Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 28, 2022 9:00 pm 
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Weidlinger's exploration of his father is detailed yet unsatisfying

This film is based on Tom Weidlinger's book exploring the life and work of his father, The Restless Hungarian: Modernism, Madness, and the American Dream (2019). The film makes one think of Nathanial Kahn's wonderful Oscar-nominated My Architect: A Son's Journey,(2003) . Two great, distant fathers in the field of architecture, pursued in documentary films by their sons. But the latter is more successful and more moving as a film. Louis Kahn was a truly great architect, the son's filmmaking pursuit of him is touching and real, and the end of his film explores his father's monumental, transcendent work and finishes on a note of exultation, even joy. And Nathanial was illegitimate, the fruit of another, secret union. Whatever we may think of him as a man, Louis Kahn inspires awe as an architect, an artist: we can feel happy that Nathanial was able to connect with him in this beautiful way. Tom Weidlinger is doing something different, exhaustively exploring his father's life, connections, secrets, and his father Paul, though Tom says he is "famous," is certainly significant and highly accomplished but his life lacks that significant shape of pursuing a unique artistic vision. And while his son wants to admire him he has reason not to like him. Paul Weidlinger was a cold, difficult man who pursued some dubious projects, working for decades on designs for protective silos for nuclear missiles that were never built, while part of the Rand Corporation, which Daniel Ellsberg, once allied with it himself, describes as a "doomsday cult" in an interview for this film.

In fact Paul Weidlinger seems to have gone wrong several times. The first surprise discovery for Tom is that his father was Jewish, though I'm not sure exactly how this could have escaped his son. But this is something that happened sometimes: that Jews who had a horrible time escaping the Nazis chose to conceal their Jewishness thereafter. It seems a mistake that Paul left Bolivia, where he and his French Swiss wife Madeleine found refuge, or he did and she joined him (she was not Jewish; she was just going to become schizophrenic). He was so happy and successful there, as the film tells it, and instantly rich because qualified engineers were so in demand. Instead he chose to immigrate to the US, where he became the structural engineer for buildings designed by some major architects and major sculptures by Picasso and Dubuffet (it's appealing that he had a penchant for Dubuffet and was part of the Bauhaus). At some point Madeleine manifested her schizophrenia unmistakably and went into a clinic so expansive Paul had to found a business to raise the money to pay for her treatment there. They gave Madeleine insulin and electric shock treatments that she said were horrible. Maybe if he had not decided to marry her before he had even met her, he might have chosen more wisely.

Another mistake is that he seriously discounted Tom's older sister, Michelle, who later killed herself and her young child, for which Paul held himself responsible, as he says in an earlier filmed interview by Tom made when in his eighties, excerpted here. When Tom was born Paul was delighted to have a son, and made her insignificance obvious to Michelle. But since Tom tells of being suicidal at several times, including quite recently, his relative favor may not have greatly benefitted him. He seems to have been aware of his father's doomsday nuclear activities at a time when he was a longhaired youth listening to Bob Dylan's "Masters of War."

But while Paul Weidlinger's life as explored here is an unsatisfying mixture, the film is nonetheless a review of a large slice of the twentieth century. And as if to compensate for its subject's failings, and as befits a filmmaker who has numerous docs under his belt, re[s a rich and often entertaining amalgam of documents, some of them shot by Madeleine, who early on always had a Leica in hand, and seems to have shot film footage of the family as well, though those are mostly reenactments shot by Tom. Reenactments always fill one with misgivings and uncertainty, but one can't say they're not well done.

Paul's early life is dramatic and fascinating: his upper middle class origins, mixed success at school, his communist activity, leading to a barely escaped death sentence; his identification with the Bauhaus; then his struggle to live through the thirties as a Jew and escape the war. And then Bolivia, with Tom's vivid recreation of the ocean voyage there amid a great crowd of interesting, very lucky refugees who are going to escape the war and the Holocaust. But in the end, though Tom Weidlinger has pursued his father so energetically, we are left depressed by the downers of the personal life and disappointed by the rather slapdash review of Paul's biggest projects - the contrast is so clear with the lingering, noble visit to Louis Kahn’s Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, Dhaka, Bangladesh buildings at the end of Nathanial Kahn's My Architect.

The Restless Hungarian, 105 mins., was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 15-Aug. 7, 2022.

Friday July 29, 2022
3:05 p.m.
Albany Twin

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