Pablo Picasso was fond of creating art out of found objects, such as famously transforming a bicycle seat and handlebars he’d stumbled upon into a modernist bust of a bull. Dutch director/writer Ditteke Mensink has done something similar with Farewell, using found archival and newsreel footage to reconstruct the real life story of the first around the world flight of an airship, the Graf Zeppelin. Using a private diary and presumably letters, Mensink also reconstructs the personal story of the only woman aboard the historic 1929 flight, Lady Grace Drummond-Hay, a correspondent for William Randolph Hearst (the archetypal press baron Orson Welles fictionalized in 1941’s Citizen Kane).
Some 80 years later Mensink has managed to recreate Hay’s inner angst as she discovers that an ex-lover who’d recently jilted her, journalist Karl von Wiegand, is not only part of the press corps flying aboard the dirigible, but the Hearst editor she must report to. Like Led Zeppelin, Hay has a whole lotta love, but it is unrequited by this married older man.
But more important and interesting than this love story is the fractious pre-war world Farewell reveals as it floats around the planet. Because Hearst actually financed the flight of the German-built zeppelin, the voyage started and ended near New York. Its stops included Germany, and there are fascinating glimpses of the Nazis and of a riot there that the inter-continental journey caused.
The Graf Zeppelin, which counted among its passengers an ardent Bolshevik, then appeared to snub the Soviet Union, diverting its course away from Moscow, purportedly due to weather conditions there. Glimpses of the USSR include a sort of personality cult balloon bearing the image of Josef Stalin being blown up that I’d seen before (perhaps in a Dziga Vertov newsreel?) and the endless vastness of what Vertov had called in the title of one of his documentaries “one sixth of the Earth.”
Farewell’s most compelling footage is of pre-war Japan, where the dirigible made one of its few scheduled stops. There are twirling parasols, pagodas, geishas, kimonos as well as banzai cheers for the crew and passengers at the “mysterious East.” On the other hand, the shots of 1929 L.A. – of which there must be an abundance to choose from – are quite disappointing. After a reputedly hazardous flight across the Pacific, the Graf Zeppelin touched down at the City of the Angels, which here looks pretty much like “Anywheresville, USA.”
After an LAFF screening Mensink said it took her up to 13 years to make what she called a “puzzle” of a film, piecing together the jigsaw motion picture pieces of found footage, including shots from only one feature film, Dirigible, a 1931 thriller made by none other than Frank Capra. Farewell is a fascinating filmmaking exercise in making something out of nothing to present a lost reality Mensink would probably make a brilliant propagandist or maker of TV commercials.
(Farewell screens June 26, 7:30 p.m., Regal Cinemas.)
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”