UNITED STATES—Film historian Peet Boggs concludes his conversation (part three) with the director of perhaps the most famous movie never made.
Jules Kaminsky: Benjamin and his party, led by their Nita, had made it to Spain from Nazi occupied France. Nita had to turn back now. She didn’t want to get caught in Spain without papers. The mother, son and German intellectual had at last reached a real road, after following the smugglers’ path for nine hours. From here on out it would be easy, all downhill. They could already see the houses in the village and even clothes blowing on the lines. Below was the border where they would show their papers, the Spanish and Portuguese visas. Nita said a last “auf Wiedersehen.” Benjamin was bound for Lisbon and perhaps a University post in America. They had made it, Benjamin with his heart condition and his heavy black doctor’s bag containing the mysterious manuscript.
As she turned back, Nita was filled by what Milan Kundera would call unbearable lightness. She had been burdened by cares for the refugees and navigating an unknown path. Now she was flooded by lightness knowing Benjamin and his manuscript were going to be safe.
Peet Boggs: Why didn’t you end the story there? It would have pleased Allan Lasky, Jr.
Kaminsky: I doubt that, but even it did, that’s not where the story ends. And this is precisely the source of my fascination with this story. . . Nita was satisfied for 50 years with that Benjamin’s manuscript had made it safe. As an old woman living in the United States, she got a phone call from a professor who had heard her story from another professor. “What manuscript?” he said. “No one knows anything about a manuscript.” She was gobsmacked.
Back to September 1940, a week after leaving Benjamin and the party, Nita got word that he had killed himself. He had had enough morphine in his suit pocket to kill a horse. When Benjamin and the two other refugees arrived from their trek over the Pyrenees, Spanish border guards had asked for exit visas from France—that was the new policy du jour. Without an exit visa, the northerner, Germanic Benjamin saw no way out. He had endured enough and knew that he could never take another such mountain crossing. Even with his crystal intelligence, he couldn’t see that maybe in another day or so the policy would be rescinded. His rigid way of seeing killed him. So he wrote Adorno, another philosopher, “In a situation presenting no way out, I have no other choice but to make an end of it.” And then he adds some lines by the German poet Heinrich Heine.
Before taking the morphine, Bemjamin approaches a water well. He lifts the doctor’s bag and out tumbles a large heavy brick. He laughs madly and with a bit of joy at having escaped the Nazis. The brick brought him this far: it’s the brick, the thing we do carry in life and it gets us through the day. Allan Lasky hated that—said the story was already sad enough and we needed a happy ending.
Boggs: You always had trouble with endings. Not to mention the spool endings you horded to use after the porn shoots. You famously cobbled together “Masterpiece” from these.
Kaminsky: Peet, here we are trying to have an elevated conversation, artistic, intellectual, even throw in a Milan Kundera reference. Now you go dragging me in the porn mud again . . . It’s the producers who have trouble with my endings, but this kind of trouble makes me creative.
Boggs: Finally, there were three endings, which garnered comparisons to Buñuel . . .
Kaminsky: Yes, all deliberate, all scripted and of equal weight. They all three were to be in the finished film. Lasky thought the audience couldn’t handle that. I sacrificed the third ending to get my way and include the brick. The second ending also made final cut—a farm house near Port Bou—years later a board falls out of a wall after a priest gives last rites to a man who had been one of the border guards. They find yellowed papers on a shelf. Then we see the book-store display in Munich, it is a colossal event. In a café in Paris (which was really on Sunset Blvd.) a young man sees a woman reading this book. She says it had changed her life: it strips away all illusion and yet it is the embodiment of illusion. Can I sit here? Of course you can . . . They meet because of this book and it will change the course of immediate humanity through these two lives. Now three. She turns and whispers something, his jaw drops. “I decided not to have the abortion.”
Boggs: What was the third ending?
Kaminsky: Now you’re driving me nuts. Lasky drove me nuts, too. He missed the whole point of the brick. He always wanted to know what was in Benjamin’s book. Why would a man go to all the trouble . . . ?
Grady Miller is a humorist. He lives in Hollywood.