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Channel Esther: Manny Kirchheimer’s Films at MoMA

Esther Cohen
January 27, 2017

by Esther Cohen

STARTING FEBRUARY 3, New York’s Museum of Modern Art will hold a retrospective of films by longtime Jewish Currents subscriber Manny Kirchheimer. Featured films include, among others, 1) Claw, 1968, which juxtaposes Manhattan’s old facades and gargoyles with “the restless compulsion of the modern city to rise ever upwards, the jowls of a massive crane laying waste to what once stood proud,” writes MOMA; 2) Stations of the Elevated, 1981, “a classic of proto-hip-hop filmmaking, a plein air study of New York’s graffiti-festooned subway cars as they lumber and screech over elevated tracks in the Bronx and beyond; 3) My Coffee with Jewish Friends, 2017, a world premiere, “a series of coffee klatches with twenty friends that proves the old adage, ‘Where you have two Jews, you have three opinions.’ ”

Jewish Currents sat with Manny this week in his light-filled, large, rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment, to talk a little about his career and his retrospective. He lives with his wife, writer Gloria Kirchheimer, and is an affable, engaged 86-year-old, with many plans. He recently retired from the School of Visual Arts, to work full-time on his films.

MANNY KIRCHHEIMER: I came to this country in 1936. I was 5. I was born in Saarbrucken, Germany, and my family moved to New York City to escape the Nazis. We lived in Marble Hill on 225th Street, and then moved to Washington Heights. Of course, our life wasn’t easy. My career began at City College, where I met the great Hans Richter. He started the only documentary school in the country. He told us that there are many opportunities, but few jobs. He was wrong. There were many jobs, but few opportunities. I worked many years as a film editor. I’m 86 now and I’ve taught for forty-two years: at City College, at Columbia University, at the New York institute of Film, and for many many years at the School of Visual Arts. I started teaching there in 1975, and have just retired. I got my first teaching job in 1952.

My first job was as an editor. I worked on anything but commercials, and films I didn’t believe in. I turned down work that was against my beliefs.

I’ve always wanted to make my own films. My thirteen films range from ten minutes to two and a half hours. We Were So Beloved, my longest film, about Holocaust survivors in Washington Heights, was favorably reviewed by Morris Schappes in Jewish Currents in 1986. My subjects are urban. The newest film, Coffee and Jews, has its world premiere at MOMA on February 3. The subjects include students, my dentist, a woman rabbi, and many others.

My favorite of my own films is called CLAW. It’s about the destruction of the old city told like a fable.

Just a few years ago, I got a film agent. He’s been wonderful.

I have a film opening at the new theater downtown, The Metrograph, on March 10, about people who collect cans and bottles. My subjects are all urban.

Most of my films I paid for myself. I received very little funding.

My advice for other people is this: Make your own films and keep doing it. Don’t let anything get in the way, like marriage, the film industry, or psychoanalysts. Just keep making films.

Esther Cohen loves film and is the arts consultant for Jewish Currents.