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Aug 2014 Journal

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The remarkable story of the Jewish film-makers in Germany during the early sound years, 1929-33

Jewish film-makers in Germany, especially writers, directors and producers, had been prominent throughout the silent era – during the 1920s in particular, when Germany stood out as the leading film-producing country in Europe. And although major figures such as the directors Ernst Lubitsch and Paul Leni, and the producer Erich Pommer, had left for the USA in the mid-1920s, the beginning of the sound era in 1929 provided new opportunities for a new generation of young Jewish talents. During the relatively short period between 1929 and 1933, when Jews were blacklisted, shortly after the Nazis came to power, the Jewish contribution to the German cinema was exceptional. This is despite the fact that UFA (Universum Film Aktien Gesellschaft), the largest film studio in those years, was headed by the right-wing media baron Alfred Hugenberg and this collided with the rise to power of the Nazi Party.
In Between Two Worlds: The Jewish Presence in German and Austrian Film, 1910-1933 (Berghahn Books, New York and Oxford, 2005), Professor S. S. Prawer draws attention to the fact that ‘by 1929 there was a noticeable increase in anti-Semitic comment on films and their Jewish personnel in right wing and (of course) in Nazi controlled journals.’ And the deepening of the Depression from 1930 onwards hit the film industry hard. Despite this, the coming of sound opened the way for many Jewish actors, song-writers, composers and writers of dialogue, along with assorted directors and producers.
In fact, the leading Jewish producer, Erich Pommer, had returned to Germany in 1928. And, although he was no longer the production chief, he was put in charge of his own production unit at UFA and given a free hand to carry on with his mainly Jewish production team up to 1933. In addition, he was very much at the forefront of the early German move into sound filming in 1929.
Pommer’s first sound film was a popular movie ‘operetta’: Melodie des Herzens (Melody of the Heart), directed by Hanns Schwarz, scripted by Hans Szekely, with music by two Jewish composers, Werner Richard Heymann and Paul Abraham; it even boasted a new Jewish star in Dita Parlo.
Melodie des Herzens was followed immediately by Liebeswalzer (Love Waltz), released early in 1930, from a second Jewish team of director Wilhelm Thiele (born Isersohn), scriptwriter Robert Liebmann, Werner Brandes behind the camera, and the music again supplied by Heymann.
At the same time, Pommer made a major breakthrough with his other early talkie: simultaneously in production late in 1929 was the most famous early German sound film, Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), which told the familiar story of a middle-aged professor infatuated with, and eventually destroyed by, his love for a cabaret singer. The Austrian-born Jewish director Josef von Sternberg had been especially brought over from Hollywood, the script was loosely adapted from the Heinrich Mann novel by Liebmann, and the brilliant Jewish composer Friedrich Holländer provided the music and songs (with lyrics by Liebmann), and arrangements by Franz Wachsmann. According to Sternberg biographer Joan Baxter, ‘Although Lola-Lola’s songs became one of the film’s most memorable features, they were almost an afterthought, dashed off in a few days by Holländer, who skilfully exploited the deficiencies of Dietrich’s voice.’
Another big musical hit at the time, Der Kongress tanzt (1931), was directed by Erik Charell, scripted by Norbert Falk and Liebmann, and photographed by the Czech-born Franz Planer. Here the music of Holländer was blended with songs by the prolific Heymann, lyrics by Robert Gilbert, who also supplied the songs for other Pommer productions: Liebeswalzer and Die Drei von der Tankstelle (The Three from the Petrol Station) were both directed by Thiele in 1930, while Ich bei Tag und Du bei Nacht (I by Day and You by Night) was directed by Ludwig Berger and scripted by Szekely and Liebmann in 1932. Even a low-key thriller such as Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht (The Man Who Seeks His Own Murder) included a couple of songs by Holländer, with lyrics by Billie (later Billy) Wilder. The film itself was a useful follow-up by three leading members of the Menschen am Sonntag team of 1929 - director Robert Siodmak, script by Wilder and Curt Siodmak. As Prawer notes, ‘Jewish directors and scriptwriters showed themselves adept at combining thriller elements with comedy.’
In addition to the new composers and song-writers, the large number of talented Jewish newcomers who first made their mark during the early sound years ranged across the entire spectrum of movie-making. This included some who had been attracted to the cinema during the late silent years but whose careers received a large boost in the talkie era - for example, the directors Siodmak and the Russian-born Anatole Litvak, who had previously worked as editors, while Hermann Kosterlitz (Henry Koster) had started out as a scriptwriter.
From the theatre came two experienced stage directors. First, Max Ophüls had been employed as a dialogue director by Litvak in 1930 before he launched into a long and distinguished directing career which would take him to Austria, France, Italy and the USA, then back to France after the war. Second, in 1931 Leontine Sagan (née Schlesinger) directed the one film for which she will always be remembered: Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform) was a brilliant and original critique of German authoritarianism and sexual attitudes. Well acted and effectively filmed, this ‘study of emotional pressures in an authoritarian girls’ school created an uproar because of its frank handling of a lesbian theme’, according to the Film Encyclopedia, while Time Out referred to it as ‘the first truly radical lesbian film in the history of the cinema’. Among the scriptwriters, Robert Liebmann and the Austrians Billie Wilder and Walter Reisch soon demonstrated that they could handle the new type of movie dialogue. They were joined by the Hungarian Emeric Pressburger, who contributed to the early talkies of Siodmak (Abschied (Farewell, 1930)) and Ophüls – his first short feature - but would later form a memorable partnership with Michael Powell in England in the 1940s-50s.
Experienced actors such as Peter Lorre, Elizabeth Bergner, Fritz Kortner, Franz Lederer, Curt Bois, Max Pallenberg, Anton Walbrook and S. K. Sakall clearly enjoyed a new lease of life on screen in the talkies. Among the cameramen, Max Greene (Mutz Greenbaum) and the Czech-born Otto Heller would, like Pressburger, become fixtures in the British cinema after they left Germany in 1933.
In a short piece like this it is possible to draw attention to only a few of the many and varied films which included a notable Jewish involvement. Thus, the superb Jewish actor Fritz Kortner starred in a dramatised treatment of the notorious Dreyfus case, directed by Richard Oswald and co-scripted by Heinz Goldberg in 1930. And Kortner went on to direct Der brave Sünder (The Virtuous Sinner) the following year, produced by Arnold Pressburger, co-scripted by Alfred Polgar and the cabaret artist Fritz Grünbaum, who also played a useful supporting role in the film. But the real star was the legendary, Austrian-born stage actor Max Pallenberg. Here he was given his one and only opportunity to demonstrate his special quality as a movie actor, referred to by S. S. Prawer as a ‘virtuoso performance by one of the great Jewish stage-personalities of the era’. (Sadly, he died soon afterwards, in 1934.) Also in 1931 Curt Bois made a welcome appearance in his first talkie, a Jewish comedy appropriately entitled Der Schlemiel (The Loser), directed by the Polish-born Max Nosseck. In marked contrast was director Hans Behrendt’s historical drama Danton (1931), notable for its Büchnerian take on the French Revolution. Scripted by Heinz Goldberg and Hans Rehfisch, it featured Kortner as Danton, Lucie Mannheim as his lover and Alexander Granach as Marat, while Robespierre was stiffly played by the (non-Jewish) Gustaf Gründgens. Of special interest also were two 1931 films set in contemporary Berlin, both with background scores by Allan Gray and based on well-known novels by Jewish writers: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, which he co-scripted, and Eric Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive (Emil and the Detectives), scripted by Billie Wilder with contributions from Kästner and Emeric Pressburger.
Among the new group of Jewish producers were Arnold Pressburger and Joe Pasternak, both Hungarian-born. Pasternak teamed up with writer-turned-director Henry Koster in 1932 and they continued to turn out entertaining but lightweight comedies and musicals in Hollywood, where so many of the German film-makers ended up in the late 1930s. Most important of all, however, was producer Seymour Nebenzahl with his Nero-Film AG film production company. He had first made his mark with two memorable films released in 1929: Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) from the (non-Jewish) director G. W. Pabst and Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), notable for its young Jewish production team. He went on to produce a remarkable group of early sound pictures in 1930-31. Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) had a brilliant score and songs by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Brecht, whose original play, based on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, was adapted for the screen by three Jewish writers, while the supporting cast included Valeska Gert, Vladimir Sokoloff and the half-Jewish Reinhold Schünzel as police chief Tiger Brown.
Ariane was the first talkie to star the brilliant, Polish-born actress Elizabeth Bergner - a sound revelation, her voice heard on screen for the first time, co-scripted by Carl Mayer, production design by Alfred Junge and directed by Paul Czinner.
But most memorable of all was M, the first talkie directed by the leading German (though Viennese-born) director of the era, Fritz Lang. It starred the Hungarian-born Peter Lorre (Laszlo Löwenstein), who gave a quite extraordinary performance as the tormented child murderer of Düsseldorf, hunted by the police and members of the underworld, who finally capture him and put him on trial. And this was followed by Das Testament des Dr Mabuse in 1932, also produced by Nebenzahl and directed by Lang in 1932. A fast-paced and original thriller, it follows the efforts of the police to hunt down a sophisticated underworld gang engaged in wide-ranging criminal activities. The film was banned by the Nazis, while the half-Jewish Lang quickly departed for France before moving on to the USA. (Producer Pommer, writer Liebmann, composer Wachsmann and cameraman Rudolf Maté all joined Lang in Paris in filming his French production of Liliom early in 1934.)
This familiar trajectory was also followed by Nebenzahl, Wilder, Siodmark, Litvak, Emeric Pressburger, Richard Oswald, Kurt Bernhardt – the list goes on and on as the remarkable Jewish contribution to the early German sound cinema came to an abrupt end in 1933. Others, of course, went to England, including the directors Leontine Sagan and Paul Czinner with his actress wife Elizabeth Bergner, cameramen Otto Heller and Mutz Greenbaum (Max Greene), production designer Alfred Junge, and composer Josef Zmigrod (Allan Gray). The writer Emeric Pressburger and actor Anton Walbrook arrived in England a few years later. Whereas the French cinema only benefitted briefly from these talented newcomers, who virtually all soon moved to the USA, those who arrived in Britain generally settled here and made a major contribution to film-making in this country. (Pressburger, Junge, Gray and Walbrook, for example, were all part of the Michael Powell production team in the 1940s.)
Lastly, sadly, Prawer mentions a few of the Jewish film artists who failed to escape the Nazi ‘killing machine’: Kurt Gerron, Paul Morgan, Fritz Grünbaum, John Gottowt and director Hans Behrendt, also producer Moritz Seeler and actors Otto Wallburg and Georg John.

Joel Finler

previous article: Jews in the First World War
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