We the Living, the film: 70 years later

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the first public exhibition of the great Italian film version of Ayn Rand’s first novel, We the Living. The story of how the movie was originally made, and of the events that followed, are as dramatic and compelling as fiction. Here’s an insider’s account.

On September 14, 1942, the Italian film version of Ayn Rand’s We the Living premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It won a major festival award, a standing ovation, and considerable praise from reviewers.

This month is, therefore, the 70th anniversary of the movie’s debut. It’s an appropriate occasion to celebrate this superb film, its “lost years” and rediscovery, and its subsequent restoration and theatrical release here in America in the late 1980s. I’ve been involved with the project since that last stage, and the following is my look back at a remarkable cinematic odyssey.

We the Living, first published in 1936, was Ayn Rand’s first novel. Set in Russia during the 1920s, the chaotic years following the Communist Revolution, it’s a powerful love story on an epic scale.

The plot involves a passionate romantic triangle that unfolds against a background of world-changing events. Kira, an engineering student, is fiercely independent, determined, and rebellious. She’s at odds not only with a corrupt, collectivist society, but also with her conventional, middle-class family. Kira is torn between Leo, a counter-revolutionary fugitive, and Andrei, a disillusioned captain of the secret police. A forbidden love affair, jealousy, deception, and betrayal ensue.

Movie poster from the original Italian release in 1942

Those are the concretes of the story. But as with all great literature, the book has wider and more profound implications. As Rand wrote in her foreword to the 1958 edition of the book: “It is a novel about Man against the State. Its basic theme is the sanctity of human life....” These ideas are important, universal, and enduring.

In 1926, Rand had arrived in America, having escaped the bleak tyranny of Soviet Russia. The world she depicted in the novel was based on her own first-hand experiences, although the characters and plot were largely the products of her imagination. Still, she called it “as near to an autobiography as I will ever write. It is not an autobiography in the literal, but only in the intellectual, sense.”

The book did not sell well initially, and became successful only decades later, after Rand became famous as author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

How an “impossible” film came to be.

If these events were presented as fiction, they would probably be dismissed as too far fetched.

Mussolini’s cronies thought it would be a good idea to authorize a film that would serve as anti-Soviet propaganda, whipping up its citizens against its enemy.

The time: World War II. The place: Italy, led by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Back then, America and Soviet Russia were allies, fighting the Axis powers, Italy and Germany.

Mussolini’s cronies thought it would be a good idea to authorize a film that would serve as anti-Soviet propaganda, whipping up its citizens against its enemy. An Italian translation of the novel had been published in 1937 and had been popular, so the notion must have seemed logical.

In 1940, Cinecittà, a major Italian studio, negotiated with Ayn Rand’s representatives for the film rights to the novel. Not surprisingly, the rights were denied. The following year, Italy and America were at war, which created an obstacle to further negotiations. The authorities were unconcerned, though, and the year after that, production began at another studio, Scalera. The film, then, was made without authorization. To phrase it more bluntly, Rand’s intellectual property was stolen.

But a wonderful irony was at work — a twist that ultimately defeated the Fascists at their own game.

What the officials didn’t understand was that, as noted above, Rand wrote in universal terms. She called We the Living “a story about Dictatorship, any dictatorship, anywhere, at any time....” Thus, the ideas expressed in the film had the potential to undermine the Fascists’ own totalitarian regime.

We’ll get to that dramatic turn of events momentarily. First, let’s introduce the film’s performers and creative people, most of whom were assembled by Massimo Ferrara, Scalera’s general manager and legal counsel.

The film was superbly cast. Kira was played by Alida Valli, Leo by Rossano Brazzi, Andrei by Fosco Giachetti. It was early in the careers of Valli and Brazzi both of them young, good looking, talented.

An off-screen publicity shot. The names above are reversed: Brazzi is at left, Giachetti at right.

As Kira, Valli is gorgeous and enthralling, and her performance has been widely praised. She ultimately made more than 100 films, including Luchino Visconti’s influential Senso. Hollywood tried to turn Valli into an American star, even billing her, like Garbo, by her last name only. Orson Welles and David O. Selznick were both wild about her. But she didn’t become popular here. Among her films in the U.S. were The Paradine Case, perhaps Hitchcock’s least interesting production, and the treacly Miracle of the Bells, which usually shows up on TV every Christmas. She appeared in one English-language film that has become a classic: The Third Man.

Brazzi also had a long performing career. He is best known to American audiences as the star of South Pacific, the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. His other English-language films include The Barefoot Contessa, Summertime, and Three Coins in the Fountain.

Giachetti, though never well known in America, was at the time Italy’s number-one box-office star, which is probably why he was cast. But at 38 — or perhaps 42, as accounts of his birth date vary — and looking even older, he was well beyond the age of the Andrei in Rand’s novel. Still, his performance is so compelling that you quickly suspend disbelief.

Though the officials were evidently clueless about the story’s message, the people making the film knew exactly what they were doing.

Minor roles were also well cast. Some extras and crew members were White Russians, former members of the Czarist nobility who were living in exile in Italy. Their contributions surely lent authenticity to the film. Raf Vallone had an uncredited bit part as a sailor, his first film role.

The director was Goffredo Alessandrini. Aside from We the Living, Alessandrini is best remembered today for being married to Anna Magnani. The fine musical score (containing two dramatic leitmotifs I often find myself humming) was by Renzo Rossellini, brother of famed director Roberto.

In an interview, Ferrara told a surprising story. When he experienced difficulty getting the project approved by the Fascist officials who controlled the movie industry, he enlisted the aid of his friend Vittorio Mussolini, son of the dictator and a film producer himself. With the intercession of this VIP, the necessary approvals were obtained.

Though the officials were evidently clueless about the story’s message, the people making the film knew exactly what they were doing.

An earlier screenplay had departed from the book so egregiously that the director had rejected it. There was no time to commission a new one. Decades later, Brazzi recalled, “We made the picture without a script — just following the book. Majano [Anton Giulio Majano, credited as screenwriter] and Alessandrini wrote the day before what we were going to do the day after.”

This expedient technique had an unintended but ultimately happy result: It made the film far more faithful to Rand’s novel than if teams of scriptwriters had had the opportunity and time to tinker with the original source.

The schedule was grueling: four and a half months of shooting, sometimes requiring 14-hour days. When censors visited, a set of innocuous scenes was quickly cobbled together and screened for them. Reportedly, they were always satisfied and departed without suspicions.

Italian audiences flock to a surprise hit.

In November of 1942, when We the Living opened in Rome — and then throughout Italy — audiences were entranced by the story of three young people courageously defying the state.

The original film ran four hoursso long that it was released in two parts, with the titles Noi Vivi and Addio, Kira. After a few weeks, both were playing simultaneously in different theaters in Rome. People watched the first part, then raced across town for the second, some wearing buttons depicting the film’s stars. We the Living was a huge box-office success. Moreover, it was promptly “accepted as a masterpiece,” Ferrara recalled.

In perhaps the most amazing turn of events, the film was screened in Berlin for Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t much like it. But his main objection was that the Soviets weren’t portrayed negatively enough.

From the Italian publicity campaign: Kira (Alida Valli) and Andrei (Fosco Giachetti)

Back in Italy, audiences got the point. They quickly recognized that the film was a clever indictment of the Mussolini regime. But it was too good to last. Several months later, the authorities finally figured things out. They issued an injunction ordering the film’s seizure and destruction.

Fortunately, however, the original negatives were hidden in the cellar of one of the crew members. According to one version of events, someone cagily pulled a switch, substituting another film among those en route to be burned.

Lost ... and found.

Fast forward to May of 1946. The war had ended the year before. Ayn Rand learned that her book had been ripped off. Understandably, she was furious and contacted her attorney to discuss taking legal action.

A year later, she saw the film for the first time. Then, in July of 1947, Valli and Brazzi visited America and gave her a first-hand report. In 1950, Rand filed a claim against the Italian government. It took until 1961, but she finally received an out-of-court settlement of $23,000 (more than $300,000 in today’s dollars). She decided to use the windfall extravagantly, buying a mink coat and other luxuries. For more details on these events, in her own words, see Letters of Ayn Rand (Dutton, 1995).

In 1966, Rand told Henry Mark Holzer and Erika Holzer, who were her lawyers and friends, about the film. They were intrigued and excited, and they resolved to track it down. They made several trips to Italy, meeting with various intermediaries and “fixers.” Finally, two years later, their search paid off. They were connected with a pair of Romans who claimed to possess the film.

Hank and Erika wanted proof, so one of the Romans offered to drive them to a screening room. Not until they reached their destination did they discover that the film was in the car’s trunk — and that they had been traveling on Rome’s bumpy roads with a dangerous passenger: nitrate film stock. Common at the time but later abandoned, nitrate film is highly flammable and capable of “auto-igniting.”

Ayn Rand wrote, “The picture is quite good and the performance of the girl in the starring part is magnificent.”

Fortunately, everyone survived, as did We the Living. The Holzers purchased the negatives, immediately had them duplicated on “safety film,” and brought them back to America.

What did Ayn Rand think of this pirated version of her novel? In a letter to her friend Isabel Paterson in February of 1948, she wrote: “The picture is quite good and the performance of the girl in the starring part is magnificent....” She discussed the possibility of exhibiting the film in America, as long as certain changes were made. And she recognized the drama inherent in the unintended demonstration of the parallels between Italian Fascism and Soviet Communism, shrewdly suggesting that this would make a good publicity hook.

In 1969, restoration and re-editing began. Rand personally supervised the process, working with Duncan Scott, a young Objectivist who later became a Hollywood producer-director. Together, they watched the film on a Moviolaa now-antique device, equipped with a tiny screen, that allows a film to be viewed and spliced, frame by frame. Rand, a former screenwriter, instantly understood the craft of editing and offered intelligent guidance on cuts and other changes. Once again, she expressed her admiration for the film and for Valli’s performance as Kira, telling Duncan, “The girl is perfect.”

Casting photo of Rossano Brazzi

But why did the film need to be edited?

First, as mentioned above, it was almost four hours, and American theater owners weren’t receptive to films of that length. Rand’s view was that that if cuts had to be made, it was preferable to remove the subplots and keep the main storyline intact. Even more important, some Fascist propaganda had been inserted after all. To rectify that problem, Duncan flew to Italy and hired an actor to re-record the audio in problematic scenes to be consistent with the novel. And of course, all the dialogue had to be translated into English and turned into subtitles.

In the early 1970’s, Rand, for personal reasons, found it difficult to continue collaborating on the editing. Duncan and the Holzers were reluctant to proceed without her participation. Because the film was initially made without her involvement or approval, they were hesitant to, in effect, repeat that offense. So everything was put on hold.

After Rand died in 1982, work on the project resumed.

This is where I come in. I’m a longtime admirer of Ayn Rand’s fiction and philosophy. In 1984, We the Living, still a work in progress, was to be screened privately in New York City, where I live. I had encountered mentions of the film in Objectivist publications, but knew almost nothing about it. A friend of mine, Dyanne Petersen, who was also a friend of the Holzers, invited me to the screening. I still remember Dyanne’s words: “Hank and Erika told me I can bring one guestand you’re it!”

The film had not yet been subtitled. For close to three hours, Duncan stood in the back of the screening room and recited the English dialogue, working from a bilingual script. Occasionally, the audience saw red and green splotches appear on frames — temporary marks used in the editing process.

Yet even viewed under these less-than-ideal circumstances, I knew that this film was extraordinary. Afterward, Dyanne and I asked the Holzers if they were seeking investors. They were. We each took a small stake. (Dyanne, a longtime libertarian activist, worked tirelessly on the film’s distribution and promotion. She died unexpectedly in 2003. Many of us loved her and still miss her.)

My career is advertising, so it made sense for me to volunteer to write copy and handle some of the film’s marketing and publicity. Once a mere cinephile, I was suddenly behind the scenes of an important motion picture. It turned out to be one of the most exciting intellectual adventures of my life.

The show goes on.

Initially, We the Living was screened to acclaim at several major film festivals — in Boston, Miami, and Telluride, Colorado. The objective of filmmakers who attend these events is to find distributors and exhibitors.

In 1988 and ’89, the restored version of the film played in theaters in 75 cities. Not a bad run for a little-known independent movie, almost three hours long, in black-and-white and a foreign language.

Movie poster from the American release in 1988

A young fellow visiting from Australia was such a enthusiastic fan that he followed the film from city to city, just as groupies trail their favorite touring rock bands.

Here in Manhattan, it played for several months at two small indie theaters or “art houses”: the Bleecker Street Cinema in Greenwich Village and the Carnegie Hall Cinema, both now sadly gone.

Having recently watched the film several times, I didn’t need to see it again. But the evening it opened at the latter venue, I walked a few blocks from my apartment to a restaurant directly across the street. (Yes, the theater was in the same building as that Carnegie Hall.) At 7:30, I found a table near the window, ordered coffee, and watched the queue. Toward 8, I strolled to the box office, asked for a ticket, and was told, “I’m sorry, sir; this screening is sold out.” I waited a beat, then said to the befuddled clerk: “Good!”

How about the reviews?

Predictably, critics at a few liberal newspapers in New York and Los Angeles panned the film. But in America’s “heartland,” reviewers were far more positive. Indeed, when I wrote the advertising materials, it was often difficult to select blurbs to quote, because so many were ecstatic. Here’s a sampling:

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s William Arnold raved: “A lush, romantic, bigger-than-life epic filled with movie-star performances.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Joanna Connors called it “one of the two big film history events of the year.” The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Carrie Rickey praised the film as “a passionate epic” with “wonderful performances.” New York Newsday’s Mike McGrady noted the “dazzling performances” and wrote that the film “qualifies in every respect as film treasure.... Director Alessandrini brilliantly blends glamour, romance, politics, intrigue and danger.” Michael Medved called it “an amazing piece of cinema. I loved every minute of it.”

Kira (Alida Valli) and Leo (Rossano Brazzi)

Many of the reviews contained this accurate statement: “They don’t make movies like We the Living anymore.”

The film was exhibited in other countriesCanada, England, Australiaalso to favorable media notices. Duncan even took it to Moscow. That, in a way, brought the film and the book full circle. Unfortunately, Rand didn’t live long enough to witness the end of the Soviet Union she so abhorred, nor to see the film in its final restored form.

As for viewer reactions, my impression is that most people love the film, even those who aren’t admirers of Ayn Rand’s ideas or her later novels.

Over the course of more than a quarter of a century, I’ve often speculated about this phenomenon. Why does We the Living, both novel and film, resonate with so many? My theory: Rand wrote the book before she had developed the philosophy she called Objectivism, some of the tenets of which are, to say the least, controversial. But who could object to the inspiring story of three young people struggling to find happiness and freedom in a soul-crushing collectivist society? Of all Rand’s works, We the Living may be the most accessible and appealing.

In 1993, I was introduced to Jerry Vermilye, an editor at TV Guide. Jerry was writing a book called Great Italian Films (Citadel, 1994). We supplied him with background information and stills. When the book was published, there was Noi Vivi/We the Living in the company of the classic films of Bertolucci, De Sica, Fellini, and others.

Video keeps the film alive.

After the theatrical run ended, We the Living was released on VHS and LaserDisc. In 2009, the DVD came out, including a bunch of special featuressee the description below.

Reviews for the video were equally enthusiastic. At Forbes.com, Cathy Young wrote: “Valli is luminous.... Brazzi is perfect as the dashing, arrogant, charismatic Leo. Their onscreen chemistry sizzles, and this pair alone makes the film worth watching.... The story’s central themes of individual freedom, the power of the human spirit and resistance to tyranny are truly timeless.”

This is certainly the best film version of an Ayn Rand novel.

I may be biased, but I think We the Living is one of the best films ever made. I’ve seen it at least ten times and it gets better with every viewing. The dramatic arc, the performances, direction, cinematography, music everything is beautifully done.

This is certainly the best film version of an Ayn Rand novel. It’s yet another strange irony in a story filled with ironies. After all, it was made without Rand’s permission or participation. In contrast, she wrote the screenplay for The Fountainhead, was frequently on the set, and had at least some influence on that production.

As a tyro movie producer of sorts, I may never recoup my investment. Still, if I were offered a magical way to undo my involvement, I wouldn’t agree. Having played a small role in bringing this masterpiece to new audiences, and in the process disseminating Ayn Rand’s ideas and vision, was an honor and a high point of my life.

Consider all the elements....

A riveting, heroic story of the eternal battle for individual liberty against the oppressive fist of the state. Filmed illegally under the noses of tyrants unconsciously sabotaging their own regime. Banned. Lost. Rediscovered and restored. It’s a tale no one could have invented. Ayn Rand’s epic film romance lives on, 70 years later. If you haven’t yet seen it, I envy you for your first experience of We the Living on screen.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I want to express my gratitude to Duncan Scott (see his 2003 Atlasphere interview about the film) as well as Erika and Henry Mark Holzer, all of whom have put an enormous amount of time and effort into the rediscovery and restoration of We the Living, entirely as a labor of love, over the course of half a century. From all of us who treasure this magnificent film: Thank you!

Don Hauptman is an advertising copywriter and humorist based in New York City.

How to Order the Special-Edition DVD

We the Living is available in a Special-Edition two-disc DVD set.

It includes a bonus disc packed with special features: Deleted scenes that have never before been seen by American audiences. The original ending. And a new 35-minute documentary, exclusive to the DVD release, detailing the astonishing history of the film.

The documentary, hosted by Duncan Scott, features an on-camera interview with studio executive Massimo Ferrara, who gives a first-hand account of the making of the film and its suppression by Italy’s Fascist authorities.

Order your copy from WeTheLivingMovie.com for $29.95.

12 comments from readers  

To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.
You provide many fascinating insights into the movie's history, Don. I was generally familiar with the story behind the film, including what Duncan shared with us in his Atlasphere interview many years ago, but you've offered many new details.

I saw the movie for the first time in college, nearly two decades ago, and was struck by its sensuality -- not the kind of raw sensuality you often see in movies today, but just a certain attention to tone and mood, which kept me riveted to the screen.

I can well understand why you wanted to become a backer. I'm sure I join many others in thanking you not only for your role in financing the American release, but also for sharing what you know if its history and why it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

For those interested, here are a few other related articles from the Atlasphere's archives:

- Interview with Producer Duncan Scott about making the movie (Continued in Part II)

- Erika Holzer on the novel's lessons about socialized medicine

- Hank Holzer on the movie's relevance to the Obamacare debate

- Review by Andrew Leigh on the occasion of the DVD's release
Don, thanks for illuminating the back story to this wonderful film! On a personal note, I was there on opening night at the Carnegie Hall Cinema, but I don't remember seeing a shadowy figure emerge from the Gotham night to purposely not buy a ticket...
This column inspired me to stay in on Friday evening and watch the DVD. Bravissimo!

The romantic tension between the characters was excellent, except I kept thinking of them as Italians and it was hard to imagine them as Russians...

Alexei's final speech to the GPU committee was an excellent summary of Ayn Rand's philosophy, in fewer words than she would have used.

Thanks, Don, for giving us the history.
Love stories like this that highlight the people behind the scenes that have worked to so hard to make sure these ideas have survived and flourished. A true example of incredible effort being made for the most selfish of reasons - because we wish to shape the world to be what we dream it can be. Cant wait to see the movie - thank you for sharing your story.
Maybe someone make a movie about making the movie. To papraphrase your synopsis:

"A movie of the heroic battle for freedom against the oppressive state - commissioned by an oppressive state. Parts filmed illegally and hidden from the censors. Released to rave reviews, then banned. Ordered destroyed. Hidden. Switched with a fake copy for destruction. Lost, rediscovered and restored. The movie is real and this is its story."
Don, your review is wonderful, the facts of which are worth making into a movie in their own right. I've seen the movie many times. It remains in my top ten list of best movies of all time, not just because it's Rand's novel, but because it's such a darn good movie. It's a riveting piece of work, and a miracle it ever got made.
Ha-ha, you make it sound like nitrate film was pure nitroglycerin. Thanks for the article, though.

It would be interesting to learn more about what went down with the fascists: what propaganda was inserted, how they finally got wise to what was going on, and how the film was rescued.

The interview Joshua linked to has some, but there must be more. Unless, of course, that's lost to the ages.
Is nitrate film not as combustible as legend has it? There was a memorable sequence around this in Inglorious Basterds, as I recall.
Philip S
3 points
Awesome article. What could be more perfect for a site devoted to "Connecting admirers of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged" than an inside look at the fascinating history of this film version of Rand's first novel? If this is the new direction of the Atlasphere, then I'm all for it!
Ditto my thanks, admiration and profound appreciation for making this wonderful work of Art available - probably just when the world needs it most!

Sincerely, Rob Sinclaire
Thanks for providing the background....a story dramatic enough to have come from Rand herself!
Your story and "Noi Vivi" prove two things. As Camille Paglia says, "capitalism can save art" and big ideas make a better movie than a big budget. Thank you for enabling me, personally, to see it, as well as the many (a million?) others.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.