The Story of the Filmmakers Who Escaped the Nazis

Christina Newland
Robert Siodmak's 'Cry of the City'. Image courtesy of the BFI.

In 1929, German star Emil Jannings became the first ever recipient of the Academy Award for Best Actor. Not long after his win, Jannings’ career took a nosedive and he returned to his homeland where, later, he formed close ties to Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. The actor became a celebrity of the Third Reich’s film industry.

The story goes that Jannings — faced with advancing Allied troops in the rubble of Berlin — held his golden statuette aloft and shouted some bracing words to the soldiers: “Don’t shoot, I won an Oscar!”

Genuine or not, Jannings’ tale is a cruel sort of reversal of the reality faced by the creatives who were forced to leave Europe during the Nazis’ reign. In the late 1930s and 40s, many filmmakers – mostly central Europeans of Jewish origin – moved from their respective film industries to Hollywood. Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, and Otto Preminger were among their numbers – directors who came to define a heavily European influence on American film. It’s said that of these dark and pessimistic stylings, one of Hollywood’s most enduring movements – film noir was born.

Otto Preminger (1905 - 1986)

Preminger’s American films – which covered everything from drug addiction to lust, homosexuality, and obsession – were never faint-hearted. He courted controversy and provoked censors throughout his career, as evidenced best by his film noirs: 1944’s Laura contains a brutal murder by shotgun-to-the-face, while 1950’s Where the Sidewalk Ends sees an overzealous, violent cop caught in a web of his own lies.

Preminger came from a wealthy family in Vienna, but his theatre work there was interrupted by the looming threat of German invasion. It would come to fruition in 1938, three years after he signed his contract with 20th Century Fox and had long left for California. He spoke no English upon arrival, but his determination and defiance allowed him eventual mainstream success — and the ability to put the underbelly of American life under a microscope.

Robert Siodmak (1900 - 1973)

Siodmak’s career flourished in both Germany and France before he set sail for America in 1940 to escape persecution. He’s credited by some scholars as having invented film noir as we understand it. Part of this credit stemmed from the unique look of his tightly-plotted thrillers, which are heavily indebted to German Expressionism with their intense chiaroscuro aesthetic: dramatically lit scenes often reflecting a dark fatalism bred from the crisis of identity loss.

Siodmak gave the world Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in their first major roles – in Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers. But his real gem is the little-seen 1948 noir Cry of the City. It’s a bitterly realistic cops’n’crooks saga set in Little Italy, and Martin Scorsese counts it among his influences, so you know it’s great.

Max Ophuls (1902 - 1957)

'Letter from an Unknown Woman' (1948).

Ophuls – beloved director of proto-feminist women’s films like The Earrings of Madame De escaped the Nazis not once, but twice. The second time, after the fall of France in 1940, Ophuls was forced to gather his family and leave for America.

The director arrived in Hollywood in 1941, and remained broke and unemployed there for a full six years. He made a handful of films in the States – including out-and-out masterpiece Letter from an Unknown Woman – only to wind up back in Europe by 1950.

Although he made over two-dozen films in his lifetime, few of them received critical or commercial success. These days, he’s widely regarded as a master of the fluid tracking shot, and one of cinema’s finest directors. It turned out to be Max’s son, Marcel Ophuls, who responded most directly to the trauma of the war’s upheaval. He escaped with his father twice as a child, and grew up to direct the harrowing three-hour documentary The Sorrow and The Pity.

Billy Wilder (1906 - 2002)  

'Sunset Boulevard' (1950)

Pluck a handful of titles from Wilder’s work – Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, The Apartment – and you’ll find that just those few contain enough charm, intrigue, and lacerating wit to sustain any career. A colossal figure of Hollywood’s golden age, Wilder was an Austrian Jew who had carved out a successful film career in Berlin.

In 1933, in the wake of the infamous Reichstag fire, he boarded a train to Paris with a thousand bucks in his suitcase. By the end of the war, he had lost his mother and grandmother to the Holocaust. Esteemed critic Pauline Kael once negatively noted that Wilder’s films had a ‘brazen contempt for people’. The director acknowledged his own cynicism, a trait which is almost omnipresent in his work. On the subject, he ruefully remarked: "The optimists died in the gas chambers. The pessimists have pools in Beverly Hills."

The BFI Southbank's 'Robert Siodmak: Prince of Shadows' season runs throughout April and May, while 'Cry of the City' is released in select cinemas UK-wide on 17 April. Head over here for more info.

Follow Christina on Twitter: @christinalefou

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