are Lorentz was born in Clarksburg, West Virginia in 1905. His family had arrived in North America before the American Revolution, settling in Pennsylvania between 1723 and 1776 in an attempt to escape religious persecution in Europe. His great-grandfather moved to what was then Virginia in 1800 and onto land that had been surveyed by George Washington. Lorentz' grandfather, although he had freed his slaves prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, fought for the Confederacy because of his vocal opposition to the secession of West Virginia from Virginia. He lost his land along with his right to vote and to practice law when the area became part of the new state of West Virginia in 1863. Lorentz' great interest in and love for American history has been credited to the family connections that he felt to the significant events in America's past as well as to the hardships that his grandfather suffered in what Lorentz saw as a challenge to the right of free speech. He felt a powerful connection to what he saw as America's story, and he felt not only a great deal of loyalty to that story, but he also believed that it held the answers to the problems that America faced during the Depression.

Lorentz attended both West Virginia Wesleyan and the University of West Virginia before departing for New York City to follow his literary ambitions. His father was a printer and publisher and Lorentz was very active in university journalism while in school. He edited the school's humor magazine and in his third year was elected president of the Southern Association of College Editors.

When he arrived in New York City in 1925 he found a job as a commercial writer at the Edison Mazda Lamp Sales Builder. By 1927 he had left this job to become the film reviewer for the magazine Judge. Between 1927 and 1936 when he went to work as a filmmaker for the United States Government, he was also wrote film criticism for the New York Evening Journal, Vanity Fair, Town and Country, McCall's, Fortune, Harper's, Scribner's, Forum and Story magazines. Of particular interest in many of his reviews was his fascination with the use of music in film. Lorentz' mother had been a professional singer and he had been exposed to many types of music from and early age. He believed that music could be use to significantly augment the emotional and dramatic power of the film medium. This belief was borne out in his use of music in The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River, both of which were scored by Virgil Thompson and performed by members of the New York Philharmonic. Lorentz even edited portions of the films to the music that Thompson had crafted for them. His assistant Willard Van Dyke picked up on this technique in his film The City, which was scored by Aaron Copland. It was Lorentz who crafted The City's narrative and his stylistic imprint is on the film.

With his colleague Morris Ernst, Lorentz wrote his first book Censored: The Private Life of the Movies in 1929. The book reflected another of Lorentz' concerns. Lorentz believed that film was an enormously powerful medium. "At its logical development," he and Ernst wrote "it could dwarf the stage, the press and literature with its power." This, in Lorentz' opinion, meant that its developers also had a great deal of responsibility for the material that they presented to the public. Lorentz and Ernst expressed a belief that film was being irresponsibly censored by Board of Review, which they accused of being bribed by certain producers. They voiced a fear that due to the potential scope of the medium, this could eventually result in a threat to the right to free speech in the United States. This indictment of the film industry, especially by someone as young and inexperienced as Lorentz, was to cause him problems throughout his career. His initial attempts to make his films commercially were rebuffed, as were repeated requests for footage from the studios. There were also efforts by studios to keep his films out of theaters. It is easy to understand why Lorentz came to believe that the government was the only body that could use film as a tool to tell the truth and inform the American public.

Lorentz' second book established his reputation as a political reporter and brought him to the attention of the people that would eventually fund his first film project. The book was The Roosevelt Year: 1933 and it sought to capture not only the problems which America was currently facing, but also the spirit of the first year of the New Deal as it tried to address those problems. Originally, Lorentz conceptualized The Roosevelt Year as a film project, but he was unable to find anyone willing to fund it. Instead, he collected a large series of photographs that captured the major events of the year and wrote captions and commentary to accompany them.

As critic Sam Brody wrote, Lorentz was "the only American movie critic...reckless enough to write as he thinks." This willingness extended beyond Lorentz' articles about films. In his magazine columns and in his books, he was willing to explore what he believed to be the pressing political and social issues of his day, and he was not afraid of angering powerful media figures in the process. Following the publication of The Roosevelt Year he was hired to write a political column called Washington Sideshow for King Features, owned by William Randolph Hearst. Lorentz was fired by Hearst personally after an article he had written praising Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Wallace was published.

Interestingly, the Department of Agriculture was looking for a filmmaker to head its public relations efforts. The Department was interested in making films that would illustrate for the public the crises that the country was facing. Their hope was the films would demonstrate the necessity of the New Deal and help to win support for its controversial programs. Lorentz came to the attention of the department of Agriculture and the Resettlement Administration because of his interest in Roosevelt and the New Deal and his concern with the environmental problems that the United States was facing and their impact on the country's fiscal position. Not only had he written an extensive article on the Dust Bowl for Newsweek, he had also attempted to persuade Hollywood to make a film about the situation. These factors made him an attractive candidate to head up the government's public relations film campaign, and he was hired in June of 1935. He had never directed a single film project. Yet in the next five years, he would develop for the government a series of films that would come to be known as the Films of Merit and to win him wide critical acclaim.

Lorentz saw the potential power of the film medium to bring information to a large number of people, giving Americans an opportunity to see what was happening in their country and to react to it. Film provided a vehicle to explore the issues closest to Lorentz, free access to information that he felt was being censored by the commercial film industry, the environment, and perhaps most importantly, the promise of America. Lorentz believed that this information could be presented in a manner that was at the same time artistic and of social consequence. His years as a film critic had provided him with an understanding of film's aesthetic possibilities. His films display a masterful use of music and other sound effects, such as voice over narration, used in combination with visuals to tell a powerful story.

Pare Lorentz (left) and crew on location

Between 1935 and 1938, Lorentz made two films under the auspices of The Department of Agriculture, The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River, both of which had been met with tremendous critical and popular success. He had also written, directed, and produced a radio program entitled Ecce Homo!, which dealt with unemployment and which Lorentz hoped would be the basis for a third film. But by 1938 the Resettlement Administration, which had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and had been reorganized and renamed the Farm Security Administration and the Department of Agriculture has been informed by the General Accounting Office that they could not continue to fund such projects.

With the fate of his projects in jeopardy, Lorentz took an opportunity to speak with President Roosevelt at a ceremony where Roosevelt presented him with an award for his work on The River, Lorentz made an appeal for the continuation of government funded film projects. After a series of negotiations, Roosevelt established the United States Film Service on August 13, 1938 and named Pare Lorentz as its director. Roosevelt outlined what the Service's responsibilities were to be. In a letter sent to Lorentz on Roosevelt's behalf by Lowell Mellett, the director of the National Emergency Council, the governing body under which the Film Service was going to operate. Lorentz was given the authority and promised funds to proceed with the development of Ecce Homo!. He was given control over the distribution of the films developed by the USFS as well as those of other departments and agencies. The Film Service was also to be responsible for setting technical standards, to review scripts being developed by all agencies for future film projects and to act as a liaison to the commercial film industry.

In his new capacity, Lorentz made two more films, Ecce Homo! and The Fight for Life. He produced two others, Power and the Land, which he had developed but was eventually directed by Joris Ivens while he finished The Fight for Life and The Land, by Robert Flaherty. But the National Emergency Council was on shaky footing with Congress, which was not persuaded that the government should be spending money on making films. Despite Lorentz' attempts to convince Congress of the Service's merit, by 1940 Congress withdrew financial support from the Film Service and Lorentz resigned from the Service's directorship.

But this did not mark the end of Lorentz' government service. Following the American entrance into World War II, he was commissioned into the Air Corps and where he produced training films for pilots. And in 1946 he was named Chief of Motion Pictures, Music and Theatre in the Occupied Areas of Germany. In this capacity he produced the filming of the Nuremberg Trials.

Following this project, Lorentz moved permanently to New York State. He split his time between New York City, where he opened a film consultant firm, and Armonk, New York, where he died on March 4, 1995 at the age of 86.


Introduction | Pare Lorentz and the Films of Merit | The Plow that Broke the Plains | The River | The City | Works Consulted