Thursday, January 01, 2009

"Cinema's Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood", documentary from PBS about filmmakers who fled Nazi Germany


On Jan. 1, 2009 Maryland Public Television, WNET-13 in New York, and PBS aired a documentary, partly sponsored by New Line, “Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood." The website is this.

In the 1920s, German film culture blossomed despite the economic difficulties in the country, and German directors (like Friz Lang and Billy Wilder) and producers like Erich Pommer developed an expressionistic film style. A typical hit in Germany was “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Other important films were “People on Sunday” (with great visual intimacy) and “Asphalt.” Peter Lorre was an important actor, with “M” was one his most famous performances. Nazi takeover and the rise of Hitler appeared rather suddenly, and Jewish artists found themselves being shunned socially, too. Goebbels took over the film industry, and the Jews were prohibited from working.

So Jewish film artists began to emigrate, first to Paris, and then to America. They arrived in “Hollywoodland” and had to adjust to the American studio system. Fritz Lang, who had been so popular in Germany, had difficulty getting his ideas accepted at MGM, but eventually did “Fury.” In the 1930s, Americans, including those in Hollywood, did not fully understand what was going on in Europe.

In 1939, RKO Radio made Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (William Dieterle) and it was the only film screened at the Cannes Film Festival (the documentary shows the Pantages Theater) when the festival was canceled because of Germany’s blitzkrieg invasion of Poland.

In the US, resettled artists had various success. Peter Lorre’s performance in “The Maltese Falcon” became famous. Gradually, German Jewish talent helped Hollywood develop the genres of horror and film noir. Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” would be one of the most famous of the film noirs, about the total corruption of society, with wicked people doing wicked things, encouraging the dark music score of expatriate composer Miklos Rosza. (“I did it for the woman and I did it for the money.”) I recall Fred Zinemann’s real-time western "High Noon", seeing it at an old neighborhood theater in Arlington VA (the Buckingham, now a Post Office) on the way to meet my father at National Airport. I still remember the clock.

After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. allowed only immigrants who had financial support, and those of German origin (and not yet American citizens) had to honor curfews.

Some of the artists, and especially their wives, had to adjust to much harder lives in the United States than they had enjoyed in Germany because Hitler essentially expropriated the lives that they had once commanded. This was much harder on older people that it would be on teenagers or younger adults. This kind of thing happens, as a kind of anti-justice. That sounds like the moral “message” of this documentary.

This documentary should be compared to “Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography.”

There were similar issues in other arts, such as music performance and composition. The story of composer Wilhelm Furtwangler is interesting. In 2001, MGB released a film about Furtwangler, "Taking Sides", directed by Istvan Szabo, based on a play by Ronald Harwood.

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