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Cinema's Exiles - From Hitler to Hollywood (2009) Film Review only
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Genre: Documentary / Film History / WWII  
Vivid documentary chronicling the exodus of Jewish filmmakers from Europe to the United States.  



Directed by:

Karen Thomas
Screenplay by: Karen Thomas
Music by: Peter Melnick
Produced by: Karen Thomas

Peter Rodgers Melnick

Film Length: 118 mins
Process/Ratio: n/a
Colour and Black & White
Anamorphic DVD: n/a
Languages:  English Dolby Stereo
Subtitles:  English
Special Features :  


Comments :

With 800 filmmakers having fled to Hollywood as Hitler and the Third Reich were gearing up their national anti-Semitic policies and mass -extermination scheme, writer/director Karen Thomas could've created a mini-series, focusing on specific Jewish directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, composers, and producers who fled Germany and eventually immigrated to the U.S., but within the 2-hour running time of Cinema's Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood she manages to crate composite experiences of life as a persecuted individual, a couple in flight, or a family having to start from scratch, and the hardships of adapting to a new lifestyle and culture (or lack thereof, as some felt) in sunny Hollywood, California.

Relying on a huge wealth of archival still, film clips and rarely-seen home movies (including an ice skating Miklos Rozsa!), Cinema's Exiles may be the definitive documentary on Germany's massive creative film drain that affected Hollywood artistry, in terms of sleeker film technique, diverse levels of humour, and the creation of a new genre - film noir.

The film drain began when the Nazis began firing Jews from active filmmaking, gradually whittling away their options to earn a living, and forcing many Berlin-based filmmakers to flee to Paris, Poland, or Austria - neither which remained the secure havens once Hitler’s annexations and invasions began.

While in Paris, a few filmmakers worked on some of Hollywood’s European productions, or were offered one-time contracts to appear in or direct trial productions. In the case of stars like Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel / Der blaue Engel) and Hedy Lamarr, they were imported as hot commodities, whereas technical artisans like editors were of value due to the popular convention of montages.

Those who had the greatest difficulty in settling down in Hollywood were those unable to pick up and learn English fast - a major hurdle for writers, as well as composers whose lyricism was rooted in the German language - and filmmakers so inherently egotistical that they were deemed liabilities, and found little work after the forced migration.

A case in point is Joe May, once a top director in Germany (Indian Tomb / Indische Grabmal: Der Tiger von Eschnapur, Das), who ended his career directing B-movies before downshifting to the restaurant business with his star wife as cook. Frtiz Lang (Metropolis), in turn, eventually learned to tone down his dictatorial style, and managed to direct films for MGM and Fox before venturing on his own with more independent productions.

Those benefitting from a studio contract sometimes aided the next waves of penniless refugees. Producer Erich Pommer, once the head of Germany's top studio UFA, and Dietrich, for example, helped refugees with money, food, and a roof over their heads, or securing small bits of work. Casablanca (1943) is often cited as an example of the substantive refugee talent (French, Hungarian, and German) that was packed into a studio production as WWII was in heat.

Director Thomas also covers Hollywood's anti-Nazi propaganda machine, which began in 1939 with Warner Bros.’ indiscreetly titled Confessions of a Nazi Spy, and spanned comedies, dramas, and war actioners like The Seventh Cross (1944), with Spencer Tracy escaping from a concentration camp.

German exiles also supported the U.S. troops via USO tours, short films, radio broadcasts, and the Hollywood Canteen - a venue where a G.I.'s on furlough could dance and kiss major Hollywood stars like Lamarr, Bette Davis, and Betty Grable.

There's also a chapter on the postwar years where some ex-patriots returned to Germany, helping to rebuild the damaged film industry. Billy Wilder and Marlene Dietrich made A Foreign Affair (1948) in occupied Berlin, Peter Lorre made his lone directorial effort with Der Verlorene (1951), and Fritz Lang finally got to make the Indian diptych he was supposed to direct in 1921 – The Indian Tomb and The Tiger from Eschnapur (1959) – before Joe May took over the reigns, and cast his wife as the heroine.

Unlike William Dieterle and Robert Siodmak, many filmmakers returned to Hollywood, preferring regular studio work as well as the California lifestyle, and director Thomas asserts most of the refugees were secular Jews who preferred to assimilate rather than establish orthodox roots in Hollywood. After getting acclimatized to the Hollywood lifestyle, another continental upheaval wasn’t desired by most, particularly after settling down and starting families.

Among the taped interviews are author Peter Viertel (White Hunter Black Heart) recalling his mother’s home functioning as the cultural epicenter where refugees exchanged information from relatives; and in an archival interview, Billy Wilder addresses his efforts to learn English by seeing movies and reading comic books in order to assimilate among his peers. The tactic worked, and enabled him to progress as co-writer on films like Ninotchka (1939).

The widow of agent Paul Kohner recalls living in Berlin and their sudden flight to France; and the memories of screenwriter/author Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man) are tied to Hollywood's eventual integration of German lighting styles which affected grim horror films and transformed crime dramas into film noir (as with Robert Siodmak's The Killers).

Thomas also excerpts scenes from Menschen am Sonntag / People on Sunday, the semi-experimental anthology film through which writer Wilder, both Siodmak brothers, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Fred Zinnemann (The Seventh Cross) gained favourable attention from German critics in 1930, and started their pre-war careers.

Thomas also integrates many personal tales of flights from Nazi Germany, focusing on composer Franz Waxman (The Bride of Frankenstein), director Henry Koster (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation), producer Pommer (The Blue Angel), director/producer Ernst Lubitsch (Ninotchka), and actor Lorre. She also has contemporary actors read from the diary entries by composer Hans J. Salter (The Wolf Man), and novel excerpts by Frederick Hollander (A Foreign Affair) that were written during his train ride out of Germania.

The name-dropping is heavy, but never confusing (certainly not for film buffs), and while two hours feels weighty, the editing is fluid but never flashy, and the wealth of archival materials is frankly astonishing. This is a well-researched documentary that compresses an important chapter in Hollywood and Europe's history without sacrificing precious details.


© 2010 Mark R. Hasan

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