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When German Exiles Lit up Hollywood’s Screens

Cornelius Schanuber, director of the Max Kade Institute for Austrian-German-Swiss Studies, with an array of publications on German exiles and their work.

Photo by Irene Fertik

Before 1933, when Adolf Hitler seized power, they came to Hollywood to make great films and be part of the burgeoning movie industry. After 1933, they came to Hollywood to make great films, but they had another reason: to stay alive.

They were the German-speaking movie producers, directors, writers, composers and other artists who emigrated to Los Angeles before and during the Nazi dictatorship’s hold on Germany and its spread through Europe. They were the likes of William Wyler, Bertolt Brecht, Billy Wilder, Thomas Mann, Paul Leni, William Dieterle, Josef von Sternberg, Erich von Stroheim, Otto Preminger, Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Henry Koster and many more.

“They were a major influence in Hollywood, and they elevated the German literary tradition in the consciousness of the American audience at a time when there was a general animosity against Germany,” said Cornelius Schnauber, associate professor of German and director of the Max Kade Institute for Austrian-German-Swiss studies.

Schnauber’s book, German-speaking Artists in Hollywood: Emigration Between 1910 and 1945 (Inter Nationes, 1996), describes the history of these émigrés and their influence on the movie capital of the world. The book documents individual artists’ emigration to Hollywood, their careers before and after emigrating and their contributions to the film industry. Schnauber discusses the artists in the context of German-Austrian literary and cultural tradition, and the political interaction between German-speaking countries and the United States.

The publication of Schnauber’s book in English was timed to coincide with “Exiles and Émigrés: The Flight of European Artists From Hitler,” a major exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through May 11. Schnauber has organized a number of events in conjunction with the LACMA exhibit at USC’s Max Kade Institute, the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles and UCLA. (See sidebar, next page.)

“People are fascinated with how leading artists managed to escape Nazi Germany and the whole Nazi period. We always have in the back of our minds that it should never happen again,” said Schnauber.

Schnauber’s book deals with artists who arrived between 1910, the date of Hollywood’s incorporation into the city of Los Angeles, and 1945, the end of World War II. Before 1933, emigration was a decision based on long-term desires. Between 1933 and 1945, however, it meant escaping from the Nazis but entering political exile. For those artists who fled Germany and other Nazi-controlled European countries, emigration was a “one-way ticket to Hollywood,” Schnauber writes, with no concrete prospects of returning to their homeland.

Probably the first German-speaking émigré to influence the movie industry was Carl Laemmle, who came to the U.S. in 1884. Laemmle, born in Laupheim, Germany, bought the Nestor Co., the first permanent film studio in Hollywood. Laemmle added more studio lots and established the Universal Film Manufacturing Co., now Universal Studios, which he began relocating in 1913 to its current location in the San Fernando Valley.

Among those who followed, Schnauber writes, was German-Swiss native William Wyler, who came to the U.S. in 1920 to work with Laemmle, his great-uncle. Wyler became one of the best-known director-producers, making popular films such as Wuthering Heights (1939), The Little Foxes (1941) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

Among the pre-1933 immigrants was director Erich von Stroheim, born in 1885 in Vienna. Von Stroheim was one of the first significant film artists with whom Laemmle contracted. Through his few great works, such as Greed (1923) and Wedding March (1927), von Stroheim introduced formal and contextual elements into movie-making that were influenced by German and Austrian literary movements, such as German naturalism and expressionism.

Another early, influential émigré was Ernst Lubitsch, born in 1892 in Berlin, who came to Hollywood in 1922. He was a master of romantic, often sarcastic comedy, Schnauber writes. Lubitsch’s biggest influence on Hollywood movies was the so-called “Lubitsch Touch.” This was a method Lubitsch created to circumvent that strict moral code, known as the Hays Code, that bound filmmakers after the early 1930s.

Lubitsch was able to retain the erotic tension and satire in his movies through scenes that gave audiences an idea of what was happening without any direct reference. For instance, movies that show a couple going into a hotel room and hanging a “Do Not Disturb” sign, or servants’ reactions as they look through a peephole into a couple’s bedroom, are classic examples of the “Lubitsch Touch.”

Other influential German-speaking directors before 1933 included Josef von Sternberg, who made Marlene Dietrich famous in The Blue Angel, and Paul Leni. Leni’s horror films, such as The Man Who Laughs (1928) and The Cat and the Canary (1927), departed from horror films of the time by using atmosphere, rather than straight gore, to convey a mood.

William (Wilhelm) Dieterle, a German-speaking director who came to Hollywood in 1929, was influential because of his historical films, such as The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), as well as romantic classics like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and Portrait of Jenny (1948). Dieterle showed Hollywood that historical films don’t always have to portray military heroes; that historic events must be filmed with social and critical responsibility; and that the ugly can be made cinematically beautiful – for example, Charles Laughton’s portrayal of the hunchback of Notre Dame. As Paul Heinreid, an Austrian-born film star of the period, said: “Through Dieterle, the American audience’s image of the film hero was changed.”

Although they did not specifically base movies upon German-Austrian literature, these directors carried on the literary tradition of their homeland. “Their whole style and artistry was much influenced by German literature – you can see that in their films,” Schnauber said, citing, for instance, Leni’s expressionism or Dieterle’s romanticism.

While many of the artists emigrating before 1933 did so voluntarily – many had studio contracts or were willing to try their luck – the situation was much different for those coming after 1933.

“Not all of them would have come to Hollywood if they could have stayed in Europe,” said Schnauber, citing director Fritz Lang, author Thomas Mann, and playwright Bertolt Brecht as a few examples. “They were forced to leave Europe, and Hollywood offered the possibility of working in the film industry.”

Mann, who wrote Doktor Faustus, among other great works, while in exile in Los Angeles, was one of the few authors who could make a living from his books. Some writers were able to get help obtaining visas and temporary employment through the European Film Fund established by Paul Kohner, an agent and producer. The fund was a private relief effort that offered one-year studio contracts to authors in danger in Europe.

After 1933, a cast of German-speaking directors, producers and writers had a major influence on Hollywood films. Among them was Lang, who made 22 films in Hollywood and is credited with developing new sound techniques and dramaturgy.

Three movie giants who emigrated from German-speaking countries after 1933 were Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Fred Zinnemann. While these directors had artistic achievements before 1945, they became most successful later in their careers.

Wilder was one of the most successful directors in Hollywood, with hits in a range of genres – comedies (Some Like It Hot, 1959), tragedies (Sunset Boulevard, 1950), crime films (Double Indemnity, 1944) and psychological character studies (Lost Weekend, 1945).

Schnauber writes that Preminger made an astounding number of classics – The Moon is Blue, 1953, and Anatomy of a Murder, 1959, to name a few. Meanwhile, Zinnemann made the most significant American western, High Noon, in 1952; the most successful cinematic effort about America’s involvement in World War II, From Here to Eternity, 1953; and one of the most popular musicals ever, Oklahoma, in 1955.

“Many people don’t realize that Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Fred Zinnemann are not Americans – their films are so integrated into American history and film history,” Schnauber said. “These artists both contributed to Hollywood and adapted to it.”

The history of Hollywood films would not be the same without them.

When German Exiles Lit up Hollywood’s Screens

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