We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. Click here for more information.

Modern Lusts: Ernest Borneman - Jazz Critic, Filmmaker, Sexologist

Welcome to the sadly unknown life of a most extraordinary figure.
Adrian Dannatt
From "Modern Lusts," Berghahn 2020, 340PP
Ernest Borneman not only wrote the greatest detective novel set in the movie-business, with one of the best titles, The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor (1937), but was also a screenwriter, editor, producer, distributor and director who worked closely with two cinema colossi, John Grierson and Orson Welles. He was also a painter, musician, revered jazz critic and historian of African-American life, a radical agitator and sexologist whose stated aim was to destroy the patriarchy. Modern Lusts, the first biography of this protean polymath, reveals a man who did everything, knew everyone, and remained in the forefront of avant-garde art and politics, Black liberation and sexual freedom, like some ultra-woke Zelig. Never in the field of human culture was so much done, so many met, now known to so few.
Born in Berlin in 1915, Borneman attended Karl Marx school and by 15 had met Brecht, with whom he collaborated over the decades, and even worked with Wilhelm Reich in his sex-counseling. By the time he left for London at 18 he was already on the Gestapo lists as a communist degenerate, indeed on arriving there in 1933 his plea, “I would really like to be a negro,” captured his passion for all aspects of Black culture. Borneman was an obsessive jazz fanatic, a teenager in thrall to Berlin’s “hot music,” and began to play himself, as a pianist then bassist and eventually on bongo drums. Most of his time was spent in clubs and most of his friends were Black, not least when living with C.L.R. James, the famed Trinidadian Marxist (a character in Steve McQueen's recent Mangrove) who remained a lifelong soulmate and where regular visitors included Eric Williams, first Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago and Jomo Kenyatta, future Prime Minister of Kenya, with whom he attended Malinowski's anthropology lectures at the London School of Economics..
Borneman’s other passion was cinema, and as a member of the communist film club Kino his stated aim was to “gatecrash the film business, get a foot in the door whether as a cameraman or janitor.” As such, by 1935 he was at Criterion Films, founded by Douglas Fairbanks Jr, working on such films as The Amateur Gentleman (1936) and Crime Over London (1936). This experience provided rich material for his first novel The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, written only aged 20, and re-published regularly since its first appearance in 1937. The book is a highly enjoyable portrait of the London film world of that era, and Soho low life, and a dazzling experimental exercise in deceptive narrative. Published under the pseudonym Cameron McCabe, as a Marxist post-modern box of tricks it predates that near namesake Colin MacCabe, and for decades the identity of the author remained a mystery.
Borneman joined the new TV branch of the BBC and worked on early live broadcasts such as the Coronation of George VI and the Derby but was already in trouble with the authorities, MI5 files of 1939 describing him as a “thoroughly unsuitable candidate for British naturalization… known both to police and ourselves as a close associate of communists.” When war broke out, like many German nationals, Borneman was placed in an internment camp in Canada, from which he was miraculously released to work for the newly formed National Film Board of Canada with its founder John Grierson, who’d literally invented the “documentary,” including that word itself.
Borneman’s first scripts were animated abstracts, akin to Oskar Fischinger, so naturally he was soon collaborating with Norman McLaren on Five for Four (1942) and other jazz films. He was also busy writing screenplays, translating foreign films, heading north to shoot ethnological films on indigenous peoples and even acting in The War for Men’s Minds (1943), about Leni Riefenstahl. Borneman started as an editor but went on to work on some 17 features and 35 shorts as writer, producer and director, highlights including Target Berlin (1944) and Wartime Transport, which he directed with his own cameraman, Boris Kaufman, the brother of Dziga Vertov. His masterpiece was Zero Hour of 1944, the first film about the allied invasion of Europe, cunningly made before it actually took place, which played in over 10,000 cinemas across North America, leading Grierson to comment, “Well, what did I say? It always takes a German to make a war or a war film.” Borneman admired Grierson as much as C.L.R. James, the most impressive man he ever met, and even accompanied him to New Brunswick as assistant director on a film about lobsters.
Grierson made Borneman the coordinator of International Distribution for the National Film Board, then head of international sales, before luring him to Paris in 1947 to work at the newly formed UNESCO. In Paris Borneman threw himself into existential jazz life, his circle including Sidney Bechet, Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong, wrote for the seminal Présence Africaine and was even asked by Sartre to write on Black culture for Le Temps Moderne. He went to see Duke Ellington with Jean Genet, Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, the great jazzer Boris Vian called him “bon ami Borneman” and he was particularly friendly with Katherine Dunham, the Black dance impresario, going out with Jacqueline Walcott, her star performer.
Borneman’s definitive History of American Negro Music had been accepted for publication in 1939 by EP Dutton in NY, though it might be mentioned he also an early adopter of the term “African-American.” The great Blues musician WC Handy read and advised, as did Richard Wright who called it “epochal.” For decades Borneman was a prolific and acclaimed writer on jazz, one of the world’s twelve foremost jazz scholars in Nat Hentoff’s definitive anthology. Meeting Mezz Mezzrow at a Montreal concert he was "bowled over" by what Borneman  knew about music, and even Black Power poet Amiri Baraka admitted to being a fan. Back in 1946 Borneman’s main project had been the foundation of a “Negro Film Institute” in the USA to make a specifically Black cinema with and for African-Americans, deeming their depiction in the news “either sporadic or sensational.” Along with Louis himself he worked hard to make Armstrong Over Africa (1956)to show the musician in that continent, Borneman insisting “obviously we can’t take a patronizing attitude toward the Africans,” his central stance always being strongly Afrocentric.
In 1949 Borneman was stolen from UNESCO by Orson Welles, who admired his jazz writing and novels and shared this commitment to Black culture. Welles flew him to Marrakesh to watch Othello (1952) and installed him at Casa Orlandi outside Rome to write the script for Ulysses. Borneman labored on this for years, introducing the idea of Black actors to play the ancient Greeks, and after endless battles it was eventually sold to Carlo Ponti and Dino de Laurentiis and made as Ulisse in 1954 with Kirk Douglas and Silvana Mangano. Welles considered Borneman a friend but their collaboration was a typical disaster; having assured him of a high salary and all expenses, including bringing his wife Eva and young son Stephen from Canada, it soon transpired that Welles could not pay anything, leaving him to settle with the servants himself. In response to desperate demands Welles cabled back, “Dear Ernest, live simply. Affectionate regards Orson” then commissioned a series of further scripts. Between 1950-52 Borneman worked on numerous projects for Welles, writing the radio series The Adventures of Harry Lime and eventually in 1959 Welles paid up, a beautiful woman ringing at the door with hefty bags stuffed full of bills.
By now Borneman was back in London working in television; in 1950 his novel Tremolo was turned by CBS into the TV film Sure As Fate, directed by Yul Brunner and starring Paul Lukas, whilst Borneman wrote and directed Betty Slow Drag, an experimental color short followed by Four O’Clock Morning Blues both for the BBC in 1954. He wrote, produced and directed over 100 TV shows including groundbreaking music films Bang! You’re Dead (1954) and Face The Music (1954), a murder mystery set in the US jazz underworld pre-dating Johnny Staccato. He was also amongst the few to defend rock’n’roll, believing that Blues were the very heart of jazz, and was involved with Six-Five Special the BBC’s first ever pop program. In 1955 he joined the new channel Granada and worked closely with Sidney Bernstein, directing plays including the scandalous Look Back in Anger, Arthur Miller and Hedda Gabler. By 1959 Borneman had been made program director at the National Film Theatre and was responsible for the new London Film Festival where he launched the Negro World Festival.
In 1960, offered a giant salary, Borneman was at last lured back to Germany to get Freies Fernsehen (FFG), Germany’s second TV chain, running from scratch. This proved a thankless task and he only lasted the first year before it’s official launch; in that time he managed to commission contemporary drama, including Pinter’s A Night Out as well as youth music show Mississippi Illusion, directed by 23 year old Rob Houwer, later a major film producer, not to mention helping launch the first German TV pop show Beat-Club. Borneman had started working for advertising agencies in Frankfurt including Ted Bates, known for his Mercedes roadster and flashy Jaguar, before founding his own literary agency with his wife Eva.
By now Borneman haunted the Frankfurt railway station at night to jot down slang, the cruder the better, and began to write down children’s sex rhymes, which led in 1968 to his Lexikon der Liebe (Dictionary of Love) in two volumes, launching his last and most controversial career as a sexologist. Borneman began to publish regularly, including two more dictionaries, which culminated in the encyclopedia Sex im Volksmund, with more than a thousand synonyms for penis. Nicknamed “Pornoman Borneman” he swiftly established himself as a sex-expert with columns, radio shows, and countless TV appearances. He was living happily in rural Austria in an old farmhouse with his 10,000 books, and had been married to Eva for fifty years, but was willing to admit he was also a threesome connoisseur who had slept with two or three hundred women.
The Patriarchy of 1975 was his self-proclaimed “magnum opus” and Borneman remained adamant in his feminist fervor despite their own resistance to his theories. He was also believed “the basic nature of the human being is bisexual…” and opposed “the illusion that masculinity and femininity are unambiguous and absolute phenomenon.” A regular “Sex Uncle” on the talk show circuit, whether with Rosa von Praunheim or Nina Hagen, Borneman also became something of a hate figure. This consistent hostility he encountered in Germany included both implicit and outspoken anti-Semitism, a shocking number of Nazis and their sympathizers, still being in positions of power.
Borneman with his card filing system on jazz, film and sex.
As an omnipresent sexologist Borneman finally found the celebrity never previously granted to him as jazzer, novelist or filmmaker, his last planned book being Finis! An Obituary for Heterosexuality. His own finis was certainly as dramatic as the rest of his life, as a few days after his gigantic 80th birthday party in 1995 this “trusty steed of Communist sex theory” killed himself. His longtime girlfriend Sigrid Standow, a doctor 42 years his junior, had left him for an S&M relationship with a man her own age, and his sexual dependence on her could only be escaped through suicide. The headlines, “Sex Pope Professor Poisons Himself…Spanking Orgasms, Dependency, Despair” provided a final blaze of fame for this most improbable of men, who had traversed the entire 20th century and all its manifold manifestations of popular culture. A perfect biopic except that nobody would ever believe such a story was actually true.
Detlef Siegfrieds "Ernest Borneman: Jazz Critic, Filmmaker, Sexologist" is out now by Berghan Books.


Ernest BornemanOrson WellesModern LustsBooks
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.