A Letter without Words

Director: Lisa Lewenz
Screenwriters: Lisa Lewenz

Institute History

  • 1998 Sundance Film Festival


A Letter without Words is a fascinating exploration of the priceless value of discovering one’s personal and cultural family history. When filmmaker Lisa Lewenz unearthed her grandmother Ella’s old films in the attic, she unknowingly came across a kind of Pandora’s box. Some stories had been lost forever, but what remained was astonishing footage that had been locked away for thirty years.

Born in 1883, Ella Lewenz began documenting her life through film when she was a young woman in pre-World-War-I Germany. Amazingly, far above most home movies, Ella shot, edited, titled, and dated her films, crafting a veritable time capsule of her era. As a woman of means, she was able to document remarkable moments in history, chronicling events no one else filmed. After discovering this remarkable historical record, her granddaughter traveled to Germany to film the exact locations her grandmother had captured fifty years earlier. The result of matching the footage is eerie.

The film unfolds, revealing secrets and contradictions, and though Lewenz never knew her grandmother while she was alive, she comes to know her in an intimate way she had never imagined possible.
A Letter without Words is an extraordinary piece, filled with rare footage of prewar Germany, when Lewenz’s family enjoyed the comforts of the upper class. Years of extensive research, inquiries, and tracking down family members from around the world were spent in an effort to piece together this puzzle. The film strikes a chord underlining the significance of film preservation and the importance of gaining an understanding of where we come from.

Lisa Lewenz, Director
Lisa Lewenz was born in Baltimore and has lived throughout America and Europe. She received her BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and her MFA from Cal Arts. Her works deal with the most important issues of our time. Two of them are A View from Three Mile Island (1984) and Leaving a Bit Behind, about a ghost town abandoned in the 1980s due to dioxin contamination. Lewenz is an artist, educator, writer, and filmmaker and has been a primary researcher in Germany for documentary projects.

Screening Details

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