Sixty-Five Years of Treason

by Per-Oskar Leu

“All the world is of our making / What of it can we call ours?” Lorre, Gründgens, Busch, and other necessary illusions.

“Sixty-Five Years of Treason” was adapted from “Crisis and Critique,” an installation on view at 155 Freeman Street from February 10 to 19, 2012, produced with major support from the Office for Contemporary Art Norway and the Royal Norwegian Consulate General. “Sixty-Five Years of Treason” was published as part of Triple Canopy’s Internet as Material project area, which receives support from the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts.

Three trailers,
an interlude,
and a feature

Peter Lorre

After working with Bertolt Brecht on stage productions for several years, Lorre was propelled to international fame by Fritz Lang’s 1931 film, M. Lorre’s chilling portrayal of a serial killer made him the prime choice to play any sad-eyed villain. “For two murderers like Hitler and me, there’s not enough room in Germany,” Lorre famously said upon fleeing the country in 1933. He emigrated to the US, where he continued to play sinister characters, such as the title role in eight Mr. Moto detective films in the late 1930s, as well as classic parts in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). His contact with left-wing émigrés placed him under FBI scrutiny, but, unlike his friend Brecht, Lorre was never subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. (In fact, Lorre campaigned against the hearings and for a time his name appeared on the National Censorship Watch List.) Lorre’s heavy drug use and financial problems caused his Hollywood career to dwindle and in 1950 he declared bankruptcy and returned to Germany to work on Der Verlorene, for which he was the writer, director, and star. The film got mixed reviews and was a failure at the box office; Lorre soon returned to the US, where he acted in B movies. He died of a stroke in Los Angeles at age 59.

Gustaf Gründgens

Gründgens landed his breakthrough role opposite Peter Lorre in M and won a reputation for playing elegant crooks, bon vivants, and philanderers. His 1932 portrayal of Mephistopheles in Peter Gorski’s adaptation of Goethe’s Faust is widely considered to be definitive. Gründgens remained in Nazi Germany and continued his successful career, accepting Hermann Göring’s patronage and leadership at the Prussian State Theater. Göring’s support ensured Gründgens freedom from persecution despite being suspected of homosexuality and helped him escape censure for his participation in a controversial performance of Hamlet in 1936. Gründgens was placed on the official list of Gottbegnadeten (God-gifted) artists in 1943—the same year he intervened to save the actor and avowed Communist Ernst Busch from execution. In 1945, when Gründgens was captured by Soviet forces, Busch returned the favor by securing Gründgens’s release. Aided by Busch, Gründgens returned to the German stage the next year. In 1963, after unexpectedly embarking on a trip around the world, Gründgens died of an overdose in Manila. A note by his bed read, “I believe I have taken too many sleeping pills; I feel funny, let me sleep it off.”

Ernst Busch

Busch’s first experience with the arts was singing at workers’ assemblies as a teenager in 1916. Throughout the 1920s he appeared on stage with Lorre and Gründgens, and in 1928 he became a member of the original cast of Brecht and Kurt Weill’s popular musical Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera). Busch fled Germany after narrowly escaping a raid by Nazi storm troopers in 1933. He ended up on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, where he performed morale-boosting songs to volunteer soldiers and those wounded fighting General Franco's forces. In 1942, Busch escaped an internment camp in southern France but was discovered trying to enter Switzerland and handed over to the Gestapo, at which point Gründgens halted his execution. Busch was released from prison and returned to acting in 1945. Four years later, he joined Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. By this time, Busch was revered, and despite his private disagreements with the East German state he continued to lend his support, eventually receiving the prestigious Lenin Peace Prize in 1970. Busch died in 1980 in a psychiatric ward following bouts of dementia.

Lorre at the height of his career in the Warner Bros. celebrity-caricature cartoon “Hollywood Steps Out” (1941).
Lorre and Gründgens in M (1931). Gründgens plays the leader of the kangaroo court that puts Lorre’s serial killer on trial. An excerpt of Lorre’s performance was later used for the Nazi propaganda film Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew, 1940).
Gründgens as King Charles VII in Das Mädchen Johanna (Joan the Maid, 1935), a film on the life of Joan of Arc.
Busch in West Berlin during the making of the made-for-TV documentary Vergeßt es nie, wie es begann! (Never Forget How It All Began!, 1977).
Busch with Hertha Thiele in Kuhle Wampe oder: Wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe; or, who owns the world?, 1931), written and codirected by Bertolt Brecht, with a score by Hanns Eisler.
Lorre behind the scenes in Brecht’s play Mann ist Mann (Man Equals Man, 1931) at the Staatstheater in Berlin.
Lorre with host John Daly on the game show What’s My Line?, promoting the 1960 film Scent of Mystery.

Lorre in Crime and Punishment (1935). Lorre arrived in the United States to star in this adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel. While production was delayed, he made his Hollywood debut in the horror film Mad Love.
The last interview with Gründgens before his death, recorded in 1963 with German journalist Günter Gaus.
Gründgens in Der Tanz auf dem Vulkan (Dance on the volcano, 1938). The film raised Nazi suspicions for its positive portrayal of revolution.
Busch in Kameradschaft (Comradeship, 1931), a film with strong socialist overtones. The director, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, later made Nazi propaganda films during the war.
Per-Oskar Leu, Crisis and Critique, 2012, single-channel video with two-channel audio, 27 minutes.


The renowned theater scholar Eric Bentley won early fame with his 1946 book, The Playwright as Thinker, published when he was only thirty years old. Bentley developed a friendship with Bertolt Brecht during the German playwright’s wartime exile in California and, as a translator, helped introduce Brecht’s works to American audiences. Bentley taught at the legendary Black Mountain College in the early 1940s and later at Harvard and Columbia; he also earned a reputation as a demanding and meticulous reviewer for the New Republic. Bentley has written nine plays of his own, including Are You Now or Have You Ever Been: The Investigations of Show-Business by the Un-American Activities Committee 1947–1958.

Per-Oskar Leu: In light of Brecht’s many plays with trial themes, there were obvious resonances between his work and his testimony before the HUAC in 1947. Do you think he drew on that experience in his later works, notably his 1952 adaptation of Anna Seghers’s The Trial of Joan of Arc?

Eric Bentley: Well, he didn’t write much after the Washington experience. He went back to Berlin and just put on his plays; he didn’t write any new ones. It’s true of many artists that they spend the first twenty or thirty years accumulating experiences they can react to, and then it is as if they never had any more experiences. Everything is based on your childhood and youth.

I was on the Stasi list. People were told when they came to New York not to look me up.

POL: You’ve made it clear on several occasions that you were not entirely sympathetic to Brecht’s politics. But did your close connection to him and other high-profile “subversives” like the Eisler brothers cause you any personal difficulties during the Red Scare?

EB: I made myself clear in public on my own point of view, and the only people that resented it were Eisler and Brecht and the Communists from whom I disassociated myself. They regarded that as a form of treachery, as if I had once been a Communist and then given it up. But my interest in Brecht was never through Communism, it was just an interest in him as an artist. And I thought he suffered as an artist from having sold his soul to Stalin.

POL: What were your own experiences with the East German regime?

EB: I was on the Stasi list. People were told when they came to New York not to look me up. I was associated with Wolf Biermann, who was a writer they threw out of East Germany. When I went to see him in Berlin, there was a Stasi man on the corner taking a note of everyone who went into his apartment.

POL: So was the Stasi file on you bigger than the FBI file?

EB: Yes. Well, the FBI file that I have seen was just a selection. They must have much more. The FBI had a big file on Brecht, and they assumed that someone like me must be involved in all his stuff.

POL: Did you know Peter Lorre?

EB: Yes, I met him when Galileo was being done in Hollywood, and then later I met him here in New York when he was doing publicity for a radio show. We renewed the friendship; he upset the host of the show very much by having a private conversation with me when he was supposed to be on the air. They were only interested in his latest movie, which didn’t interest him much. He loved to be what he wasn’t in Hollywood: the intellectual, the literary type. He turned that on big with me, you see. But he declined all invitations to go to East Germany, because he was not in the least attracted by them, and he was no sort of Communist.

POL: Was Lorre considered for theater roles in Brecht stagings while he was living in the US?

EB: He would have been, but he earned such a good living very easily [in Hollywood] that he lost the need for theater and wasted his life taking drugs and whatnot. Hollywood ruined him. He didn’t know what to do with the money except buy drugs. And horses.

POL: Did you ever meet Ernst Busch? He had a very comfortable existence in East Germany.

EB: Oh yes, not compared with Lorre in California, but he got leading roles all the time. I didn’t know him well. He had to stop his stage performances when he lost his memory and couldn’t remember his lines. But he continued to record songs in the studio; if he forgot, they could begin again. So those recordings he made were his last performances. He was an interesting, tragic type, one of the old Communists. He sensed that everything was going wrong, but he was so committed to it by his earlier life that he stayed with it.

I have made cuts, as an editor does, but I didn’t introduce words of my own. Even abbreviation changes content.

POL: How did you yourself interpret the HUAC hearings in your play Are You Now or Have You Ever Been, which takes its text directly from the hearing?

EB: Although [the HUAC transcripts] are very long-winded, I was struck with the fact that much of the dialogue was quite exciting, except it dragged on. So if cut, it would be good dialogue. I have made cuts, as an editor does, but I didn’t introduce words of my own. Even abbreviation changes content, and even character. There were certain distortions, which I was aware of. For example, the congressmen were very long-winded, but I reduced their speeches so that they came across witty and terse. As I was explaining to a young playwright who was doing a documentary: You’re still distorting reality. The fact that I didn’t use words of my own didn’t stop me from changing it, sometimes in a way I wouldn’t have wanted to, just to be briefer and more interesting. On the political side, the play was taken to be much more favorable to the Communists than I was, because I hadn’t given the other side a chance to speak. My opposition to Communism was just as strong as my opposition to the committee, but that didn’t show in the play, and I got much support from Communists and fellow travelers at the time.

As I explain in the preface: People didn’t go to the committee to tell the truth, they went before the committee to defend themselves, or advertise themselves. My aim was not to dramatize the blacklist but to ask people who dared to assert their real identity, not just to have an artificial one for the committee, “Are you now or have you ever been a person? With an identity?” I hoped that would come across. I think it will with the younger generation, because they’re objective. But the older generation was so much involved in the Communist thing, one way or another, that they took it to be just a matter of, “Was it an anti-Communist play?” And “Yes, it was,” or, “No, it wasn’t.” They were not interested in the question of being invited by the government to change your identity.

POL: How should artists today react to the formative political events of our time?

EB: We of the artistic professions tend to overestimate our own influence, but I don’t think that tells us to shut up. In the 1930s and ’60s, a whole generation believed very much that theatrical entertainment could alter the world. They proved to be wrong, but they may have contributed, you might say in a small way, to a movement that was very important. I think the twenty-first century is very overwhelming, and very disastrous, so everybody feels like not doing anything about it. But I’m sure they will. The human problems may turn out to be deeply similar to how they were in the past—but the politics are so different, so it’s hard to see that. There’s no equivalent now to what the Soviet Union was. 9/11 was an unprecedented thing. But playwrights will write plays from the same basic principles. I think things are no more hopeless than they were in the past. Like in the twentieth century, I think of Beckett. Everybody remembers that phrase of his, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” But most of his work shows, “I can't go on.” It’s only occasionally that he says, “I’ll go on.” I think pessimism was the main movement in modern literature, and has been for quite a long time. But people will need to feel that they can transcend it, so they become Communists or Catholics or ultrapatriotic or something. You commit suicide if you’re pessimistic all through, so you need some illusions. I think that will be written about.

New York City, April 2012