.

While Kline was working as a writer and speaker for a Loyalist radio station, a Hungarian photographer named Geza Karpathi knocked on his door and asked if he wanted to make a film about the strife. Neither man even knew how to load a movie camera. But their efforts resulted in 1936's "Heart of Spain," which told the story of a Madrid mother who meets the young soldier saved by her donation of blood. The next year Kline teamed up with the French photographer and director Henri Cartier-Bresson to make a second film about the Spanish conflict, "Return to Life."

As the political crisis mounted in Europe, Kline went off to London, Czechoslovakia and Poland. "He had a very good nose for politics," said Alexander Hammid, 91, his cameraman on three films. "When he finished the film in Spain, he smelled something brewing in Czechoslovakia. So he went there. . . . He sensed war was coming."

Kline believed that a documentary film director had to direct scenes in much the same way as a studio director. And he wasn't above bluffing his way into a country. For "Crisis" he and his crew gained access to Nazi rallies, parades and funerals in Czechoslovakia by pretending to be pro-Nazi.

Kline was also noted for a film made in 1947 called "My Father's House," the first documentary about victims of the Holocaust.

A committed leftist, Kline was blacklisted during the 1950s, according to a former wife, Los Angeles curator Josine Ianco-Starrels. He did not resume filmmaking until 1970 in Mexico, where he directed "Walls of Fire."

Kline made two other documentaries, "The Challenge of Modern Art" in 1978, narrated by Orson Welles, and "Acting . . . Lee Strasberg" in 1979.

He is survived by sister Evelyn Klein Amerman, son Ethan, daughter Elissa Kline Gillberg and two grandsons. Services are pending.

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