"Hollywood's German Influence"
A. J. Goldmann
March 4th, 2013
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
They don't make them like they used to. But while the most recent Berlin Film Festival was filled with largely mediocre competition fare, luckily one could seek refuge in the festival's sidebar retrospective, "The Weimar Touch." Co-curated by the Deutsche Kinematek and the Museum of Modern Art—it will be shown in New York with slight modifications from April 3 through May 6—the series used the works of such celebrated directors as Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder to make a compelling case for the lasting influence of Weimar-era cinema on Hollywood and beyond.
It is hard to overstate the amount of technical innovation and sheer talent that characterized the German film industry between 1918 and 1933. Today this golden age is best remembered for Expressionist masterpieces such as Robert Wiene's "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu." But Weimar filmmaking was much more than just sinister lighting and jagged camera angles. The industry also produced comedies, musicals, melodramas and thrillers that were among the most popular and inventive movies of the era.
When the Nazis took power in 1933, many of Germany's most gifted directors, actors, cinematographers, production designers and composers were forced out of its film industry. All told, the country lost more than 2,000 professionals, many of Jewish descent. And Germany's loss was Hollywood's gain. The themes, techniques and sensibilities that a generation of émigré filmmakers carried with them to Hollywood brought a new degree of sophistication and know-how to American cinema.
"We wanted to examine the richness and the deep influence on film culture—not just in the States, but around the world as well," explained Laurence Kardish, former senior curator of film for MoMA and one of the retrospective's architects. "Don't forget that Hitchcock's first two films were made in Munich, so there's a deep influence at least in terms of professional techniques that he learned here and a certain cynicism and skepticism." The master of suspense is represented at the MoMA retrospective with 1953's "I Confess!" about a priest who is the prime suspect in a murder case.
But "The Weimar Touch" urges viewers to discover more to the Weimar influence than long shadows and claustrophobic ambiance. For instance, one of the most delightful entries is Hollywood's beautiful 1935 version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" directed by Max Reinhardt, legendary director of the Deutsches Theater, and starring Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland, James Cagney and Mickey Rooney. Lubitsch was one of Weimar's most successful directors when he came over to Hollywood in 1922. His elegant wit was on display in a string of romantic comedies that were marked by dazzling performances and perfect comic timing. He is represented in the series with "To Be or Not to Be," his once-controversial 1942 Nazi satire set in occupied Warsaw.
In addition to American productions, the retrospective contains little-known works from other countries that served as stops for directors in exile. Kurt Gerron's "Het mysterie van de Mondscheinsonate" (Mystery of the Moonlight Sonata), a 1935 Dutch thriller shot using only natural light, bears the clear influence of both Weimar music-hall films and thrillers. Gerron was trapped in Holland and killed at Auschwitz, but Max Ophüls, whose rare 1936 comedy "Komedie om Geld" (The Trouble with Money) is another of the series' rediscoveries, went on to have a celebrated career in the U.S. and France.
Films by American-born directors Orson Welles and John Ford in the retrospective attest to the influence of Weimar cinema on generations of American directors. "Ford acknowledged Murnau's influence and we know that Welles saw all these films," Mr. Kardish said. Discussing Welles's 1958 film-noir classic "Touch of Evil" he notes that it "also says something that Marlene Dietrich is the star."
Film noir is the genre that perhaps most clearly bears the traces of Weimar cinema, and MoMA has selected two of the genre's finest representatives for screening, Welles's "The Stranger" (1946) and Charles Laughton's "Night of the Hunter" (1955).
"Casablanca" (1942) can be seen as the crowning achievement of Los Angeles's émigré community in the 1940s. The plot focuses largely on the existential concerns of European refugees hounded by the Third Reich. Not only were director Michael Curtiz and the majority of the cast European born; many of the actors, including Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt, were themselves refugees with firsthand knowledge of the ordeals many of the film's characters undergo.
Some émigré directors used film to raise public awareness of Hitler's threat. Mr. Kardish mentioned that Anatole Litvak's "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" (1939), which will screen at MoMA, the first studio film to feature Nazis as villains, was heavily condemned by those who opposed a U.S. entry into World War II. "There was a whole hullaballoo about it. A lot of people didn't want to see the film made. The film industry itself warned Warner Brothers not to make the film," he said.
Directors who fled Germany also helped introduce themes of social justice to American cinema. For example, Lang's first Hollywood film, "Fury," also on the program, takes aim at small-town vigilante justice. "These directors started to bring questions about how American society works, and I think it made American society healthier for it," Mr. Kardish said.
While Weimar cinema continues to inspire filmmakers, the festival covers films only through 1959. "That's when the language of cinema changed with Godard and Antonioni," Mr. Kardish explained, pointing to the innovations of the French New Wave auteurs and other filmmakers who rewrote the rules in the 1960s.
The youngest film in the retrospective is "Some Like It Hot" (1959), directed by the Austrian-born Billy Wilder. Freshly arrived in Hollywood in 1933, after a stint in Paris, he wrote screenplays for Lubitsch and roomed with Lorre in Los Angeles. Wilder introduced to American film an element of subversive humor and high jinks that his Hollywood movies would continue to deliver for decades; his acerbic wit and penchant for envelope-pushing material was a defining feature of his filmmaking.
"For me, 'Some Like it Hot' is one of the great Weimar films," Mr. Kardish said. "That film could not have been made without a certain sensibility. That sensibility, I believe, was deeply informed by Berlin in the '20s." The film did not receive Production Code approval, due to its sexual innuendo and gangster bloodshed. As Mr. Kardish noted in introducing the picture at its packed Berlin screening: "This film is a pure joy, but it owes a lot to the concerns of Weimar society, in terms of very black humor, cynicism, questions of identity, violence. And cross-dressing."