Strange Victory

Remember how it was?” a voice-over narrator asks periodically in Leo Hurwitz’s bold essay film Strange Victory (1948). For the first 20 minutes, Hurwitz revisits the World War II years, when Americans of all stripes pulled together to defeat the racial tyranny of the Axis powers. War Department footage shows the fury of the air war against Germany and the suffering of its people as U.S. soldiers chase through Berlin in hope of capturing the Führer. Victory brings the first Nuremberg trials, with Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, and company sitting in the dock, and dancing in the streets back in the U.S. But the party is cut short when Hurwitz shows propaganda stickers and chalked graffiti turning up on the streets of New York: Help Save America! Don’t Buy From JEWS! and P.L. IS A POPE LOVER and NIGGERS RUINT THIS TOWN. “The theme of the film was very simple,” producer Barney Rosset once explained. “It was about how we won the war, and crushed Hitler, but he escaped. Escaped and came here.”

A Chicago native, Rosset would find his true calling a few years later as owner of Grove Press, fighting landmark obscenity battles over such novels as Tropic of Cancer, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Naked Lunch. Four years after his death at age 89, Milestone Films has restored and rereleased Strange Victory and is also distributing Ross Lipman’s documentary Notfilm, about the 20-minute short that Rosset produced in 1964 with silent comedian Buster Keaton performing a script by Samuel Beckett. Strange Victory demonstrates that Rosset, who had family money, was a maverick from the start—even now the movie is shocking for its graphic footage of the war dead in Europe, and in the first paranoid clutches of the Cold War, it openly equated the rise of Hitler in Europe with domestic racism and xenophobia.

What makes Strange Victory such an arresting experience is that there’s no need to “remember how it was”—in fact, the film often seems like a snapshot of some modern-day voters who have propelled Donald Trump toward the White House. “A fear runs through the country, a worrying,” reads the narration, written by Saul Levitt. “We live like a man holding his breath against what might happen tomorrow.” Providing a thin narrative frame for Strange Victory is the story of an African-American veteran who flew planes during the war but can’t get a decent job back in the U.S. (played by Virgil Richardson, himself a former Tuskegee airman). Hurwitz cites statistics to prove how few African-Americans at the time held jobs as engineers, architects, doctors, and lawyers; the percentages are startling not only because they’re so low but because they haven’t changed much in 70 years.  v