Alex Constantine - January 6, 2009
Edited by Alex Constantine
Cinema's Exiles' tells the story of artists who left Hitler's Reich for American film careers.
By Susan King
January 3, 2009
From the time Adolf Hitler became Germany's chancellor in 1933 to the opening salvos of World War II in 1939, about 800 actors, directors, writers, composers and producers fled Europe for the safety of America. The Third Reich's loss was Hollywood's gain as the infusion of artistic talent changed moviemaking for decades to come. ...
(Documentary -- PBS, Thur. Jan. 1, 9:30 p.m.)
By BRIAN LOWRY
Produced by Film Odyssey, Thirteen/WNET and Turner Entertainment Co. in association with the Museum of Film and Television, Berlin, L'Institute national de l'audiovisuel and France 3 Paris. Executive producers, Karen Thomas, Margaret Smilow; co-producer, Sophia Maroon; writer-director, Thomas.
Narrator: Sigourney Weaver
Anybody with a passion for movies of the 1930s, '40s and '50s will find more than a mere walk down memory lane in this PBS documentary, which charts the Jewish émigrés that fled Hitler's Germany and found sanctuary -- with various degrees of comfort and success -- in Hollywood, prompting the town to be nicknamed "Weimar on the Pacific." Exploring the stories of those displaced by the Nazis adds a layer of resonance to their films, from "Casablanca" to "High Noon." Most profound, perhaps, is the filmmakers' impact on horror, given the real-life horrors that they left behind.
Narrated by Sigourney Weaver, "Cinema's Exiles" begins with the golden age of German cinema that preceded Hitler's rise, with such landmark films as "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and "M." In the '30s, however, with Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels announcing plans to seize control of the movie industry, more than 800 members of Germany's creative community departed for Hollywood, where hurdles included actors' accents and writers having to master expressing themselves in a new language.
Some adapted better than others, with director Fritz Lang, for example, chafing against the studio system, while Ernst Lubitsch thrived and also loaded "Ninotchka" with fellow expatriates. The archival footage draws on interviews with directors such as Lang, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann, whose portrait of mustering courage to stand alone against evil in "High Noon" takes on new dimensions viewed through this prism.
Although there was a collective of escaped Germans that helped support new arrivals, not everyone made the transition equally well. The documentary flits around a bit promiscuously, understandably, to reflect the breadth of talent and their personal histories, from actors Marlene Dietrich and Peter Lorre to composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold ("The Adventures of Robin Hood") to directors such as Lubitsch and Wilder.
TCM has stolen some of PBS' thunder as a sober chronicler of movie history (coupling its original documentaries with themed movie retrospectives), but when it comes to exhibiting an appreciation for film history, the more the merrier. As such, "Cinema's Exiles" is a first-class way to ring in the new year.
Camera, Joan Churchill, Emil Fischhaber; editor, Anny Lowery Meza; music, Peter Melnick. 90 MIN.
Exile Hedy Lamarr's Secret Nazi Missile Guidance System Jamming Technology
"I invent secret weapons," says screen siren Hedy Lamarr (Erica Newhouse) in playwright/director Elyse Singer's Frequency Hopping, currently being presented by Hourglass Group at 3LD Art & Technology Center. While that claim may appear ludicrous at face value, it's not too far from the truth, as the play documents Lamarr's real-life collaboration with composer George Antheil (Joseph Urla) on a secret communications system that they hoped would help the allies to win World War II. Unfortunately, despite some nifty technological effects, the show is not as compelling as the facts that inspired it.
Lamarr -- who was once married to Nazi sympathizer and munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl -- used to attend parties with Hitler and Mussolini and developed not only a hatred of what they stood for, but a vast knowledge of their advanced weaponry, including the use of guided missiles. She had an idea for a radio transmission jammer that she enlisted Antheil's aid to help develop. ...
Biography of Exile Marlene Dietrich
(b. Berlin 1901 - d. Paris 1992)
Born Maria Magdalene Dietrich. Actress and chanteuse. The only world star the German cinema ever produced, Marlene Dietrich’s career spans from Weimar Germany to the Hollywood studios where she worked between 1930 and 1961 with the most acclaimed Hollywood directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, Ernst Lubitsch, René Clair, Stanley Kramer, and most notably Josef von Sternberg with whom she made seven films between 1929 and 1935.
Her subsequent career as a singer extended her fame through performances around the world. Combining Prussian discipline and work ethic with an extraordinary talent for reinvention, Dietrich had a professional career of some 70 years, one that included not only classic Hollywood cinema and the concert hall, but also silent film, classical theater, modern theater, musical comedies, vaudeville, the army camp shows, radio, recordings, television, even circus and the ballet. Rising to stardom through her performance of Lola Lola in The Blue Angel (dir. von Sternberg, 1930) she left for Hollywood and later resisted Joseph Goebbels’ many offers to join the film industry of the Third Reich.
In the United States she rose to international stardom but she also experienced the callousness of the Hollywood studio system; when her films ceased to attract audiences she was labeled “box office poison” in 1937. A US citizen as of 1939, she actively supported the war effort by performing for US troops stationed abroad and was awarded the “Medal of Freedom” in 1947, the first woman to receive this distinction.
Dietrich’s first return to Germany after the war was in the company of US combat troops. Many Germans never forgave her for what they perceived as a betrayal, picketing her 1960 tour through Germany by demanding that “Marlene go home.” Her last public concert appearance was in Sydney in 1975. A recluse in her apartment for the last years of her life, Dietrich died in Paris in 1992, having willed her remains to be buried in her native Berlin.
Exile Peter Lorre
Biography by Gerd Gemünden
Professor of German Studies, Film and Media Studies, and Comparative Literature
(b. Rózsahegy, Hungary 1904 – d. Hollywood 1964)
Born as Ladislav Loewenstein. Actor. Interested in the theater from early on, Lorre acted on various stages in Breslau, Zurich and Vienna before coming to Berlin in 1929 when Bertolt Brecht invited him to play the role of Fabian in his production of Marieluise Fleißer’s Pioniere in Ingolstadt. Performances in Dantons Tod and Frühlings Erwachen followed. 1931 proved to be the year of Lorre’s breakthrough. Playing Gala Gay in Brecht’s own production of Mann ist Mann at night, Lorre would stand in front of the cameras of Fritz Lang during the day in the role of the child murderer Hans Beckert in the director’s first sound feature, M. The success of the film turned Lorre into an international film star; after M he appeared in eight more German films, often in smaller comical roles.
In 1933, Lorre emigrated via the much-traveled route first to Vienna, then Paris, then London, before reaching the US through a contract with Columbia Pictures. Known in the United States primarily for his performances as the child murderer in M and as the anarchist in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Lorre was typecast from the beginning of his U.S. career as a menacing and enigmatic presence, often as a sexual threat or outsider. His most successful period was at Warner Bros. where he appeared next to Humphey Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet in numerous films of the 1940s, most notably Casablanca (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942). In the 1950s his career declined, and he returned to Germany to make his only film as director, Der Verlorene (1951). Disillusioned by the lack of success he returned to Hollywood where he would appear in endless self-parodies on film and television.
Toward the end of the new film about postwar Germany The Reader, a Holocaust survivor in New York curtly instructs a visiting German lawyer named Michael Berg that he would do well to remember that the camps were neither a form of therapy nor a university. “Nothing,” she says, “came out of the camps. Nothing.”
With Holocaust Memorial Day to be observed on Jan. 27, it’s a timely admonition. It’s not, however, one that either The Reader or a host of memoirs or films about the Third Reich appear to be heeding. Rather, the further the Holocaust recedes into the past, the more it’s being exploited to create a narrative of redemption.
For a start, a spate of Holocaust memoirs about the authors’ childhoods turned out to be fraudulent, including Benjamin Wilkomirski’s, Misha Defonseca’s, and, most recently, that of Herman Rosenblat, whose Angel at the Fence was touted by Oprah Winfrey as the ultimate love story.
Perhaps the most striking development, however, has been the recent profusion of films about the Third Reich, which tend to infantilize the Holocaust. In The Reader, the lovely, middle-aged former SS concentration camp guard Hanna Schmitz seduces the 15-year-old Michael Berg in 1958, only to disappear suddenly after their summer-long tryst. Berg next encounters her at a war crimes trial for several female camp guards that his law school seminar is attending.
Ultimately, though, the film blurs the distinction between victim and perpetrator. The judge is unable to respond convincingly when Schmitz asks him how he would have responded to orders from above. Schmitz herself comes across simply as an unthinking tool of the Nazi regime rather than a fervent anti-Semite.
Similarly, the British production The Boy in the Striped Pajamas distorts the relationship between victim and murderer. It is an escapist fantasy about a friendship between two little boys, one of whom is trapped in “the farm” with its smokestacks, the other the son of the Nazi commandant.
If these films attenuate the difference between victim and perpetrator, Edward Zwick’s Defiance might seem to be the reverse. By choosing Daniel Craig to play the Jewish partisan commander Tuvia Bielski, complete with white horse, Mr. Zwick turns resistance to the Nazis into an action film, an emotionally glorious moment. As rousing as this vision of Jewish combat may be, it does raise a problem identified by the historian Raul Hilberg in his memoir The Politics of Memory.
According to Mr. Hilberg, “when relatively isolated or episodic acts of resistance are represented as typical, a basic characteristic of the German measures is obscured ... the drastic actuality of a relentless killing of men, women and children is mentally transformed into a more familiar picture of a struggle — however unequal — between combatants.” ...
Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust
Koch Lorber Films
January 13, 2009
List Price: $24.98
Review by Jeffrey Kauffman
January 10, 2009
The Movie: Hollywood is, of course, Ground Zero for glamour, glitz and artificiality. All of which makes for inconceivable incompatibility when thrust up against the unimaginable horrors of that most real evil of the 20th century, the Holocaust. Imaginary Witness is an unusually intelligent examination of Hollywood's sometimes not so noble relationship with portraying the terrors of the Nazi regime from the earliest films of the 1930s which haltingly acknowledged the growing threat of Hitler's order to what I guess you could call the halcyon days of such films as Schindler's List, some sixty years later.
Originally produced for and aired on American Movie Classics, Imaginary Witness takes a more or less chronological look at the way the Holocaust has been portrayed by Hollywood, not only in feature films, but also in such associated fare as newsreels. In fact in one of the more bizarre clips featured (aside, perhaps, from a brief snippet of Laurel and Hardy actually speaking in German) is an early 30s newsreel showing Nazi Youth book burning parties, which the reel chalks up to youthful hi-jinks with an almost carefree air.
Once the documentary moves into the late 1930s and the first feature films to actually address the growing Nazi menace, like Confessions of a Nazi Spy from 1939, the tone of the piece grows substantially darker, as might be expected. It may also be surprising to some viewers to hear that it was Warner Brothers which actually was the most active at the beginning of this trend. While most, if not all, of the major studios were headed by Eastern European immigrant Jews, all of the honchos were of the "assimilate first" variety and didn't want to be seen as espousing a uniquely Jewish point of view. This led them, incredibly, to uniform caving when Germany insisted that Jewish employees of the companies in Germany be fired. If you find yourselves disgusted by our current Congress, wait until you get a load of the mid- to late-30s version decrying Jews, including Hollywood executives, as being more dangerous to America than Hitler.
While Hollywood treated Nazism with kid gloves for the first few years of World War II, once Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the gloves came off, to a degree at least. The next four years saw a slew of anti-German films, the most incisive of which were, strangely, B-films which slipped under the door of the Hayes Office, so to speak, and were able to portray the more virulent aspects of the Nazis' attempts to rid the world of Jews. It's fascinating in this regard to see at least short segments from such lesser known films as None Shall Escape, one of the first mid-40s features to presciently predict that a lot of Nazi officers were going to be ultimately tried as war criminals. Contrast the relative grittiness of that film with the slickness of The Mortal Storm, which sought to portray anti-Semitism without ever utilizing the word "Jew."
Once the war ended, perhaps the world as a whole needed some relief, and the horrors of the Holocaust were not made explicit in any post-war films, despite being tangentially related to such fare as Gentleman's Agreement. In fact Imaginary Witness makes a compelling case that the not so subtle anti-Semitism that bubbled up in government in the 1930s simply took on a new mask with such 1950s stalwarts as the House Un-American Activities Committee, which, whatever its real intent, managed to stifle any real Jewish content in film for most of the decade. It wasn't until The Diary of Anne Frank in 1959 that the subject was examined again, albeit from a curiously non-ethnic viewpoint and with only one dream scene directly acknowledging Anne's ultimate fate.
The 1960s saw some important films, most notably The Pawnbroker, which sought to portray the inner life of Holocaust survivors. Also well detailed in Imaginary Witness is Judgment at Nuremberg in both its original television and ultimate film incarnations. I was previously unfamiliar with the television version's censored soundtrack, due to the sponsorship of Natural Gas, who didn't want any mention of gas as a killing method. (Slightly tangentially, I was a little surprised not to see at least a passing mention of Return from the Ashes, perhaps not really a Holocaust-themed film, but one which, despite its mystery and thriller elements, relies on the Holocaust for several major plot points).
The 1970s through the 1990s saw the greatest explosion of Holocaust material being presented to the viewing public, including on the small screen, courtesy of such landmark productions as Holocaust (which actually changed some laws in Germany vis a vis statute of limitations on war crimes) and War and Remembrance, which completely pushed the envelope on what could be portrayed on television. Everything built, of course, to Steven Spielberg's monumental Schindler's List, which has both its champions and detractors, both of whom are featured in this piece.
Imaginary Witness does an excellent job of presenting not only an incredibly panoply of film clips, but also some cogent commentary from such filmmakers as Spielberg and Vincent Sherman, to various survivors (both in and out of the film industry), and various more self-important and thus less compelling people like a foppish Rod Steiger, who instead of talking about the emotional impact of The Pawnbroker, instead goes off on his actorly technique (masterful, of course, according to him) in the final scene of the film.
The documentary makes no bones about film as an art form never being able to adequately portray the pure evil of the Holocaust. Imaginary Witness nonetheless does a great service by affording a level-headed and non-exploitative review of Hollywood's response to one of the greatest human dramas of all time.
Video: Imaginary Witness is presented in a generally quite sharp enhanced 1.85:1 transfer. Contemporary interview segments are all excellent, with good color and contrast. All of the archival footage and various Academy Ratio film clips have been matted to 1.85:1, so your tolerance for such changes might play into how you will react to these clips. Most of the archival footage is in decent enough shape, with no egregious damage to report. A lot of the archival footage is in black and white, of course.
Sound: The standard stereo soundtrack is comprised entirely of Gene Hackman's narration, interviews, and film soundtracks, almost all of which contains dialogue segments. Hackman's narration is strangely compressed at times, especially in the opening few minutes. Nothing is horrible here, but there's not a lot of range. No subtitles are available.
Extras: None are offered.
Final Thoughts: Imaginary Witness is an unusually thought-provoking piece that helps to give some historical context to Hollywood's response to the Holocaust. The story is not always easy to watch, for any number of reasons, but it's part and parcel of one of the greatest tragedies ever visited upon mankind and should be seen by anyone interested in calmly analyzing how popular culture attempts to respond to such overwhelming evil. Highly recommended.