The true story of Hugo Haas could read like fiction. Haas, who was born in Czechoslovakia, fled the Nazis in the late 1930s, made his way to Hollywood and became a character actor before elevating to producer, writer and star in his own B-movie studio. Haas’ films have typically been dismissed as mediocre, although Martin Scorsese has said he reveres them. The inaugural Lowell Milken Lecture in Jewish Music provides a chance to reconsider the importance of Haas’ work.

Haas’ films are buttressed by a series of secrets involving visual and sonic images of his dead brother Pavel, a brilliant composer and Janáček student who was murdered in Auschwitz, and the Holocaust itself, which for the most part goes unmentioned, even in those films where its existence is central. 

Michael Beckerman, the Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Music at New York University, will deliver his lecture “Hugo Haas’ Big Secret — Hiding Pavel and Hiding the Holocaust” on Tuesday, May 3 at 5 p.m. in Lani Hall. Beckerman’s lecture, which is presented by UCLA’s Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience, will also be available via livestream.

“Our primary goals for the center are academic research, performances and education,” said Mark Kligman, the Mickey Katz Endowed Chair in Jewish Music and director of the center. “In our early period as a center, it is important to show how significant scholarship reflects the excellence we expect at UCLA and put conversations of Jewish music into broader context with other subjects to explore new possibilities.”

In the lecture, Beckerman will look at several scenes from Haas’ films, “Pickup,” “Girl on the Bridge” and “Strange Fascination.” In these scenes hidden forces shape the action, posing challenges for us about just what it means to know or understand any artwork, and exploring the implication of moments that are fully intelligible to only one person.

As the lecture approaches, Kligman and Beckerman provided more background on the talk.

What does it mean to you to have the series kick off — and to have Michael Beckerman as the inaugural speaker?

Kligman: We are pleased to have Professor Michael Beckerman inaugurate this lecture series. He is on faculty at NYU and has a wide array of experience as a leading scholar, adept speaker and a true educator. He believes that academic knowledge is not solely for academics and works in many contexts to make scholarship accessible. The subject matter of this talk is relevant to an active community of concert audiences and an important part of the concert community in Los Angeles.

Why did you decide to focus on Hugo Haas and his films for this lecture?

Beckerman: Well, I like to speak about things I’m involved with most intensely, and this project was at the top of the list. I think the choice says something about our commitment to interdisciplinarity, with elements of everything from musical analysis to cinema studies, and provides us with nuanced ideas about human histories and how they intertwine. 

To some extent, it also has elements of a reclamation project. Not only is there an intent to rescue Hugo Haas’ American work from an eternal consignment to the world of B-movie noir, but it also charts the unbreakable relationship between the Haas brothers: actor, screenwriter, director Hugo, and composer Pavel, who perished in Auschwitz. My talk also asks questions about films where aspects of the American Jewish experience are powerfully framed, even though Jews are never mentioned. 

Finally, I hope to challenge traditional notions of form and meaning, substituting an approach that acknowledges that each viewer sees and hears things differently, and that as part of our respect for our fellow human beings, there needs to be a respect for their individual response to artworks.

What do you hope the audience will take away from your lecture?

Beckerman: The most important things for an audience to take away are excitement and curiosity. After that, I hope they hear and see things that make them want to return to the films, the music of Pavel Haas and the Terezin composers broadly, and the larger question of who hides what kinds of things and why. Finally, of course it’s the greatest hope of any speaker that some in the audience will be sparked to continue these and related investigations and will find things the speaker never even dreamed of.