ELLIOT SHAPIRO: OK, I think it's 7:30 and we should get started. Good evening, my name is Elliot Shapiro. I work and teach in Cornell's Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines. I also teach several Jewish studies classes on film or several film classes of Jewish Studies. Take your pick. We'll talk a little bit more about those classes later.
I'm absolutely delighted to be able to welcome Aviva Kempner to Cornell this evening. I am sure I'm not the first person to say at a Cornell cinema event, or some similar event, I really wish we could do this in the Willard Straight Theater. Maybe another time. The silver lining, of course, is that this format allows us to welcome visitors from far and wide. I'm sure there's some people logging in tonight who are not logging in from Ithaca, because I think they told me.
Before I introduce our visitor I'd like to thank Cornell cinema and Cornell's Program in Jewish Studies for making this event happen. In particular, from Jewish studies I want to thank [INAUDIBLE] [? Klein ?] and Deborah Starr. From Cornell Cinema, I particularly want to thank Mary Fessenden and Doug McLaren. Doug, by the way, is in the background right now. You can't see him, but he's making sure the technology works and if there's a real rush of questions he'll be helping me with the Q&A.
This brings me to a point about format. This is a webinar. You're used to this by now. But you can see us and we can't see you.
If you do have questions, you can post them in the Q&A box. You should be able to see that at the bottom of your screen. [CLEARS THROAT] Excuse me. We will discuss as many as we can.
I also admit, I have questions of my own. I don't expect to get to all of mine. And I've invited my students to submit questions as well. So if you have questions, this introduction will be over soon. You can start posting them in the Q&A right now.
OK, for the past four years, I've been teaching a first year writing seminar called Jews On Film, Visible and Invisible. This semester, for the first time, I'm teaching a course called Jewish Films and Filmmakers, Hollywood and Beyond. And I suppose since I've been thanking people I should thank Jewish Studies and the Knight Institute and the College of Arts and Sciences for supporting these classes.
When I learned that I'd be teaching Jewish Films and Filmmakers this semester I immediately started thinking what was it going to take to bring Aviva Kempner to Cornell. And of course, hoping that that would be actually bringing her to Cornell, and not just on a screen. But again, maybe another time.
Kempner's 2009 documentary about Gertrude Berg titled Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg has really played a central role in my Jews On Film class. Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg-- I have the video right here-- is a film made by a Jewish filmmaker about a Jewish pioneer of radio and television. It's also a film about a woman who forged an exceptionally long career in radio and TV, two industries that have not always been welcoming to the contributions of women, particularly as the primary creative force behind a series. So I knew that I wanted Kempner's work to be part of this new class as well.
Aviva Kempner is the founder and executive director of the Ciesla Foundation. Did I do that right? OK, excellent. The Ciesla Foundation-- and I'm quoting from the mission statement here, "Produces documentaries that investigate non-stereotypical images of Jews in history and celebrate the untold stories of Jewish heroes."
Kempner's films have educated viewers about the lives and achievements of, among others, Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. If you like the Moe Berg movie, go watch that. They make a really good pair. Businessman and philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald. And Molly [? Burke, ?] the woman who wrote, produced, and starred in the radio and TV serial, The Goldbergs.
As you know, Kempner's most recent film, The Spy Behind Home Plate, takes as its subject, Moe Berg, professional baseball player, lawyer, and spy. I have lots of questions for Kempner. I'm sure you have questions for Kempner. My students have questions for Kempner. So I should stop talking and we should hear more from our guest.
So I said I wanted to start with a question of my own, Aviva. Thank you so much for being here. So I wanted to start by asking you about the mission for the Ciesla Foundation. You also call it your personal mission. How did you decide this is work that needed doing?
AVIVA KEMPNER: OK, well it's interesting I'm speaking to students today because the example of how I got into filmmaking has to do with switching careers. I actually have an undergrad from Michigan in psychology, which in some ways is the only degree I use. A master's in urban planning, which I use sort of my personal backyard. And then I went and got a law degree. And I did very well in law school, and I loved it, especially doing human rights work. But I don't do well on multiple choice questions.
So it's actually apropos I talk about it today because my father died 45 years ago today. And it was the day I was supposed to graduate from law school. And I wound up flunking the bar twice.
And I was just looking for something else to do. And I always grew up loving films. And there were certain things that really influenced me growing up and watching different films.
And I'm a child of a Holocaust survivor, but my mother didn't talk about it. I learned about the Holocaust through reading Mila 18, Exodus, reading The Wall, seeing different films. And I just had this notion that I had to go make a film about Jews fighting Nazis, which is the first film I didn't direct, but I produced and co-researched and conceived called Partisans of Vilna.
And then from there I just kept on saying you know, this is what I want to do. I want to make films that celebrate under known Jewish heroes. And from then, it was all American Jewish heroes.
And again, it's apropos today to talk a little bit about Hank Greenberg, because I grew up with him being my father's hero. He would always talk about him. And there's this whole story that he didn't play on Yom Kippur. We're talking in '34 at the height of domestic anti-Semitism in Detroit. And every time we would go to services for Yom Kippur, there's this very religious service called Kol Nidre, my dad would always talk about Hank Greenberg. I thought he was part of Hank Greenberg.
So two things happened with me. I have a great love of baseball. And two, a lot of pride about our heroes. And I guess a lot also being the child of Holocaust survivors.
The reason my 501C3 is called Ciesla-- it's my mother's maiden name and her parents died in Auschwitz-- is really to try to celebrate Jewish accomplishments. And we lost so many people. And then from there just went on and on.
And every film, even Rosenwald, a touch of it, has to do with World War Two. No so much my-- a couple of my current ones, but certainly the big Jewish hero I'm working on now. So one would say I'm creatively obsessed. I just made that up, but I think it's--
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: That's good. That's very good.
AVIVA KEMPNER: I think it's apropos.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Let me ask, since we're talking about baseball, a question about baseball. You mentioned Hank Greenberg, a hero of your dad, a hero of people in Detroit, and a hero of Jews all over America. And it seems like that's very much a movie about fandom.
You talk about your own love of baseball. But also, when we talked the other day you talked about how important baseball was as a way to Americanize immigrants or first generation Americans. I wonder if you'd like to say a little bit more about that and how that plays a role in your two biggest movies.
AVIVA KEMPNER: The forwards, which was written the same way backwards and forwards, it was in Yiddish and English. There's an editor name Abraham Cahan. And it was really sort of the interim newspaper for immigrants first coming to America, especially New York. And people would write advice to him.
And there's a famous letter where one of the fans-- I mean, one of the parents writes a letter. And they said oh, what am I going to do? My child likes baseball? What is this?
And Cahan answered, he said this is America. This is-- there's a very famous line if you want to understand America, you've got to understand baseball. So I forgot who said that, but it's a classic line. And back then, baseball was the sport. One could argue it was basketball and football.
In any event, I think for my father, because he came here in the early '30s, it was the way he became American. He came to Pittsburgh. And sadly enough, as 45 years ago my dad died, I started making films 42 years ago. So he never saw any of my films.
But I think in the back of my mind, or maybe more in the front of my mind, he would have loved every one of them. And I'm really glad I did it. Now apropos, Moe Berg has a parallel reason why he made it.
There's a very generous man named William Levine who loved my Hank Greenberg film and we became friends. And one day several years ago he says to me, you know, Aviva, there's some other Jewish sports figures you should make a film about. And he said what about Barney Ross, the famous Jewish boxer? And I said but I don't like boxing. I couldn't sustain making a film about that.
He says OK, don't worry. How about Sid Luckman? The famous Jewish football player. And I said you know, Bill-- and here I'm saying no to a fully funded film. Sorry, can't do football.
But luckily, the third one was Moe Berg. And I just loved it. Because A, it was about another baseball player. He was so intriguing. And quite frankly, I love spy movies.
And a World War Two, trying to stop Hitler or the Nazis from developing a nuclear power. I mean, actually we wouldn't even be here talking if they had. So it was a no brainer.
So oftentimes, people can that are-- and it's I think a lot from Bill's own background that he loves sports so much. And it's such an anomaly, less so now, that there would be a Jewish hero in sports that he was willing to make the film. And he's very happy with it, and so am I.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Excellent. There are several other questions embedded here of mine and from other people have sent me questions. Starting with the making a movie about Moe Berg, there was a fiction movie about Moe Berg made that came out just the year before. And there's The Catcher Was a Spy, and that's based on a book by Nicholas Dawidoff, I guess is how I would pronounce it-- who you do interview in the in the Moe Berg film.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Absolutely.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: So was this just a coincidence? Was there any sense of competition? Were you frustrated to find out this thing came out just before yours came out?
AVIVA KEMPNER: All of the above. So what happened is for years people-- there were a lot of projects of people wanting to make a film. And if I had been there in person, this is how I would have introduced the film tonight. But I decided to go make this film.
And I remembered that my cameraman for Hank Greenberg about 20 years ago had said to me, Jerry Feldman, I was trying to make a film about Moe Berg and I never made it. So after Bill offered me to exec produce, I contacted Jerry. It turns out that he and Neil Goldstein had both done all these interviews and the film never got made. And the interviews were put at Princeton, which we all know that's where Moe went to school, if you've seen the film.
Luckily for me, he filmed all these fellow players and fellow OSS people. So there are 18 interviews in the film you saw tonight that I didn't film, but I digitized and used. And I am so grateful to them. Hopefully you saw the end credits that I give them both a lot of credit. So that made all the difference in the world.
And also, to do the film now as opposed to years ago is a lot more OSS stuff is declassified. But there's a word in Yiddish, [NON-ENGLISH]. There's a lot of old wives' tales about what Moe did.
For instance, there's one story that Moe parachuted in Yugoslavia and helped Tito. Now, it is true that Moe was ahead of the Balkan desk, but he did not go into Yugoslavia. And so I even found footage at the National Archives that says Moe Berg with Tito. And I got so excited. And I looked at it and sent it to his cousin, Irwin. The problem is, it wasn't Moe.
Also, there is the story, and it has to do with what you do in feature films as opposed to docs. I try to be as truthful from every detail I could find, which includes there were no shootouts. And in the film, the dramatic film, there are.
And there is one line that Nick Dawidoff has in the book that Moe was bisexual, or one player thought he was. There is nothing I found. And then you see in the film that he was actually living with a woman and had a real relationship. And I think she was the love of his life.
So and then also the shootout in the film, it just didn't occur. [COUGHING] Sorry. Let me take a throat lozenge.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: [INAUDIBLE] says. Thank you. No, and you're touching on a number of the things that I've been curious about and other people have been curious about having to do with sources and also fundraising. One student did want to hear you talk a little bit more about how you generate funding, how you access funding and what's your relationship like with your funders?
AVIVA KEMPNER: It was only with this fifth film did Bill Levine say I'll fund it. Although, I have to say, with Partisans of Vilna, we got a big grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Hank Greenberg I call my batmitzvah film because it took me 13 years to make.
And you'll see-- and I think it's really worth it-- but there's a great line at the end of-- oh god. Well, I'll tell you the line, and you tell me-- for some reason, I'm having a senior moment. Oh yeah, the one with Marlon Brando where he goes, "Stella."
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Oh, A Streetcar Named Desire.
AVIVA KEMPNER: What?
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Streetcar Named Desire.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Right, and at the and she's going off to the loony bin, which I guess is not politically correct to call it. She says, "I depend on the kindness of strangers."
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Right.
AVIVA KEMPNER: And that's a lot about what the fundraising is. Writing people who are somehow connected either from that area I know who would love the subject. It's still the kind of things I'm doing now. And just people who want to see the film made.
And it really makes a big difference to have a film as opposed, I think, to a book. Because it's something people can visualize. They can see the different witnesses.
Now, the big challenge-- and maybe this will be a question you're going to say-- as with Moe Berg more than Hank Greenberg, is there were less footage of Moe, one. And two is, he didn't have a camera with him being a spy. So the last third of the film is a lot of feature footage. But luckily, I think Hollywood oftentimes does a great job. And there's nothing like film noir spy movies in my book.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Yeah, this certainly touches on two of my questions, and also some other's questions. One about the fact that, I mean, with Hank Greenberg you had this public life throughout his life. His time as a baseball player, and then front office person. And gets interviewed for like 50 best baseball players of the century or whatever kind of thing. Moe Berg lived this public life during his baseball years, but there's very little about him as a private person.
So also, you just mentioned the dramatic ones. I mean, you said the other day you feel like that's becoming more and more a part of your practice. What's the appeal for you of including footage of feature films?
AVIVA KEMPNER: Well, look, as it turns out Molly-- whatever she wrote and starred and produced in, which were all fabulous, I mean, I could have a 50 hour film of just all her films. What she wrote and the characters she developed and the themes, they're all in her films. Like you said with Hank, there's so much footage of everything.
But with Rosenwald, which is over 100 years ago, I had to use feature footage to show what the peddler was. To show-- what it meant to-- well, there is footage of Black kids going to school, but a lot of it you have to develop. But certainly with Moe Berg. It's all dependent on the OSS training films and the great old feature footage.
And there was actually one company and one film, which I can't remember the name and for good reason, is they refused to let me use it without the name at the bottom. And I called my editor. I didn't sleep well that night. And I said I can't use it. Because I want people to suspend belief and think that certain characters which I'm showing you is really Moe. So we didn't use it.
And as it is, there are two OSS people being interviewed and they insisted we used ESPN on it. But when we put it in black and white you could hardly see it. And it was a real people, so that was OK.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Several people noticed that. I also remember that Gary Cooper plays a baseball player in another movie. But I read that in a Cloak and Dagger he's actually playing a physicist in sequence where he's doing his spy work.
AVIVA KEMPNER: And then I sort of have bragging rights for each movie. Although I have to say, in Rosenwald I use a scene with Sidney Poitier-- a little scene because it was very crowded conditions for African-Americans in Chicago-- from Raisin in the Sun, the movie. And it was locked. And any future filmmakers in your class or anyone listening, you got to really clear these rights before.
And then I had written him and said I hope we can use it. And his first answer to me was no. So I almost fainted, but hutzpah, having gall, is one of the ways you become a producer.
But sadly, Julian Bond, the great civil rights leader, who had inspired me to make Rosenwald, had just passed away. So I wrote a passionate letter and said, Dear Mr. Poitier, Julian inspired me to make this film. He's in the film. His father and uncle had gotten Rosenwald grants.
I know he saw the film. He loved you in it. It would be a great disappointment. And sure enough, I actually had a wake or a shiva at my house after Julian died. All of a sudden, my phone rings and this great accent is on the phone. It's Sidney Poitier, and he says OK.
And then, of course, in Rosenwald I also had a little scene where I had Clint Eastwood speaking Yiddish in a scene about a peddler. That was the day I said, oh, I wish my father was alive.
But in Hank Greenberg there's a scene from Gentlemen's Agreement to show the anti-Semitism at the time And how you can't check into a hotel. And it was the one movie that really was depicting anti-Semitism then. But the reason I really wanted to use it is Hank later on is an owner. They went to a owner's meeting in Arizona. In fact, he could not check into a hotel.
But that's the back back story. It's just like using Raisin in the Sun. Because Lorraine Hansberry, who died way too young, her father had done desegregation cases in Chicago. And so I felt there was a connection there. I mean, of course, I wanted it to begin with.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: So the question of anti-Semitism is certainly something that has come up a lot in the classes I teach on film, not surprisingly. And it was a question several students asked. And particularly, given the cultural milieu that Moe Buer was in.
He's born in New York City. He grows up in Newark. But then he goes to Princeton, not particularly known as being a place at the time that was friendly towards Jews.
Plays major league baseball, not exactly a hotbed. I mean, there were plenty of Jewish players. But there was plenty of anti-Semitism as well. People were interested to hear a little bit more about how the experience of being Jewish shaped Moe's experience of those institutions and the other institutions he operated in.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Well, except for the experience at Princeton when they have these dinner clubs. The Jews couldn't belong, but because he was on the baseball team he could belong, but couldn't bring others. So he didn't want to belong. It's like that line I don't want to be in a club that doesn't want me, the Groucho line.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Yeah.
AVIVA KEMPNER: So I did not find any other existence. It wasn't in Dawidoff's book or anywhere. And I think part of the reason so much was directed against Hank is he was a great slugger. And he was out of Detroit, so half the games were there. And Moe just did not get that.
However, every day he was in the OSS, especially going around Europe and Nazi Europe as a Jew, as an American, and they would have found he was a baseball player, he risked his life. So I would say that was when he was facing it the most.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: You talked a little bit earlier about people you interview and we had several questions about that as well. And one of the things, having seen a few more of your movies than my students or than perhaps some other audience members, I--
AVIVA KEMPNER: Can I tell you my Walter Matthau story?
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: I definitely want to hear the Walter Matthau story. But also, I counted two senators and one Supreme Court justice. And by the way, when I showed that clip of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to my class, or when my daughter saw it, that's always the moment that people go like this. They go [GASPS].
AVIVA KEMPNER: Oh, yeah.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: But how do you bear with people--
AVIVA KEMPNER: OK, so I live in Washington D.C. Remember, I used the word hutzpah or having a lot of gall. Basically, it's not being shy.
With the Levin brothers it's different. I always knew that I wanted not only to make a film about Hank Elliott, but about how people adored him. And how he was a symbol of male strength, but even more than that. The women adored him too.
And I don't know if you've ever seen Diner. I think Diner is brilliant. But a lot of it is also about how people have this thing about being sports fans, it goes way over the top. I wanted to be way over the top, which my three guys are.
And I knew already the Levin brothers, both Carl and Sander. They were cousins of good friends of my parents. And the minute I said I was going to do a Hank Greenberg film I mean, to see these-- as a matter of fact, I once wanted to make a film about the brothers Levin. But it never worked out. In any event--
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: We should just remind people, Carl Levin was a senator from Michigan, and Sander was a congressional representative.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Congressman also from Michigan. And now, Sander's son, Andy, is a Congressman from Michigan. So to me, to see their faces, these two top officials, to talk about those days is like back then. So that was easy.
So I was making Molly Goldberg and I was at the French embassy. And there was RBG before we were calling her RBG. And I went up and I said Justice Ginsburg, my name is Aviva Kempner and I'm making this film on Gertrude Berg. And she said oh my gosh, she was my heroine growing up, next to Nancy Drew.
So it was great. I was able to interview her and we developed a whole relationship. Actually, we did a great introduction to the film at the Jewish Film Festival in Washington.
And I'll never forget, because I mentioned something about I wouldn't have made this film if I had passed the bar. I tried twice. So she says, well I tried four times to get my driver's license. And you should have kept on trying. But it was true. If I had passed I would have gone and become an immigration lawyer and a human rights lawyer, and never have interviewed her.
But with the movie you just saw, I knew I didn't have an ending for Moe Berg. And it turns out, I'm social friends with Susan Blumenthal who's married to Ed Markey. And I contacted her and I said, hey, I know Ed was is a big, big Boston Red Sox fan. And sure enough he said no, I'd love to talk about Moe Berg.
The only issue is when I was going to film and finally do the final scenes he was my last interview. He had just introduced with AOC of the Green New whatever they call it. The Green New-- new green bill.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Green New Deal.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Yeah.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Right.
AVIVA KEMPNER: So I had to wait and wait for that. But right where I'm sitting he sat right in front of where I am. And he did a beautiful job. And I think really gave a very impassioned thing. He was a real hero for us.
Because really, so many of these OSS people-- and one thing I want to say now is I think what's really important about the OSS is how many children of immigrants made a difference because of the language skills. You saw how Moe's languages helped him get in and out and the Italians he worked with. We have Paul [INAUDIBLE] in the film talking about his-- well, his father of course, was right there. But it was the other two people in the OSS who got him over there.
And you can just imagine today who we have in Iran helping us or North Korea and language skills. I mean, if anything it's ironic that I say it, because I came to this country having spoken German. And I didn't keep it up. But each one of my parents knew six or seven languages. If you're going to be a spt you all going to school, learn new languages.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Yeah, this is a great actually-- I have many other questions on other threads, but I want to go to a question that actually came from a family member. And you know I'm married to someone who works in a number of foreign languages and is a big advocate of language learning. And the question, which I don't know if it's hers or another family member watching downstairs, but what is your favorite movie?
AVIVA KEMPNER: Favorite movie? By the way, I do swear fluently--
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: [INAUDIBLE].
AVIVA KEMPNER: I do swear fluently in Yiddish.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Excellent.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Well, it's interesting because I think it's apropos what we were talking about just before. I think Casablanca may be my favorite all time movie. Again, World War Two, romance, and I was just going through the best romantic movies. So many of them they don't end up in the end.
And this is apropos, the new movie I'm working on who's Ben Hecht-- again, Bill Levine said to me there's this one film project I really want you to do. And this is a man who was a great newspaperman and writer in Chicago. Then went and wrote some of the greatest screenplays, including Notorious, did work on Gone With the Wind, did one of William Wyler's films. But he also wrote Marilyn Monroe's autobiography, which I got to find someone to talk about that.
But more importantly, he just realized what was happening to European Jewry and he worked very hard writing pageants, doing everything he could, big want ads trying to say, hey, we got to save European Jewry. Unfortunately, most people, especially in the State Department, did not listen to him.
And actually cost his career with England. Because he was impassioned about trying to help people get to Palestine. So I think someone who's in my business who had a real sense of morality during World War Two, it's very appealing to me.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Well, that is definitely--
AVIVA KEMPNER: So he had-- and I'm going to use a scene from Casablanca. So it goes--
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: We should all be scenes from Casablanca whenever we can.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Yeah.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: So I want--
AVIVA KEMPNER: However, I can tell you two and three and four. I think I've revised myself on Gone with the Wind, because there is real problems in terms of the African-American characters. But I think three or four, I'll have to think some more what the other ones are.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Other in the Ben Hecht movie?
AVIVA KEMPNER: I'm sorry?
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: To go into the Ben Hecht movie?
AVIVA KEMPNER: Oh, no, no, no. No, I'm just talking about my favorite movies.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Oh, favorite movies, OK. So Gone With the Wind you're kind of moving that one down the list. Casablanca's the permanent number one.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Right.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: OK, we can come back to this at the end if you think of any others. So there were a number of questions, we talked a certain amount about the OSS in class today. And there were a number of questions about that.
And one of the things we talked about was where they did their recruiting. That the intelligence services in the US and the intelligence services in the UK were really known for going to these prestigious universities to do their recruiting. There's certainly we all have these associations of the CIA with Yale and Skull and Bones and so forth.
And so I think there was some question about how much do we know about where was OSS recruiting right at the beginning? Moe Berg on the one hand fits a certain template as a Princeton grad. On the other hand, as a Jew and a baseball player doesn't seem to fit the typical profile. So what's you--
AVIVA KEMPNER: Well, I think-- right. First of all, did you survey people? I need to ask people, did anyone know about the OSS before they saw the film? I'm always curious about that.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: I did not survey my students about this.
AVIVA KEMPNER: I think a lot of it had to do with A, Wild Bill Donovan. He favored athletes because think about it, you could get away. The irony is, because later on we became so anti-communist, but he was fine about taking people who were in the CP, Communist Party. He was fine about taking working class people because people who could do the-- even people who were safe thieves.
I mean, it was like anything to defeat the Nazis. So it is true that a lot of, especially the leadership, was Ivy League. But actually, it turns out that there was a whole array of people. And I think language skills clearly made a difference.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Thank you. I was thinking about-- this is totally unrelated to this, but Michael Chabon's book, Moonglow.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Which I haven't read.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Yeah, so Wild Bill Donovan plays a key role there as well. Yeah. So also, we had lots of different kinds of questions. We've already talked a bit about the archival footage you used. The interviews and those incredible-- I mean, the fact that you were able to access all these interviews of Moe's teammates and family members, footage from a number of years ago.
But I've certainly been aware watching a number of your movies how important the archives are to you, both for visual stuff, for stills, for newspaper clippings, for a whole range of things. Could you talk a bit about how you use archives? What kind of research you do? What do you farm out? Just talk about that process, if you would.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Well, let me just say one thing that I think my favorite footage is the Lefty Gomez family. Because he had a camera and that ship going to Japan in the '30s. I mean, to have those kind of Babe Ruth and the others and Moe just sitting around the ship playing baseball, nothing's like that. And the family couldn't have been sweeter about letting me have it.
Anything goes. And I always hire at a good expense really trained archivists, both to stills and footage and feature footage. As a matter of fact, every time I'm making a film, and especially right now with Ben Hecht because he made so many films, I'm watching feature footage all the time.
And then you just keep on asking anyone do you have any footage? Do you know anyone else who has footage? Do you have any stills? Because you can do a lot with motion. And sometimes when you move on a still it's almost like having it there.
But I have to say, it also has to do with imagination. For Rosenwald, there's a discussion early in the film how Rosenwald's parents were married. And the father had been a peddler. So we used a scene from Gene Wilder, this rabbi movie. And then there's a scene of him getting married.
And I'll never forget a critic comes out of the movie. Well, he's a writer. He's not a critic. And he says do me, Aviva, how did you get that footage of Rosenwald's-- so it would have been his-- Rosenwald's parents getting married? And I just laughed, because he believed it.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Right. The Frisco Kid.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Frisco Kid.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Yeah.
AVIVA KEMPNER: I'm doing real well on memories today, but.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: It's all right. That's why I'm here.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Good.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Yeah so I guess one of my students was interested again, we've been talking a lot about Jewish identity, about religious identity versus cultural identity. How these things intersect and overlap. And there was some talk early in the movie about the fact that, I guess it was Moe's father was the immigrant. And he left in part to escape religious Judaism. That he identified--
AVIVA KEMPNER: Well, Orthodox Judaism, right.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Right, so he identified as a cultural Jew. But he found Orthodox Judaism as it was practiced in the shtetl was too restrictive. So that's some of what motivated him to come to America. With Moe and his siblings, where did they follow along this continuum?
AVIVA KEMPNER: I don't have much evidence of him going to synagogue. It's not like the great story of Hank going for services. But he did know some Hebrew and he knew Yiddish. And I am sure for both he and his brother a lot of it had to do with because they were Jewish and what was happening with the Nazis.
Don't forget, and we made it very clear in the film, Moe had been traveling in Europe and in '33 saw Hitler taking power. He knew or he would talk about Mussolini in the dugout. So he clearly knew what was happening in terms of that.
The thing that gets to me about the father, he never went to one baseball game of his son. That wasn't true of the Greenberg's kids. And know it is this-- for each one of my films we have Rosenwald who helped build with African-American communities 5,000 schools, but left school at the age 16.
We have Gertrude Berg who developed this persona of this loving, caring mother, but whose own mother was mentally ill and institutionalized. And we have Moe Berg, who had a father who would never go to any of his games. So it's sort of a classic for each one of them.
And as a matter of fact, Ben Hecht who wrote some of the best columns, the most incredible screenplays, went to college-- I shouldn't probably say this to you-- but for four days and left for Wisconsin. He never went to college. But he was very learned.
I mean, he read a lot of the classics. His parents had given it to him for his bar mitzvah. But it is interesting that college education doesn't guarantee success in life.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Right, but that's not the main message we're setting to our students. That's OK.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Right, like I said. Forget I said it, kids.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Yeah, so I wanted to ask, we're talking about Moe Berg's service through the OSS Hank Greenberg was the first major league baseball player to go into the army. Was in there for a little while, mustered out on December 5th, 1941. And then was right back in and spent more time in the service than any other baseball player. Really lost--
AVIVA KEMPNER: Four and a half years.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Right, so those were incredibly prime years. He would have been a 500 home run hitter and all of that. So I guess my question is-- and again, this is something you really deal with and in both movies, but the sense that their commitment to-- I mean, they identified as Americans. But they also identified as fighting the Nazis. I wonder if you could talk about the ways that this was important to them. And the evidence that it's important to them.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Well, Hank's son has this great line in the film, because in '38 he's almost beating Babe Ruth. He's doing well, still keeps on hitting. And he said it was like almost every home was against Hitler. And that's how people perceived it.
So I don't know is-- I can't remember if Moe's autobiography edited by Ira Berkow, if he actually says it. But that's how he would talk to his son for years. They had a really strong relationship.
For Moe, I think there is just no doubt. I mean, if he had stayed as a-- what do you call it? He was a coach for the Red Sox. He probably would have gone on to be a manager. But he just knew he had to go serve.
His father died before he knew he went to serve. But I think his father had said some things to him. And then his brother, I mean, can you imagine going off and trying after?
And the two brothers didn't know. One was trying to spy on the Nazis to see about the nuclear power. And the other one was trying to see the after effects. So it's pretty incredible which both members of the family gave.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: That is really remarkable. One of my students asked about some of the things you didn't include in the Moe Berg movie. Were there things that you-- I mean, there were a number of questions about the choices you make as a filmmaker. And we'll get into a few of the other ones.
But let's start with that. What were some of the things that you would like to have talked about or if there's footage you wish you could have used? Were there parts of his life that you didn't address?
AVIVA KEMPNER: OK, so there's one great story. And it will be on if we have bonus features or a DVD. And this is a post story, which of course, is the sad part. I mean, Moe just never-- I think he was traumatized from all those years of secret scary spy life. I think he finally got sick and tired of telling everyone shh, I can't say what didn't happen, or what happened.
So he finally was going to take a meeting to write his autobiography and sat down. I don't know if the guy was a book agent, if the guy was-- oh, what do you call it? Represented a book company and he's going to lunch. And all of a sudden, the guy says to him, well, tell me what it means to be part of the Three Stooges? Because he mistakenly thought he was having lunch with Moe of the Three Stooges.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Oh my god.
AVIVA KEMPNER: So for your young students who don't know who the three stooges were, they were sort of like the Marx brothers. They were slapstick, Jewish, very funny actors. So he got up and left and we never had the autobiography. So he died with his secrets.
It was between that and the Einstein story at the end of the movie. And I just decided to go with the Einstein story.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Right. [INAUDIBLE].
AVIVA KEMPNER: I also was still trying to figure out if, in fact, he really was buried in Israel. But I couldn't get anyone to prove it. And I think that is the most apropos thing about Moe, that we really don't know if his body was taken over there. I mean, it's a mystery. And I think it's totally appropriate.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: That that fact is still unknown? That that mystery is unknown?
AVIVA KEMPNER: Yeah, and I really had some good people look into it. But we could never verify.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: And so this brings me to another question that I have. Which is about I mean, you mentioned he seemed like clearly being groomed to be a coach or manager or to do something in baseball. But the movie ends-- and again, there's mystery about what he does during the war.
But there's really nothing about, there's just some comments about how he spent his life. But there's nothing about it in the movie. Was there not a story there? Was he just sort of--
AVIVA KEMPNER: He just went to a lot of baseball games. It's very sad. Lived off a lot of people. I think-- I don't know if you-- there was a movie where Meryl Streep was in where she plays someone in The Resistance. And the film is about after the war.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Plenty.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Plenty, boy, you're a really good source for me. And she just couldn't have a life afterwards. And I always thought that that's what I thought happened to Moe.
And also, he wanted to be in the CIA and they didn't take him. And also because he had some problems with some people in the OSS. So I think he should have been in the CIA afterwards.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: That that would have been a career?
AVIVA KEMPNER: The Dulles, who had been the head of Switzerland office, he had disputes with him. So it's just very sad.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: OK, yeah. No, this is actually one of the things I read in some of the reviews about the Dawidoff book is that that last period of his life is just kind of sad. I'm trying to think, we've covered so much of what we came in wanting.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Well, I didn't tell you my Walter Matthau story.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Oh, yes, we need to hear the Walter Matthau story. For sure.
AVIVA KEMPNER: So I'm filming him in LA because he's a big Hank Greenberg fan. And I knew he used to see him. So he didn't want to be filmed at his house.
And it turns out that my cousin-in-law who befriended me was just wonderful, he and his wife, was Arthur Hiller who was a great director in his own right. He had done Love Story among other stories. So we film him at Arthur's house.
And he comes in. And he brings Lenny, his agent. So Lenny is sitting there, and you need to have the person look at you. You're the side of the camera, so that's how you want the interview to go. But he kept on looking at Lenny.
So after the first question I said, you know, Mr. Matthau, it would be really great if he don't mind, would you look at me? So without missing a beat he says your husband has to look at you. I don't have to look at you. Just cracked me up.
And then I knew he knew Yiddish. So I thought oh, I said, you know, Mr. Matthau, it would be great if you used some Yiddish words. Also always thinking of my father.
So then the next question he answered completely in Yiddish. So but then he went back to English. So be careful, don't mess with famous comedians or whatever.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Well, he has that great story about joining the Beverly Hills tennis club just because Hank Greenberg.
AVIVA KEMPNER: So he'd have a lot of lunch with Hank Greenberg.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Yeah, but he wasn't actually interested in playing tennis. I wanted to ask about the Japanese footage. The footage that Moe Berg shoots when he's standing on the roof of the hospital in Tokyo. Just it looks like a few minutes of silent movies that later become part of the Doolittle Raid. Where were you able to access that? Is that held in an archive?
AVIVA KEMPNER: Well, it turns out that the footage, if I remember correctly, the family had sent it to-- his brother has sent it to people in Japan. And then we got it back. And then we had to figure out about rights. But that's how we got it.
And for a while, we had Doolittle as a pitcher on the Nationals. Unfortunately, he's no longer here. But he was a distant relative. And I thought oh, maybe I can get an interview. But I never did.
And also, the Gomez footage was also sent to the war department. And we don't know if they really used it. I think with Moe they did, because of the landscape he had and everything. So it was able to be used for our raid back here. I mean, back on Japan.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: So that is still not absolutely confirmed? But that's just something that it seems likely? That that was another part of that question for me.
Some people asked about the-- I mean, the goodwill tour just was so amazing, such amazing footage in the movie. And some people also asked about having Berg and Babe Ruth, having sort of had this direct contact with Japanese fans and Japanese players, that they were being used for sort of propaganda purposes. How did that go? I mean--
AVIVA KEMPNER: Well, I mean, the crowds, they just went crazy over them. So you saw the reactions. And then, of course, the footage that was there.
What I thought the most fascinating story to me was hearing from his daughter over the phone because she was too old for to be filmed. And that's what the family arranged for. That as soon as her father heard about Pearl Harbor he started throwing out in the window. And actually, it was shot on Riverside Drive right outside that apartment building.
So it only showed you-- and you know, there's another story about Babe Ruth. It wasn't going to fit in my film. Where he actually befriended some Jewish kids who had been refugees. So he was quite clear on where he stood.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Wow, very cool. One of--
AVIVA KEMPNER: What I love, of course, is to have Babe Ruth's daughter saying he was kind of-- he would flirt with me. I did dance with him. I mean, everyone talked about how he loved being out with women and dancing.
So that's why I never brought up the one line from what do you call it? From Dawidoff's book that the dramatic movie took another way. I mean, it was just all made up.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Yeah. I mean, one of my students, we talked about that in class. They had-- I'm not sure if they had seen the movie or they had looked at Wikipedia or whatever these claims. And so this was just something you never saw any evidence of?
AVIVA KEMPNER: Or I would have put it in.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Right. And so--
AVIVA KEMPNER: And his relationship with Estelle was so profound. And I had the son talking about it.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: So another question I have for you, this is again, from one of my students--
AVIVA KEMPNER: And those pictures with them on the beach, I mean.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Oh yeah.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Again, a picture can tell 1,000 whatever the line is. Is there a line with that?
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Yeah, 1,000 words.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Right, almost had it.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Yeah, 95% of it. One of my students wanted to know, of the movies you've made is there one that you like the story the most? Or you're most happy about the content?
AVIVA KEMPNER: No. It's like having five kids. Or five and 1/2 kids, because I have a short too.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: OK.
AVIVA KEMPNER: I never play favorites.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: We have a question, actually I was wondering about this. I'm glad someone in our audience asked. Why didn't Moe marry Estelle?
AVIVA KEMPNER: Well, I think what happened is he was going off. He knew what his missions were very dangerous. So I always see that although he did wind up having something in London I know I read about, and I met someone who knew someone who knew the woman who it was. But I think he just didn't want to leave her a possible widow, or maybe didn't want to have that commitment. Who knows.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: There's this other thing I have to say. My grandmother on my father's side was Estelle. And when I look at Moe Berg I see my grandfather, who I never met. He died long before I was born. But my grandfather looks a lot like Moe Berg.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Really?
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Yeah, I'll send you a photo.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Very good looking man. Yeah.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: My grandfather was a very good looking man, also true. So we're sort of getting towards the end. We have a couple of those sort of closing questions. You've already talked a little bit about projects you're working on. Do you want to say more about the Ben Hecht move, and what else are you working on right now?
AVIVA KEMPNER: I'm not quite sure how I got in this position. A sports columnist, who is also an ESPN commentator, Kevin Blackistone, brought me a project about Native American mascotting. Sort of the insidious use of horrible names and symbols.
What we just had in Washington before becoming the Washington Football Team. We still have Atlanta with the tomahawk chop. We still have the Chicago Blackhawks, which Doug said was his team.
So I'm co-directing with a young Cheyenne director who we've already-- it turns out, before I went to law school, I was working with Native Americans in Vista. So something long, and Kevin didn't even know that when he came to me. So we're doing something.
It turns out to be such a hot topic. Because every week there's more headlines about it. And a lot of it has been prompted by the Black Lives movement. So we're very excited about that.
And we have an executive producer of a tribe out in California. And there's some young Native American athletes that are in the film. And we hope some directors and actors, but really it's our profession, Hollywood, who has perpetuated the worst stereotypes about Native Americans. Which then led to what we are arguing is these names.
Then the next film is Ben Hecht, which the biggest challenge is it's delayed a year because how do you film in person? But with Imagining the Indian we are doing it by Zoom. We just had a cameraman in Tulsa, in Chicago. We'll have in Kansas City. The head of NAACP in Mississippi. And you just do the pre-interviews, and you trust the cameraman. And it's really worked out well.
And the third one is a short. And this is because I heard this discussion once. When they built the Congress-- and this has to go more to my architecture master's in urban planning degree. They built it never thinking a woman would be in Congress, House or the Senate side. So they never built bathrooms near where people talk.
And it really hit me last night when you saw both Pelosi and Harris behind the president. So it's called Pissed Off. And it's about potty parity in Congress, and how the women had to fight to be able to have it.
And actually, the biggest issue is OK, so now they have bathrooms off the House and the Senate side. But they don't have enough stalls. So it's sort of using a little humor to deal with issues of exclusionary architecture.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Awesome. That sounds great.
AVIVA KEMPNER: And part of the reason I'm not all here today is I trying to do a lot of fundraising today on it. So you sort of have to craft the letters. And also to look up my old Ben Hecht notes that I did a year and a half ago and try to remember why I had that note.
Because now I have to Zoom in by city where I'm going to have to have these interviews. But it's a little bit of a juggling act. But hopefully, this time next year at least I'll have two of the films done.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Great. And I guess this may be our last or almost last question. One of the students looked up a little bit about you. And some of the things you mentioned about your own qualifications that you started out in law school and then changed careers. And said, hey, that's just like Moe Berg. To what extent do you identify with your own subject matter or your own subjects?
AVIVA KEMPNER: Well, I have no athletic abilities. But I think this is a good way to segue to the one thing I did want to say. They're very concerned what's happening in the world. And for me, I live in D.C. and we don't have voting rights or statehood. And that's why I dedicate all my films.
Actually, it was so funny because I did a Moe Berg discussion last night. And at the end I saw my [INAUDIBLE] credits. And it said, "Change the name of the Washington Football Team." And I thought yes. Two years ago, who knew? Because did Dan Snyder said never.
So to me, I always dedicate, usually beforehand, all my talks to statehood for D.C. I'm calling it now 51 and 21. You know they just passed a bill in the House and a big thing is the Senate. So I think that all my characters really care, are passionate about what they're doing to improve the world or improve conditions. I think that's what I identify with also.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Great. I was thinking of asking another question, but that's really the perfect ending. So I think we should--
AVIVA KEMPNER: Oh, now you're going to make me wonder what it is.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: OK, fine, I'll ask the last question. Even though that was a great ending. It's almost as good as [INAUDIBLE] in the other movie. And you already talked a little bit about this, but how has the pandemic changed your work? How has all the shut in and lock down in the pandemic changed what you do?
AVIVA KEMPNER: Oh, it's is very hard to film. I mean, so much of it is research and research. But now we're getting going on that, so it's great. But most important, everyone should get shots and wear masks and be careful.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: And we do have-- this was something in the Q&A, another thing which was just that this was great. This is a friend of mine from our synagogue, actually.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Oh, great.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: So, Aviva, thank you so much. Normally, there would be this great thing where we get to mill around or maybe have dinner or something. But we'll have to do that some other time.
AVIVA KEMPNER: We'll have to do that.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: Thank you so much for coming. It's been wonderful having you here. Thank you to everyone who came out there in webinar land. And as someone said once, there's not a really good way to end a webinar except to just say it's over.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Good night.
ELLIOT SHAPIRO: So good night. Thank you, everybody.
AVIVA KEMPNER: Stay safe.
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A Q&A with Aviva Kempner, director of "The Spy Behind Homeplate," an engrossing documentary about the enigmatic, charming and brilliant Moe Berg, a Jewish baseball catcher behind the plate in the golden age of the major leagues who joined the OSS in WWII to spy on the Nazis' atomic bomb program.