agree with me when I describe Jean Oser as the father of filmmaking in
Saskatchewan. In the 1970s, Jean brought his forty years of experience
to the classrooms of Regina. With such a wealth of knowledge, it is not
surprising that his lessons overflowed into the coffee shops, late
night dinner parties and the day to day lives of everyone he
encountered. It was Jean's influence on the young minds and hearts of
our early filmmakers that nurtured their collective desire to create
motion pictures. When he arrived in Regina in the early 1970s Jean's
passion for film both in and out of the classroom rubbed off on all
around him. His teaching shaped the early members of the Saskatchewan
Filmpool as well as many who would form the basis of the Saskatchewan
film industry. After teaching in Ottawa from 1979 to 1986, Jean
returned to Regina to resume his teaching, again both in and out of the
classroom. Jean is now 91 years young.
as physically active or mobile as in his heyday, Jean remains sharp
witted, his mind continuously thirsty for new images and knowledge.
GS: Jean, could you tell me about when you grew up, about your family?
JO: When I was born, my mother was 16 years old and her boyfriend was
travelling around so I was born basically in Strasbourg. My mother was
dancing a few weeks before.
MB: She was dancing in her ninth month! No wonder you have show business in you.
JO: My mother was an actress, a star. My father stopped it later
because he was jealous that she was getting too independent. Father was
a very old captain connected with Paramount pictures. The old man hired
Lubitch and all that business. He wasn't political. My father was
Jewish. I'm not Jewish because I was born illegitimate.
GS: Why was it the movies instead to the theatre?
JO: I was a movie nut. My mother gave me the money to go. My uncle, my
mother's brother, was in the German army in the first world war. He was
an ass hole. Before the war he worked at The Majestic in Paris,
learning the trade. Then he went to Berlin to do his military service.
He was put into an officer's mess. One day he saw that this guy took a
pork chop and threw it to his dog and the ass hole says "Look
lieutenant, the cutlet should go to my comrades here, not to the dog".
A week later he was out of it on his way to the front. It was 1917. He
was killed in action. I even know were his grave is but we didn't go
GS: What was the first time you ever touched film with your hands?
JO: Everyone who was interesting was coming to Berlin, and I was
meeting them. Every young interesting guy was hired by Tobis to work
for them as cutters. The cutter was the most important guy when the
film came out. I was one of the Tobis guys and I was becoming their
famous editor. I was eighteen years old but I knew everything about
movies. My mother gave me money to go to movies so I went to every
movie in town.
Oser's film career quickly took off. One opportunity arose which would
be pivotal. He got a job as the editor for the famous G.W. Pabst. With
the advent of sound in the late 20s, some film directors found the task
of editing their own film far too taxing. These films recorded one
track of sound during the filming and at first this was all the sound
that was used. Nevertheless, young people who understood these new
technologies needed to be hired. In 1929 he edited the feature
JO: [Pabst] was making his first talkie.
They had a problem with the explosions - they sounded like farts. What
I did was I took a little cap pistol. BANG! BANG! and I cut them
together in a certain way. Each shot was two and a half frames long --
ratta-tat-tat. I made about two metres and then my assistants dubbed
it. When I was Berlin four years ago they laughed when I told them this
Jean has often attested that Pabst's next film,
The Threepenny Opera (1930), has been singularly responsible for every
job he received for the rest of his career. It is with this film that
Jean begins to truly demonstrate his talents. The Threepenny Opera is a
dynamic film, filled with action, suspense, romance and comedy, tied
together with the music by Kurt Weill. While putting cuts into the
middle of songs may be commonplace today, Jean was quite daring to be
doing it in 1930.
As caught up as he ever got in
this big business of feature filmmaking, Jean never lost track of the
people. He continued his lifetime passion of watching films but when he
walked out of a movie theatre, his eyes were more open to the real
world beyond than before he'd entered.
Stalin made a really vicious dictatorship out of this [the USSR]. The
woman who played the leading part in The Threepenny Opera, the German
version, Carola Neher. She lived with her boyfriend who lived in the
Soviet Union and he was executed and so was she, under Stalin. The guy
was power hungry, he thought everyone was against him.
Although rapidly becoming a successful member of the established film
community in Berlin by the age of 20, Jean maintained a love and
respect for even the most un-commercial movie ventures. In a film full
of flying hats and re-assembling tea cups, a young Jean Oser appears.
His on-screen debut is in Ghosts Before Breakfast (1928) by the
Futurist-turned-Dadaist-turned-Surrealist filmmaker, Hans Richter
JO: We all knew Hans Richter, he was a
crazy guy and he was an adventurous guy. I was cutting a film for
Ausweild called Dreifus, the famous Dreifus case. It was never shown in
France because in France there was opposition to it. In France they
went through a Nazi period like the Germans did later but in the 1890s,
after the lost war. I cut this picture officially but it was all really
simple. Richter needed someone to work on his Ghosts Before Breakfast.
GS: How did you end up acting in it too?
JO: Richter took everybody who was around to act in it.
GS: Was he in it too?
JO: Yeah he was in it too.
GS: What was Ghosts Before Breakfast about?
JO: It was a crazy thing. Surrealism. I saw everything that was modern
at this time. Officially I was editing a film Dreifus but I spent most
of my time with Richter and I helped with editing the film. This time I
didn't edit myself, I gave him the pieces and he put them together. It
took a couple of weeks.
GS: Who was the audience for the film?
JO: Film societies. There was a movement of avant garde filmmaking, a
definite movement and there were avant garde filmmakers in France and
in England too. There was a complete culture of avant garde filmmaking.
At this time there was a group of young people who were going on Sunday
mornings to showings of films, avant garde films. You always wanted to
GS: How many people went to see them.
JO: A hundred would be there. I saw everything, all films; the good ones and the bad ones.
GS: Why did you leave Germany in the 30s?
JO: I was at Tobis, we all made big money. I made a thousand dollars a
month which was the salary of a bank director. Then suddenly we were
let go. There was a crisis in Germany. The entire Nazi system started
because the American crash in '29 because suddenly Germany was blank.
Germany was the biggest client of America and when America was broke,
Germany was broke. Suddenly we were the guys sitting on the street. I
got a contract to go to England so I went in 1932. I never was a
refugee. The Nazis - I saw them out of my terrace, I could see them
marching. Nothing could stop them. Pabst became a Nazi, he went back to
GS: You weren't tempted to...
JO: NO! I had nothing to do with the Nazis, besides that my father was
Jewish. I would have been taboo, I would not be able to work.
GS: Did your father leave?
JO: My father stayed, he went to Austria. His family was from Austria.
His father was a very famous orchestra conductor. Later when the Nazis
came to power he came back to Germany. People told me that he committed
GS: What happened to your mother?
JO: My mother, she separated from my father. Everybody in Germany was a Nazi.
GS: How did you come to be fighting in France?
JO: I was not fighting, I was always just training in the foreign
legion. I joined because I wanted to do something against the Nazis.
Every day it was 20 mile marches but I liked it otherwise. I was in the
American army, in the signal corp. I met Burgess Meredith and Jean
Renoir while I in.
GS: How did you hurt your hand?
JO: When the French had lost the war in France, everyone expected
General Gord (SP?) to come over to North Africa, to Morocco, to
continue the war. We exploded left-overs and things. Everything was
fine because everyone was hiding but when we put all the things
together everything was gone, gone, gone and everything was fast.
People were moving a big stone and it crashed on my hand.
In 1942, after four years in Morocco with the French Foreign Legion,
Jean Oser emigrated to the United States. Shortly thereafter he was
drafted into the US army signal corps. Returning to his new home with
an injured hand, Jean resumed his filmmaking career. His new contracts
with studios such as Twentieth Century Fox were for short subjects and
documentaries. Many of these films were made outside of the US, in
France and Italy. But at the root of it all was Hollywood.
All of Hollywood was basically German nationalistic rightist, not Nazi,
but rightist. Anyone who had some conviction or any artistic way didn't
want anything to do with Hollywood. I met Billy Wilder at this time
there. We went to a tennis game together.
When I was in Paris in
59 or something I was working for Fox and there was an arrangement for
me to have dinner with the famous one, the girl who made Hollywood,
Pickford, Mary Pickford. They wanted that I have dinner with her.
GS: But in 1953 you had won your own academy award...
JO: That was a god damn twenty minute film in Venice called The Light
in the Window and it got the first prize, the academy award, as a short
and if they hadn't given it the first prize they wouldn't have had any
money to eat. The guy who distributed the film prizes was the same guy
who distributed the money to support Italy after the war. The entire
thing was crazy. It was a nice little film but it wasn't great.
GS: So The Threepenny Opera is still more important than the academy award?
JO: Yeah. The academy award was a shitty little film, a twenty minute film.
In 1970, after finishing editing the battle scenes from Dino di
Laurentis's production of Waterloo, Jean Oser moved from New York City
to Regina, Saskatchewan. He had accepted an offer to teach film studies
through visual arts at the University of Regina. By the time he left
Regina in 1979, the film community had a pulse. Jean had been integral
in arranging for his star students to get positions on the feature film
Who Has Seen The Wind being shot in the town of Arcola. Some of his
protegees had already started up their own film businesses. When Jean
returned in 1986, he discovered that the seeds he had planted had grown
GS: Tell me about some of the filmmakers you've known here. Don List?
JO: He was always a go getter. He always got something, in Europe and all that. Always busy all the time.
GS: Brock Stevens?
JO: He was very close to me. He had a dog "Cactus". It's in a movie
somewhere [Pet Troll]. When they started Sask Media they hired all
these guys together with big salaries and they got big houses and
everything. Anyway this dog was shitting all around the office of the
boss. The next day the dog was out and Stevens was out.
GS: Stephen Surjik?
JO: Surjik, its a funny thing. His mother used to be Miss Grey Cup or
something many years ago. His family were all NDP's, very tough NDP's,
but later he became very commercial. Surjik made this one film, Razor
In The Wind, a very crazy film. He cuts his throat because it is
snowing outside. Crazy thing. He's dead there. Why does he kill himself?
GS: Who made the biggest impression on you of the people who are still making movies today?
JO: Alan King, but he's not doing much now. I was officially attached
to work with him. One day a guy called me and said "My name is King and
I was asked to get in touch with you because I trying to do something
in Regina." He had a class in 1975 in Regina to prepare for the
shooting of the film. The film had a $400,000 subsidy from Blakeney,
the NDP, they invested $400,000 in Who Has Seen The Wind!
GS: That's similar to what SaskFilm does now.
JO: That was the beginning of Who Has Seen The Wind.
Jean Oser's history in film is as vast as his heart. The film community
in Saskatchewan owes him a great debt for his years of inspiring
teaching and personal encouragement he has given us. He has shown us
the value of ever frame, that all work, and all films, have merit.