Who was Pare Lorentz?
This biography is based on accounts of Pare Lorentz’s life as told through his own words in Pare Lorentz: FDR’s Moviemaker and by his biographer Robert L. Snyder in Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film. To read a longer, more detailed biography, visit our biography page.
Pare Lorentz was born Leonard MacTaggart Lorentz on December 11, 1905 in Clarksburg, West Virginia. His father, Pare Hanson Lorentz, was a printer and publisher of high school and college yearbooks; his mother, Alma MacTaggart Ruttencutter Lorentz, was a professional singer. He graduated from Buckhannon High School in 1922 and attended West Virginia Wesleyan University for a year; in 1923 he transferred to West Virginia University.
Lorentz left university before graduation and traveled to New York where he parlayed his college writing experience into writing a few short pieces for the newly-launched magazine The New Yorker. Soon after, he adopted his father’s first name for all future publications and projects. In 1925, as editor of The Edison Sales Builder, Lorentz had his first full-time job as a professional writer. Despite his lack of experience, within a year he was hired by the popular humor magazine Judge and in short order was named as the magazine’s motion picture critic.
Lorentz was not afraid to hold an unpopular position, a useful quality in a critic. He criticized the high and low with equal candor. Described as someone who was never satisfied with holding just one job at a time, he was soon writing film criticism for the New York Evening Journal newspaper and magazines including Vanity Fair, Town and Country, and later McCall’s.
Lorentz felt strongly that the movies held enormous potential for social justice and education, qualities that he felt were being stifled in Hollywood by corporate and commercial interests. In 1930 at the unusually young age of 22, he partnered with distinguished attorney Morris Ernst on the book Censored: The Private Life of the Movies, in which they set forth a remarkable early assessment of the importance of film. In Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film, biographer Robert L. Snyder states, “At the time, Lorentz was 25 and had been a critic and student of film only two years; yet he clearly revealed a powerful insight into the potential of motion pictures, a potential he was among the first to fulfill in this country.”
Lorentz tried unsuccessfully to raise money for a film called The Roosevelt Year that he described as a “newsreel of the tragic events that were going in our country, including the foreclosure on homes and dispossession of farms, the failure of banks, and the migrants from both industry and farms riding the freight trains west.” Undeterred, Lorentz converted the idea into a book of the same name, using newspaper photographs and clever captioning; the book came out in 1934 while he was working in Washington.
Finally, in 1935, Pare Lorentz succeeded in meeting Secretary Wallace who introduced him to Rexford Guy Tugwell, a former Columbia University economics professor, and chief of the Resettlement Administration. Tugwell was enthusiastic about Lorentz’s idea of making films and suggested that they make eighteen. Lorentz suggested they instead focus on just one that would be what he called a “film of merit.” Later, in an interview with Snyder, his biographer, Lorentz defineda film of merit as “one produced by the federal government that could stand on its own merits and share billing with commercial Hollywood productions.” As the initial subject, Lorentz suggested the Dust Bowl.
The final production cost for The Plow That Broke the Plains was $19,260. The world premiere of the film was on the second floor of the White House in early March 1936. This was the first time that Lorentz had met the president and according to a Time magazine article, when it was finished, President Roosevelt was brimming with enthusiasm, and had a long talk with Lorentz, praising him for his work.
His next film was called The River. The story and editing are dramatic and fluent, the music compelling and emotive. Lorentz used as his poetic link the names of the tributaries of the Mississippi, a sequence that builds powerfully in counterpoint to Thomson’s musical score. Lorentz premiered the film in New Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi, and then traveled from river city to river city along the Mississippi and its tributaries to promote it. The River was entered in the 1938 Venice Film Festival where it received first prize as best documentary, winning over Leni Riefenstahl’s film about the Berlin Olympics, Olympiad. It was the first American film to be honored in this category.
As Snyder writes in Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film, “The success of The Plow That Broke the Plains made possible The River, which in turn led to the establishment of the United States Film Service.” The latter was established by FDR to continue the work of producing motion pictures in conjunction with other federal agencies and it was during this period that Lorentz created The Fight for Life. It was released in 1940 and focused on infant and maternal mortality in the United States.
Lorentz later served heroically during World War II, filming more than 2,500 hours of bombing raids to create 200 briefing films for pilots assigned to fly unfamiliar routes. He attained the rank of lieutenant colonel.
After World War II he was commissioned by the War Department to create a film version of the Nuremberg Trials for which he spent years editing more than a million hours of harrowing footage of Nazi atrocities, propaganda footage and footage of the trials themselves. It was one of the first films to extensively document the trials of Nazi leaders after the war.
Lorentz passed away in 1992, shortly before another tremendous flowering of interest in the durable medium of the documentary film.