Spy catcher

Aviva Kempner on Moe Berg and The Spy Behind Home Plate

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Tom Fleischman working on Aviva Kempner's captivating Moe Berg documentary The Spy Behind Home Plate
Tom Fleischman working on Aviva Kempner's captivating Moe Berg documentary The Spy Behind Home Plate Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

After I watched the rough cut of Aviva Kempner's The Spy Behind Home Plate, the director invited me to meet her at Soundtracks F/T, where re-recording mixer Tom Fleischman, Oscar-winner for Martin Scorsese's Hugo (with John Midgley) and nominee for The Aviator, Gangs of New York, Jonathan Demme's The Silence Of The Lambs, and Warren Beatty's Reds, was working on her documentary on the elusive Moe Berg. Ira Spiegel, Aviva's sound editor (The Life And Times Of Hank Greenberg, Rebecca Miller's Maggie's Plan, Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre's Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, and Ken Burns's films), was also on hand inside Stage B, where Tom was working on the film.

Aviva Kempner on William Donovan's OSS recruitments, including John Ford: "Really bright people, Ivy League, Moe fit in that. A lot of women, Julia Child, Marlene Dietrich - who is my heroine of heroines."
Aviva Kempner on William Donovan's OSS recruitments, including John Ford: "Really bright people, Ivy League, Moe fit in that. A lot of women, Julia Child, Marlene Dietrich - who is my heroine of heroines." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In 1934, Moe Berg visited Japan on an All-Star baseball team that included Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmy Foxx, Lefty Gomez, and Earl Averill. This goodwill tour might have been possibly already the catcher's first stint as a spy. The OSS, created in 1942, with secret agents including Marlene Dietrich, John Ford and Julia Child (yes, that Julia Child), recruited Moe Berg for his most important and dangerous mission - that we know of. He was sent to Switzerland to check out a lecture by Werner Heisenberg, the most renowned physicist still working in Germany at the time. How far were the Nazis in building an atomic bomb? Would Heisenberg's assassination change the outcome of the war, the fate of the planet?

Moe Berg, born in 1902 had a complicated relationship with his father. The talented young man studied languages at Princeton, law at Columbia, and Sanskrit at the Sorbonne, but against his father's wishes, became a ball player in the Major Leagues.

Outside of Stage B at Soundtracks F/T Aviva Kempner and I sat down for a conversation on the evolution of her soon to be released documentary on the intriguing Moe Berg, baseball player, scholar, and World War II spy.

Anne-Katrin Titze: You say Arthur Hiller was your cousin?

Aviva Kempner: In-law. Yes, my cousin was the late Arthur Hiller who made Love Story. What happened was, I'm making Partisans Of Vilna and all of a sudden, my mother gets a phone call: "Hello, this is Henja from Paris. I'm your cousin. I just discovered that you were alive. Because they're both Polish Jews, Holocaust survivors. What happened was, my first film Partisans of Vilna was playing in Los Angeles and Henja and her husband had come to Los Angeles to visit their cousin, who's Arthur Hiller. And Arthur or some other cousin was saying "There's a film playing here, called Partisans of Vilna, by Hanka Ciesla." That's my mother's maiden name, Ciesla is the name of my foundation.

Aviva Kempner on Moe Berg: "To explore someone who was an intellectual, who's also the son of immigrants, who was brilliant but still loved a sport ..."
Aviva Kempner on Moe Berg: "To explore someone who was an intellectual, who's also the son of immigrants, who was brilliant but still loved a sport ..." Photo: The Ciesla Foundation

AKT: I put that together.

AK: "And the daughter made it." And Henja almost fainted. She said "There's Hanka, I grew up with her. She's alive?" They called and flew to Washington [DC]. There I got to know Arthur and his wife and we decided we were cousins of cousins. Everytime I was in LA I would stay with them. He was in a very different field, I'm not a Hollywood Beverly Hills director, but he was the kindest most wonderful man.

AKT: Love Story holds up so well. It's a terrific film.

AK: He also did The Americanization Of Emily. He's very good with love stories. This one is with James Garner and the one who played Mary Poppins. [Julie Andrews]. It's a World War II love story. Did he do Network?

AKT: I don't think so [it was directed by Sidney Lumet]. Anyway, let's get to Moe Berg and your film, that I really, really enjoyed. Not enough could be said about him. He is someone more people should know about. I like in your film that you make it clear that there's so much more that we don't know about this fascinating man.

AK: Two things happened - one is, there'd never been a feature-length documentary made on him and the opportunity fell in my lap. There is a very wealthy generous man who lives in Phoenix, who had given me a little money for my other films. He was a big fan of my Hank Greenberg film and he says to me: "You know, Aviva, would you be interested in making a film on Sid Luckman?"Now Sid Luckman is a Jewish football player. I hate football. So I say to him, "No Bill, I don't like football." So he says "What about Barney Ross?" He was a boxer. So again, I say to him "Sorry, I do not do boxing."

Aviva Kempner: "Heisenberg was the big story, but what Moe Berg did in Italy, getting [high-speed aerodynamics expert Antonio] Ferri out?"
Aviva Kempner: "Heisenberg was the big story, but what Moe Berg did in Italy, getting [high-speed aerodynamics expert Antonio] Ferri out?" Photo: The Ciesla Foundation

And then he says "What about Moe Berg?" I almost fell off the couch. You're my first interview, my first story I'm telling. It was like the heavens parted. To explore someone who was an intellectual, who's also the son of immigrants, who was brilliant but still loved a sport - that his father never went to see him play. I was just telling the mixer [Tom Fleischman] and the sound editor [Ira Spiegel]. Can you imagine having a parent who wouldn't see him play as a child? Wouldn't see him play in high school, at Princeton, and in the Major Leagues? He had to be a lawyer, this was the immigrant's dream for his son. And that was it.

AKT: His mother loved that he was a ball player, though?

AK: I know, she was fine with it. I didn't know enough about the OSS [The Office of Strategic Services - the US wartime intelligence agency before the CIA]. There should be a TV series on the OSS and many movies. I used some old footage of people getting ready for the OSS. How a nation can rise, America, and join together. How Roosevelt knew he had to put this together and that Moe fit in. [William] Donovan was smart enough to think, okay, I need really bright people, Ivy League, Moe fit in that. A lot of women, Julia Child, Marlene Dietrich - who is my heroine of heroines.

AKT: John Ford.

AK: John Ford. And then people who could crack safes, people who spoke many languages. The son [Bill Corvo] of [Max] Corvo, who headed the OSS in Italy, he was only 22. But children of immigrants knew the languages, knew the land of their parents and could say hey, I'll work on it. Which was also true of émigrés leaving Germany. The final irony, thank god, is because so many of the nuclear scientists were Jewish, they had left.

Aviva Kempner on Moe Berg: "He was in this very careful meticulous spy work. It's so much harder. And the other thing that I love, that there's even some 007 stuff in it."
Aviva Kempner on Moe Berg: "He was in this very careful meticulous spy work. It's so much harder. And the other thing that I love, that there's even some 007 stuff in it." Photo: Irwin Berg

And then [Werner] Heisenberg, I believe, was ambivalent about developing one. Can you imagine, [Vice President] Truman never knew about the Manhattan Project? That's how secretive it was. Heisenberg was the big story, but what Moe Berg did in Italy, getting [high-speed aerodynamics expert Antonio] Ferri out? You know I got his son [Paul Ferri] in Florida to talk about it? It turns out that rocket science in our hands really helped us.

AKT: In the context of Heisenberg, you have Michael Frayn in your film. The question remains, did he sabotage? Was Heisenberg holding back the development purposely?

AK: Others have said, such as Alex Wellerstein, a historian, as well as Heisenberg's son [Jochen Heisenberg], that he had gotten in trouble himself - they called him a "White Jew". I don't know how you say "White Jew" because a lot of us are white anyhow. I think Himmler's mother helped him get away. They almost did away with Heisenberg. There's a much bigger story there.

AKT: It's fascinating, the whole Switzerland episode.

AK: And years later Heisenberg sees the picture of Moe and said, "That's the guy who talked to me." He didn't even realise he was a target for assassination. I mean, no one can believe these stories.

AKT: Are there audio recordings of Moe Berg speaking different languages?

AK: No. We would have used it. He intended to finally write an autobiography. The agent had arranged for him to meet someone. He goes to this meeting and the guy says to him "Tell me about The Three Stooges!" He thought, he was Moe of The Three Stooges. Moe Berg got so mad, he walked out of the room.

AKT: I totally understand that.

Moe Berg's passport
Moe Berg's passport Photo: The Ciesla Foundation

AK: The beauty for me as a filmmaker was not only was I able to use archival footage from the past and some of the Hollywood movies - one was called OSS, and OSS People Advise.

AKT: There's one with Alan Ladd.

AK: 30 years ago, two filmmakers, a cameraman and a producer/director decided to make a film about Moe. They filmed his fellow players, including [Joe] DiMaggio's brother [Dom] and they filmed [OSS agent] William Colby. They never made the film. It just languished. They had a fight, whatever. One of them who lives in New Jersey put the archives in the Princeton archives. The cameraman was my cameraman on this [The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg] and he said to me "You know, years ago, I almost made a film on Moe Berg." So when Bill Levine offered me to do the film, I contacted him.

AKT: And there was the footage?

AK: Sitting there in the vaults in Princeton. I paid some rights, [Jerry] Feldman is a cameraman and Neil Goldstein is one of the consultants. And sure enough, it makes the movie. What's nice is, I'm contacting the people we have the footage of. Dom DiMaggio, Jr., we sent him the whole reel, he says "This is new footage I haven't seen of my dad." I would love for someone to give me that phone call, because my dad was with the military government after the war. A film I still want to make. Did you see Aftermath?

AKT: Yes, I did. [James Kent's film with Keira Knightley, taking place in 1946 Hamburg].

Sam Berg with his brother Moe Berg
Sam Berg with his brother Moe Berg Photo: Irwin Berg

AK: It doesn't quite work, but it works for me to just see, actually the German point of view. Because I'm all wrapped up, of course, with the Holocaust survivors and what they felt after the war.

AKT: There was a New Yorker article last fall [Maltese For Beginners by Judith Thurman] about hyperpolyglot people.

AK: What did they say about them?

AKT: The article said that general knowledge is that you couldn't become a spy and pass with your language skills after your teenage years. That if you acquire a language past your teenage years you could never pass as a native speaker. But then they quote people who could.

AK: My dad was supposed to be sent to Eastern Europe as a foreign correspondent. I would have grown up speaking all these languages. I came to Detroit, they made fun of my accent. I think I just repressed that ability. I'm so jealous of it. I think that's partly why I like Moe, too. I also went to law school and never practised because I didn't pass the bar. I identify with Moe, though I have no athletic ability.

AKT: It's the internal baseball player in you.

AK: Right. And I really like the way they look. The female adulation was more in the Hank Greenberg one, but there's also Moe's fellow players saying he was quite the ladies' man. And then he had this wonderful romance with this woman. He didn't marry her before he got shipped out. He probably felt "Am I going to live? Why do that to her?" I found her son.

AKT: Estella's?

Moe Berg in South America
Moe Berg in South America Photo: Linda McCarthy

AK: Yes. Wasn't she beautiful in those pictures of them together?

AKT: The fictionalised film [Ben Lewin's The Catcher Was A Spy, starring Paul Rudd as Moe Berg] that came out last year depicts Moe Berg's closeted sexuality as more complicated. What did you think about it?

AK: Listen, it is the fictionalised version. Mine, I think is as true as can be of what his life was at. We tried to go to all the sources and all the players he played with said he loved women, women loved him. I know from Estella's son that they had a long-term loving relationship. I know from the letters between them. I put forward what I knew. Oftentimes Hollywood movies can show shootouts. Moe Berg wasn't in any shootouts. He was in this very careful meticulous spy work. It's so much harder. And the other thing that I love, that there's even some 007 stuff in it.

AKT: Ian Fleming!

AK: Who knew!

AKT: I didn't even know about Julia Child [in the OSS]!

AK: Did you see that footage we used? I had to negotiate that.

The Spy Behind Home Plate poster - opens at the Quad Cinema on May 31
The Spy Behind Home Plate poster - opens at the Quad Cinema on May 31 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: It's funny. I also wanted to talk about the music you used, Night And Day, Begin The Beguine.

AK: I think when Hollywood does it right - even when the movies aren't great. Film Noir movies, you see our poster is like a Jules Dassin movie. The music you heard were temps, now you maybe hear some of it [they are working on the sound as we speak, in the next room].

AKT: The choice of songs, I noticed. There is "Stormy Weather" and then you show Hitler and then from there you go into some Sonnenschein German song. It has a good flow to it.

AK: Oh good. In the beginning when he is in Ukraine, but he is not very Jewish, the father is more secular, so we decided not to play like sentimental Yiddish music but more the Ukrainian folk music.

AKT: When Moe Berg was a last minute replacement to travel with the All-Star US Baseball team to Japan, the question is, was he already a spy? It's very likely, no? That was in 1934?

AK: Right. What's interesting is, that as a little boy to get on a church team, he used a pseudonym. In college when he played baseball he would do signals to each other in Latin or Sanskrit or Yiddish. When he went to South America he was pretending he was just observing baseball. Even from a young age he was very secretive. But to pretend to go up there [to the roof of a hospital in Tokyo during the 1934 trip to Japan to film the harbour] because you read that someone [US Ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew's daughter Lilla] was having a baby?

Read what Ira Spiegel had to say on Saving Private Ryan, The Black Stallion, and sound editing for The Spy Behind Home Plate, Ken Burns, and Carlito's Way.

The Spy Behind Home Plate opens in the US on May 24.

The New York première is at the 92Y on Tuesday, May 28 with director Aviva Kempner, former Major Leaguer Art Shamsky, and Pulitzer Prize-winning sports journalist Ira Berkow in conversation with Annette Insdorf.

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