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Survival Tactics:
German Filmmakers in Hollywood, 1940-1960

Joe McElhaney


Examining the nature of European contributions to Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s is a journey that takes us from the heyday of the studio system to that system’s gradual decline over the following decade. By 1940, the emigration of European filmmakers to Hollywood, ongoing since the 1920s when directors such as Ernst Lubitsch and F.W. Murnau were lured to Hollywood for the financial opportunities and technical resources offered, had peaked. But this later journey, occurring in the aftermath of the rise of fascism and the outbreak of World War II, was due less for financial security than for a political one, and in which the new arrivals were no longer émigrés but refugees. That this wave of creative figures who came to Hollywood had a significant influence on the films they would work on over the succeeding decades is a virtual given. Film noir, the gothic melodrama, the horror film, the political thriller, the comedy of manners – these are all, if not utterly European creations, unimaginable without the intervention of the many European artists who worked on them. But of the various filmmaking traditions from which many of these artists emerged, it is the German cinema of the Weimar period that has always enjoyed a central position in the writing of Hollywood history.


In The Classical Hollywood Cinema, David Bordwell writes: ‘Of all national cinemas, the 1920s German film had the greatest influence on Hollywood. This itself is significant, for in many respects that cinema most resembled the classical American practice’. (1) The links made by Bordwell between the Germans and the Americans refer to production methods (both preferred the highly organised industrial production mode of the studio system) as well as film style. American filmmakers in the 1920s were able to appreciate and quickly imitate the German propensity towards dramatic camera angles, high-contrast lighting and the use of the mobile camera, although none of these were strictly German inventions – Hollywood films prior to the German influence already used many of these devices, if not in the precise manner of the Germans. Nevertheless, Bordwell argues that Hollywood was highly selective in its appropriation of German methods and that ‘the more episodic and open-ended narrative, the entirely subjective film, or the slower tempo of story events [of German films] – were not imitated by Hollywood; the classical style took only what could extend and elaborate its principles without shattering them’. (2) In the broad historical picture it draws, Bordwell’s argument possesses great solidity. But if it is true that the influence of the Germans did not ‘shatter’ the principles of what we have come to call the classical Hollywood film, this influence also cannot be reduced to a collection of anecdotal effects. Consequently, I would like to more fully examine and elaborate upon this process of extension and elaboration to which Bordwell refers. The 1940s is an especially rich decade within which to begin addressing such matters, since this period has historically been analysed in at least two influential ways: as the high point of the economic and aesthetic solidification of Hollywood’s methods; and as the point at which these same methods show signs of wavering and uncertainty, thereby opening themselves up to the possibility of a modernist reading.


1. David Bordwell (with Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson), The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), p. 72.



2. Ibid., p. 73.




The German/Eastern European presence looms very large in the writing on the latter of these approaches. However, this presence alone does not account for all of the various shifts taking place within the classical style. Strictly in terms of auteurs, 1940s Hollywood is not only home to Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger (two filmmakers widely linked with the breakdown of classical Hollywood) but also Orson Welles, Vincente Minnelli, Joseph Losey, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, Preston Sturges, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, John Huston, Elia Kazan and Robert Rossen. What German and Eastern European filmmakers coming to Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s discover is not only a filmmaking practice continuing to be influenced by Germany’s pre-Nazi film classics, but also a Hollywood drawing upon numerous other American and European modernist movements. If, for Hollywood in the 1920s, the German style represented the highest level of the legitimising of cinema as an art form, by the 1940s, when the literal presence of German filmmakers in Hollywood is at its height, this style has become much more fully absorbed into a range of possibilities and is now part of a lexicon. The arrival of Alfred Hitchcock in Hollywood in 1940 presents us with one significant instance of a non-German filmmaker who thoroughly absorbed the German example, while using it to his own particular ends. Moreover, one could now also conceivably make a film that looked Germanic without having seen a single German film. Welles, for example, would later claim that ‘from the great UFA days’ he saw ‘nothing’ – and this in spite of the frequently remarked-upon German influence on his work. (3)


To have a strongly Germanic style in 1940s America was to be in possession of gifts that were, given the historical context, the site of highly ambivalent relations. The publication of Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler in 1947, with its hermeneutic of an unconscious fascism lurking within the cinema that enchanted so many American filmmakers in the 1920s, may be seen as part of the general climate of doubt among certain German cultural figures about their own cinema, even if it is unclear how many refugee and émigré filmmakers were even aware of the book’s existence. How then is it possible to be a ‘good German’ filmmaker within the context of an America at war with the Nazis, especially if one understandably still wishes to retain links with one’s own cultural formation, and with the style that defines one as an artist? In much of what follows, I would like to examine what occurs when this type of German visual and dramatic language, so often tied to questions of power and image-making, must adapt to a very different political and cultural environment, one that takes us from wartime conflict to post-war recovery.






3. Jonathan Rosenbaum (ed.), This is Orson Welles: Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), p. 38.

Michael Curtiz: History Lessons

The film is The Sea Hawk (1940). Immediately following the credits is an image of a map of Spain with the words ‘Spain 1585’ superimposed over it. As the camera executes a reverse tracking shot, a gargantuan and wall-sized map is revealed, showing Europe and the Americas. The following words are heard over this image: ‘The riches of the New World are limitless and the New World is ours’. As the camera continues tracking back, moving left as it does so, the voice continues: ‘With our ships carrying the Spanish flag to the seven seas, our Armies sweeping over Africa, the Near East, and the Far West, invincible everywhere but on our own doorstep, only Northern Europe holds out against us. Why? Tell me. Why?’ As these final words are uttered, the camera ceases its movement and the speaker is shown, sitting in profile in an ornate chair at the head of a long table. He is holding a sceptre, his foot resting on a stool, as another man can be seen towards the rear of the shot, standing in deference to the speaker. At the words ‘tell me’, a cut takes us to a much larger view of the room in which eight standing men are visible surrounding the speaker. We are in a grandiose space of high ceilings and shimmering floors, one that connotes wealth and, above all, power. As the sequence continues to unfold, it becomes clear that the speaker is meant to be King Philip II (Montagu Love). Philip wants to keep Northern Europe in submission, a desire he knows will be unfulfilled as long as England remains unconquered. One of the men surrounding Philip, Peralta (Ian Keith), cautions the King against such action until the Armada is built: ‘It is not yet time, Your Majesty’. The word time provokes a strong response from Philip. ‘The destiny of Spain’, he declares, ‘cannot wait upon the fitness of time. I have but one life. And that is all too short for me to fulfil that destiny’. Philip turns to the man first seen in the rear of the shot in the opening camera movement and addresses him as Don Alvarez (Claude Rains). Philip instructs Alvarez to go to England as Spain’s ambassador in an attempt to allay suspicions as to Spain’s actual plans. Rising from his chair and moving to the map as the camera follows him, Philip intones: ‘With England conquered, nothing can stand in our way. Northern Africa, Europe as Far East as the Urals, then the New World, to the north, to the south, west to the Pacific, over the Pacific to China and the Indies will our empire spread. One day, before my death, we shall sit here and gaze at this map upon the wall’. In the midst of this speech and this movement, Philip steps to the right, out of the camera’s range, as his shadow gradually emerges from the left, assuming greater and greater prominence within the shot. On the words ‘One day, upon my death’ he turns in profile. His body is by now entirely out of the shot as he says, ‘It will cease to be a map of the world. It will be Spain’. He then raises his left arm and points his index finger upward, this image held for several seconds as the shot dissolves into the first image of the following sequence.



Several elements of this sequence stand out in relation to the concerns of this essay. The mise en scène shows the influence of what must have seemed by 1940 to be a predominantly German one: the highly dramatic and varied angles, the mobile camera, the expressive use of shadow and light, and the fullest employment imaginable of the set, designed in relation to a varied use of scale and perspective. Moreover, one feels that the actors here are locked into the film’s design, that their slightest spontaneous impulse would ruin the effect. Typical of most films made within the German style in Hollywood, the actors must submit to predetermined visual strategies mapped out long before they have arrived on the set. Gestural and bodily spontaneity (so central to much of American cinema) gives way to a highly formalist conception of the image.


The director is Michael Curtiz, who was brought to Hollywood by Warner Brothers in the 1920s as part of the first wave of European filmmakers lured to the United States in order to apply their strongly Germanic visual style to American films. Curtiz, however, was Hungarian (born Mihály Kertész, later Michael Kertész) and, prior to coming to Hollywood, made dozens of films in Hungary, Denmark and Austria. But he does not appear to have ever made a film in Germany. Unlike Lubitsch, also under contract to Warners in the 1920s, Curtiz was never typecast; throughout his prolific career, the highly pronounced visual style can be seen in everything from horror films to romantic comedies. For a Hungarian to possess such a Germanic style should hardly be surprising. Not only was there a preponderance of this style throughout much of European cinema when Curtiz first came to international attention; the Austro-Hungarian empire was in its final years when Curtiz began directing, and the cultural dialogue between Germany, Austria and Hungary remained strong. (A number of Lubitsch’s films, for example, were adapted from Hungarian source material.) As part of this general cultural climate, Curtiz was in a position to make use of its visual and dramatic language, even if at one remove from Germany itself.       


The Sea Hawk takes its title (but nothing else) from Rafael Sabatini’s novel (more or less faithfully adapted by Warners in 1924), in order to tell a very different kind of narrative. This particular Sea Hawk is an outrageously inaccurate but (precisely for this reason) compelling historical film. Clear parallels are being drawn between the Spanish empire under Philip II and Nazi Germany, with Elizabethan England serving as a parallel with the England of 1940. The Spanish Empire is a stand-in for fascist power and aggression, with Spain under Franco offering an ideal alibi. At the same time, the eventual democratic values of the New World are inconceivable without the spread of empire the film is also denouncing. And it is this same New World in 1940 that is still neutral, even while The Sea Hawk is part of a group of Hollywood films of this period invested in the U.S. fully committing itself to its eventual European allies. The heroism being enacted in the film becomes an implicit call to arms to America in relation to the European conflicts. Philip would not die until 1598. Even so, Curtiz gives him the appearance of a dying man. The image of Philip’s shadow casting itself over a map of the world is an obvious visual metaphor for the King’s all-encompassing desire for domination, even while it also suggests a type of sickness, an image of political strength that is equally an image of loss, flesh becoming shadow, history becoming myth. But this concern with space and mapping is also tempered by an emphasis on time: Philip’s awareness of time running out not only for his own biological clock, but for an historical time affecting the future of his empire.


At Warner Brothers, historical films were a backbone of their output, particularly from the mid-1930s on, with William Dieterle most often assigned to biopics, stretching from The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) to A Dispatch from Reuters (1940). Like The Sea Hawk, these were not simply historical reconstructions, but designed to draw parallels with the contemporary political situation. (4) While the attraction for historical fictions during this period cannot be ascribed to a single cause, the great economic and political uncertainty in the years leading up to the war was one in which lavish historical recreations could serve as an entertaining spectacle, while also ‘educating’ the spectator by drawing parallels with the current political climate. At Warners, Curtiz’s gift for staging action set pieces and violent confrontations (not a particular strength of Dieterle’s) led to his being assigned, most often, not to the biopic but to another kind of filmed history. Curtiz’s films (as with so many Hollywood historical films of the period) tended to work within the forms of historical romance. In Curtiz, a variety of mediating factors often emerge, some of them merely confirming these ties to the conventions of romance, but others challenging or complicating them. The goal-oriented drives of Curtiz’s characters (regardless of whether we are speaking of his historical fictions or the other genres within which he worked) are in many ways consistent with those of classical Hollywood. At the same time, the excitement and spectacle that unfolds in relation to articulating these drives are of such intensity that they seem to be giving voice to desires that the narrative and social worlds being represented cannot fulfil. Consequently, the films either represent these drives as unstable, when they are not literally a death drive; or the social world surrounding the protagonists is of such a corrupt nature that the overcoming of this corruption can only take place through the most miraculous and unlikely of occurrences. In Curtiz, men and women shape history. But they are also even more strongly shaped and engulfed by it. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, another great, manically productive filmmaker, would later admiringly declare that Curtiz’s fundamental impulse as a filmmaker was that of an anarchist. (5)


In Curtiz’s most famous work, Casablanca (1943), the tension between subjective and historical time central to the opening of The Sea Hawk shapes the entire film. But Casablanca also makes it clear that the experiences of time being articulated are brought about by the wartime situation, one that also engenders a different relationship to space and movement. (6) For the refugees of Casablanca, attempting to escape from this tyranny over space and time, the ultimate destination is America. But this journey requires (as the voice-narration states at the beginning of the film, over an image of a map) ‘a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail’ in which most of them arrive at Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca and ‘wait and wait and wait’. Within such a static atmosphere of waiting, of being acted upon more than acting, the sense of one’s own identity becomes highly unstable. This causes the film’s subjects to live intensely in the present, where conventional distinctions between the past, present and future no longer carry significant weight. (Yvonne: ‘Where were you last night?’ Rick: ‘That’s so long ago I don’t remember’. Yvonne: ‘Will I see you tonight?’ Rick: ‘I never make plans that far ahead’.)



4. This historical allegorising is not unique to American cinema. Jacques Feyder’s La Kermesse héroïque (1935), Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938), Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1938), Alexander Korda’s Lady Hamilton (1941) and Marcel Carné’s Les Visiteurs du soir (1942) were engaged in similar strategies.






5. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, ‘Michael Curtiz – Anarchist in Hollywood? Unorganised Thoughts on a Seemingly Paradoxical Idea’, in Michael Töteberg and Leo A. Lensing (eds), The Anarchy of the Imagination (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 105.

6. In the opening of Leo McCarey’s Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942), for example, we see a globe dissolve into a clock that is labelled ‘Time table of A. Hitler’, the hands on the clock’s face in the form of a swastika that spins rapidly around.

Overtly foregrounded, multi-faceted conceptions of time and their potential to shatter classical experiences of narrative, space and movement are central to the writing of modernist cinema, most notably the Deleuzian time-image of the post-war period. Casablanca is often taken to be the pinnacle of a certain type of classical Hollywood film. But, as with a number of films being produced in Hollywood during the first half of the 1940s, it also anticipates the kinds of issues that will be central to a modernist cinema of the post-war period. A concern with multiple levels of time was present in the arts and philosophy well before World War II. And Weimar cinema was in many ways already a modernist film practice, if not necessarily a full-blown instance of a time-image: its use of complex, embedded narratives in which the visionary protagonists were often unable to satisfactorily respond to or resolve the issues at stake; its experiments in montage creating an often idiosyncratic conception of space and time; its strange narrating rhythms, alternately slow and hypnotic and compressed and elliptical; and its concern with images as a form of seduction and duplicity.


A strictly formalist history of Hollywood would be likely to read the increased interest in flashbacks, dream sequences, deceptive narrating strategies and various non-chronological methods of story structure from the late 1930s on, as part of an inevitable organic development, Hollywood perpetually searching for innovations within an essentially classical framework. However, we may also understand these formal developments in relation to the emigration of European filmmakers reaching its peak at this time, and with it the various traditions, influences and innovations of the national cinemas from which these filmmakers emerged. As both The Sea Hawk and Casablanca demonstrate, these émigré/refugee Hollywood films are best seen as hybrids, some of them more strongly rooted in European modernist and art cinema traditions, while others emerge out of overtly popular forms, both American and European.


Anatole Litvak and the Anti-Nazi Film; or, America the Beautiful

In 1939, the Russian Anatole Litvak directed what is widely considered to be Hollywood’s first important anti-Nazi film, Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Given its story material (the attempt to uncover a German Nazi spy ring in America), Confessions would have been more ‘logically’ directed by a German or Austrian. With the exception of Litvak, no other major figure who worked on the film (aside from some of the actors) had a connection to the émigré community in Hollywood, the project having its genesis in Warner Brothers’ anti-fascist stance.


Litvak’s career before coming to Hollywood is one of the most varied of all the refugees and émigrés. Litvak had been at Nordkino as an assistant director and set decorator, made two short films in his native country, and throughout the thirties made films in France, Germany and England. His passport to Hollywood arrived with the international success of his telling of the great, doomed love affair of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Mayerling (1936), a French-German co-production. One of Litvak’s first Hollywood films was an adaptation of a French play, Tovarich (1937), a story of White Russians living in exile in Paris. And one of his most successful Hollywood films of the 1950s, Anastasia (1956), was another (largely fictionalised) historical film of an exiled Russian, the Grand Duchess Anastasia. This criss-crossing itinerary and overlapping of national cinemas and cultural identities is central to much of exile and émigré cinema. In the case of Litvak, however, it results in a filmmaker with no auteurist profile. (7) That is, unless one wants to read his history of appropriating cultural forms and national cinemas allegorically, in which the constant creation of new identities by moving across cultures often becomes the overt subject matter of the films.


Confessions grabs from a number of approaches very much in the air. Two years before Citizen Kane, the film forsakes the Hollywood tradition of opening credits and places them at the end of the film. Also like Kane, the film makes use of a March of Time pastiche: seen in silhouette in the opening sequence, an announcer sitting at a table and speaking into a microphone declares that what we are about to see, while based on fact, is ‘stranger than fiction’. (The effect is also rather like illustrated radio, another tie-in with Kane.)









7. Traditional auteurism has been either silent or hostile when it comes to Litvak. There are no entries for him in Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema, Jean-Pierre Coursodon’s American Directors, or Richard Roud’s Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. François Truffaut’s review of Anastasia refers to Litvak’s ‘laziness, lack of imagination and bad taste that even his advanced age cannot excuse’ (The Films in My Life [New York: Da Capo Press, 1994], p. 123). Truffaut offers no examples from the film that would back up these claims. As for Litvak’s ‘advanced age’, he was 54 when Anastasia was released.


Unlike Kane, however, the film maintains its March of Time pastiche as a structuring element, continuing to use voice-over narration and integrating newsreel footage with its own. While there is evidence that many spectators in 1939 experienced the film as a highly realistic docu-drama, the film is striking today for its contrast between the newsreel footage and the artificial, serial-like nature of the dramatic sequences. Litvak’s moving camera, tied as it so often is in his films with the intricate blocking of scenes, imparts an atmosphere of stylised mobility, literally pushing the action along at a rapid pace as his Nazi-portraying actors perform in a feverish manner.


As part of its overall structural ambitions, Confessions considerably delays the entrance of its investigative figure: Edward G. Robinson’s G-man, Edward Renard, does not enter the film until more than forty minutes into its 102-minute running time. As Robinson is the film’s only major star, the effect is rather like Psycho (1960) in reverse: the star is not killed off forty minutes into the film, but instead must wait for roughly the same amount of screen time before being permitted entry into the narrative world. Even once Renard has made his entrance, he steps into a predetermined structure rather than significantly transforming it, and he is never given a great amount of psychological richness or paired with a romantic partner. His function is entirely investigative.


Like most of the wartime, anti-Nazi films of Hollywood, Confessions of a Nazi Spy is a type of espionage film, concerned with the modern world of appearances. While war films prior to this also assumed such a generic form, we may speak of an intensification of this world of appearances when it comes to dealing with Nazism. In the anti-Nazi film, Nazism is equated with criminality and must be fought accordingly. It is no longer simply a question of decoding and uncovering in order to gain access to the truth. Instead, Nazism throws the veracity of images and languages into a state of such extreme uncertainty that it requires entirely new methods of apprehension. ‘It’s a new kind of war’, says Renard, ‘but it’s still war’. The war to which Renard is referring is Nazi propaganda, in which extravagant, mass-produced lies assume the mantle of seductive truth. If European filmmakers, especially those who had come into contact with the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany or the decaying values of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were in a particularly valuable position with which to give cinematic life to such concerns, it is not simply that they were refugees from the worlds depicted in these anti-Nazi films. It is also that their backgrounds allowed them to observe and participate in a set of cultural values and aesthetic forms in which mastery and control, vision and knowledge, appearances and role-playing were the dominant thematics of some of the most important works being produced in Europe prior to this.


When such a conception of the world is transplanted to American soil and Hollywood cinema, its relationship to American ideals of transparency, directness and open democracy often finds itself to be an uneasy visitor. But the application of these German/Austro-Hungarian values to a fight against the Nazis allows these same values to be transformed into something that can become, if not usefully American, at least useful for the Americans and for democracy. The anti-Nazi film addresses two closely linked issues of vital concern to both American conceptions of democracy and to fascism: the role of the leader and the role of the collective. In American cinema, the function of the strong leader, the charismatic (if flawed and often reluctant) protagonist who is able to mobilise social groups, is crucial. Such a leader is able to embody democratic ideals in which a dialogue between the needs of the individual and the needs of the collective are continually being given form. Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) in The Sea Hawk is at once a type of flawed, criminal outsider (a pirate) and a charismatic leader, working in an underground, collaborative manner with Queen Elizabeth against Spain and stirring his men to work together for the ideals of England.


But the placement of Renard so late in the narrative of Confessions raises an issue that is central to both the anti-Nazi film and to the ways in which one may construct a version of modernist storytelling in relation to Hollywood at this time: the concept of individual agency and of the power of a transformative figure begins to be problematised. The hero called to action now finds himself thrown into an increasingly complex formal and narrative terrain, demanding radically different methods of responding to a crisis. The Sea Hawk has no such difficulties, largely by transposing its immediate political concerns to a romantic, historical realm. Overall, however, the protagonist in the anti-Nazi film proceeds by a process of indirection, hesitancy and skepticism, and is a figure often strongly linked with death or the erasure of individual identity.


For American cinema, Nazism throws the delicate balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the collective off course. The leader under Nazism is too charismatic and powerful. His hold over the collective is hypnotic, a force too galvanising to resist, and the culmination of the ‘procession of tyrants’ Kracauer famously located in relation to such literally hypnotising Weimar figures as Dr Mabuse. The collective is now a cross between a terrified, immobilised mass and a violent mob, tied to death. Nazism becomes an unnatural force, artificial and destructive. Early in Confessions, Dr. Kassel (Paul Lukas) delivers a fiery speech at a Bund rally in New York, in which he proclaims that America was ‘founded on German blood and culture’. This totalising claim is clearly in violation of America’s devotion to the myth of absorption in which a relationship to one’s racial or ethnic origins may be retained, but only insofar as it does not overrides one’s American identity. ‘This ain’t Europe’, a counter worker in a diner flatly states at the end of Confessions in response to the possibility of Nazis being able to dominate America. ‘The voice of the people’, states the U.S. Attorney (Henry O’Neill), sitting in a booth with Renard and hearing this statement from the worker. ‘Thank God for such people’, Renard responds, as the film concludes with a stirring version of ‘America the Beautiful’ heard under the final credits. Confessions of Nazi Spy remains invested in the possibility of an America collectively rising up in the face of Nazi aggression, even as it moves away from a traditionally developed dramatic conception of the individual in relation to this collective. A ‘new kind of war’ demands a ‘new kind of cinema’.


Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder: Laughter in the Dark

One could very well argue, however, that the greatest anti-Nazi film produced during the war was not any of the melodramas, spy thrillers or docu-dramas but a comedy, Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942). This film has been so extensively analysed in relation to its thesis of Nazism as an extravagant form of political theatre that I need not repeat those arguments here. One matter bears underlining, however. Lubitsch’s central audacity is not merely the application of comedy to the treatment of Nazism – especially as his film was not the first to do this. Nor is it simply that he was able to characterise Nazism as a type of performance. It is also the manner in which a strongly marked ironic and cynical German (and Berlin/Jewish) comic sensibility is brought to bear in a genre (the anti-Nazi film) that, while often addressing issues of political role-playing and theatricality, was otherwise tied to questions of heroism (however initially reluctant) and redemption (however delayed), as in the transformation of Rick and Captain Renault (Claude Rains) in the final sequence of Casablanca, from cynical neutrality to anti-Nazi heroism. The narcissistic actors of Lubitsch’s film become heroes of a sort, but strictly within the logic of their own profession, fighting fire with fire but remaining fundamentally unchanged at the end of the film. Instead of further pursuing such matters in relation to To Be or Not to Be, I would like to compare the film to two other Lubitsch films of the 1940s: The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and Cluny Brown (1946). These films may be thought of as reworking much of the same material in different forms, and in ways that shed light on fundamental elements in the relationship between an émigré filmmaker such as Lubitsch and the American cinema of this period.


While his American career was one in which Lubitsch was entirely identified with a highly sophisticated and often self-consciously European form of romantic comedy, it was his historical film Madame Dubarry (1919) that brought him to the attention of Hollywood. But if history takes a back seat (at least overtly) in most of Lubitsch’s American work, his interest in questions of temporality remains constant and, in his films made during and immediately after the outbreak of World War II, this reaches what is arguably its highest level of expression, in which history reacquires a fundamental role. At the end of To Be or Not to Be, the Hitler impersonator Bronski (Tom Dugan) tells Joseph Tura (Jack Benny), as they are escaping from Warsaw and headed for England, ‘Now we belong to history’. History in these films is at once absent and fully present.


As virtually anyone who writes on the structure of a Lubitsch film has noted, the film most often proceeds not according to the classical laws of cause and effect but by ellipses. Repetition (an important component of comic thought in general) is equally central to this construction; indeed, the two impulses in Lubitsch are strongly linked with one another: the incessant need to create a marked absence in information that must be filled in and interpreted by the spectator is contrasted with a need to give the spectator too much information, too many details. But if ellipsis in Lubitsch is tied to interpretation for the spectator, repetition is tied to questions of relations, for what is at stake here is rarely a simple repetitiveness. Instead, repetitions of a situation, a word, a gesture or a line of dialogue frequently introduce a new context that forces a reconsideration of our prior understanding of what is being repeated.


In these films, we move from Budapest in The Shop Around the Corner to Warsaw and then, ultimately, England in To Be or Not to Be, and remain in England for Cluny Brown before that film’s final destination of New York. But the question of where one lives and whether one can ever feel settled in relation to a particular environment is crucial to all of these films. Taken as a whole, we may see this as another ‘tortuous, roundabout refugee trail’. Samson Raphaelson, Lubitsch’s frequent screenwriter, has described The Shop Around the Corner as a film that ‘could have been anywhere. It was a shop in the mood and atmosphere of the 1900s, and that I remember, you see’. Raphaelson claims to have drawn on his memories of working as a salesman in Chicago for the film, while Lubitsch brought a similar nostalgia from his experiences of working in his father’s shop in Berlin. (8) Nevertheless, its clothes and automobiles all mark The Shop Around the Corner as contemporary in a film that otherwise makes no reference to any current political events. The strategy here is the opposite of what we find in The Sea Hawk. In Curtiz’s film, the historical past is recreated but in order to force an analogy with the present day; in Lubitsch’s film, the present day is drained of any political specificity in order to nostalgically evoke the past. But it is a very complex form of nostalgia that is being practiced by Lubitsch. If it is true that this film could take place anywhere, and even allowing for the film’s Hungarian source material, it is legitimate to ask why in 1939/40 Lubitsch chose Budapest rather than, say, Chicago (the setting for Robert Z. Leonard’s 1949 remake, In the Good Old Summertime), which would have allowed him to much more easily avoid any possible thought of Nazism lurking in the air.

  8. Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), p. 279.

The fascination with ellipsis in Lubitsch is part of a larger concern with pointed absences. The political realities surrounding Hungary in 1939/40 are notable by their absence in The Shop Around the Corner. The ‘little’ problems of heart, home and family experienced by the film’s working class and petit bourgeois characters are charming but heartbreaking, as if this world could be extinguished (or transformed for the worst) at any moment. This is particularly the case with the shop worker, Pirovitch (Felix Bressart). While the film never explicitly states that Pirovitch is Jewish, the casting and playing of Bressart implies as much. The running joke of Pirovitch’s desire to avoid conflict at work, or his need to distance himself from having sustained personal relationships with anyone outside of his own family, carries with it the implications of a larger need to protect his ethnic identity by becoming semi-invisible or camouflaged.


The absent presence of Jews becomes a structuring principle of To Be or Not to Be, with another central role for Bressart, this time as the actor Greenberg. Whereas the two other major anti-Nazi comedies of this period, Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and Leo McCarey’s Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942), repeatedly use the words Jew and Jewish, these words are entirely absent from To Be or Not to Be. But this absence is of an entirely different order from what is found in Confessions of a Nazi Spy or Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! (1943), which do not depict Jewish characters or acknowledge the anti-Semitic element of Nazism. In a far more extreme manner than in The Shop Around the Corner, we are in a world of insidious erasures, deafening silences. The word Jew does not have to be used here, because the film so often leads us to the point where we expect to hear it or to have it referenced before it is elided. This occurs most notably in Greenberg’s recitation of Shylock’s speech from the Rialto scene of The Merchant of Venice, in which Greenberg paraphrases the opening lines, removing all uses of the word Jew. In this cinema of interpretation, in which the spectator is repeatedly being asked to fill in the blanks, Lubitsch in To Be or Not to Be asks the spectator to fill in the blanks in such a way that this simple cognitive act has a deeply political significance. (9)


It is the underrated Cluny Brown that takes these pointed absences and finds its own particular form that implicitly clarifies the ambitions of these three great Lubitsch films. Cluny Brown stands on the brink of two moments of extraordinary historical transition: the moment in which it is set (June 1938, almost exactly one year prior to the beginning of World War II) and the moment in which it was made (late 1945, only several months after the end of the war). It looks to the immediate past from the perspective of the war’s immediate end. During the brief engagement of Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones) to the local pharmacist, Jonathan Wilson (Richard Haydn), the latter takes Cluny to a remote corner of a room in his home and shows her a map of the local valley. Cluny mistakes two tiny flags on the map for battle flags. Wilson corrects her, telling her that one flag indicates the spot where he was born, and the other where he and Cluny are at that very moment. Stepping away from the map and looking about the room, Wilson proudly states, ‘And this is where I intend to remain for the rest of my life’.












9. For an extended analysis of this issue, see Gerd Gemünden, ‘Space Out of Joint: Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be’, New German Critique, Issue 89 (2003), pp. 59-80.


At the beginning of the war, a fictionalised King Philip in The Sea Hawk articulates his desire for totalising power and domination through a gargantuan wall map of Europe and the Americas. With the war just over (in a film set shortly before the war’s beginning), an entirely fictional, petit bourgeois character likewise gives voice to his desires through what is figuratively the smallest map imaginable. Is Wilson’s map, however, preferable to Philip’s? Not necessarily.


At their first meeting, the writer Belinski (Charles Boyer) tells Cluny, ‘Nobody can tell you where your place is. Where is my place? Where is anybody’s place? I’ll tell you where it is. Wherever you’re happy – that’s your place. And happiness is a matter of purely personal adjustment to your environment’. The immediate context for this statement is Belinski’s attempt to reassure Cluny that she will not be locked into an English class system that stifles her, a world where she cannot hope for more than marriage to a pharmacist whose imaginative grasp of the world stretches no farther than the corner of a room. The film was widely attacked in England upon its initial release for what was felt to be its inaccurate depiction of the country and its people. But Lubitsch’s films tend to flaunt their lack of authenticity, as if daring the spectator to become invested in the ‘reality’ of these narrative worlds. In the case of Cluny Brown, a certain historical allegorising is taking place, in which 1938 England, basking in its own Englishness, has not yet comprehended the full weight of the Nazi terror to come. (10) Belinski’s reassuring words to Cluny early in the film can also clearly be read in relation to the experience of emigrants and refugees, who must find happiness through a process of adjustment to new environments, and in which America here becomes the final destination, a refuge for Cluny and Belinski. Ironically, however, Belinski, a man who we are told early in the film is ‘fighting for a new and better world’, does not come to America to find a publisher for his anti-Nazi manuscript and continue the fight, but instead becomes a highly successful mystery novelist. Politics and history appear to be forsaken at the end of the film, as he lives out an American dream of economic success. However, we cannot be too sure of the stability of this, once we begin to place the film’s epilogue historically, in which the success and domestic happiness of Belinski and a pregnant Cluny is taking place around 1939/40, when England is now at war and with America’s own entry into it not far off. As in The Shop Around the Corner, the historical moment is pointedly off-screen.






10. The methods here are very similar to Hitchcock’s in The Lady Vanishes, made the same year in which Cluny Brown is set.

Lubitsch died in 1947 and never made a film directly about the post-war situation. A year after Lubitsch’s death, however, Billy Wilder, the man who so often cited Lubitsch as fundamental in the formation of his own sensibility, addressed the period head-on. In A Foreign Affair, a dual perspective on America and Germany emerges as members of the American congress come to a ravaged, post-war Berlin in order to uncover reports of corruption among the American military stationed there. The basic story situation of A Foreign Affair literalises the frequent, implied relation that takes place in Wilder between the values of European (especially German) culture and those of American culture. Wilder has often been considered the most American of all the German filmmakers who came to Hollywood and, no doubt as a result of this, he was the most successful of them as well. Wilder retains certain links with Lubitsch; in particular a fascination with worlds on the brink of destruction and, as a result of this, characters who will do anything to survive. But Wilder has little of Lubitsch’s interest in ornate formal play, his films gaining their force by facing their situations in a blunt manner. Small miracles of classical construction, the narratives most often revolve around improbable encounters and the conjoining of apparent irreconcilables. Lubitsch’s Hollywood films were rarely set in America but instead created a ‘false’ Europe on the soundstages of Hollywood. Wilder’s films, on the other hand, not only often had American settings, but these were represented in a concrete, detailed style, verisimilitude a concern with Wilder in a way that it never was with Lubitsch.


An early anti-Nazi film such as Confessions of Nazi Spy is still capable of starkly opposing German fascism with American democratic values. But in A Foreign Affair, these oppositions no longer hold. In general, a contrast between European corruption and American vitality is rarely a given in Wilder. Throughout A Foreign Affair, Wilder plays attitudes against one another, attitudes alternately flawed and insightful, and articulated through a range of characters, towards the issue of post-war recovery, the American presence in Germany and the persistence of Nazism. Cynicism is a word that is used repeatedly in the literature on Wilder, as it also is in relation to Lubitsch. But with Lubitsch, the cynicism of the work is treated by critics as a given, whereas in Wilder it invariably becomes the site of a problem, a mark of the uncertainty surrounding assessment of the work – as in Andrew Sarris’s frequently quoted dismissal of Wilder as ‘too cynical to believe even in his own cynicism’. (11) That Sarris later recanted, elevating Wilder to the pantheon of American cinema, is symptomatic of the problems many critics have had in coming to terms with him: Cynic or romantic? The sequence in A Foreign Affair of Captain Pringle (John Lund) driving through the devastated landscape of Berlin to the strains of ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’ on the soundtrack fuses both of these seemingly irreconcilable sensibilities together. Debating which of these is the ‘true’ Wilder is totally beside the point. The films derive their force by the rude conjoining of these sensibilities. In Casablanca, Renault tells Rick of his suspicion that beneath Rick’s ‘cynical exterior beats the heart of a romantic’. As it turns out, Renault is not wrong. A Foreign Affair offers no such comfort, nor does it ever traffic in the humanist message of Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (1948), another film addressing the complexities of post-war European recovery, and in which the American occupation presence assumes a central function.


Unlike Lubitsch, Wilder was a refugee, not an émigré, and his mother perished at Auschwitz. Cynicism in Wilder needs to be taken quite seriously as a legitimate response to these worlds being so concretely represented. If we recall that philosophical Cynicism was initially concerned with the quest for defining civilised conduct in a politically unstable and violent world, and in which hostility to the concept of nation was fundamental, then Wilder’s work, when situated in such a context, acquires far greater force and importance. In A Foreign Affair, Colonel Plummer (Millard Mitchell) calls Germany a ‘country of open graves and closed hearts’ that the US had to turn into a ‘civilised state’. But civilisation in this instance essentially means becoming American. This attitude is repeated in Sabrina (1954), when Linus Larabee (Humphrey Bogart) informs his brother David (William Holden) that power ‘has become a dirty word’. Post-war American capitalism now must find more subtle methods by which to dominate the world. Linus’ plastics industry now goes into ‘undeveloped’ areas, building factories so that ‘barefooted kids wear shoes and have their teeth fixed and their faces washed’, and spend their free time playing baseball and going to the movies. In neither film is such an attitude overtly denounced. At the same time, the basic drives of the films are not completely aligned with this vision of American domination.





11. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968), p. 166.

Under the credits to A Foreign Affair, the melody for a song is played that will be heard again near the end (this time with lyrics supplied, and sung by the great icon of German Hollywood, Marlene Dietrich), ‘The Ruins of Berlin’. The melody, however, is not mournful but rousing and anthem-like. Wilder’s films are drawn to images of ruin, a world covered in dust. The ethical and mythic values that, for better or worse, once held these worlds together have turned to rot. Lubitsch’s conniving protagonists, for all their unscrupulous conduct, remain vertical, rarely losing their elegance; Wilder’s, on the other hand, are frequently horizontal, buffeted by more extreme forces. ‘We all become animals with but with one instinct left: self-preservation’, Dietrich’s Erika tells Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) of the situation of the Germans in the late stages of the war.


The fascination with ruin in Wilder may also be seen in relation to a larger concern with the question of home and country, of the inability to ever fully belong to a culture, a concern according to which America, as much as Europe, will be represented as decaying or corrupt. In his films, the treatment of the European culture from which Wilder fled and the American culture into which he settled remained highly complex and ambivalent. In Love in the Afternoon (1957), Ariane (Audrey Hepburn) explains her attraction to a Pepsi-Cola executive, Flanigan (Gary Cooper), not in relation to Flanigan’s individual identity but his social one. ‘They’re very odd people’, she says to a friend. ‘When they’re young they’ve had their tonsils taken out and gallons of vitamins pumped into them. Something happens to their insides. They become immunised, mechanised, air-conditioned and hydromatic. I’m not even sure he has a heart’. ‘What is he?’ the boy asks. ‘A creature from outer space?’Ariane replies, ‘No, he’s an American’. But it is also this mechanised and air-conditioned man with whom she runs off to America at the end of the film. In Sabrina, the implications of this ending are reversed and the unlikely couple of the aging, unattractive Linus Larabee and the young, beautiful Sabrina Fairchild (Hepburn again) run off to Europe, a movement that also reverses a possible narrative direction established earlier in the film through a conversation between Sabrina and Linus. Sabrina, in love with Linus’s brother David, draws a parallel between her situation with that of a hypothetical Viennese operetta, in which a young prince falls in love with a waitress and the prime minister attempts to buy her off. (12) At the end of Sabrina’s operetta, the couple runs away to America. In her own life, Sabrina (described by her father as a ‘displaced person’) gets a perverse fairy tale ending, marrying not the handsome prince but his older, un-romantic brother. ‘You need dusting’, she tells him. Wilder’s cynical (and Cynical) vision arises out of the search for an ethical centre in the worlds being depicted – a search marked by a frantic, profoundly comic quest that often sends his characters dashing off in multiple directions. Is this why, at the end of so many Wilder films, the protagonists are literally, madly running, as if in search of something (a new place, a new adventure) that may only bring another form of chaos and misery?












12. This narrative is, in fact, very close to that of Sigmund Romberg’s American operetta, The Student Prince, adapted from a German novel and play, and filmed as a silent by Lubitsch at MGM in 1927.

Curtis Bernhardt and the Gothic: Sleeping Sickness

Instead of characters who run, let us turn to another form of movement that recurs in the cinema of this period. In Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed (1947), Louise Howell (Joan Crawford) is described by a psychiatrist as being in a ‘catatonic stupor’ after she has been found wandering the streets of downtown Los Angeles. Possessed is a film that belongs to a tradition of female-centred melodramas of the 1940s, largely initiated by Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), whose roots are in the European and American gothic romantic tradition of the nineteenth century. As with noir, German filmmakers have often been central to the history of the gothic in Hollywood. Bernhardt was a gifted filmmaker whose various assignments in Hollywood never created the conditions for his recognisably Germanic style to coalesce into an individual style, one tied to a world view comparable to Lang’s or Wilder’s. Nevertheless, many of his best Hollywood films were centred on women, suggesting that his gifts reached their highest level of expressivity when applied to dramatising the psychology of female characters – thus placing Bernhardt in a valuable position in relation to the fashion for the gothic in 1940s Hollywood.


While the gothic is a term that covers a wide berth, I want to briefly address here films that have scenarios strongly influenced by psychoanalysis, and that make use of much of the standard iconography of the traditional gothic of the nineteenth century, even when set in the present day. Throughout Possessed, Bernhardt employs a number of insistent visual devices, from graphic matches (most often water motifs) that move the narrative into and out of the past, to a highly expressive use of light and dramatic camera angles. The film belongs to a group of melodramas from the mid to late 1940s that are marked by an eccentric and baroque approach to what are ostensibly classical Hollywood projects: Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1946), Curtiz’s The Unsuspected (1947), Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door … (1948), and House by the River (1950), Litvak’s Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and The Snake Pit (1948), Douglas Sirk’s Sleep, My Love (1948). At the end of Confessions of Nazi Spy, Renard describes his experience in confronting the psychology of the Nazis as one that ‘has been like spending a great deal of time going through a madhouse’. Going through a madhouse is what The Snake Pit literally engages in. But these other films also share a fascination with pathology and neurosis, their eccentric form seeming to take its cue from the psychology of these deeply flawed protagonists. The convention of the nineteenth century gothic mansion as an extension of the body and mind of the protagonist is treated to a number of variations in these melodramas. Shadowed interiors are dominated by the expressive use of staircases, mirrors, windows and doors that engulf the characters; and the filmmakers often utilise flamboyant camera movements on these spaces, accentuating their menacing grandeur.


Possessed stands out among this group less for its style, however, than for its attitude toward mental illness. The Snake Pit and Secret Beyond the Door … rely on the convention of childhood and family trauma as the root of neurosis. Possessed, on the other hand, posits an entire post-war culture infected with psychological disorders, in which Louise’s obsessive attraction to David Sutton (Van Heflin) and her eventual breakdown are not traceable to an individual case study. Describing herself as barely existing until she met David, Louise is metaphorically born through her mental illness. She is one of many mental patients who have been checked into the hospital on this one particular day, prompting Dr. Willard (Stanley Ridges) to declare, ‘This civilisation of ours has a worse disease than heart trouble or tuberculosis, and we can’t escape it’. Even while these films draw on elements of gothic form they are also participating in the emergence of a certain kind of post-war, modernist filmmaking in which the classically driven, goal-oriented protagonist gives way to a protagonist who is unable to take the kinds of actions and make the types of decisions that would transform her into an active character. The fashion for Freudian psychoanalysis in Hollywood during the 1940s and ‘50s creates conditions in which the protagonists are no longer held accountable for what they do. Even though Louise shot and killed her lover, Willard declares that Louise is not ‘legally or morally responsible for her actions’.


In the anti-Nazi film, Hitler and Nazism become undesirable due to the hypnotic power of the galvanising leader over the immobilised mass. In these psychological melodramas, the passivity of the protagonists approaches, when it does not literally embody, that of the hypnotic subject. We are in a bedridden cinema of catatonia, the characters often existing in a realm between sleeping and waking, hypnosis and lucidity. ‘I want to think’, Louise says, ‘and people won’t let me’. In Secret Beyond the Door …, as Celia (Joan Bennett) listens to her new lover Mark (Michael Redgrave) talking to her, her voice-over refers to ‘floating to a place where time had stopped’. Mark himself describes Celia as a ‘twentieth century Sleeping Beauty’ while also declaring that ‘most people are asleep’. And in Possessed, Louise is described as someone who ‘can’t wake up’. If the world of appearances was so central to the cultural formation of German and Eastern European filmmakers, in the Hollywood gothic melodrama of this period the relationship between the false and the real is most often expressed through the tortured psychology of the characters, rather than through a direct interrogation of the process of image-making and of spectacle. However, in the most frequently analysed sequence from Possessed, a blurring of the lines between subjective and objective occurs when Louise imagines herself in a jealous rage over her stepdaughter’s relationship with David, resulting in the stepdaughter being pushed down a flight of stairs to her death. Bernhardt does not obviously cue the sequence as a subjective one; not until the melodrama has played itself out through the death of the stepdaughter is it made clear that Louise has hallucinated the moment. The film does not repeat such strategies for the remainder of its duration. But, on a first viewing, the spectator may be placed in a position of continuous uncertainty in relation to the status of the remaining images as they unfold. As Mary Ann Doane notes in relation to this sequence, ‘Possessed unveils, through the representation of a distorted female subjectivity, the collective and naturalised madness – the investment in an image – which supports the cinema as an institution’. (13) Earlier on, Louise complains to David that she cannot go back to looking in on the outside of other people’s lives, as she had done before she met him. But David responds that everyone is on the outside of other people’s lives, looking in. Possessed suggests a new type of post-war protagonist, one who does not decisively respond to events but only observes them, even though this may ultimately lead to madness.


William Dieterle: Mad Love/Mad Cinema

A Hollywood cinema of madness, however, need not necessarily be one that addresses psychoanalysis as an institution. Let us speak of another kind of madness, whose expression runs the gamut from Platonic to mad love. Three films epitomise this tendency: two by Dieterle, Love Letters (1945) and Portrait of Jennie (1949), and one by Siodmak, Christmas Holiday (1944). The Siodmak is often incorrectly categorised as a 1940s noir. But the strange casting of Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly as the romantic leads is the first indication of a highly idiosyncratic film. While Christmas Holiday is only 92 minutes long, the central narrative situation is not introduced (via the first of two flashbacks) until a third of the way into its running time. Until then, it appears as if the narrative will essentially concern itself with an American soldier attempting to recover from the disappointment over his fiancée abruptly marrying another man. Not until he meets a New Orleans prostitute named Jackie (Durbin), real name Abigail, whom he escorts to a midnight mass and who afterward begins to tell the soldier the story of her own doomed love affair and marriage, does the ‘real’ story of the film begin to unfold. This idiosyncratic narrative organisation is not unprecedented in Hollywood films of the period: in addition to Confessions of Nazi Spy we may also speak of the ‘closure-within-a-dream’ structure of Preminger’s Laura (1944), the flashbacks within flashbacks of Curtiz’s Passage to Marseilles (1944) and Litvak’s The Long Night (1947), or the deceptive narration of Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945). Are such examples merely a search for a new way to tell stories within an essentially classical form? Perhaps. But let us imagine that all of this obsession with ornate narrating may also be a way of trying to avoid classical narrative entirely, by playing games with it, by delaying its inevitable intrusion as long as possible in order to create a cinema that gives life to other possibilities.



13. Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 58.



If the wartime situation is one in which modernist conceptions of time and space begin to affect the form and meaning of much of Hollywood cinema, Love Letters, Portrait of Jennie and Christmas Holiday apply these conceptions to films that address the romantic couple, whose formation and development has been such a fundamental element in classical cinema. But the romances in all three films are alternately too chaste and too intense to be able to insinuate themselves into classical narratives. Luis Buñuel, for example, has referred to Portrait of Jennie as ‘a mysterious, poetical, and largely misunderstood work’. (14) Buñuel does not elaborate, but the film clearly belongs to a cinematic tradition of l’amour fou so central to surrealist thought. Joseph Cornell had a similar response to Love Letters and, in particular, to Jennifer Jones’ presence in it. In both Love Letters and Portrait of Jennie, Jones’ strange, slightly slurred speaking rhythms and wide-eyed expressions, alternately alert and dreamily unfocused, give her the quality of (to borrow the term Cornell used as the title for his tribute to the Viennese Hedy Lamarr) an ‘enchanted wanderer’, a state that may be thought of as another variation on the drifting, sleepy-eyed protagonists of 1940s gothic.





14. Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), p. 225. For Sight and Sound’s 1952 poll of the ten greatest films ever made, Buñuel placed Portrait of Jennie on his list.

Dieterle’s reputation continues to rest largely on his biopics. But his gift for dramatising obsessive and unlikely romantic pairings is at least as interesting as his gift for historical drama. Shot towards the end of the war and released several months after it, Love Letters (the screenplay is by the Russian-born Ayn Rand) overtly addresses the problem of memory, both in relation to wartime trauma and psychological trauma. But such a problem also puts into play a film about fractured and incomplete identity. Allen Quinton (Joseph Cotten) writes love letters for a friend in the army, Roger Morland (Robert Sully), addressed to a woman Roger briefly met in England, Victoria (Jones). Through the letters, Victoria falls in love with Roger and eventually marries him, only to discover the inevitable gap between the reality of her brutish husband and the sentiments expressed in the letters. ‘She is in love with a man who doesn’t exist’, Quinton warns Morland in the opening sequence. The amnesia that Victoria develops in the aftermath of Roger’s murder (committed, it is believed, by Victoria herself) may be understood as not simply trauma in relation to this act of violence, but also as the culminating moment in her mounting disappointment over the reality of the man she married. That this murder was ultimately not committed by Victoria but (as we discover in a flashback near the end of the film) by her guardian, Beatrice Remington (Gladys Cooper), as a protective response to Roger’s attempted violence against Victoria, is totally consistent with the structure of displaced and substituted actions that dominate the film. If the 1940s gothic melodrama creates protagonists who are blameless for their actions, these films of romantic delirium establish worlds in which actions are most often committed in the name of someone else, or in which characters assume the guilt or responsibility for another’s crime. Near the end of Christmas Holiday, Mrs Manette (Gale Sondergaard) slaps Abigail (Durbin), her daughter-in-law, after her son Robert (Kelly) has just been convicted of murder. ‘You killed him’, the mother flatly states after the slap, a ludicrously unfair evaluation that Abigail nevertheless accepts. She then changes her name and turns to prostitution, seemingly as a form of self-induced degradation over the failure to live up to her romantic ideals in relation to her husband.


In both Love Letters and Portrait of Jennie, a Platonic ideal of love is established in which an adult woman is ‘made clean’, returning her to childhood through death and then rebirth through art (Portrait of Jennie) or to a state of innocence brought on by amnesia (Love Letters). In Love Letters, Victoria has even forgotten her own name and simply calls herself Singleton. For Beatrice Remington, this Singleton without memories becomes both a ‘girl who is not alive’ and (like Jackie/Abigail in Christmas Holiday) ‘two different women at once’. Memory gives one a stable identity, allows one to ‘live’. At the same time, it marks the end of innocence. In comparing her amnesia with Quinton’s wartime trauma, Singleton states, ‘I’ve forgotten and you don’t want to remember’. Such statements invite a symptomatic reading, in which the late wartime/immediate post-war period becomes one in which the desire to forget the past and move forward, to become ‘clean’ again, is a state that is both intensely desirable and utterly impossible. In the opening sequence of Love Letters, Quinton refers to Victoria as a ‘pin-up girl of the spirit’, while the most precious of his letters to her refers to ‘a distant promise of beauty untouched by the world’. And Beatrice Remington, we are told, raised Victoria as a ‘kind of idol’. In Portrait of Jennie, a gallery owner (Cecil Kellaway) insists that ‘there ought to be something timeless about a woman’. And indeed such a vision materialises in the figure of Jennie. But the ponderous, third person voice-over narration with which the film begins prepares us for a film that wishes to address ‘the awesome reaches of infinity’, asking such questions as, ‘What is time? What is space? What is life? What is death?’ Time here exists on several levels, most prominently the time in which the film is set (1934), unfolding chronologically, but also in terms of seasons; and Jennie’s time, also unfolding chronologically but running behind the temporal structure of the narrative. Jennie’s first appearance in the film, while she is still a child, is one in which she emerges from 1910 in order to speak to the painter Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) in 1934. Each successive appearance shows her to be older than the last, as she moves through time even while Eben remains in 1934. Jennie is, in fact, already dead – a ghost or possibly a vision of Eben’s – and she ‘dies’ a second time and in the same way as the first, in the midst of a violent storm off the New England coast. Jennie, however, ‘lives on’ through Eben’s portrait of her. ‘We’ll have all eternity together’, Jennie tells Eben, the most explicit statement of the ideal of Platonic love imaginable.


In Christmas Holiday, two songs situate romantic desire in relation to time: the Irving Berlin standard, ‘Always’, and a new song for the film, ‘Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year’. The former song functions in relation to the question of a love that exists beyond boundaries of time, while the lyrics of the latter address a failed love that metaphorically alters the experience of seasonal change, an extended winter of the heart (as in the opening sequence of Portrait of Jennie), but which holds out the possibility that ‘time heals all things’. In one of the film’s most spectacular sequences, dominated by a roving crane across a crowded auditorium, Abigail and Robert meet at a concert performance of the ‘Liebestod’ from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. In the final sequence, Robert has broken out of jail to track down Abigail, misunderstanding her turn to prostitution as sexual hedonism in his absence rather than an act of masochism. Robert is shot and killed by the police and, like Tristan, is cradled in the arms of his beloved. As the strains of the ‘Liebstod’ alternate with ‘Always’, Robert tells his wife, ‘You can let go now, Abigail’, and then dies. Abigail literally lets go. But as the strains of the ‘Liebstod’ take dominance over ‘Always’, Jackie, in a trancelike state, walks to the window. In an extraordinary close-up, we see Jackie’s face, tears running down it, the backlit image at once suffering and beatific. As her eyes look up towards the sky we see the final image of clouds parting, the moonlight emerging from behind them as the Wagner music fades. One of the many striking things about this sequence is its uncanny evocation of Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un chien andalou (1929), which likewise uses the ‘Liebestod’ for its doomed and violent lovers and which, in its opening sequence, contains an equally powerful image of a night-time sky, clouds parting for an image of the moon, where Buñuel himself is the subject looking up at the sky, immediately before slicing the eye of a woman.


In spite of Siodmak’s name being virtually synonymous with 1940s noir, his films have a very different quality from other noirs of the period. Siodmak’s protagonists tend to be romantic masochists, driven to destroy themselves in the name of love. Siodmak most often places his protagonists in worlds governed not by the logic of classical narrative, but by a delirious world seemingly shaped by the need of these characters to live out a fantasy at any cost, giving some of the films a latent surrealist quality. These are characters who desire, consciously or not, to withdraw completely from society, to retreat into madness or death. Has Abigail truly ‘let go’ at the end of Christmas Holiday? Or has she given herself over to the madness implied by her attraction to Robert? The final images of the film imply both possibilities.




Siodmak, Lang, Preminger, Zinnemann: Stalking in the Moonlight

If wandering and sleepwalking are two related forms of movement for the protagonists in Hollywood émigré and refugee cinema, there is another to be accounted for here as well. In Frtiz Lang, Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak and Fred Zinnemann, the protagonists often find themselves caught up in a structure of stalking and trailing. While this undoubtedly has its roots in a variety of sources, from the narrative forms of crime fiction (including film noir) to the influence of the Weimar street film, it is often so intensified in the work of these filmmakers that it becomes part of a deeper structure, one that also anticipates the overtly modernist fictions of figures such as Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain Robbe-Grillet (and which is also central to Hitchcock’s Vertigo [1958]). The literature on film noir has consistently emphasised how, in its concern with modernity and the destabilised subject, noir often sits on the border between the classical and the modernist. When the act of stalking occurs such borders are often pushed even further.


Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944) has one of the most notable stalkings in any film, in which Carol (Ella Raines) attempts to intimidate a bartender, first by staring him down, night after night, at the bar where he works, and then by following him home. This section of Phantom Lady is certainly a tour de force for Siodmak, in which he is able to conjure up the atmosphere of humid New York City summer evenings entirely through studio sets and process work. But what is perhaps even more astonishing about the sequence is the manner in which the demure Carol is transformed through this act of vengeance against a man who has lied to the police about her boss, Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), the bartender’s false testimony instrumental in Henderson’s sentencing for murder. This transformation has little realist psychological credibility, its power entirely poetic and imaginative. Carol becomes a detective outside of the law, controlling her world first through an all-powerful and unerringly focused gaze (she barely moves or bats an eyelash as she sits at the bar, becoming a type of living portrait with eyes that look back at the beholder) and then through her control of space, as she stalks her prey, an act that ultimately results in the man’s death.



To stalk one’s prey is to become not only a hunter but also to reduce the object of stalking to something non-human or animal-like. During the war, Lang’s Man Hunt (1941) explores numerous permutations of the hunter being captured by his game within the context of the fight against Nazism, in which its Nazi and anti-Nazi characters constantly switch roles from animal to hunter and back again. Hunting is both a sport for aristocrats and a metaphor for Nazism, the only thing marking the difference between the two being, in the words of its central anti-Nazi fighter, Captain Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon), ‘a civilised conscience’. The Nazi office Quive-Smith (George Sanders) tells Thorndike that his great passion in life had been the hunting of big game, which he gave up in favour of politics. In the opening sequence, Thorndike is introduced simultaneously as a hunter (in the woods outside of Hitler’s home, rifle in hand) and as an object of prey, shown first through his footprints, as if he is an animal being stalked. Thorndike spends the bulk of the film on the run from the Nazis, who have insinuated themselves into his native London, creating an alternate false English world side by side with the actual one, the Nazis skilfully impersonating English stereotypes so that their stalking movements become camouflaged. Thorndike is under the delusion that he is returning home for, as he puts it, ‘the fatted calf’ until he realises that ‘I am the fatted calf’.


After the war, Zinnemann’s Act of Violence (1948) turns its stalker, Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), into a type of human beast, wounded and limping. If in A Foreign Affair Wilder creates an image of post-war Germany as one in which the survivors become animals out of the need for self-preservation, and in which a landscape of urban ruins dominates, Zinnemann’s film examines an immediate post-war America literally rebuilding itself: the object of Parkson’s aggression, Frank Enley (Van Heflin), is a building contactor. However, the world of Act of Violence does not derive its focus from the need to rewrite the past through the elimination of wartime ruins, but from the need to build anew, to effectively write over the past through architecture. While Enley is treated by the public and the press as a war hero, he was, in fact, responsible for the death of most of the men in his outfit after they had all been captured by the Nazis. The injured Parkson survived, now intent on revenge and murder, and the film charts (in a remarkably compressed 82 minutes) the set of responses Parkson’s stalking generates among four characters, not only Parkson and Enley but also Enley’s wife Edith (Janet Leigh) and Parkson’s girlfriend Ann Sturges (Phyllis Thaxter).


Like Lang and Preminger, Zinnemann was a Viennese native. Act of Violence (as in the films of these other two directors) demonstrates a concern with appearances and with the ethical choices that the protagonists and the audience must make in relation to the issues that arise from this. Nevertheless, Zinnemann’s work, while far from oblivious to the complexities of the issues it is addressing, tends to resolve itself on a different level from Lang and Preminger. Moral conflicts in Zinnemann avoid the scepticism and suspended meaning so central to Lang and Preminger in favour of a more literal dramatisation of moral conflict. Enley undergoes a crisis of conscience at the end and dies in a struggle with a man he had initially hired to murder Parkson. The sight of Enley’s death causes Parkson’s thirst for revenge to be immediately extinguished; the film ends with Parkson (accompanied by his loving girlfriend) limping off to inform Edith of her husband’s death. A happy ending of sorts, in which the stalking ends not by killing the stalker but by killing the ‘hero’ linked with the act of rebuilding post-war America. However, it is implied that the collective perception of Enley as a hero will remain intact: the spectators observing the violent struggle between Enley and the hit man immediately misinterpret it as Enley attempting to suppress a holdup. The structure of stalking is terminated, as is the psychosis that accompanies it, but a post-war culture happily building itself on myth continues.


In Preminger’s Angel Face (1952), Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons) and her father Charles (Herbert Marshall), living in Beverly Hills with Charles’s second wife, are survivors of a wartime England in which Diane’s mother perished in an air raid. Preminger does not, however, create any degree of pathos out of this situation, nor does he serve to locate any particular trauma or pathology on the part of Diane. Nevertheless, Diane is herself a kind of stalker but (in a manner typical of Preminger) indirect and more insidious in her methods than what we find in Zinnemann’s film. Her first name evokes the goddess of the hunt and, like the ‘original’ Diana, she is also linked (as the title indicates) with chastity and purity. (Twenty years old, she doesn’t drink or smoke.) This linkage, however, is entirely ironic in nature, as Diane also serves as a femme fatale, literally chasing after and then luring ambulance driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) into what will eventually be a scenario to kill her stepmother. A sense of the post-war is strong here, but in an entirely different manner from the more self-conscious allegory of Act of Violence. The Tremaynes have a Japanese couple as servants, but there is no direct reference to their relationship to wartime Japan. Frank is linked with the war in that his career as a racecar driver was interrupted by it. But, like Diane, he does not appear to have any scars (mental or physical) induced by the war. Stalking does not become symptomatic of anything in particular, but instead serves as a precondition for Diane setting narratives into play. In Preminger, stalking is most often hidden from the spectator, either because it is occurring off-screen and not revealed until the end, or because it is set into motion only to be aborted, as the film moves in other, unexpected directions.


Instead of an anguished, post-war America, Angel Face shows us a slightly bored, disaffected USA in which the automobile sits at its centre, not only as a vehicle for transport but as one linked with financial power and death – as it twice drives in reverse and crashes over a cliff, eventually killing all four of the film’s principal protagonists. The characters here are less prone to sleeping and states of literal or metaphoric hypnosis than they are in Preminger’s 1940s films. But, for all their periodic attempts to take action, these characters are no less marked by their disaffected nature, their facial expressions and gestures connoting an inscrutable impassivity that the film never resolves.


Douglas Sirk and Melodrama: Looking at the World through Rose-Coloured Glasses

By the end of the 1950s, Siodmak, Lang and Dieterle were back in Germany making films (although Lang would continue to live in California), all three of them having become fed up with Hollywood. Litvak was working entirely out of Europe by this time, although his films continued to be distributed by American studios. Curtiz, on the other hand, while still working in Hollywood, was literally dying, making his final films at nearly the same intense rate as ever, his last film released six months before his death in 1962. Curtiz’s death almost perfectly coincides with the death of the classical Hollywood film under the traditional studio system, a figure within which he had been so central. 1960 has become (especially in the aftermath of the Bordwell/Staiger/Thompson magnum opus The Classical Hollywood Cinema) a year both logical and mythical in historicising the end of classical Hollywood. Nevertheless, Preminger, Wilder and Zinnemann continued to work successfully within Hollywood well into the 1960s and beyond; and 1959 was a major year for all three of them, Preminger with Anatomy of a Murder, Wilder with Some Like It Hot and Zinnemann with The Nun’s Story.


Imitation of Life, however, would become Sirk’s Hollywood swan song; he eventually returned to Europe. Of all the filmmakers covered in this essay, Sirk has undergone the most extensive reappraisal since the 1950s, critically ignored or derided while he was working in Hollywood, but acclaimed by a later generation of filmmakers and critics as a brilliant social satirist, a subversive artist inserting Brechtian distanciation devices and political commentary into his melodramas. Nevertheless, his films belong to the same émigré/refugee Hollywood community from which the other filmmakers addressed here emerged. It takes nothing away from Sirk to place him within that community and to discuss his films as part of a group style (German/Eastern European) within a group style (American/Hollywood) in which his films emerge as not necessarily any more or any less subversive than that of any other émigré/refugee filmmaker of his generation.


Imitation of Life is often taken to be one of the high points of 1950s Hollywood melodrama. But the film does not sit comfortably within this tradition of films, most of them set in small towns or microcosmic settings in which dysfunctional families enact scenarios strongly influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis – an approach most indelibly found in the films of Minnelli and Ray. The fathers and husbands in Imitation of Life are not only dead, but also do not possess any real symbolic hold over their families from the grave. The women have moved on, and the family here is entirely maternal – thus freeing the film from the oedipal dilemmas and anxieties about paternity of most melodramas of the period, while also evoking the pre-Freudian maternal melodramas of the 1930s and earlier.


While set in New York, almost all of the film was clearly shot in the studio; it has an extremely artificial look. The film’s theatrical setting (not present in the Fannie Hurst source novel or the 1934 film adaptation) is an emblematic one for Sirk (as it is for Lubitsch in To Be or Not to Be), serving as an arena within which the relationship between lies and truth, appearances and reality, is played out. The term ‘played out’ is key, in that the film never supplies a clear ground upon which reality or truth may be understood. ‘Maybe I should see things as they really are’, the actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) says early on. But Imitation of Life does everything in its power to reinforce the notion that ‘things as they really are’ are impossible to grasp. Sirk’s well-known fascination with the mirror becomes part of the film’s ‘through a glass darkly’ philosophy in which ‘you can’t reach, or touch, the real. You just see reflections’. (15) Virtually every sequence in the film is constructed upon lies, self-deception, role-playing and the creation of images (including, from the opening sequence on, photography), as if the film is intent upon pushing the implications of its title to the absolute limit. All of Lora’s attempts at ‘good acting’ in projects that carry connotations of realism (the Arthur Miller-style ‘serious’ Broadway play and the Italian film by ‘Amerigo Felluci’) are treated no less artificially by Sirk than the escapist comedies upon which her career was built. Within such a context, the artifice of the mise en scène acquires a different dimension from that of many other, contemporaneous Hollywood films also shot in the studio. Everything in the film that looks unconvincing within the codes of realism may nevertheless be read as part of the texture of artifice central to its thematic. The one major location interior is of the Moulin Rouge nightclub. Even here, however, we are shown not the ‘real’ Moulin Rouge in Paris but the ‘imitation’ in Los Angeles.


With the exception of Lang, no German/Eastern European director of his generation has the same eye for endowing décor and objects with the intensely dramatic and symbolic value as Sirk. The staircase, for example, recurs throughout his cinema: a visual device central to melodrama in general, but also part of a long German theatrical and cinematic tradition, and insistently visible in the films of virtually all of the filmmakers discussed in this essay. (16) In Imitation of Life, it dominates the décor from the Coney Island opening sequence on, as if Sirk is intent upon constructing almost every major space of the film in terms of levels – even when outdoors. While the stairs in the film do not have one precise purpose, they undoubtedly are meant to partly assume a rhetorical and symbolic function, particularly Lora’s ambition to move ‘up and up and up’ in the world. (She recites this just before descending a staircase in her apartment building.) The drives of Sirk’s characters are not, like Preminger’s, hidden and insidious. Instead, they are closer to the drives of the protagonists in Curtiz, connected to the desire for economic and social success. After Lora’s triumphant opening night, the playwright David Edwards (Dan O’Herlihy) points to a stock shot of Times Square and tells her, ‘Well, lady, there’s your new empire’. As he briefly walks away from her, she stretches her arms out and touches the windowpane, a gesture as connotative of power as that of King Philip towards a map of the world in The Sea Hawk.


15. Jon Halliday, Sirk on Sirk (New York: The Viking Press, 1972), p. 130.











16. See, for example, Lotte Eisner on the German ‘obsession with corridors and staircases’ in The Haunted Screen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), pp. 119-27.


But, as with King Philip, such a drive towards ‘empire’ is also connected to death. In Sirk, the sense of death is pervasive, a fight with and against an entombment created by the social world that surrounds the characters. In Imitation, the funeral of Annie (Juanita Moore), an event she eagerly anticipates as one of the two great days of our lives (the other being the day one gets married) is the most ornate and extended example of this death drive in all of Sirk. The mise en scène in Sirk often creates a world in which stillness and embalming are evoked, a world of dolls, robots, masks and mannequins. This, combined with the propensity for low-angled shots, wide-angle lenses and shadowed lighting, creates a sense that the film is taking place in some abstract world, like a museum after hours.


In Sabrina, Sabrina Fairchild writes a letter to her father from Paris in which she translates the lyrics to ‘La vie en rose’ as ‘I’m looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses’. Throughout this cinema that I have circumscribed here, we find insistent motifs connected to vision: objects sometimes real, sometimes false, such as eye patches, glasses and monocles. Our first view of Lora, nervously running along the boardwalk at Coney Island, is one in which she is almost literally wearing glasses that are rose coloured – sunglasses. (She wears an extravagant pair of them later in the film, when she has to withdraw a promise made to her daughter to spend more time with her, because ‘Felluci agreed to my terms’.) Throughout Anatomy of a Murder, the various glasses worn by Laura (Lee Remick) acquire enormous importance in relation to issues of looking, being looked at, and masquerade. In Imitation of Life, however, it is a less a question of the iconic and symbolic importance of glasses than of Lora’s literal manner of looking.


Lora is always on display – not a femme fatale, but not quite engaging the audience’s sympathy, either. For all her status as spectacle, however, she also embodies the complex nature of vision central to the type of cinema addressed here. Sirk amplifies Lana Turner’s tendency, during this period of her career, to look away from her co-stars when playing scenes – so that Lora’s look is most often directed out, not towards specific objects or individuals but simply off in the distance, as if in a narcissistic, trancelike state. It is a question of seeing and not seeing in these films, a combination of vigilance in looking and of an almost self-willed blindness. The act of looking and the ambiguities attached to it dominate much of this refugee/émigré cinema, as it joins forces with modernist notions of perception and vision, one in which the spectator’s own interpretation of the events becomes implicated.


Fassbinder has called Imitation of Life a ‘big, crazy film about life and death. And a film about America’. (17) But as with virtually all of the films discussed here, it also speaks a visual, dramatic and rhetorical language informed by decidedly non-American cultural values. Did the American audiences that flocked to the film in 1959 recognise their own values being represented in such an ironic manner? Or did they ‘misunderstand’ Sirk’s stated intentions (not expressed until years later) and respond to another kind of film, a sentimental melodrama about mothers and daughters in a racially divided America? Written evidence contemporaneous with the film’s release would suggest the latter, and indeed the pathos and emotions generated by the film in 1959 continue to work on audiences still sufficiently capable of responding to it at that level. But the film’s post-history would also suggest that the passage of time has created a different kind of film for a different kind of audience, one more attuned to Sirk’s method of writing with the camera. (18) That multiple interpretations, misrecognitions and delayed perceptions have dominated the reception history of Sirk’s final American film is ironically fitting. It is as if this history mirrors the very process by which the émigré/refugee films in Hollywood have always operated: one eye focused on America, the other looking back at their cultural origins, resulting in films with often contradictory sets of aesthetic values, at once classical and modernist, conventional and experimental, and open to multiple interpretations and points of entry. 


17. Fassbinder, ‘Imitation of Life: On the Films of Douglas Sirk’, in Töteberg and Lensing, p. 87.






18. ‘You have to write with the camera’, Sirk has stated. From Halliday, Sirk on Sirk, p. 97.


This essay was originally published as ‘Hollywood, años cuarenta y cincuenta: transformación del modelo clásico Americano o de cómo Europa toma Hollywood por la fuerza’, in Carlos Losilla (ed.),  En Tránsito: De Berlin a Hollywood y Alrededors (Las Palmas, Spain, 2009).


from Issue 5: Shows


Joe McElhaney 2014.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.