Several decades ago, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Duncan Scott worked with Ayn Rand to restore the 1942 Italian film adaptation of her first novel, We the Living. Set during the Russian Revolution—a period that Rand witnessed firsthand—We the Living shows how a totalitarian state makes human life impossible. Scott is now preparing a newly restored high-definition edition of the movie. Using state-of-the-art technology, Scott went frame by frame, removing scratches, dirt, and other flaws accumulated while the film was stored. His goal is to bring this extraordinary film to today’s viewers in its full glory.
This interview came largely from Scott’s appearance on OSI’s podcast “The Hero Show” and contains spoilers for We the Living.
Robert Begley: I first met you in 1988 at a private screening of We the Living in New York City, a few months before it initially hit theaters. Then I bought it on VHS, then DVD when it came out in those formats. I’m a huge fan and was thrilled to hear you speak in Charlotte last November about your project to restore this movie. Why don’t you start with how the film came about?
Duncan Scott: Thank you, Robert. The way this movie got made is a big irony, and there were a lot of ironies involved in its production. But the first and biggest was that We the Living was semiautobiographical, drawn heavily from Rand’s own life growing up in Russia—yet here is a movie made without her input, permission, or knowledge. She didn’t find out about it until long after it was released. It’s really amazing that something like that could happen.
One reason is because America was at war with Italy. The filmmakers should not have adapted this book because they had no mechanism for getting the rights to it. But they said, “Let’s go ahead and make the movie anyway, and we’ll sort things out later.” That was the way the associate producer put it to me when I met him many years later.
Begley: Take us back to Italy. How did the project start?
Scott: A minor hero in this story was the daughter of the head of Scalera Studios; I believe her name was Margherita. She read the book, which was fairly popular in Italy when it was published by Baldini and Castoldi-Milan in 1936. She thought it would make a great movie, so she talked to her father and the people at the studio. There was some concern about it because of its antiauthoritarian themes, which obviously wouldn’t sit well with the fascist government. It could get people into trouble. But the filmmakers thought that if they made it carefully and avoided the most controversial issues, it would be OK.
Begley: How did they plan to get around Mussolini’s fascist censors?
Scott: This is another of the ironies: Mussolini’s own son, Vittorio, advocated for the film and helped move things along. The fascists controlled the Italian movie industry, as well as every other industry, so every movie that went into production had to be approved by them.
You might ask, “Well, how did the filmmakers think they could get away with it?” Russia was a wartime enemy of Italy, and the fascists thought that anything showing communists in a bad light was good propaganda. So, the filmmakers thought they could take advantage of this.
Fortunately, the authorities didn’t look much deeper than its anticommunist message. What they did was come to the editing room each day when the dailies (the footage that was shot the previous day) were delivered.
The filmmakers would shoot a scene that they thought was somewhat controversial, but when the authorities came the next day to look at it, the editors tucked away the controversial scene and showed them other footage. The authorities had a rough idea of how much of a movie gets shot every day, and they would say, “Wait a minute, is that all there is? Didn’t you shoot more yesterday?” “No. That’s all there is,” they would say.
So, there was a lot of finagling and getting around the censors by hiding footage throughout the production process. Most important, they put back these controversial scenes right before the film opened at the 1942 Venice Film Festival.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
Begley: Excellent. We’ll get to how all hell broke loose in a minute, but can you first give some specific names: the director, writer, actors?
Scott: Yes. The director, Alfredo Alessandrini, was well established. He had done some films that were sympathetic to fascism—I think a lot of people went along with fascism to save their careers, and perhaps that’s what he was doing. But he was very excited about doing this movie. They brought in a couple of writers who were big names in Italy to write the script while Alessandrini was away finishing another movie. But when he came back and saw the script, he said, “This is hopeless.”
The writers had liberally changed major aspects of the story. For instance, they changed Kira, the heroine, from wanting to be an engineer who builds bridges to wanting to be a ballerina. Such changes showed Alessandrini that the writers didn’t understand the character, so he didn’t even give them a chance to rewrite the script. He said, “I’m throwing this out. We’re going to work with a new script.” But they were ready to go into production. The sets were built. The actors were hired, and the clock was ticking.
Then he asked Anton Majano, with whom he had worked closely, to do it. Majano was the associate producer on the film, and he wore many hats. I met Majano in Rome, and he told me a lot of this backstory. He is a hero without whom we wouldn’t have this film today.
Given that they had to begin filming, Majano simply took the book and started writing a script that was taken nearly word for word from Rand’s dialogue, often finishing any given portion just a day or two before they filmed it. There was no time to make big changes, which was fortunate. They had to stick closely to the book.
Begley: I would imagine that this was difficult for the actors.
Scott: If they get their pages a day or two in advance, it’s usually OK. But it was getting hard to track how long the movie was becoming. They kept filming and filming, getting enough material for way more than one movie. In fact, the original version of We the Living was released as two films, Noi Vivi and Addio Kira. However, they didn’t tell the actors they’d decided to make two films. They just went ahead and filmed it, because otherwise, they’d have had to pay the actors more money. Lead actors Rossano Brazzi (who plays Leo Kovalensky) and Alida Valli (Kira Argounova) caught on. They went on a mini-strike and stopped working for a few days. The studio came around, negotiated more money, and everything got back on track.
Begley: How did the new script get past the fascist authorities?
Scott: To make it more acceptable, the authorities inserted outright propaganda into some of the dialogue. It’s a small percentage of the script, and the way it was inserted was clumsy and obvious to anyone watching.
Begley: I can imagine how Ayn Rand would have reacted to that. You mentioned that all hell broke loose when it was released in Italy. What happened?
Scott: Audiences flocked to see it because they realized that, not only is it anticommunist, but it is antitotalitarian. They saw similarities between it and their own lives. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival, won the Biennale Prize, and was acclaimed right out of the gate. It received many amazing reviews, except for a few that called out its antiauthoritarian themes. Nevertheless, it went right into theaters and was enormously successful. A reviewer described it as a “colossus” of Italian cinema. It was like their version of Gone with the Wind. It had a huge impact across the whole country. People had to go to the theaters twice, because it was released as two movies, but they loved it. They admired the characters so much that they were naming their children Kira and Leo.
The public recognized the antiauthoritarian themes faster than the government did. There was a lot of sly nudging and winking about what the movie was really saying. It came to be known as “the film of elbows in the dark.” Noi Vivi translates to We the Living, but people would jokingly refer to it as We the Dead. Addio Kira translates to Goodbye Kira, but they would joke that it should be called Goodbye Lira, the currency of Italy at that time. Inflation and poverty were severe, and the story brought people together in their disgust at the government.
The government soon recognized it as dangerous. The movie had been out for a few months and was doing enormous business when Mussolini personally ordered that it be banned. It was to be removed from the theaters, and all the prints and negatives were to be destroyed. There would be nothing left.
Yet, We the Living was still the number one box office film in Italy that year—amazing given that it was pulled from the theaters right at the height of its success.
Begley: Obviously, they failed to destroy all the prints and negatives. What happened?
Scott: Majano and the general manager of Scalera Films, Massimo Ferrara, said, “We have to save this film.” They sent in the prints of the film to be destroyed, but they took the original negatives to the home of Franco Magli, the production manager, who hid them in his basement. They had to send in negatives to be destroyed, so they sent those of another film that they didn’t value as highly, hoping that the fascists wouldn’t notice. Majano, Ferrara, and Magli hoped the authorities wouldn’t put the film in a projector, as that’s not typically done with negatives. They took tremendous personal risk, knowing that had they been caught defying Mussolini’s orders, it would have been bad.
Fortunately, the negatives stayed safely hidden for the rest of the war. For many of those involved, it was the last film they worked on during the war. Some refused to work under the fascist authorities. Brazzi had already been doing some work with the Italian Resistance, which was an antifascist underground movement. He left the movie industry and went full-time working with the Resistance. By 1943, filmmaking in Italy had ground to a halt.
Brazzi certainly was a hero for working with the Resistance. He had several close calls and was imprisoned more than once. He feared that he’d be executed, but fortunately, he was released.
I know someone who’s writing a biography of Brazzi and his role with the underground. Amazingly, much of that story has not been told before. Such a famous actor, who was a part of the Italian resistance, risking his life to fight against the fascists—talk about heroism.
Begley: Both Brazzi and Valli had some degree of success in America afterward. What happened to them and the film after the Allies defeated the fascists?
Scott: In the years immediately following the war and before the studio went out of business, the producers sent Brazzi and Valli to meet Ayn Rand, to persuade her to give them the rights to release the movie in Italy.
At the time, Rand didn’t want it to be rereleased, not because she didn’t like the movie, but because she had been approached by a Hollywood studio to do an English-language version. That never came to fruition, but she did later see the Italian film. She loved it—particularly Valli’s performance.
Begley: I love how Valli captures Kira’s fierce independence and her quest for liberty.
Scott: Valli’s performance is infused with so much power, possibly because she tapped into dramatic events going on in her life at the time. She had been in a romantic relationship with a pilot who was in the war. In the weeks leading up to filming, his plane was shot down, and he was killed. I think she was drawing from these intense emotions in her performance. If you look at her other movies, she’s excellent in pretty much every one of them—but nothing like what you see in We the Living. One of her English-language films that people might watch for comparison is The Third Man. It’s a classic, starring Valli alongside Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten.
However, when Rand declined to have the film released, Scalera Studio put it away. In 1952, the studio went out of business, and the negatives of We the Living and all their other films were sold. Then the archive of films was sold again. At that point, We the Living was effectively lost—even as the novel was becoming a classic in America.
Begley: Is this when Henry and Erika Holzer got involved?
Scott: Yes, they were the ones who saved the film from oblivion. They were associates of Ayn Rand, and Henry was her lawyer. One day, Rand mentioned that there was a movie version of We the Living. The Holzers were shocked; nobody knew that a movie of Rand’s first novel had been made. They asked her what happened to it. At least twenty years had passed since she had been approached about the rights, and she hadn’t heard anything since. As far as she knew, it was long gone.
So, the Holzers made it their mission to go to Italy and see if they could find this movie. Keep in mind, this was the late 1960s. There was no internet, no easy way to do this kind of research. Even making phone calls to Italy was expensive. They ended up searching for it for the better part of two years, making multiple trips to Italy. It was real detective work. They eventually tracked down the negatives, which were packed away in an obscure storage facility but were still in great shape. The Holzers saw enough of the negatives to know they’d found it, and they bought it on the spot. The company that owned the film didn’t understand how valuable it was.
Begley: So, they came back to America with the film. Is this where you come into the picture?
Scott: Yes. I was in my early twenties when I discovered Rand. Late one night, I just happened to see her on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. She appeared on his program three times in 1967. I caught the first one, on August 11, and got goosebumps because she was saying all these things that I believed but couldn’t then articulate. Of course, she put it all together in her brilliant manner.
Carson canceled his remaining guests so Rand could keep talking. I found it amazing that she’d be allowed to speak for twenty to thirty minutes on a late-night talk show.
After that I had to find out more about this woman. I read all her works, then attended some lectures at the Nathaniel Branden Institute, where Rand would sometimes appear. There was also a monthly publication called The Objectivist, with various articles by her and others associated with her. In the back of the magazine there were announcements. In one issue [June 1968], I read that there was a long-lost movie version of We the Living that had been rediscovered and brought back to America by the Holzers. It was going to be edited and prepared for release in America. So, I did something very out of character for me at that age. I was maybe twenty-two, early in my film career, with no established name, but I offered to work on this project.
Right after I sent them a letter, I started doubting myself, saying, “What am I doing? They’ll never pick me, I’m only twenty-two!” Weeks went by, and I thought, “they’re going to ignore my letter.” Then the Holzers reached out to me. I met them at their office in the Empire State Building, and they told me there had been someone who was going to work on the project but now wasn’t. They liked the idea of me working on it. So, in very short order I was brought on. One of the first things we had to do was play the film for Rand and her circle of associates, jokingly called “the collective.” We set up a screening in the studio of the film company where I was an editor at the time.
One evening I set up a dozen or so chairs and circled them around a machine called a Moviola, which had a tiny, maybe five-inch screen meant for one person to view.
You can imagine seeing Rand and the collective all huddled around this little Moviola, watching the film one ten-minute reel at a time. Mind you, it hadn’t been edited in any way, so it ran for four hours—plus the time it took to change reels. So, the whole thing took more than five hours, but nobody complained even once. Everyone looked at each other awestruck as we ended each reel and went to the next. It was really quite something to see. There were no subtitles, so Erika stood to the side of the Moviola with a script that had English on one side of the page and Italian on the other. She read the dialogue in English as it played, often having to read faster or slower when she discovered the dialogue was out of sync with the movie.
That was the first time Rand saw the film since the late 1940s when the studio had arranged a screening for her. And it was the first time any of the others had seen it, so it was quite an event.
Everybody was impressed with it, even seeing it under those circumstances. There were a lot of remarks about how handsome Brazzi was in the role of Leo, and, of course, it goes without saying that Valli was both pretty and fabulous as Kira. Fosco Giachetti, who played Andrei, was older than the character Rand depicted in the book. Despite that, she thought he did an amazing job.
As someone who has watched this movie time and time again, I’ve come to appreciate what Giachetti does with this role. Andrei has the biggest arc through the story. He is a rigid communist ideologue and doesn’t question it at all at the beginning of the movie. But you see this transformation over time and the pain that it causes him as he gradually realizes that everything he devoted his life to is corrupt and evil and that he’ll never have Kira’s love. Your heart breaks for him by the end of the movie.
Begley: What was it like to sit with Rand and go through the film together?
Scott: We worked in a small editing room, always in the evening, after dinnertime. Because it was after hours, we were the only ones there, and it was quiet. We sat together in front of a small film editing table surrounded by tall metal racks packed with pizza-size film cans. I’d dim the lights, and we’d sit shoulder to shoulder going through the film scene by scene. I’d mount a reel of the movie on a hand-cranked rewinder, thread it through a small viewer to an empty reel on another rewinder, and slowly wind through the film, stopping and starting, going back and forth. We had that Italian and English script so we could figure out the dialogue, but it was slow going. I was very impressed, but not surprised, at how focused Ayn was. She made decisions about the editing with no hesitation. We rarely talked about anything but the film. I do remember one time she enjoyed hearing that my daughter, Samantha, had just been born. Ayn was warm and easy to work with, and although I was nervous before our first meeting, I was comfortable throughout the rest of our sessions.
Overall, she thought that the core story of the three characters—Kira, Leo, and Andrei—was beautifully done. This was the main focus in the editing process; we edited out some subplots and other characters who weren’t necessary.
There were problems that had to be solved. For instance, in the novel, Andrei kills himself when he realizes the crushing and brutal reality of the ideal that he had held all his life. But in the original movie, instead of Andrei killing himself, the secret police send over a squad and execute him in his apartment.
Rand said Andrei must commit suicide: It was important to understanding his character. We had to find a way to fix this just with editing because, of course, we couldn’t go out and shoot new scenes. In the end we did find a way to make it look like he commits suicide. We see Andrei looking forlorn, staring into his fireplace. He picks up the nightgown he had tried to give to Kira but she had refused and tosses it into the fire. He picks up a gun and contemplates killing himself. In the original movie, he puts the gun back down. Then the secret police burst into his apartment and kill him. So, what we did is get rid of all that business with the secret police. We cut away from Andrei while he is still holding the gun and go to his view of the fireplace where Kira’s nightgown is going up in flames. We hold on that, and then bang—we hear the sound of a gunshot. He’s killed himself.
Rand was quite happy with that solution. It was an amazing experience to work with her.
She really understood the editing process. Nowadays everybody has film editing software on their computers, but we’re talking about a period when most people had no idea what film editors did. She was savvy about it. It helped that she had worked in Hollywood years earlier.
Begley: What happened during the 1970s, and up to Rand’s death in 1982?
Scott: We were in a holding pattern for a long time. I completed the editing she had asked me to do. However, it was hard for her to find the time to continue working on the film, and nobody wanted to proceed without her because she said she wanted to stay involved. But she had so many other things that were drawing her attention. She was still writing, she was aging, and Frank’s health was failing, so we didn’t push anything. What we thought might be months turned into years. But the Holzers and I agreed that because this movie was initially made without her involvement, we absolutely were not going to continue without her involvement as long as she wanted to stay involved.
Unfortunately, that never happened. After she passed away, Henry had a conversation with Leonard Peikoff, the inheritor of Rand’s estate. He agreed that we should finish the film and get it out. It was almost ready to go anyway. All that was left was work on the subtitles. Erika spent countless hours comparing the translation of the Italian movie with dialogue in the book. She made sure everything was true to the book, even if it meant that maybe the subtitles weren’t exactly accurate to what the actors were saying. It was more important that it be true to the novel, and we went over it time and time again to confirm this.
Begley: We are now nearing the eightieth anniversary of its original release. Last November, in Charlotte, you showed clips, side by side, of the 1942 version and the restored version. Can you tell us about the restoration?
Scott: Yes, I’m going through every single frame and cleaning up the images. The movie was filmed in 35mm, which is very high resolution. Our first release of the film in 1988, although sharp, had scratches, dirt, and other things printed into the film from the negatives that had been in storage. We didn’t have all the wonderful digital tools that we have now, where software can go in and recognize what’s a spot of dirt and what’s a scratch, and remove it, like magic. So those flaws remained in all its releases.
When I realized that the anniversary of the film was approaching, I made a high-definition scan of it to increase the resolution, but, of course, there was the issue of the dirt and scratches, and a few other problems as well. So, I decided that for this milestone, we’d do an eightieth anniversary edition and go through everything.
It was an enormous job—much bigger than I originally thought. But I’m really thrilled that we did it. I think it must look nearly as good as it did when it first opened at the Venice Film Festival in 1942.
We’re currently working on a major event in Italy to celebrate the eightieth anniversary of its opening. I can’t say that it’s definite yet, but we’re working on that. At any rate, the anniversary edition is coming out this year, and it will be beautiful. You’ll be able to stream it on several platforms.
Begley: Well, thank you for doing all this work, Duncan. This heroic, single-handed task of restoration is the latest stage of the arc that started with Rand, progressed with the Italian filmmakers, then the Holzers, and then you. You mentioned how much time and effort it took, and I imagine that means money as well. How can our readers help promote this film?
Scott: Thank you, Robert. We have an extensive website, WeTheLivingMovie.com, where people can see restoration clips and other updates.
One of the things that’s really important, and I hope people recognize this, is that you can make a great film or restore one, but people might not see it if you don’t put a lot of time, effort, and money into promotion and advertising. On the site, we have information about how to help. I’m hoping people who are fans of Rand and the film will help us bring it to the rest of the world. Once we get it onto a streaming platform, anyone, anywhere in the world can watch it, so we just need to get the word out. That’s the next big thing.
Begley: Thank you very much, Duncan. I hope this film gets as wide an audience as possible, because Rand’s message of individualism over collectivism is as relevant as ever.
Scott: Thank you, Robert.
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