Monday, February 27, 2012

Germans and Hollywood

We just saw The Artist tonight and so I thought I'd do a little silent-film inspired post about Germans in Hollywood, with some film recommendations. Feel free to post any other suggestions.

I've seen a lot of the classic German silent films, and shown them to students...and to be honest, they can be hard to take sometimes. The intertitles are usually made for people who need more time to read on the screen, and the movies usually move more slowly in general. I can watch Caligari for the beautiful sets, and I have really enjoyed Nosferatu at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, with live organ accompaniment around Halloween. But if you rent them at home and watch them in your living room, I can't promise you that you will love it. Or Metropolis, or Berlin: Sinfonie der Großstadt. The latter I got to see with modern music at the Babylon in Berlin, an amazing experience. And last year at the Michigan Theater I went to quite a few Charlie Chaplin films on the big screen, with a full audience, laughing with you. It totally changes the experience. Silent films were meant to engage you (the audience) loudly and viscerally, and communally, and that has totally been lost along the way, and it's hard to recapture (but can be done!). Watch Cinema Paradiso for a feel for the loud, grimy and hot atmosphere at the local theater. Some of the opening scenes of The Artist try to capture this, when they zoom out so you can see the movie palace where the film was being shown. But that was a movie premiere in Hollywood, not your local theater. But I'm getting off-track...

The Artist takes place during the late 20s, early 30s, roughly the same time frame for Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, starring Marlene Dietrich, which also flashes the dates as intertitles, and uses the stock market crash as a time reference.  The Blue Angel was the first major German sound film, and also made Dietrich internationally famous. Both she and von Sternberg went to Hollywood after the film.

Then came the mid 30s and 40s, when Hollywood benefited from the talented writers, directors, composers, and actors who were either driven out or chose to leave Nazi Germany, including: Fritz Lang (in Germany: expressionist classic Metropolis, film noir M, in the US: The Big Heat), Peter Lorre (in Germany: M; in the US: Casablanca), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, The Apartment, Sabrina, and many others).

I read that when The Artist director Michel Hazanavicius gave his acceptance speech, he said he wanted to thank three people, "Billy Wilder, Billy Wilder and Billy Wilder." Billy Wilder tops my list of the most amazing stuff you'll ever see that doesn't seem to age (also including Chaplin on the big screen, and Hitchcock). (Maybe that's also why my expectations were very, very high.) If you haven't seen Sunset Boulevard, it is also a film about a silent film star ruined by the sound age. Rent it. Amazing.  And, if you want to see some of his work tied to Germany and the immediate postwar period, rent One, two, three (1961); and A Foreign Affair (1948). Hilarious!

Watch the first minute of this clip, where American GIs are hitting on German "Frolleins," and then accidentally pick up an American from Iowa. The whole film is actually available on YouTube, starting here.


  1. What a critique! I'm not smart enough to even begin to appreciate your intellect!!!! With the greatest of admiration, your Aunt Marguerite

  2. be sure to see Academy Award nominated "Hugo", a bit about early French filmmaker Georges Melies!!!