In 1981 Lisa Lewenz was visiting Baltimore, nosing around her family’s attic, when she discovered dozens of forgotten home movies her Jewish grandmother, Ella Arnhold Lewenz, had made in Germany in the 20s and 30s. The films included footage of Ella’s prominent upper-class family’s daily life in their Berlin mansion (now a part of the city hall), parties attended by distinguished guests like Albert Einstein and Brigitte Helm, a gesticulating Hitler, and anti-Jewish signs. Making such movies was declared illegal in 1933, but Ella persisted. “She recognized the importance of history and felt it needed to be recorded,” says Lewenz.

Lewenz had been brought up as an Episcopalian and was unaware of her Jewish ancestry until she was a teenager. Intrigued by the films, she began to investigate the story of her grandmother’s family. Six years later Lewenz left Chicago, where she’d been active in the performance scene, for the east coast, where the older members of her family lived. She interviewed Ella’s surviving children while they watched the footage (which includes some of the first color 16-millimeter film ever shot), traveled to Germany with one of Ella’s daughters, and even hired a German lip-reader to decipher what people were saying in the movies. Her 17-year study became the 64-minute documentary A Letter Without Words, which combines the interviews and selections from her grandmother’s diary with the original footage. “So much of my grandmother’s film was in color, it allows you to see history as though it’s happening right now,” she says. “It’s shocking. There’s nothing like it.”

Ella was able to bribe officials and flee Germany with her youngest daughter in 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht, with the movies in a suitcase. To Ella’s children, the movies “were like vacation pictures,” says Lewenz. “The family at that time didn’t value them.” Ella died in 1954.

“The irony is that if I had been brought up as an observant Jew, finding the films wouldn’t have been all that extraordinary,” says Lewenz. “I uncovered a history I didn’t know and didn’t understand. It’s an amazing journey. It’s miraculous that all of these things happened as though they were meant to.”

A Letter Without Words will be shown Sunday at 2:30 at the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute, Columbus at Jackson (312-443-3737). Admission is $7. — Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lisa Lewenz uncredited photo.