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Saturday Night Cinema: We The Living (1942)


Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic is the little-known masterpiece: Ayn Rand’s We The Living. This film is, by far, the very best version of Ayn Rand’s work. Sadly, there are hardly enough attempts made at Rand’s worl. One thinks first, of course, of The Fountainhead, starring Gary Cooper, which was a fair pass. But Holzer’s We the Living is magnificent.

“It’s a curse, you know, to be able to look higher than you’re allowed to reach.”
Ayn Rand, We the Living

Explaining the autobiographical nature of We The Living, Ayn Rand wrote that “it is not an autobiography in the literal, but only in the intellectual, sense. The plot is invented; the background is not. . . . I was born in Russia, I was educated under the Soviets, I have seen the conditions of existence that I describe. . . . The specific events of Kira’s life were not mine; her ideas, her convictions, her values were and are.”

The time is the Russian Revolution. The place is a country burdened with fear – the midnight knock at the door, the bread hidden against famine, the haunted eyes of the fleeing, the grublike fat of the appeasers and oppressors. In a bitter struggle of the individual against the collective, three people stand forth with the mark of the unconquered in their bearing: Kira, who wants to be a builder, and the two men who love her – Leo, an aristocrat, and Andrei, a Communist. In their tensely dramatic story, Ayn Rand shows what the theories of Communism mean in practice. We the Living is not a story of politics but of the men and women who have to struggle for existence behind the Red banners and slogans. It is a picture of what dictatorship – of any kind – does to human beings, what kind of men are able to survive, and which of them remain as the ultimate winners. What happens to the defiant ones? What happens to those who succumb? Who are the winners in this conflict? Against a vivid panorama of political revolution and personal revolt, Ayn Rand offers an answer that challenges the modern conscience. … Written by The Publisher of “We the Living”


The story behind the film is almost as interesting as the film itself.

The Banned, Lost, Rediscovered…

It was made illegally, suppressed by a hostile government, cheered and honored, then banned at the height of its success and forgotten for decades. But, today, the film version of Ayn Rand’s WE THE LIVING is back on the screen. The story behind the making of WE THE LIVING, in Italy, in 1942, is almost as interesting as the movie itself.

Goffredo Alessandrini, one of Italy’s leading directors had been searching for a drama of epic proportions, and WE THE LIVING, a recent best-seller in war-torn Italy, fit the bill perfectly. The struggle of a young woman to live her own life despite being trapped in a state-controlled society, was a story that moviegoers could easily relate to in Facist-run Italy. But Rand’s novel was considered a political hot potato by Fascist authorities in Rome and was approved for filming only via the personal intervention of the son of dictator Benito Mussolini. Alessandrini and his young associate director, Anton Majano, knew that while WE THE LIVING touched on volitile political issues, they hoped they would be safe from repercussions because of the story’s harshly negative portrayal of Communist Russia –Italy’s wartime enemy.

Scalera Films, the studio that was producing the film, was considered by some to be the best, most efficient producing company that ever existed in Italy. Ordinarily, the first order of business would be for Scalera to secure the movie rights from Ayn Rand. But with the war on, negotiations with an American author were out of the question. The solution was simple, but certainly not elegant. They stole it.

“It was actually a cheat and a fraud,” said Majano many years later. “Because of the war we couldn’t buy the rights. The Fascist Ministry of Culture set up a special law, as far as negotiations for rights, copyrights, or anything else, with enemy countries: Do what you have to do. Do the film, take the book, use it, we’ll worry about it later.”

So WE THE LIVING, a story that Ayn Rand described “as close to an autobiography as I will ever write,” was put into production in early 1942 without permission from the author and without compensation to her – without even her knowledge.

Cast in the leading roles were three of Italy’s top box-offices attractions: 38-year-old Fosco Giachetti, a star of such magnitude that his casting was unquestioned, in the role of Andrei.

21-vear-old Alida Valli, already a major star in Italy, won the coveted role of Kira. And 22-year-old Rossano Brazzi, in only his second movie, played Leo.

“The character of Leo – I loved it”, says Brazzi, “I loved it because he was a nice good son-of-a-bitch! And he was really the aristocratic man that I think was at that time in Russia. But there were three wonderful roles – three beautiful roles”.

Two prominent Italian novelists, Corrado Aluaro and Ono Vergani, were hired to convert the best-selling book into a script – this, despite the fact that they had no motion picture background. Alessandrini and Majano returned from location on another film just before WE THE LIVING was scheduled to start shooting.

“We came back and found the script was a mess!”, remembers Majano. “When important writers turn to the cinema they think it’s a game. They had Kira become a ballerina! [Editor’s note: In Rand’s novel, Kira was studying to be an engineer] We threw it out and started from scratch. But we were due to start the film. We had the shooting schedule all set, the actors all lined up, we had to begin – absolutely!”

Once again, the solution was simple. According to Brazzi: “We made the picture without a script – just following the book. Majano and Alessandrini wrote the day before, what we were going to do the day after.”

Working this way forced the writers to be far more faithful to the novel than is typical in book-to-movie adaptations. “It was quite difficult to change all but a few, small little things”, says Brazzi, “Not the conception of the story.”

As WE THE LIVING got underway in early 1942, location permits were just about impossible to get because of the war. So every thing was built from scratch on the Scalera Films sound stages. Crowded Red Square, a deserted garden, a ship’s deck, a train station, even a snow covered street scene with horse-drawn sleigh – every set was a painstaking recreation by scenic artists, designers, and special effects technicians. Authenticity was enhanced by the fact that the production designers were Russian-born.

Brazzi recalls: “We were working 12,13,14 hours a day and there was a lot of perspiration because inside it was a hundred degrees and you had to show the people you were cold. It was a terrible job for the make-up men, the perspiration.”

While shooting progressed Majano had the near-impossible double duty of writing the dialogue for the next day’s shooting and, in his role as Associate Director, keeping the production running smoothly.

“As extras, we had almost the entire community of White Russians in exile living then in Rome”, recalled Majano, “Among them were countesses, counts, and Russian nobility. The first day they arrived on the set, the production person was shouting at them, ‘Come on, get over here! Stand there! Take off your watch! Get the smile off your face’, and all that, and they were countesses and princes! I went over to the production man and said, ‘I’ll handle these people, because I realized who they were. I was kissing their hands and saying ‘Would you mind moving over there?”

Several weeks into the production, Alessandrini and Majano realized that, working without a complete script, they were inadvertently shooting more material than could possibly fit into one film. So they went to the head of Scalera Films and told him it would be a pity to throw all this good material away – why not make it into two films? They would be released as separate movies entitled, NOI VIVI (WE THE LIVING) and ADDIO KIRA (GOODBY KIRA). It was a risky and unconventional approach. The studio reluctantly went along – but only if the decision was kept secret.

“Thev had made a contract with the actors for one film”. Majano recalled, “so the head of the studio said, We have to keep it a secret that we’re going to release it as two films, because if the actors find out they’re going to want to be paid double.’ But, obviously, none of the three were fools, and as they kept filming and filming, they said, ‘How long is this film, anyway!’ And they were told, ‘It’s running a bit long, but don’t worry about it.’ Somebody in the cutting room finally tipped off the actors. So they went to Scalera for more money and he said no. Alida was so furious she walked out and started work on another film. So they had to get her back. They finally made a settlement with the actors but it wasn’t for the full amount

The tough shooting schedule got even worse after it was decided that WE THE LIVING would premiere at the Venice Film Festival – just a few month away.

“Sometimes we started at 8:30 in the morning and didn’t finish till 11 or 11:30 at night”, said Brazzi. “We were working 14 hours a day. One day, we left, Alida and myself, we ran away from the studio – they couldn’t find us for two days. They kept calling my house. To work 10 hours a day is enough! Not 14. So we established regular hours.”

During the filming, the Fascist Ministry of Culture made the first of several efforts to suppress WE THE LIVING. One morning an official showed up on the set. “He said there was to be a screening that night, at nine o’clock, at the Ministry, and they wanted to see everything that had been shot so far”, Majano remembers. “We rushed to the editing room and spent all day cutting out the dangerous scenes – all the anti-Fascist scenes – for that screening. That night it looked like an inquisition. They kept asking, ‘Is that all there is? Is that it?”

The two scenes, which were promptly put back the next day, were the climactic scene in which Andrei renounces his life of servitude to the Communist cause, and – surprisingly – the scene where Leo, while job-hunting, encounters the all-too-familiar Catch-22 of ‘No job, no union card – No union card, no job.’

The movie opened in Rome and was a huge box-office success. But before long, the film came to be viewed as a sly indictment of the Mussolini regime. In addition, the portrayal of an intelligent, sexually independent heroine, groundbreaking for its time, was viewed as controversial. The film was banned by the Italian government and ordered to be destroyed. But Massimo Ferrara, the studio chief for Scalera Films, hid the original negatives with a trusted friend and sent the negatives of another Scalera production to authorities for destruction! After the war, efforts to rerelease the film were ended when Rand declined to grant the necessary literary rights. By the early 1950’s Scalera Films had gone out of business and We the living had dropped from sight.


Although Ayn Rand’s novel WE THE LIVING had been a best seller for over 40 years, virtually no one in America knew of the existence of the film version made in Italy. In the 1960’s Erika and Henry Mark Holzer began representing Ayn Rand. As their professional relationship developed into a personal friendship, she told them that there was an Italian motion picture version of the novel that had disappeared after a brief theatrical run in Italy.

The Holzers decided to find the film. They began to query official Italian agencies, to no avail. The search went on and ended in the summer of 1968 when it was discovered that two Romans representing a business entity that owned dozens of vintage Italian films, had in their possession the original film, which was made In two parts, titled NOI VIVI and ADDIO KIRA.

The technical quality of the film was excellent. Using the original nitrate negatives, the Hoizers had duplicate negatives made on safety film.

The Truth Must be Told

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