An extraordinary glimpse into, well, the extraordinary early life of Ivan Illich has turned up at, of all places, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C. There, in the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, one of Illich’s relatives has deposited twenty reels of 16mm home movies shot in the momentous years 1936 to 1943.
Evidently, Ellen “Maexie” Regenstreif, Illich’s mother, was an avid movie-maker. She not only filmed Ivan and his twin brothers at home and on various vacations, she also took the time to edit her films and add titles throughout. She shot in black-and-white and in color (using Agfa and Kodak film); the footage is silent, with no audio. And she bothered to capture some remarkable scenes, perhaps most notably the family (mother and three boys) packing its belongings into a truck and handing over to leather-coated Nazi officials the keys to the expansive Regenstreif villa in Vienna.
We’ve not actually seen any of this footage, we’ve only read about it. The site labels the film reels as “rights restricted.” As we understand it, that means they may be available for viewing, in video format, by appointment but only at the museum itself. It’s not possible, except perhaps with special permission, to order copies.
Still, the Spielberg archive’s web pages provide fairly detailed descriptions of what each reel of film shows -- perhaps provided by Yvonne Illich, the daughter of Illich’s brother Sascha (1928-2009). She is listed as having given the films to the archive.
It’s hardly news that Ivan Illich grew up amongst wealth, tended to by a governess, an art tutor (from Bremen) and chauffeurs. Among other features, Villa Regenstreif had its own bowling alley and a “Chinese garden.” From the pictures we’ve seen, it was a remarkable place. Yet, the descriptions of these home movies hint at a particularly warm, playful, and art-filled family life. Judging by photos we’ve seen elsewhere and by these descriptions recently found on the Web, Illich’s mother must have been very special, a woman deeply engaged with, and much loved by, her three sons.
Here is the archive's general explanation of the family and films’s history (which we’ve broken into paragraphs for easier reading):
A collection of twenty reels [we count only 18 reels; perhaps a couple have been merged into one - ed.] of 16mm film dating from 1936 to 1943 illustrating the daily life of a prominent Austrian family named Regenstreif and Illich. The films were taken under the name Maexie.
Ellen (Maexie) Regenstreif Illich (1901-1965) came from a family of converted Sephardic Jews who had settled in Germany. Her industrialist father, Fritz (Pucki) Regenstreif (1868-1941), had a lumber business in Bosnia where he owned a sawmill at Zavidovic. He also owned an Art Nouveau villa on the outskirts of Vienna in Pötzleinsdorf built by Friedrich Ohmann.
Piero Ilic (1890-1942) came from a landed family in Dalmatia, Yugoslavia with property in Split and extensive wine and olive oil producing estates on the island of Brac.
Ellen and Piero married in 1925 and established a home in Split. There was a resurgence of anti-foreign and anti-Jewish sentiment in Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav government made claims against her father as a landowner in Bosnia at the International Court in the Hague, so in 1932, Ellen returned to her father's villa in Vienna with their three children: Ivan (1926-2002), Michael (Micha) (b. 1928), and Alexander (Sascha) (1928-2009). The boys never saw their father again; Piero died of natural causes in Split in July 1942.
After the death of Ellen's father on May 8, 1941 and the forced sale of his splendid home to the Nazis in 1942, Ellen moved with the children to Florence, Italy by way of Split, where they lived for three months. In Nazi Austria, Ellen was considered an ethnic Jew although she was a baptized Christian, and the children were classified as half-Jewish.
The films were kept in a wooden cabinet in the basement of Sascha's New York home from 1961 to 2006, when they were preserved by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
And here is the archive’s description of the second reel in the collection, shot in 1936; Ivan would have been 10. All of the other reels get described in similar detail and are well worth reading. (We've added the hyperlinks seen here, by the way.):
Introduced with German titles throughout, some are comical. This film is titled "Dreibubenhaus" [The House of the Three Boys] in honor of a then current theatrical presentation in Vienna. CUs [close-ups], the twin boys don hats and joke for the camera. Sequence of the boys waking up, saying prayers, washing faces, getting dressed, and ready for school. The three Illich boys eat breakfast and exit their home (filmed from mother Ellen (Maexie) Regenstreif's room on the top floor of the villa), walking the grand grounds of Villa Regenstreif. The governess "Selli" Frauer escorts the boys onto a tram and kisses them goodbye as they enter school. Pan of the city square with the school on one end, panning up to the grand Baroque Piarist Church of Maria Treu. The boys eat lunch with their grandfather, Fritz Regenstreif, and governess. Views of the ornate home. CUs of the boys eating.
01:05:34 Sascha and Micha play the piano and the violin with teacher and friend Olga Novakovic [a student of Arnold Schoenberg], and then sit at their desks and do their homework. Ivan holds a little bird named Hansi. The twins play with a wooden model house. The three boys say their prayers, kiss each other good night and go to sleep.
01:08:24 Part 2 - on Sunday. Pan of the Vienna skyline from the top of the landmark highrise building at Herrengasse ("Hochhaus Herrengasse", built in 1931-32 by architects Theiss and Jaksch, was Vienna's first highrise). The boys chase a car as it drives by the camera. The family makes a trip to the grave of their grandmother, Johanna Regenstreif (d. 1934), in Potzleinsdorf.
01:09:43 The boys go sledding in winter on the meadow of "Wasserturm". For Three Kings Day, the family dresses in costume and act for the camera. The women -- Maexie, friend Vita Kuenstler [who worked at the Neue Galerie and apparently took over its management when it was Aryanized], and the governess -- playfully hassle one another. One of the twins is costumed as Hans Albers, and another as Michael Moser [probably 'Hans Moser', a prominent film and stage actor of the 1930s whose role as the muckraking civil servant ("Amtsdiener" as the intertitle suggests) were legendary].
01:12:56 Blossoms on the trees in springtime, followed by a sequence in autumn with the family visiting Vienna's most famous overlook at Leopoldsberg (a church and estate at the top of a hill). They continue on to the monastery at Klosterneuburg and pose for a photograph at St. Leopold with their grandfather.
01:15:10 Children gathered around a table with sweet treats for a birthday tea party. Ivan sits next to his friend, Marion Stein (daughter of Erwin Stein, a very important colleague of Mahler, Bartok, Weber).