Cinema in Israel: Nathan Axelrod’s Carmel Newsreels

Pioneer with Movie Camera

Before the age of television, moviegoers throughout the Yishuv and in the young State of Israel flocked to theaters to see Nathan Axelrod’s patriotic Carmel Newsreels. Now these historic documentaries will be available on the Internet.

Nirit Anderman

“The newest Eretz Israel newsreel,” proudly proclaimed ads in Davar and Haaretz in February 1935.

The owners of the Migdalor Cinema at the corner of Allenby and Ben Yehuda streets in Tel Aviv, which had opened on Friday, February 22, were offering a unique attraction to bring masses of viewers to the new theater: a weekly newsreel showing major events in the Jewish community in Palestine.

Until then, newsreels had been shown in local movie theaters only occasionally. Carmel Newsreels brought about a revolution in the field. They were the first to be made regularly and consistently, were screened weekly, turned the newsreel into a current, up-to-date, and very popular news broadcast, and breathed new life into the local movie industry.

Nathan Axelrod, the spirit of Carmel Newsreels, managed to do what many in the local movie industry considered impossible. “The owners of the Migdalor Cinema wanted new newsreel every week, and aggressively advertised the Carmel Newsreel. But they were absolutely convinced that Nathan would not have enough news for a weekly newsreel. Where would he get so much news?” says Leah Axelrod, 96, Nathan Axelrod’s widow and the legendary editor of Carmel Newsreels.
Seventy-five years after the historic screening, the name “Carmel Newsreels” is familiar, and many in the older generation still remember the black-and-white films accompanied by patriotic narrations, dripping with pathos. Young people have seen sections of the newsreels screened recently as part of the 60th anniversary celebrations of the state and the 100th anniversary of Tel Aviv.
Over the years, the Carmel Newsreels became a central part of Israeli cinematic memory, and the hundreds of reels of films from the Axelrod archive, which are now kept in the Israel Film Archive in the Jerusalem Cinematheque, are a genuine documentary treasure.
In addition to the exceptional contribution of Axelrod’s lifelong project in shaping Israel’s collective memory, the newsreels played other important roles. They were enlisted for the benefit of the Zionist enterprise, helped to raise morale, contributed to the faltering film industry of those years and laid the early foundations for documentary filmmaking, which would eventually flourish here.
The Israel Film Archive is planning to upload the Carmel Newsreels onto a new Web site in the coming months.

A story in Haaretz on February 24, 1935 – at a time when the opening of a movie theater made headlines – described the screening of the first Carmel Newsreel: “On Thursday night the new Migdalor Cinema had its festive opening, with many invited guests,” the newspaper reported. “[Deputy Mayor] I. Rokach spoke on behalf of the Tel Aviv municipality (Mayor Dizengoff did not attend due to the bad weather), and said that if on the one hand it is clear to us that a new movie theater serves to increase the dissemination of foreign languages, on the other hand such an institution can raise the cultural-educational level in the area of cinematic propaganda. For the first time there was a screening of a Carmel Newsreel, which showed some of the events taking place in the country.”

And in fact, the tone that always characterized the Carmel Newsreels was patriotic pride and admiration for the Zionist enterprise taking shape in Palestine. Axelrod filmed the events with an enthusiasm that could at times certainly be seen as propaganda. He recorded the building of cities and kibbutzim, cornerstone-laying ceremonies for major structures, the dedication of roads. His newsreels recorded events attended by public figures; factories that produced local goods; sports and cultural events and the everyday life of the country’s residents.

“He would hearten his audience, give them proof that the country was being built and that the sacrifice of each of them was worthwhile,” says Leah. “Nathan was excited by the idea of documenting what was happening here, and he always did so in a positive way. He showed the good things people wanted to see, and encouraged the pioneers who had left behind everything they had in the old country and come to Israel. In the Carmel Newsreels they saw the results of their dream.”

Axelrod would read four newspapers every morning, says Leah, “and that’s how he always knew what was happening.” It turns out that Zionist ideology often overcame his journalistic instincts. During the Altalena affair, for example, “we received telegrams from all over the world; they wanted us to send them a scoop about the boat,” she says. “Nathan sat at home and cried, because he was afraid a civil war would break out in the wake of this affair, and therefore he decided not to film. He didn’t even hesitate, because he was afraid they would make such a scandal of it that the entire Zionist enterprise would blow up because of it. He was a Zionist from the roots of his hair down to his toenails.”

On June 20, 1948, during the War of Independence, the ship Altalena arrived on Israel’s shores, carrying fighters and weapons for the Irgun pre-state militia, in direct violation of David Ben-Gurion’s new military command. Nearly igniting a civil war in the newly-established country, Ben-Gurion gave the order to fire on the ship. Sixteen Irgun fighters and three Israel Defense Forces soldiers were killed.

Like movie stars

During the first year they were shown in movie theaters, the Carmel Newsreels were silent, screened to the accompaniment of music from phonograph records. In February 1936 Carmel Films began a refreshing innovation: a talking newsreel in which a narration accompanied the film. The newsreels included three to five sections.
The first sections would document events of national import, while those that followed presented “softer” news, like sports, culture and the arts. “I always tried to add attractions to the newsreel,” said Axelrod once in an interview with Hebrew film historian Yaakov Gross. “Recorded interviews with writers – [Shaul] Tchernikovsky, [Avraham] Shlonsky, Avigdor Hameiri, Alexander Ziskind Rabinovitch. Mothers always came to me with their wunderkinder.
Hanna Meron
That also happened to me with Hanna Meron, whom I filmed in her first performance in Israeli cinema, when she was 14 years old” (a performance included in Axelrod’s 1962 film “Etz o Palestina” [“The True Story of Palestine”] in which Meron plays the girl who sells shoelaces, who offers her wares in the street and sings).
In spite of that, audiences streamed to the movie theaters to watch the newsreels. “To this day,” says Leah Axelrod, “I meet people who tell me they always used to try to get to the cinema before the film in order to see the newsreel, because the newsreel was more important to them than the film.”
More objective testimony to the great popularity of the Carmel Newsreels in their early years can be found in Zimmerman’s book. He notes that according to the figures published by the Carmel Films company, the number of people who saw the newsreels between 1935 and 1936 ranged from 60,000 to 100,000; in other words, between 18 and 25 percent of the entire Jewish population in the country during that period.

At first, the newsreels were screened only in the Migdalor Cinema. Soon other movie theaters in Tel Aviv began to screen them, and afterward they were also shown in theaters in the Haifa and Jerusalem areas, and in smaller communities as well. “Within two years they had already reached 10 or more theaters,” says Yaakov Gross.

“The country was very small at the time, and people liked seeing themselves and the people they knew on the screen, like movie stars, and they also enjoyed seeing the developing country,” says Gross, offering explanation for the tremendous popularity of the newsreels. “In addition, viewers were very strict at the time about buying Israeli products, and Axelrod showed factories and various activities related to the commercial life of Palestine.”

According to Dr. Shmulik Duvdevani, a documentary film researcher, the audience was also enthusiastic about the opportunity the newsreels offered to receive current information in moving pictures. “The newsreels sometimes included advertisements as well, followed by short documentaries, and only then came the full-length feature, so that the newsreel was part of an entire program, which was both of artistic value and very Zionistic,” explains Duvdevani. “Over the years these newsreels also took on a historical dimension, and it is interesting that in 1962, when the film ‘The True Story of Palestine’ [‘Etz O Palestina’] was made – based on selections from the Carmel Newsreels that were edited with narration written by Haim Hefer and read by Chaim Topol – the Carmel Newsreels already had a nostalgic aspect.”

A family business

The great popularity of the Carmel Newsreels in the Jewish community of Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s is more surprising when we learn about the difficult conditions in which they were created. Aharon Axelrod, the son of the founder, says, for example, that his father did not have enough money to purchase an editing table, and therefore built himself an improvised table that was used by the Carmel Films company. “In 1935, after editing the films for years without a table – they would lift the film into the air, count 24 frames in order to know when a second had passed and where to cut the film – Dad decided to built an editing table himself. He ordered a table from a carpenter, attached a crank in order to turn the reels, and installed prisms that he had taken from a movie projector. And because we didn’t have money to make a work copy for editing purposes, we would edit the negative directly.”

For lack of funds, Nathan Axelrod also constructed a film-developing machine. Leah and Aharon Axelrod say that in a shack in the Montefiore neighborhood of Tel Aviv, Nathan installed three wooden bathtubs and a system of wooden wheels and gears. Because there was no electricity in the hut, the system moved by means of a bicycle chain in order to enable the development and drying of the film.

The printing process was also done at first by means of a technique developed by Axelrod, based on the filtration of sunlight through a narrow opening in one of the windows of the shack.

Many of the employees of Carmel Films were relatives of Axelrod. His wife, Leah, served as editor of the newsreels when Nathan went abroad. She was also an occasional photographer, and took charge of distribution; together with her son, she would deliver the newsreels to the movie theaters. Aharon served from the age of 12 as one of the newsreel photographers, while the elder son, Moshe, recorded the sound and repaired the recording devices. Leah’s brother and sister-in-law also joined as partners in the family business.

The agreement with Migdalor, and later with other movie theaters, guaranteed Carmel Films a steady but modest income. The purchase of sound equipment for the talking newsreels forced Axelrod to take out a big loan. For the sake of the financial survival of the company, Axelrod also included covert advertisements in the newsreels and produced short documentaries that today would probably be called image films.

“Sometimes, when I was invited to film the placing of a cornerstone for some institution, they paid me 1.5 liras, sometimes even three liras,” said Nathan Axelrod in an interview with Gross. “The revenues from the entire country were 24 liras per newsreel. But once every two or three months I produced a special edition, a kind of documentary film in the form of a newsreel about Jewish fishermen, about the founding of Kibbutz Maaleh Hahamisha, the development of the Zvulun Valley or the Jewish aircraft industry, and then I asked for financial participation from an appropriate institution.”

“We are doing tremendous national work, we are recording the history of the Hebrew renaissance for future generations,” wrote Axelrod in an official request for support that he sent to government institutions in 1938. “We are educating all the members of [this] generation in our film newsreels by showing all the corners of the land, all the projects for building the land, its important personalities and its leaders, its major events and its achievements. Everything is done on our initiative and at our expense – we are spending considerable sums, which our national institutions must acknowledge […]. The Land of Israel can and must go on to become a Jewish and worldwide ‘Hollywood.’ But without the assistance of the central institutions no such thing will be established.”

In the end, Axelrod did not receive regular and orderly establishment support, and as we know, the local film industry did not become a Jewish Hollywood. On the contrary. It suffered from a multiplicity of production companies, a lack of funding sources and a very small audience that did not enable the producers to recoup their investments. In addition, the Arab uprisings of 1936-39 and later on, World War II made it even more difficult to create Hebrew films. However, despite everything, Carmel Films managed to survive until 1958. Even if production was halted occasionally because of uprisings and the wars, after a while the newsreels returned to movie theaters once again.

“The strength of Carmel,” writes Zimmerman, “stemmed from the fact that its structure was similar to that of a large Hollywood studio. This is because it had full control of four of the six components considered central in the creation of films: production, technical infrastructure, distribution and funding. At the same time, it ensured good relations with the many movie theaters that cropped up in the country during those years, as well as a sympathetic press.”

Newsreels and documentaries were the main source of revenue for Carmel Films, and the laboratory owned by the company made an important contribution to the local film industry. “This laboratory also contributed to others in the field,” notes Gross. “It was the central film laboratory in Palestine, the only one that provided services to others for a fee, and as such it gave professional momentum to the local cinema industry.”

The newsreels also trained professionals for the industry. People who worked on creating the Carmel Newsreels, and later the Geva Newsreels (a competitor active from 1952 to 1970) became important figures in local film productions. Duvdevani says: “Yachin Hirsch, Adam Greenberg, David Gurfinkel and Emil Knebel, for example, started as photographers for Geva Newsreels. The training ground of the newsreels enabled documentary filmmakers to learn how to record an event.”

Competitors are coming

The Carmel Newsreels and the documentaries produced by Axelrod also laid the foundations for the respected documentary tradition that developed here. “The newsreels were a kind of news broadcast, and brought a concise, superficial report of events of current importance, as well as lifestyle stories,” says Duvdevani. “The newsreels, as well as Axelrod’s documentaries, were based on a documentary tradition that was common worldwide at the time, and which centered around the report: a presentation of the events taking place, accompanying the pictures with narrated reportage and transmitting only basic information about the event. Only later would there be artists like David Perlov and David Greenberg who would make personal, lyrical documentaries, and would try to bring a different, individual point of view of reality. The newsreels relied on the very basic documentary idea of reportage that would later be transferred to television news broadcasts as well.”

In 1956 Axelrod signed a partnership agreement with Margot Klausner of the Herzliya Studios, to the effect that they would produce the Carmel Newsreels together. For two years the newsreels were made as a joint production of the two companies; afterward Axelrod left the partnership. Herzliya Studios continued to produce the newsreels under the name Carmel Newsreels and to benefit from the reputation Axelrod’s work had earned over the years. They were issued every two weeks and screened in movie theaters alternatively with Geva Newsreels. Unlike Axelrod’s newsreels, both production companies received government support.

Axelrod finally made the decision to disband the partnership with Herzliya and give up the newsreels that had been identified with him for two decades, due to financial considerations. Leah Axelrod explains that during the years of partnership, Carmel Films accumulated a debt to the Herzliya Studios. “The Herzliya Studios gave Nathan two choices: either pay everything owed them – for editing time, development and so on – or give them [the rights to] the newsreels, and they would erase the debt.” And so, at the end of 1958 Axelrod was forced to put his newsreels into strange hands.

The end of Carmel Newsreels came in September 1971, when the so-called “tribal campfire” moved from the movie theaters to television screens. Three and a half years after the establishment of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, the last Carmel Newsreel was screened at movie theaters. It included segments about a mobile dental clinic, a volleyball game between the IDF and an Italian team, and the swim across Lake Kinneret. There was also a nostalgic item about the period of austerity in the 1950s and the “Anecdotes” corner, which covered a fashion show entitled “The National Dress.” Although the newsreel was no longer controlled by Axelrod, Zionist patriotism was still prominent. The Carmel Newsreel thus continued to be reminiscent of propaganda material, and never became a model of investigative or critical journalism.

Disintegrating easily

“Over the years, Axelrod’s laboratory in the Montefiore neighborhood was flooded several times,” says Gross, “and therefore most of the newsreel archive that had been kept there disappeared. What was left was the original negatives of the filmed material and the soundtracks that were usually recorded separately from the pictures. About 90 percent of the negatives from the newsreels remained, but the newsreels in the version shown in movie theaters were not saved.”

Because the newsreels were made on nitrate film, a dangerous and flammable material that also disintegrates relatively quickly, they had to begin the preservation process by copying the material onto less flammable cellulose acetate (safety film). The sum allocated by the archive for this task was sufficient only for converting about a third of the material to 16mm. films.

In the early 1980s a French donor gave $1 million for preserving the films. The donation made it possible to pay the Axelrod family for the archive and fly all the material to France to convert it to safety film. The original nitrate films remained in storage in France (“They’re kept there in bunkers built by Napoleon in a small town near Versailles, which the French authorities decided to devote to preserving flammable archival materials of this type,” says Ilan de Vries, outgoing director of the Israeli Film Archive and the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which received the new copies.

For the past two years the archive has worked to convert the materials to computer files. Now they are working on building a Web site, which De Vries says will be posted on the Internet in the coming year.