6. November 2023

Artist in Exile Jonas Mekas and a Moment in Lost, Lost, Lost

Von Andrea Scrima

Lost, Lost, Lost (1976)

© Jonas Mekas


In 1976, the celebrated independent filmmaker Jonas Mekas put together his film Lost, Lost, Lost from footage shot during his and his brother Adolfas’s first years in the US. They were part of the Lithuanian diaspora in New York City, many of whom had struggled to escape and had spent the post-war years in labor and displaced persons camps across Europe. The Mekas brothers arrived in 1949; their allegiance to the cause to free Lithuania from Soviet rule gradually gave way to disillusionment and a decision to separate from the close-knit exile community. In revisiting the pain of those years, and in looking back with the knowledge that nothing the émigrés could have done—no amount of organization or composing political statements signed by exiled diplomats and cultural dignitaries—would ever have restored the country’s autonomy, Mekas, in a mournful voiceover, distills the essence of belonging to a world that is forever irretrievable: «How I watched you that day, singing, with your faces transfixed, transported back to Lithuania. Oh no, never, never would you be able to be uprooted from your minds, from your hearts, from the very cells of your bodies.» Thirty-seven minutes into Lost, Lost, Lost, I gaze at the footage of a Lithuanian primary school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: children ascending steps on a warm, sunny morning, one of them stopping and smiling, a little goofily, into the camera; people flocking across a busy street, then gathering on a corner to chat; adolescents with books, scattering at the sound of a school bell; a young girl at a blackboard, spelling out Lithuanian sentences in cursive script with a stick of chalk. And then, dramatic music sets in: brass instruments repeat a single refrain, like an alarm; voices sing in the clipped trills of 1920s German, followed by more somber tones. Abruptly, the scene cuts to a young Adolfas descending a small hill in Central Park like the protagonist of an unknown story, then cuts again to a mysterious clip of two stylish women entering an elevator and the floor indicator tracking their ascent up a twenty-one-story building in Manhattan.

«My very first need was I should document the life of immigrants», Mekas relates in a film recorded in 1992 on the occasion of an exhibition in Turin. Newly arrived in New York, struggling to get by and increasingly aware that he would not be returning to Lithuania any time soon, he was disgusted by popular American movies like Fred Zinneman’s The Search, which depicted immigrants and displaced persons, but which he found «naïve and ridiculous and did not really show how it is.» He decided to «show them how it really is.» For more than twenty years, however, Mekas was unable to revisit the material he shot during that early period. Originally, he and Adolfas had conceived the film as an outcry against the fact that the West had sacrificed the Baltic Republics to the USSR at Yalta. While Lost, Lost, Lost, the work he eventually made from the footage, documents everyday life among exiled Lithuanians, it eludes interpretation and moves through multiple narrative dimensions. We hear Mekas in voiceover, punctuated by pages of his written diaries from the time and intertitles that include an announcement of an émigré’s first paycheck; images of big-hearted Ginkas in a white apron standing in front of his candy store on Grand Street; the baptism of the infant Paulius Landsbergis; a committee meeting for an independent Lithuania; the arrival in Washington of Povilas Žadeikis, ambassador to the formerly independent Lithuania. When Mekas decided that the only hope for the country resided in the people who still lived there, he and Adolfas moved to Manhattan and threw themselves into a new mission: to make up for the «decade of cultural life of this civilization» that they’d missed, to «catch up immediately with everything.» For two years, Mekas recalls in the Turin film, he and his brother attended every new film screening, every theater performance, every opera in New York, and the rest, of course, is film history and the birth of the avant-garde New American Cinema. But then Mekas suddenly breaks down in tears and covers his face with both hands. Minutes pass before he is able to collect himself. He finishes his beer, raises the bottle to the camera, and smiles. When he realizes that the cameraman has not stopped filming, he takes off his microphone and gets up from the couch.

What was he remembering at that moment?

Three years before Mekas was born, in 1918, Lithuania had finally attained independence from Tsarist Russia and for the first time in nearly five hundred years, the multi-ethnic region became a sovereign state with its own laws and government. This came to an end in 1939, when Stalin and Hitler signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that divided Europe into spheres of influence. A series of treaties was imposed on the country during the course of which 20,000 Soviet soldiers were stationed on Lithuanian soil, the president fled, and the communist party was voted into power in a sham election that ushered in the country’s annexation. Brutal purges were carried out against everything perceived as anti-Russian; tens of thousands were deported to Siberian labor camps, their property seized and redistributed to party loyalists, and many never returned. When war broke out between Germany and the USSR, the Nazis seized control of the country and exploited local anti-communist sentiments that blamed the Soviet takeover on the Jews. A majority of the population greeted the Germans in the hopes that some form of self-government might be restored. In the years that followed, 1941 through 1944, ninety-five percent of the country’s Jews were murdered, in large part by the Lithuanians themselves—but this, even eighty years later, is something the country is still unable or unwilling to face.

Shortly before the Soviets regained power in July of 1944, everyone who had cooperated with Nazi forces had to flee. Jonas Mekas had been writing and editing for two ultranationalist newspapers, Naujosios Biržų žinios (The New Biržai News, or NBZ) and Panevėžio Apygardos Balsas (The Panevėžys Region Voice, or PAB), both of which published German and antisemitic propaganda and ran front-page articles praising the Nazi occupiers. Many years later, Mekas claimed that he’d been a member of the underground resistance and that he was not only a marked man for the Soviets, but had also engaged in acts of subterfuge against the Nazis. The day before Soviet troops entered Vilnius, the two brothers fled and were headed for Vienna when they were apprehended and put to work in a German labor camp until the war ended. In a 2018 essay published  in The New York Review of Books, Yale University historian Michael Casper attempts to sort out the many different autobiographical statements Mekas made throughout the years to assess whether he’d subscribed to Nazi ideology and had supported the German invasion of Soviet Lithuania in 1941; was a political opportunist with no clear allegiance either way; or was merely a frightened young man using his editorial position as a form of camouflage—or some combination thereof. [see on this topic Peter Delpeut in conversation with Bert Rebhandl, cargo 56]

Mekas’s friends and admirers found themselves in a quandary; most were unable to respond to what they saw as an attack on a beloved figure of contemporary art and film, but some equivocated. J. Hoberman wrote that it felt as though something were being exposed that «had been hiding in plain sight.» The Lithuanian-American historian Saulius Sužiedėlis argued that Mekas was a young, apolitical bookworm simply struggling to survive in extraordinarily dangerous times; that the populace generally skipped over the obligatory Nazi propaganda «nonsense» on the front pages of the newspapers in question to read between the lines and glean some sense of what might really be going on, and that it was to this narrow slice of journalistic freedom that Mekas directed his energies. Many in the art and film world took offense at what they saw as an attempt to tarnish the great independent filmmaker’s reputation and legacy as founder of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, Film Culture magazine, and Anthology Film Archives. Yet Mekas had praised Leni Riefenstahl in terms that remain questionable to this day, eliding the obvious fascist undertones in her work, a fact that Susan Sontag took note of in Fascinating Fascism. He had also expressed surprise that Jüd Süss, a Nazi-era film by Veit Harlan that served to anchor the villainous image of the greedy, duplicitous Jew in the German popular imagination and, by extension, helped lay the ground for the dehumanization of the Jews and the Final Solution, had been interpreted as antisemitic—he considered it an accurate and even likeable portrayal of Jews, with whom, one might conclude, he’d presumably had little first-hand experience, although one-third of Biržai’s population had once been Jewish. 

Mekas, who died in 2019, not long after a lengthy email correspondence with Casper ended on less than friendly terms, protested, saying that the NYRB article was «dirty». Casper, for his part, called for a more nuanced contextualization of the young Mekas’s political dilemma, the older artist’s numerous contradictions, and an end to uncritical «hero worship» and the need for simplified tales of good and evil that erase the complexities of what it means to make art and to be human in inhuman times. Casper is a historian and has a stake in how Lithuania is portrayed; with the issue of Lithuanian complicity in the Holocaust still, to this day, largely taboo, how Mekas—one of the most revered and influential figures of the country’s diaspora—described his memories of the time matters on a scale far larger than that of his own personal biography. Barry Schwabsky, in a letter to the New York Review of Books, objected to Casper’s essay by writing that «Mekas’s own explanation for his inaccuracies—the trauma of living amidst so many murders, and the need to respond to them as a poet if at all—seems worthy of more respect.» For his part, Casper concedes that Mekas never published antisemitic material in his own name. He asserts, however, that Mekas at the very least stood passively by as thousands of his neighbors were led off to the woods and slaughtered; that the papers he wrote for and edited helped prepare the ground for the mass killings. After the pogroms, with Mekas as editor, Panevėžio Apygardos Balsas called upon readers to identify the few remaining Jews who had survived and were presumably hiding out somewhere in the city, and denounce them to the authorities—and so it’s possible that Casper is not overstating his case. Mekas, reflecting back on the time, often seemed to suggest that he’d escaped the death camps and certain slaughter, a misinterpretation that worked to his advantage—and indeed, many in the art world were under the mistaken impression that Mekas, the nephew of a Protestant minister, was one of the few Jews to survive Buchenwald or Auschwitz. The point, of course, is not to denounce Mekas, but to understand him as a product of his time and in the context of an Eastern Europe that feared and hated Jews for their educational, professional, and financial achievements, found in them the perfect scapegoats, and—whether passively or willingly—cooperated in their demise.

My mind returns to Lost, Lost, Lost. In the American diaspora, the Lithuanian émigrés had their own newspapers and magazines and instilled in their offspring a knowledge of their native country’s language, history, and culture. I open the YouTube tab and rewind to the section with the schoolchildren’s smiling faces and that sunny weekday morning in Brooklyn. What I’d found so strange—that the carefree mood was overshadowed by a dark, menacing score—suddenly began to crystallize. Mekas had chosen a musical play to accompany the scene; listening closely to the German libretto and the repetition of the refrain «Er hat Ja gesagt!»—«He said yes!»—, from which I sensed a quiet chill begin to spread, I realized that I was listening to the music of Kurt Weill. And then I found it: the opera Der Jasager, which in German has the dual meaning of «the affirmer» and «the yes man». It was a «Lehrstück» or educational piece, performed by students of the Akademie für Kirchen- und Schulmusik, and it premiered at the Zentralinstitut für Erziehung und Unterricht in Berlin in 1930. The story was an adaptation of the fifteenth-century Japanese Noh drama Taniko.

A young boy embarks on a dangerous expedition through the mountains in the hopes of obtaining medicine for his sick mother, and when he himself falls ill and is too weak to continue, his companions invoke an ancient law according to which anyone unable to complete the journey consents to his own death. According to custom, the boy must be formally asked if he is in agreement; when he responds with a weak «yes», the others, chanting the harrowing refrain «He said yes!», prepare to fling him into the valley below. While Brecht’s increasingly Marxist tendencies interpreted the Japanese drama as a lesson on the importance of remaining loyal to a cause, even to the point of self-sacrifice, Weill’s music clearly belies this, dramatizing the moment the young boy agrees to his own demise as evidence not of selfless dedication and honor, but of ideological monstrosity. After the premiere, Weill, a Jew whose left-leaning political beliefs were far less extreme, terminated his collaboration with Brecht on political grounds. In Lost, Lost, Lost, Mekas ends the section with the schoolchildren at the moment in the libretto when the boy is carried to the precipice.

There is nothing random about Mekas’s choice to juxtapose Weill’s haunting music with images of émigré schoolchildren in the strange world of their American exile. Perhaps he is commenting on the danger of instilling ideological fervor in the minds of children not yet mature enough to think for themselves. Or on the danger of ideological fervor, period. Perhaps, in a very oblique way, he is reflecting on his own beliefs and illusions as a young man, or commenting on the violence of forcing someone to consent to sacrificing their own life, even for the sake of a greater good. Perhaps—and this is something exiles everywhere know—he’d adopted the categories and fictions created by a dominant (in his case, American) culture because the realities he’d experienced would have been impossible for the non-exiled to comprehend. In any case, the aesthetic mission Mekas championed for seventy years rejected anything resembling an unequivocal, linear narrative in the face of a far more complex, chaotic, ambiguous, unpredictable reality. He always insisted that he’d lived inside his own bubble; that he had closed himself off inwardly to the overwhelming realities of the world around him. Mekas’s evasions seem to say that no one can know what it means to live in morally perilous times unless they have experienced it themselves. «Don’t believe me», he reported telling a friend in a 1951 diary entry, «Don’t believe a word I say. [. . .] I am always lying. I learned it in Europe, to lie. Why do you think I am walking now this street and not somewhere else, let’s say, in Siberia? [. . .] It simply was that I had eliminated the word NO from my dictionary.» 

Der Jasager was an extraordinary success in pre-Hitler Germany, but the Nazis, even before seizing power, recognized its subversive potential and agitated to have it banned. In Berlin of 1930, on the very cusp of one of the greatest displays of human fanaticism the world would ever witness, the students who first performed the play rejected the libretto because they considered the self-sacrifice it celebrated to be a misunderstood and corrupted form of social responsibility, a perversion of human morality. In response to the students’ reactions, Brecht rewrote Der Jasager and created a companion piece, Der Neinsager, in which the boy replies with a definitive «no» and asserts that one must think for oneself, afresh, in every new situation life throws at us. Weill did not write the music for the second piece, Der Neinsager was never produced, and we will never know the effect it might have had on German society, had it been as widely performed as its predecessor. Both men fled the Nazis in 1933; Kurt Weill remained in the US, while Bertolt Brecht returned after the war to rebuild East German theater. «Now I am always saying yes», Mekas concluded his diary entry from 1951. «Because those who said NO are dead now, long ago. I am here with you, now, because I didn’t use that word.»

October 2023




Alessandro Amaducci: Cinema Is not Everything: Intervista a Jonas Mekas. Archivio nazionale cinematografico della Resistenza 2022 (material from 1992) [online]

Bertolt Brecht: Der Jasager und Der Neinsager. Vorlagen, Fassungen, Materialien. Suhrkamp 1966 [online]

Michael Casper: «I Was There», in: New York Review of Books, June 7, 2018

Michael Casper: «World War II Revisionism at the Jewish Museum», in: Jewish Currents, April 21, 2022

Will Heinrich: «The Avant-Garde Filmmaker Who Tried to Tell the Truth», in: The New York Times, March 17, 2022

J. Hoberman: «My Debt to Jonas Mekas», in: The New Yorker, Jan. 24, 2019

Jonas Mekas, Scott MacDonald: «Interview with Jonas Mekas», in: October, vol. 29 (summer 1984), pp. 82–116 [online]

Jonas Mekas: Diary of a Displaced Person. Spector Books 2017

Jonas Mekas: I Seem to Live: The New York Diaries. Spector Books 2019

Jonas and Adolfas Mekas: Letters Home. Passport 2022

Oral History Interview with Jonas Mekas, United States Holocaust Museum, 2018. Accession No. 2018.303.1

Barry Schwabsky, Michael Casper: «On Jonas Mekas: An Exchange», in: New York Review of Books, July 19, 2018

Asaf Elia-Shalev: «Historian accuses NY’s Jewish Museum of sanitizing filmmaker’s World War II record in new exhibit», in: Jewish Telegraph Agency, May 12, 2022

Saulius Sužiedėlis: «The Historical Sources for Antisemitism in Lithuania and Jewish-Lithuanian Relations during the 1930s», in: Yivo Institute for Jewish Research [online]

Saulius Sužiedėlis: «Portrait of a Poet as a Young Man: Jonas Mekas in War and Exile», in: E-flux Journal No. 129, Sept. 2022 [online]

The Noh Plays of Japan (translated by Arthur Waley). The Project Gutenberg, released July 26, 2013 [online]

Karolis Vyšniauskas: «Correcting the Record: Michael Casper on Jonas Mekas», in: Nara, January 16, 2023 [online

Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht: Der Jasager. Opera in Two Acts, first performed in Berlin in 1930