Weimar on the Pacific

Fleeing Nazi Germany for sunny days and happy endings in Hollywood, moviemaking migrants brought along their own cinematic Sturm und Drang.

Film director Ernst Lubitsch and his wife relax in the sun at the opening of the Arrowhead Springs Hotel in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1939.
Film director Ernst Lubitsch and his wife relax in the sun at the opening of the Arrowhead Springs Hotel in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1939.

Exiles, refugees, expatriates — the tide of talent who would enliven or, more usually, darken the tone and texture of Hollywood cinema — were the great byproduct of the Nazi campaign to cleanse the fatherland of Untermenschen, subhumans not fit for life in the new Germany. Few of the motion picture artists who arrived in Hollywood after 1933 were wretched or poor, but many were politically aberrant, communist or leaning so, and almost all were racially unacceptable to the Nazis — Jewish, part Jewish or married to Jews. Many of the refugees were doubly cursed, being both ethnically and ideologically repellent to the Third Reich.

The influx of refugees skilled in the art of moviemaking was a backhanded confirmation of the prestige accorded their profession in Nazi Germany. Unlike the American government, whose policy toward creative expression was mainly benign neglect, the Nazis honored intellectuals and artists as avatars of Aryan culture, none more so than those working in the most valued of propaganda media. Talented filmmakers of good stock and reliable opinion were pampered; the rest were persecuted. Purged from Germany and later Austria, producers, directors, actors, writers, musicians and craftsmen of all sorts were forced to seek work and find succor elsewhere — Paris, London and the promised land, Hollywood. As usual, the trade weekly Variety came up with a glib coinage for the new migrants in town: “Nazi scrammers.”

Dazzled by the picture-perfect climate of California and the well-oiled machinery of the studio system, the transplanted filmmakers were alternately delighted and disoriented, relieved to have escaped the terror of Nazi Germany and anxious about adjustment to a new life. In assimilating into Hollywood, each confronted problems peculiar to his or her occupational specialty. Some clung fervently to the politics that forced their exodus; others dropped their party affiliations quicker than their accents.

“In Silent Protest”

An impediment shared by all the prominent names was that any Hollywood film employing a well-known German refugee was tagged as contraband and forbidden import into Germany. When submitting a film for German release, the Hollywood studios were required to certify that it was not made by “Jewish emigrants.” The Nazis defined a “Jewish emigrant” as a “non-Aryan” who had emigrated after January 30, 1933, the day Adolf Hitler became Reich chancellor, and who had “left the country in silent protest to the present regime.” To ship films into Germany, the studios either lied outright on the official forms or wiped the offending name from the credits prior to export.

On July 1, 1933, when the purging of Jews from the German film industry became official, producer Samuel Goldwyn telegrammed reporters. “I plan to inaugurate a movement here in Hollywood immediately to welcome to our motion picture ranks those artists, producers, writers and directors who, because of their Jewish heritage, are being deprived of a means of livelihood and an outlet for their talent. We not only invite them here, but what is more important, we need them,” he declared, overlooking restrictive immigration laws that blocked easy entry. Berlin’s loss would be Hollywood’s gain — and at a bargain price.

Money being good anywhere, financially solvent producers made the smoothest transition to filmmaking outside Germany. After 26 years in the German film industry and 16 as production head at Ufa, the country’s flagship film studio, Erich Pommer landed on his feet, first in Paris, working for Fox at the Joinville Studio, later in London and then, for good, in Hollywood. “Where else can one find such lovely days?” he enthused during the shooting of his aptly titled debut for Fox, “Music in the Air” (1934). “The studios are the last word in efficiency,” Pommer gushed. “Here are the best brains in the biz, the best technicians and by far the best facilities for turning out super productions.”

In 1934, the theatrical impresario Max Reinhardt was welcomed with fanfare at Warner Bros., where he was hired to co-direct a bigbudget all-star production of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1935). Reinhardt had some adjustments to make in the move from Neubabelsberg to Burbank when he glimpsed a scene of unseemly modesty on the set. The diaphanous gowns of the girls playing the wood nymphs in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” should be transparent, not veiled, he ordered. He was told that not even Shakespeare was exempt from the Production Code.

Fluent in the universal language of music, composers also adapted readily. Franz Waxman was recruited by Pommer to score “Music in the Air,” secured his reputation with the ethereal strains in “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), and became one of the most common credit lines in classic Hollywood cinema, earning 12 Academy Award nominations and two Oscars. Frederick Hollander, who under the name Friedrich Holländer had written the score for “The Blue Angel” (1930), followed Marlene Dietrich to Hollywood to provide her with theme music and signature songs. Viennese composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold first left for Hollywood in 1935 to score “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for Reinhardt and quickly became a go-to “cleffer” at Warner Bros., earning Oscars for his rousing scores to “Anthony Adverse” (1936) and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938). He left Austria for good weeks before its annexation by the Nazis.

The linguistically dependent ranks of writers and actors found adjustment more difficult. Few possessed the verbal facility of Billy Wilder, who left Germany in 1932 and came to Hollywood by way of Paris in 1933. Wilder’s second-language ear for the lilt of American slang spiced up the dialogue tracks of all his films, though even the witty Wilder always collaborated with a native speaker to fine-tune his screenplays.

Natural chameleons though they were, many actors found their change of habitat wrenching. The screen credits of the marque stars of Germany and Austria meant nothing to the fan magazines in America. Moreover, as the German voice on radio and in the newsreels came to sound ever more barbaric to the American ear, what had once been a language of husky romance and exotic sophistication took on a guttural and discordant timbre. Refugee actors were caught in a cruel bind. The German-accented character parts they might have been typecast for were also drying up: too sensitive for domestic consumption and too offensive to slip by Nazi censorship. Not until America’s entry into World War II would a seller’s market for German-accented villains restore the fortunes of German thespians, Jew and non-Jew, who could play to Central Casting type.

Frankenstein poster
For “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), German
composer Franz Waxman wrote his first original
Hollywood score, still heralded as a masterpiece.

Calling the Shots

Blessed with the mastery of a unique skill set, successful German directors might write their own ticket. The prize catch of all — Ernst Lubitsch — had arrived in 1922 and prospered, and had no desire to return to a nation in perpetual meltdown. In 1932, back in Berlin for a visit, he felt the bad vibrations in the air. Asked by Bella Fromm, the famed diplomatic columnist for the Vossische Zeitung, whether he planned to work ever again in Germany, he shook his head. “That’s finished,” he told her. “Nothing good is going to happen here for a long time. The sun shines every day in California.”

Several rungs down from Lubitsch were the directors Ludwig Berger and Reinhold Schünzel. Berger had been commuting back and forth between Berlin and Hollywood, Ufa and Paramount, since 1928. The talkie revolution pushed him back to Germany, where in June 1933 he had the lonely distinction of being “the only Jewish Ufa director at present,” working on one of the last of his Weimarconceived projects, “Walzerkrieg.” When production wrapped, Berger fled to France, the Netherlands and Britain, but never found his way back behind the camera in Hollywood. For his part, Schünzel, the formerly bankable director of “Amphytrion” (1935), found himself suddenly out of favor for considering a project that took a satirical look at dictators. In 1937, he bolted Germany for Hollywood and landed a contract with MGM to helm froth such as “Ice Follies of 1939” and “Balalaika” (both 1939). Both Berger and Schünzel returned to Germany after the war.

The most prominent director to flee Germany was Austrianborn Fritz Lang, the internationally renowned genius behind the sentimental Nazi favorite “The Nibelungen Saga” (1924), the dystopic science fiction fantasy “Metropolis” (1927) and the crime melodrama “M” (1931). Monocled, impeccably dressed, an autocrat on the set, Lang might have been sent over from Central Casting after a call for a tyrannical German director type. His first film for MGM, “Fury” (1936), was a commercial and critical success, a close-to-the-bone social-problem film in which a howling mob tries to lynch a man unjustly accused of murder.

In Lang’s telling, his escape from Germany was as nerve-wracking, as any of the dark thrillers he made in Hollywood. Soon after the Nazis took power, Joseph Goebbels offered to put him in charge of the German film industry. “But my mother was part Jewish!” protested Lang. “I decide who’s Jewish and who’s not Jewish,” hissed Goebbels, whereupon Lang went directly from the propaganda minister’s office to the Berlin station and boarded the first train to Paris. (The truth was more prosaic: Lang quietly closed out his affairs, packed up his art collection and left first class.)

Show of Support

The fresh-off-the-boat immigrants — or, more likely, freshly disembarked from their second-class berths on the Super Chief at Union Station in Los Angeles, the terminal point for the luxury rail liner — rubbed elbows and competed for jobs with the pioneers who had voluntarily left the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and early ’30s.

Reportedly, some of the original pilgrims were miffed at being lumped in with the come-latelies. “One of the most remarkable angles on the Hitler thing, as far as filmers are concerned, is the almost unanimous care which former Germans take in pointing out they’re not exiles,” reported Variety in 1933. “In some cases, it’s a matter of thinking they may get back someday; in most, it’s the business of not wanting to be pitied but standing on their own as directors, writers and actors rather than as refugee talent that needs bucking up.”

Perhaps — but many of the Weimar expatriates joined together and held out a helping hand to their desperate kinsmen. Ernst Lubitsch, Marlene Dietrich and Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle bankrolled escapes, signed affidavits and put newly arrived talent on the studio payrolls. In 1938, the personal gestures of charity were made official with the establishment of the European Film Fund, through which solvent refugee artists tithed 1 percent of their salaries to sustain refugees down on their luck.

None was more generous or energetic than Paul Kohner, who with Lubitsch co-founded the European Film Fund. In 1938, after a successful career at Universal Pictures, he opened up the Paul Kohner Agency to broker talent, but his real job in the 1930s was being a one-man refugee relief center for the exiled German community in Hollywood. Wired in to all the casting departments of the major studios, he procured visas and employment for scores of adrift Germans.

Finding a Home

Of course, not all the exiles lived out the Hollywood dream. A few non-Jewish, non-left-wing German actors — homesick, afraid of being tarnished as non-Aryans or having run aground under the Hollywood palms — returned to the fold. Most notoriously, Emil Jannings, who won the very first Academy Award for Best Actor for his work at Paramount in “The Last Command” and “The Way of All Flesh” (both 1928), repatriated to Germany with the onset of talkies to become a prize show horse for Goebbels.

But for most in the refugee community, soaking up the sun, learning English and hustling for work was far preferable to returning home. Hollywood, in turn, absorbed the nervous tics and night terrors of the refugee sensibility — shadowy and offkilter, alienated and paranoid, foggy and fearful. The denizens of “Weimar on the Pacific” injected a gloomy Weltanschauung into Hollywood’s bright horizons and happy endings, a touch of evil that in the postwar era blossomed into what sharp-eyed French critics called film noir. The very titles of the low key-lit “mellers” and night-for-night thrillers by director Robert Siodmak exude a sense of death, disorientation and betrayal. In films such as “The Killers” (1946), “The Dark Mirror” (1946) and “Criss Cross” (1949), Siodmak — who fled Germany for Paris in 1933 before landing in Hollywood in 1939 — made American audiences feel, as noir critic Eddie Muller points out, that at any moment uniformed authorities might accost them and demand identity papers.

Back in the Greater Reich, less fortunate motion picture artists paid the ultimate price for being Jewish or anti-Nazi. In October 1936, the German actor Helmuth Klonka was condemned for high treason and executed. That same year, Austrian director and financier Werner Krauss, despondent over Nazi racial laws that blocked his productions from Germany, committed suicide in Vienna. “He had made one big mistake,” the obituary in Variety noted. “He made pictures in Austria with casts which did not get the approval of the German film chamber — that is to say, they were not one hundred percent Aryan.” In 1938, the Austrian actor, comedian and cabaret performer Fritz Grünbalm was arrested and imprisoned in the concentration camp at Dachau, where he died in 1941.

Given the conditions at home, few Hollywood exiles suffered from true homesickness. The Germany they remembered no longer existed.

In a sense, the film people hounded out of Nazi Germany were lucky. Persecuted from the first days of the Nazi takeover, they got the message early and fled well in advance of the holocaust that consumed their kinsmen. Unlike shopkeepers and businessmen, tied down by inventory and contacts, or medical and legal professionals, with clients and credentials, artists were not rooted to real estate or dependent on loyal customers. Itinerant by profession, mobile by inclination, they were a class of professionals ready to hit the road on short notice, carrying little more than a valise and their native talent. Pack a bag, hop a train, walk up a gangplank and sail into a new life.

Thomas Doherty is a professor in the American studies program. This article is adapted from his book “Hollywood and Hitler, 1933- 1939,” to be published in 2013 by Columbia University Press.

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