Eric Pleskow: Of Films and Forgiveness

From Refugee to Hollywood to Guest of Honour

Hollywood mogul Eric Pleskow was back in town on Feb. 26 at the invitation of Mayor Michael Häupl to accept the mantle of  Honorary Citizen of Vienna at a special ceremony in the Rathaus.

It was a remarkable occasion, no matter how you looked at it – a celebration of film and forgiveness, of a man and a city, who had finally found each other again.

Eric Pleskow with ORF‘s Gabriele Flossmann, who convinced him to return to Vienna | Photo: Media Wien / MA 13

It had taken a very, very long time.

In 1948, as the 25-year-old director of the Allied-supported Bavaria Studios, Eric Pleskow briefly visited the Vienna he had fled a decade before to see what was left of his family’s apartment, of the possessions and the life they had left behind.

Retracing his steps last year, Pleskow walked along the Glasergasse in the 9th District, where he and a school friend had fled in terror from Nazi soldiers. Describing the scene for a documentary film biography, he recounted how he had feigned illness, while his friend rang the bell and asked for a glass of water, how a strange woman had played along and invited them in to rest, while she sent the soldiers packing – “Wie kommen Sie darauf dass ich zwei Juden versteckt haette!” (What gives you the idea that I would have hid two Jews!) – with the arch dismissiveness of which the Viennese are masters, thus saving them with a convincing lie.

Arriving at his family’s apartment on Porzellangasse, he described his dismay – not so much at the lovely glass panelled doors broken up and burned, but at finding his family’s furnishings still in place, much as if they had never left.

“What are you going to do?” complained the proud SS officer who answered the door, whose wife was in a mental hospital, whose son had fallen at Stalingrad…

“I didn’t have an answer, but I certainly wasn’t going to weep for him!” Pleskow remembered. “So I wrote to my mother and said we didn’t want anything. Too much emotion; it was pointless.”

Decades passed. Fifty years later, after a soaring career as president of United Artist and Orion Pictures and one of the most successful producers in Hollywood history, Eric Pleskow finally agreed to come back to Vienna. It was 1998; he accepted an invitation  to serve as president of the Viennale, the city’s annual festival of contemporary film.

It was no longer pointless. Vienna was now a city transformed from the years of Nazi horror, as Pleskow was the first to admit. “This is a different world,” he said in a recent interview, “and with this world I get along just fine.” Through the love of film, Eric Pleskow and Vienna had again found common ground.

Some 200 friends and admirers, colleagues and members of the press had gathered for the ceremony at the Rathaus; minutes before 11:00 they were still strolling into the City Senate Assembly Chamber in a froth of greetings, embraces and excited chatter.

There were many familiar faces; actress Andrea Eckert, writer and director of studio COOP99’s Pleskow documentary I’m About Winning; Rudolf Scholten, president of the Bruno Kreisky Forum, Peter Marboe director of the Mozart Year just ended, Oscar Bronner, publisher of Der Standard, Plescow confident Gabriele Flossmann of ORF who would be giving the Laudatio, and of course the hosts, the Culture Minister Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, and Vienna Mayor Michael Häupl. As the rows filled, Johanness Fiala and Antonin Svoda, COOP99’s charismatic director of photography and producer, slipped in toward the back.

A shuffle of activity near the door heralded the arrival of the guest of honor, surrounded by greeters and photographers. A small, elfin man of 82, Pleskow’s face twinkled with impish good humour. Emerging from the throng, he spotted a familiar face in the front row and greeted the equally veteran Italian producer Alberto Grimaldi, a project partner and friend for over 40 years. They embraced and smiled for the cameras. Then Pleskow took his solitary seat in front of the podium.

A neighbouring seat in the audience was suddenly filled by the Vienna Film Fund’s Andrea Christa, whose rebellious head of curly hair refused to be contained by the clasp at her neck.

“This is going to be very emotional,” she whispered. So many threads would come together today in the person of Eric Pleskow: Out of the devastation of a great culture, he had carried with him the seeds of a new one, husbanding the growth of film as a popular art form that would become the dominant cultural medium of the late 20th century.

Thus, in the offer and the acceptance of this honor, was given an even greater gift.

The willowy culture minister Andreas Mailath-Pokorny unfolded his two meters and stepped up to the microphone.

“It is extraordinary that in this city where he had to fight for his very existence, where many of his relatives died, we are able to speak of the love that Eric Pleskow has brought here; that he has been willing to discover that this city has become something different; that he has come back, because there is something here to do.”

At the Viennale, Pleskow is no Fruehstueckspraesident, attending a few functions while others make things happen, Mailath-Pokorny said.

“He understands how the industry operates, that it is not about magic, but about very, very hard work.”

Through these remarks, Pleskow sat quietly, with just the hint of a smile on his mobile features. (“I don’t get nervous,” he had told ORF. “What more can possibly happen to me at this point in my life?”)  But it was the next speaker who brought a wreath of pleasure to his face: Gabriele Flossmann, the ORF journalist who had entreated him over the years, and finally convinced him to return. From her first happenstance encounter with him in 1977 to her counsel to accept the Viennale invitation two decades later, she related highlights of a friendship that had bridged the boundaries of age and the barriers of history to arrive at this remarkable day. [See Flossmann’s In Praise of Eric Pleskow.]

When she was done, the room swelled with applause, as Mayor Häupl joined Pleskow to hand over the medallion and the certificate, presented in elegant, Imperial-red box and hard covers. Pleskow beamed as the two men clasped forearms; the Mayor’s eyes glistened under the bright lights, as cameras clicked in a frenzy of image making.

When the applause had died down, Pleskow shuffled to the podium. He is an old man, that’s clear. But there is nothing sad in this. With whatever constraints age has placed on his activities, he seems at ease and on the whole at peace. He’s “having fun” with the Viennale, “pleased to be able to help,” he said in a recent interview, though to him, “the assignment is not a big one, not all that demanding.” He was even entertaining a new project that Alberto Grimaldi had come a second time from Monaco to discuss with him. But perhaps not with the same urgency as before; after several conversations, according to Grimaldi, nothing was far enough along to make public.

Pleskow adjusted the microphone to his level, and cleared his throat. The audience hushed. He had received many awards over the years, he told us, but to become an honorary citizen of Vienna was “the most important tribute” of his life. It was a shame, though, that one only received these things when one was old, the penalty for life well lived: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

When he was told he was to receive this award, he quickly looked it up on the Internet – to see whose company he would keep. Other recipients had included Billy Wilder and Leonard Bernstein. “I thought, ‘how is it, I can be compared to these distinguished people?’” he wondered. “Also Metternich – although for people like him, Vienna was a little simpler!”

He had not managed to prepare any formal remarks, he confessed, but he did have “just a few requests I’d like to make of the mayor – that perhaps he won’t be able to fulfill….” Häupl laughed nervously.

“For instance, does this honor allow me to travel free on the Strassenbahn?” The crowd roared, and the mayor visibly relaxed.

“And can he get me a better apartment?” More laughter.

“And of course, I’d like a little more money!” Then with the perfect timing of a man who has spent his life telling stories, he thanked us all for coming, “particularly in this weather,” which had turned suddenly nasty. But, he supposed, at least it was better than going to work! At which the entire room rose to its feet in flood of affectionate applause.

Later at the reception, Pleskow was still joking with the mayor about the Strassenbahn, which he clearly loves.

“But people always complain about the Öffis (the public transit), no matter how good it all is,” the mayor admitted. “Like everything else.”

“The Viennese don’t realize what they have,” Pleskow agreed. “They should go somewhere else and take a look. This is a really wonderful city!” The mayor smiled happily. And why not? For once, Pleskow was being completely sincere.

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