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Jan 2013 Journal

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Jewish film-makers in Germany during the silent era: The untold story

It is a well-known fact that for a brief period during the 1920s Germany stood out as the leading film-producing country in Europe. Both in terms of the quality of its pictures and the sheer quantity of films produced, Germany was the only country which presented a serious challenge to the worldwide domination by the Americans. It was the UFA (Universum Film Aktien Gesellschaft), the conglomerate formed in December 1917, which led the way. It organised film production, distribution and exhibition in Germany on a large scale and thus was able to compete with the giant American film studios.
What is less well known is the leading role played by a remarkable group of talented Jewish film-makers, especially writers, directors and producers.
From the early 1910s onwards, one can already observe a notable Jewish presence. During the following years many Jews who had gained their first experience in the flourishing German theatre were newly attracted to the cinema. And the new arrivals included many talented individuals from countries such as Austria and Hungary, which could not offer the kind of opportunities and creative freedom to be found in Berlin. The directors Fritz Lang, Wilhelm Thiele and Carl Grune were Austrian, along with the writers Carl Mayer and Billy Wilder and the actor Anton Walbrook; from Hungary came the director Paul Czinner, the writer Emeric Pressburger and the actor Peter Lorre; while the brilliant Czech-born cameraman Karl Freund came from Bohemia.
The earliest Jewish film pioneers, from about 1911, were producer-director Joe May (Joseph Mandel), a former director of theatre and operetta, the Galicia-born actor Henrik Galeen (Heinrich Wiesenberg), who soon graduated to scriptwriting and then directing, and Paul Davidson. Starting out as a film distributor and owner of a chain of cinemas, Davidson was especially successful in attracting talented figures from the theatre when he first began producing films too through his Union Film, which soon developed into the most prestigious production company in Germany.
The first really important breakthrough was in 1914-16, when an especially interesting group from the theatre included many who would soon become established figures. In 1914 alone Richard Oswald and Robert Wiene, along with Galeen, began directing their first films, while the artist Paul Leni gained his initial experience as an art director before graduating to directing in 1916. But most important of all was the first appearance on screen of Ernst Lubitsch. He played a supporting role in one of his first pictures, Die Firma Hierat (The Hierat Company), filmed in 1913, then again played a Jewish comic character as the star of the sequel, Der Stolz der Firma (The Pride of the Company, 1914). And soon after he began directing his films too.
In the following years Lubitsch made his name as a Jewish actor-director in such inventive and entertaining short features as Schuhpalast Pinkus (The Pinkus Shoe Palace, 1916), his first big success as a director and in which he appeared as an ambitious but likeable young shoe shop employee, and Meyer aus Berlin (Meyer from Berlin, 1918). These films also marked the beginning of a ten-year relationship with producer Paul Davidson as Lubitsch emerged as the leading director in Germany. Lubitsch himself noted at the time that ‘Jewish humour, wherever it appears, is sympathetic and artistic and plays such a big role everywhere that it would be ridiculous not to include it in cinema.’
The other outstanding new arrival on the scene at this time (1915) was the producer Erich Pommer. A few years younger than Davidson, he would soon emerge as a leading force in the industry, hiring and promoting many of the new Jewish writers and directors, including Robert Wiene, E. A. Dupont, Fritz Lang, the Romanian-born Lupu Pick and Carl Mayer. Both the half-Jewish Lang (Jewish mother, Catholic father) and Dupont started out as scriptwriters but soon graduated to directing. Karl Grune and Pick came from the theatre, as did Fritz Kortner, best known as a brilliant actor who occasionally directed as well.
The formation of the giant UFA combine in 1917, incorporating Davidson’s Union Film and Pommer’s Decla Co., further set the scene for the explosion of talent which took place beginning in the immediate post-war years, with many of the Jewish film-makers prominent. There was quite a range of different types of films too.
Lang, for example, had his first major success as a writer-director with the elaborate two-part thriller Die Spinnen (The Spiders) in 1918-19, produced by Pommer and photographed by Freund, while Mme. DuBarry (also 1919) was an elaborate historical drama from Lubitsch and Davidson which starred Pola Negri and Emil Jannings. There were also a few films with Jewish themes. Writer-director Richard Oswald (born Ornstein) brought a number of Jewish subjects to the screen in 1914-18, including two films starring Rudolf Schildkraut: Dämon und Mensch (Devil and Man, 1915) and Schlemihl. Ein Lebensbild (Schlemihl: A Biography, 1916). And he then produced a highly original and controversial feature on the subject of homosexuality in Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others) in 1919.
Davidson produced two memorable Jewish films: Der Gelbe Schein (The Yellow Passport) in 1918 starring Pola Negri as a young Jewess in Tsarist Russia forced to take a ‘yellow passort’ classifying her as a prostitute so as to travel to St Petersburg, and a remarkable film version of the classic Jewish folk drama Der Golem (The Golem) in 1920. Set in the 16th century, this film made use of some extraordinary stylised sets depicting the Prague ghetto, while Karl Freund once again played an essential role behind the camera providing atmospheric lighting. However, the most celebrated title of these years was Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari), a horror-fantasy-drama produced by Pommer and directed by Robert Wiene in 1919. Best remembered for its extraordinary distorted and stylised sets and the powerful performances of Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss in the leading roles, the nightmarish story and script were provided by two Jewish writers, Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz.
One of the most brilliant figures of the German silent cinema, Mayer went on to script two of the most important films of the burgeoning Kammerspielfilm movement of realistic contemporary social dramas in 1921: Scherben (Shattered), directed by Lupu Pick, and Hintertreppe (Backstairs), directed by Paul Leni with sets designed by Alfred Junge. Mayer also provided the original story for Karl Grune’s Die Strasse (The Street, 1923), a key film in the related genre of urban street films or Strassenfilm.
Joe May directed an exotic action-adventure movie in two parts: Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb) in 1921, co-scripted by the prolific Fritz Lang, who demonstrated his mastery of low-key drama and elaborate thrillers with Der müde Tod (Destiny), also in 1921, followed by Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr Mabuse the Gambler, 1922). And in 1921 Lubitsch contributed one last, brilliant costume drama for producer Davidson: Das Weib des Pharao (The Loves of Pharaoh).
Two years later Ludwig Berger made a successful venture into lightweight fantasy with an entertaining adaptation of the cinderella story, produced by Pommer and appropriately retitled Der verlorene Schuh (The Lost Shoe). Filmed at around the same time, E. A. Dupont’s Das Alte Gesetz (The Ancient Law) is of special interest as it presents a fully realised depiction of life in a Jewish shtetl in Eastern Europe – a relative rarity within the German silent cinema. In a plot which anticipates that of The Jazz Singer four years later, the young, aspiring actor hero, the son of a rabbi, played by Ernst Deutsch, rejects his Jewish heritage to travel to Vienna to appear on stage at the Burgtheater, but is reconciled with his father at the end.
In 1924 Paul Leni directed his most remarkable and darkest film, Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks), reflecting his strong visual background as a leading production designer. The script was by Henrik Galeen, who had also co-scripted Der Golem four years earlier and then gone on to direct and co-script a similarly dark and mysterious drama, Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague, 1926) starring Conrad Veidt.
At around this time (1924) a young Alfred Hitchcock was employed as the art director of German/British joint productions, co-produced by Pommer and the young British-Jewish producer Michael Balcon and filmed at the UFA studios in Babelsberg. As he recalled in the 1970s, ‘Those were the great days of the German pictures … The studio where I worked was tremendous, bigger than Universal is today.’
With major assistance from cameraman Karl Freund, Dupont in turn had his biggest international success with the circus and trapeze drama Varieté (Variety), starring Emil Jannings and produced by Pommer. Fresh from Der Letzte Mann (The Last Man) the previous year (scripted by Carl Mayer), Freund’s remarkable run of films continued in 1925-26 with Metropolis, the largest, most ambitious (and costly) production of the decade. This imaginative, futuristic fantasy-drama was produced by Pommer and directed by Fritz Lang, with elaborate sets, mass action sequences and innovative special effects devised by cameraman Eugen Schüfftan.
Unfortunately, UFA’s growing financial problems emerged more clearly in 1925 when Metropolis was in production. Unfairly blamed for the crisis, Pommer resigned as production chief in January 1926. He was immediately attracted to Hollywood along with a number of the Jewish directors, including Paul Leni, Ludwig Berger, Lothar Mendes, Paul Stein and E. A. Dupont, as well as the writer Carl Mayer and F. W. Murnau. Nevertheless, the Jewish contribution to the late German silent cinema continued to be exceptional.
While this brief survey has drawn attention to the many leading Jewish film-makers and a number of key films, it is difficult to do more than hint at the large number of pictures turned out year after year, with the participation of many of the less well known Jewish writers, directors, producers, technicians and actors. (The appendix to Professor S. S. Prawer’s book Between Two Worlds: Jewish Presences in German and Austrian Film, 1910-1933 (2005) provides a check list of, among others, over 30 Jewish directors, 40 writers, 20 cameramen and 20 producers.)
For example, Marlene Dietrich starred in a number of films in 1926-29, working with such Jewish directors as Willi Wolff, Robert Land, Alexander Korda and Kurt Bernhardt. Bernhardt’s Die Frau nach der Mann sich sehnt (The Women Men Yearn For, 1929) co-starred Fritz Kortner and benefited from a typically Jewish production team, including scriptwriter Ladislaus Vajda, art director Robert Neppach, and Curt Courant behind the cameras.
After a relatively unsuccessful stint in Hollywood, Pommer returned to Germany and produced four last silent films with a number of his favourite Jewish collaborators. (According to Pommer biographer Ursula Hardt, his productions ‘all made the 1928-29 list of Germany’s most popular films’.) Director Hanns Schwarz teamed up with writer Hans Szekely on two features, including The Wonderful Lie, starring Franz Lederer and referred to by Prawer as ‘the last of UFA’s lavishly mounted prestige films of the silent era’. At the same time, the veteran director Joe May turned out two last notable films in the Social Realist vein: Homecoming (Heimkehr) and Asphalt, with Jewish actresses Dita Parlo and Betty Amann in the leading roles.
At around the same time, Paul Czinner directed his last silent film starring his wife Elizabeth Bergner - an adaptation of a classic Arthur Schnitzler story, Fräulein Else, with Karl Freund on hand behind the camera to give the film a visual style lacking in Czinner’s stolid approach.
Finally, the German silent cinema was brought to a close by Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), a surprisingly original production filmed entirely on the streets and nearby lakeside (Wannsee and Nikolassee) of Berlin in 1929. The filming of this modest little contemporary story brought together a group of aspiring new young talents all of whom would go on to have impressive careers in the cinema, mainly in the USA. The co-directors were Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, the co-writers Curt Siodmak (brother of Robert) and Billy Wilder, the camera assistant Fred Zinnemann, and the experienced Eugen Schüfftan as cameraman, with production assistance provided by Moriz Seeler and Seymour Nebenzahl.
Clearly, the remarkable quality and scope of the Jewish involvement in the early German cinema is one of the most interesting, and neglected, stories of the silent cinema

Joel Finler is a film historian with a special interest in US and Jewish cinema. He is the author of, among other books, the award-winning The Hollywood Story (1989)..

Joel Finler

previous article:The culture of Viennese Jewry at the fin de siècle
next article:Xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Hungary – time to despair? (review)