Nationality: American. Born: Clarksburg, West Virginia, 11 December 1905. Education: Wesleyan College; University of West Virginia. Family: Married Eliza Meyer. Career: Writer and film critic for McCall's , Town and Country , and Ring features, 1930s; directed first film, The Plow That Broke the Plains , for the U.S. Resettlement Agency, 1936; director of U.S. Film Service, 1938–40; directed shorts for RKO, 1941; made 275 navigational films for U.S. Air Force, 1941–45; chief of film section of War Department's Civil Affairs Division, 1946–47; film consultant, New York, 1960s. Awards: "Saluted" by Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, 1981. Died: 4 March 1992.
The Plow That Broke the Plains
The Fight for Life
The City (Steiner and Van Dyke) (co-sc)
Lorentz on Film: Movies 1927 to 1941 , Norman, Oklahoma, 1986.
FDR's Moviemaker: Memoirs and Scripts , Reno, Nevada, 1992.
"The Narration of The River ," in Film Comment (New York), Spring 1965.
Snyder, Robert L., Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film , Norman, Oklahoma, 1968; republished Reno, Nevada, with new preface, 1993.
Barsam, Richard, Non-Fiction Film , New York, 1973.
MacCann, Richard Dyer, The People's Films , New York, 1973.
Barnouw, Erik, Documentary—A History of the Non-Fiction Film , New York, 1974.
Alexander, William, Film on the Left: American Documentary Film from 1931–42 , Princeton, New Jersey, 1981.
Ellis, Jack C., The Documentary Idea , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1989.
Goodman, Ezra, "The American Documentary," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1938.
White, W.L., "Pare Lorentz," in Scribner's (New York), January 1939.
Black, C.M., "He Serves up America: Pare Lorentz," in Collier's (New York), 3 August 1940.
Van Dyke, Willard, "Letter from The River ," in Film Comment (New York), Spring 1965.
"Conscience of the Thirties," in Newsweek (New York), 5 August 1968.
Harmetz, Aljean, "Hollywood Hails Lorentz, Documentary Pioneer," in New York Times , 22 October 1981.
"Pare Lorentz," in Film Dope (London), February 1987.
Obituary, in EPD Film (Frankfurt), May 1992.
Obituary, in Variety (New York), 9 March 1992.
Barnouw, Erik, "Pare Lorentz's Nuremberg into the Spotlight," in International Documentary (Los Angeles), June 1997.
Pare Lorentz on Film , in four installments, WGBH (Boston) for NET network.
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In the United States it was Pare Lorentz who was in a position for leadership in relation to documentary film comparable to that of John Grierson in Britain and later in Canada. Lorentz was founding head and leader of the short-lived government program, which began in 1935, became the United States Film Service in 1938, and ended in 1940. He established American precedent for the government use of documentaries, which would be continued during World War II (by the Armed Forces and the Office of War Information) and afterwards (by the United States Information Agency, now International Communication Agency). From Lorentz's efforts five large and important films resulted, the first three of which he directed: The Plow That Broke the Plains, The River, The Fight for Life, Power and the Land (directed by Joris Ivens), and The Land (directed by Robert Flaherty).
In The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River , Lorentz developed an original, personal style of documentary that also became a national style. In his two mosaic patterns of sight (carefully composed images shot silent) and sound (symphonic music, spoken words, noises), no one element says much by itself. Together they offer form and content that resemble epic poems. They seem close to the attitudes of American populism and are rooted in frontier tradition. The sweeping views of a big country, the free verse commentaries with their chanted litany of place names and allusions to historic events, make one think of Walt Whitman. The use of music is quite special, with composer Virgil Thomson sharing more fully than usual in the filmmaking process; a sort of operatic balance is achieved between the musical score and the other elements. Thomson made his scores for these two films into concert suites which have become part of the standard orchestral repertoire.
In The Fight for Life , Lorentz is much less sure in his control of its narrative form than he was of the poetic form of the two preceding films. He seems to have been much more comfortable with land and rivers than with people. Fight for Life is about the work of the Chicago Maternity Center delivering babies among the impoverished. It is an interesting film, if curiously flawed by melodramatic excesses. It is important in its innovations and might be regarded as a prototype for the postwar Hollywood semi-documentaries; for example, The House on 92nd Street, Boomerang, Call Northside 777. In contributing two lasting masterpieces to the history of documentary— The Plow and, especially, The River —Lorentz joins a very select company of the artists of documentary. (Flaherty and Jennings would be other members of that company.) Some would argue that The River is the finest American documentary to date—aesthetically and in terms of expressing aspects of the American spirit.
However, Lorentz had major limitations, politically, if not artistically. First, he relied on the impermanent partisan backing of the party in power. Lorentz had the support of President Franklin Roosevelt and the films were associated with Democratic policies. When the balance in Congress shifted to Republican in 1940, the United States Film Service was not allowed to continue. Second, even within the New Deal context Lorentz opted for a few big films sponsored by agencies related to one department (four of the five films were on agricultural subjects), rather than many smaller films from various departments that would have broadened the base of sponsorship and made for a steady flow of film communication. Third, he was creating art at public expense—making personal films à la Flaherty—with no real commitment to public service. (Lorentz disliked the term documentary and considered much of Grierson's work in England too school-teacherish; instead Lorentz was trying to create, he said, "films of merit.") Finally, Lorentz remained aloof in Washington. He made no efforts to seek sponsorship for documentary filmmaking outside the government; he had no real connection with the New York City filmmakers responsible for the nongovernmental documentaries of the 1930s (though some of them had worked with him on the government films).
However one chooses to look at the matter, it would be generally agreed that documentary in the United States remained a nonmovement of individual rivalries, competitiveness, and political differences. The closing down of the U.S. Film Service proved a great waste. Shortly after its demise the United States entered World War II and government filmmaking on a vast scale had to be started from scratch. It was the Hollywood filmmakers, without documentary experience, who assumed leadership in the wartime government production. Lorentz spent the war making films as guides to navigation for the U.S. Air Corps. His film on the Nuremberg war-crimes trials became his last, as he chose to work instead mainly as a "film consultant."
—Jack C. Ellis