F for Fake – Anti-Fascist Russian propaganda attacking Howard Hughes (and the post-Holocaust art community)

Noting a story about counterfeit Modigliani paintings in the news today, I recalled a bit of research I had done on the film F for Fake, which deals with forgery of Modigliani paintings as a superficial subject. It is time to blog it. In my ‘expert’ opinion, this film is a clever piece of Cold War-era, Russian-inspired, anti-fascist  propaganda. Ultimately the film serves as a vehicle to launch ‘legal’ (and carefully worded) smears at the characters of Howard Hughes and the ‘art expert’ community at large. Perhaps I feel guilty to say it is a fantastic and entertaining art film. (See the below if you only watch a moment of it.)

Hoax-master Orson Welles’ 1973 ‘reality’ documentary is a film about hoaxes, and is itself a hoax. In the introduction, Welles tells us this is a film “about trickery, fraud, about lies”. It opens with Welles performing a magic trick in a train station, and describing himself as a “charlatan” who “used to be a magician”; he asks the young lad for whom he performs the trick: “have you ever heard of Robert Houdin?” (Houdin is considered the inspiration for one of Welles’ childhood mentors, Harry Houdini – and is also considered the father of the modern art of conjuring.) The film is therefore set in a context of conjuring (conspiracy).

The film runs approximately 1.5 hours and Welles notifies us in the early scenes that for one hour of this film, he is telling us a true story based on ‘available facts’. In this sense, the rapid-fire exposition of likely-false conspiracy theories and rumors which surrounded Howard Hughes (such that he walked down Las Vegas Boulevard with Kleenex boxes for shoes, and never came out of his hotel ‘compound’) occur in the supposedly true part of the film. They can be considered ‘true’ as Welles laughs them off as false. This is accomplished in a rather condescending tone and in the framework of very specific, lawyer approved language which flashes across the screen. The dismissal of conspiracy theory in this sense as jokes seems to in fact reinforce the knowledge of them in the viewer of the film.

The film has several intertwining storylines around the themes of fraud and hoaxes which focus on the characters of Clifford Irving, and Elmyr de Hory who both lived on the small Mediterranean isle of Ibiza. The movie reveals  both are at civil and/or criminal risk for their activities. Clifford Irving wrote a hoax biography of Howard Hughes, and Elmyr de Hory was a famous art forger. The film reveals that Irving and de Hory collaborated to present de Hory’s forged paintings as legitimate masterpieces to museums and art dealers, with a narrative that seeks to undermine the ‘expertise’ of the art community. It also suggests that the expert forger de Hory may have had a role in fabricating materials which lent the fake Hughes biography credibility as well.

In what must algebraically be the wholly ‘fake’ 30 minutes of the movie, a new story arc is introduced regarding the starring actress, Oja Kodar, as the subject of a fictional art hoax involving her grandfather (a supposed art forger) and Pablo Picasso. This arc would seem to reinforce the story line of wide adoption of counterfeit paintings by the art community. Throughout, the film frequently argues that if these fakes are considered real by others – or in this sense that because Picasso has claimed these sublime fakes as his own – they indeed become real for all intents and purposes. This may be a commentary on the role of hoaxes and conspiracies themselves becoming ‘real’ in the context of the film itself, despite this portion of the film being technically a complete fabrication.

In the case of Elmyr de Hory, we see a potential parallel in deception in the film An Honest Liar (inspired by F for Fake), as James Randi’s husband is a similar (con) artist who has an ‘unknown identity’. (See the ‘Carlos hoax’.)

When watching F for Fake, it is important to keep in mind that there was perhaps a great deal of male competition between Howard Hughes and Orson Welles. For one thing, the one-time playboy Hughes had supposedly impregnated Welles’ wife Rita Hayworth shortly after they had separated or divorced.

But beyond this, it is perhaps more important to consider the diametrically opposed political philosophies of Hughes and Welles, and how this intersected professionally in the era of the movie business and propaganda itself. Whereas Orson Welles had been an instrumental member of the Soviet-managed Anti-Nazi League successor group, the Hollywood Democratic Committee, Howard Hughes had at one point bought RKO pictures and been very harsh to Communist Party sympathizers within the ranks of Hollywood.Hughes had been instrumental in repositioning the American film industry from producing anti-Nazi fims to producing anti-communist ones in the early years of the Cold War.

When Orson Welles worked with the Russian spy Michael Olian, it was around the same time Olian was seeking to free up RKO money which had been ‘frozen’ in the Hughes era of ownership.

It is also undeniable that Hughes as a capitalist magnate and ‘propagandist’ (owning media which he used to sell a political message), had strong parallels to William Randolph Hearst. In this sense, this film-scale smear of Howard Hughes as a lunatic is almost a sequel of sorts to Citizen Kane – the film which got the FBI interested in Orson Welles as a potential communist sympathizer in the first place.

F for Fake reveals that Citizen Kane was originally going to be based on Howard Hughes (this claim occurs in the supposedly truthful first hour of the film).

Here it is more useful to consider F for Fake as anti-fascist than specifically anti-Nazi cinema since the Soviets sought to portray the US government as fascists as the USSR’s propaganda reciprocally re-positioned in the Cold War. Citizen Kane is also seen as anti-fascist. 

From a Soviet angle, Hughes had been instrumental in the Azorian mission contemporaneous to the production of F for Fake. Hughes had also potentially employed ex-CIA operatives who are alleged to have been involved in assassination attempts on Fidel Castro. However, in this sense, the rumors about Hughes also link him to claims about the CIA and the mafia as they relate to the John F. Kennedy assassination, and in this sense, they also smell of Russian disinformation.

Considered in the context of pro-Russian, anti-fascist propaganda, the art hoax angle of F for Fake is encapsulated in the realization that the post-WW2 art community was involved in the sale of Holocaust victim property. The attack on ‘experts’ and the gleeful perpetration of hoaxes of all sorts in the film can be observed as a punishment for this perceived wrong. (Hughes is suggested to have harbored anti-Semitic beliefs by some biographers.)

De Hory was himself of Jewish descent and likely spent time in a concentration camp, and Welles was adopted by an Eastern-European Jew (Maurice Bernstein )). This aspect of the film is sobering in consideration, and worth thinking about — although still, it is important to point out here that Welles’ mentor Louis Dolivet and one-time benefactor Michael Olian were both Soviet spies of Jewish descent. Ironically both were ostensible anti-fascists caught up in Nazi-war crime investigations and allegations of Soviet money operations and personal enrichment connected to the sale of Holocaust victim property.

Interestingly, Pablo Picasso had been a strong critic of Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War which Welles also supported (alongside long-time friend Ernest Hemingway who is also remembered fondly in F for Fake). At age 62, Picasso became a communist.  The French art community which Picasso participated may support an argument regarding prevalent anti-Semitism, contempt for experts, and post-war theft of property.

Normally, I would never encourage readers of this blog to watch and enjoy Russian propaganda, with this exception for now. It is refreshing to experience ‘high brow’ propaganda once in a while – not the ad-nauseam social media meme-space for once. But most critically, this is not only entertainment, but a learning experience about potential injustice in the art community as well as a chance to perhaps set the record straight on Howard Hughes, for better or worse. Film noir concepts, an attack on anti-Semitism, and Russian propaganda come together in this movie. I think if you watch this film with the correct perspective (as above), then you will learn something, as well as be entertained.

Here is the Criterion Collection edition of the film on YouTube (where it has been seemingly posted without a takedown for many years):