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Sep 2010 Journal

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Edmund Wolf - a divided life


Edmund Wolf was an important member of the Austro-Jewish refugee community but not known to many by name. There was a good reason - a life divided by living in England but working mainly in Germany in the years after the war.

The Literaturhaus in his native Vienna has recognised his attachment to his mother tongue, notwithstanding his detachment from his motherland, with an exhibition devoted to his prodigious output as playwright, broadcaster, journalist and TV director, and the publication of a 184-page Festschrift to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth in April this year.

He started life agreeably enough as a Wunderkind of theatre, member of the Reinhardt Seminar, successful playwright and dramaturge of the Volkstheater at 25. His course was set fair as a writer of comedies for an international audience.

Except that it wasn’t. As the shadows of oppression lengthened, Wolf, politically more astute than many of his contemporaries, decided to explore what opportunities might lie in England, but with as yet no idea of emigration. The year 1938 changed all that and ruled out a return to Austria. His golden youth ended abruptly with the outbreak of war, internment and deportation.

Returning to England in 1942 marked the beginning of Wolf’s long association with the BBC, first as translator and presenter, later and until 1963 as Programme Director of the German Service. But this was never enough of an outlet for his creative drive. Plays continued to pour from his pen and in 1952 Räubergeschichte had its premiere in Vienna and became a worldwide hit, translated, filmed, applauded wherever seen - except in England. There were other plays, some of them written in English, but the English theatre, and especially the West End stage, proved out of reach.

Wolf’s inventive energy demanded another outlet and he found it by writing, pseudonymously at first, for the German press. Soon a steady stream of reports, feuilletons, personal profiles and political commentaries attracted the attention of the German media, and in 1963 Wolf was able to give up his employment by the BBC to become a journalistic force under his own name.

The move into press journalism and soon into TV documentary direction marked the third and, in some ways, the most successful phase of Wolf’s career, as he became one of Germany's foremost TV auteurs with some 80 documentary features to his credit, among them the renowned reconstruction of the Arab terrorist attack on a Lufthansa plane, LH615 - Operation München, which earned him the Bambi, German TV’s Oscar, and set a new standard for realistic docudrama.

These successes, achieved in such profusion and with such apparent facility, came at a high cost in political infighting, particularly at the Bayerische Rundfunk, where Wolf’s artistic integrity was often at odds with political correctness and left-leaning bien-pensants. There was blood on the floor of the editing suite when Wolf,
by now nearly 80, presented what he hoped would be his crowning achievement - a six-part series to be called Hitler und die Generäle, a meticulous depiction of relations within the German High Command. Perhaps it was an over-ambitious undertaking for a non-domiciled Jew. Powerful counter-pressures asserted themselves from the left and the right and the ‘safe hands’ in between, and Wolf’s work was cut down to size, leaving him with just two films and a broken heart.

He was all of one piece, a man of non-negotiable convictions, rigid yet riven by conflicts he could never escape - a committed Jew who was not a believer, at home in England but having to seek professional acceptance in Germany, and, above all, haunted by the sense of a legacy unfulfilled, that of a man of the theatre.

Perhaps he would have derived a measure of contentment from another legacy: his son Martin has become Britain’s - perhaps the world’s - most read economic commentator, writing in the Financial Times for the enlightenment of those who guide our destinies; his younger son has followed his father into TV journalism as well as immersing himself in the study of Chinese language and culture; his daughter-in-law is a professor of public administration at the University of London; and his granddaughter is the Director of the New Schools Network, consulting with government on changing the climate of education.

 

Victor Ross

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