The Cinema of Dual Citizens
A new AFS series explores the American classics of Europe's émigré filmmakers
Sometime in the late 1930s, the Hollywood dream factory started birthing the occasional nightmare. Suddenly, audiences could see onscreen -- in place of the upright and wholesome matinee idols of earlier years -- emotionally conflicted, morally ambiguous protagonists, many of whom stumbled through life aimlessly before being wounded or even obliterated by forces beyond their control, forces like social hypocrisy, romantic duplicity, or just plain cruel fate. But while these bleak, complex morality plays resonated deeply with American audiences of the wartime and postwar periods, they actually had their roots overseas, in the German expressionist tradition that spawned films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and M. Their makers, for the most part, were émigrés, Austrian and German directors who had been forced to flee for their lives from the rising tide of Nazism. Quickly finding work and refuge in Hollywood, directors like Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Max Ophüls, John Brahm, and others had grafted onto American pop genres like the crime and gangster film a cynical moral outlook and a daring visual style. In the upcoming series Driven Into Paradise: European ...migré Directors 1933-1950, the Austin Film Society will be screening (at the Alamo Drafthouse) six classic films reflecting the ethical sensibilities and aesthetic innovations of these exiled masters.
Most, though not all, of the films in the AFS series fit into the genre later dubbed film noir, a fatalistic and darkly stylish strain of crime film pioneered by such émigrés as Lang and solidified in 1944 with Wilder's Double Indemnity and Preminger's Laura. Lang's Fury, the first film the director made after escaping Nazi Germany and a proto-noir milestone, kicks off the AFS series on April 22. A terrifying evocation of mass hysteria, Fury follows an ordinary, law-abiding citizen (played by Spencer Tracy), who, on the slimmest circumstantial evidence, is arrested as a suspected kidnapper and then lynched by an angry mob who storms the prison in which he is held. Though Fury's lynching story cautiously sidesteps all but the slightest references to race, its theme is no less powerful: This is how ordinary people -- whether in Germany or America -- become inhuman murderers. It also captures, with a complexity unimaginable in a Hollywood film of today, the occasional cruelty of the wronged, as Tracy miraculously survives the lynching to attempt a twisted vengeance on his attackers. The film backs down from its uncompromising stance just a little near the end, but it still has the bravery to leave us with a hero who looks right at the audience and says "a lot of things that were very important to me ... like a belief in justice and an idea that men were civilized and a feeling of pride that this country of mine is different than all the others ... were burned to death within me that night."
The second film in the AFS series, You and Me, was also directed by Lang, but its tone is noticeably lighter. Lang's most playful film and one of the stranger films of the period, You and Me is a satirical romantic-comedy/crime-picture featuring musical numbers by Bertolt Brecht collaborator Kurt Weill. Neither audiences nor critics took to it, but the film remains an extremely enjoyable viewing experience due to its sheer eccentricity and verve. Watching Lang's characters -- ex-cons all employed at a large department store -- burst into strident songspiels about such topics as their prison memories or how goods and services must be exchanged for capital is one of the more bizarre viewing experiences Hollywood cinema of the period has to offer.
At the heart of the AFS series are two classics from noir's full flower, both directed by the American-born and German-raised Robert Siodmak. The first of these, The Killers -- which recounts the who and why of a murder through a series of 11 disconnected flashbacks -- is one of the most fully realized and elegantly constructed film noirs ever made. Skillfully wedding European existentialism and expressionism to an American hard-boiled crime narrative, The Killers rivals Citizen Kane in its inventive cinematography and radically fragmented narrative. It made instant stars of its two leads, Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster. Siodmak's Criss Cross, which also stars Lancaster, may be a lesser film than The Killers but --- packed full of brooding atmosphere and blessed with another superb score by Killers composer Miklos Rozsa -- it's still a highlight of the style's heyday.
Unlike his genre-defining classic Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair isn't a noir in any sense. Rather, it's a romantic comedy, but one with such a decidedly subversive edge that it fits perfectly in with the politically provocative tone of the AFS' émigré series. The film stars Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich as a straight-laced American congresswoman and a former Nazi courtesan competing for the affections of the same man. Wilder's wicked twist on this scenario is the way that he portrays Arthur's congresswoman as a priggish bore next to Dietrich's charming, amoral nightclub singer Erika von Schluetow. Like many of his émigré contemporaries, Wilder revels in the ethical gray areas of his sharply drawn characters, and through the figure of von Schluetow he gleefully evokes the seductive pull of corruption. Wilder's unflinching images of the bombed-out post-war shell of Berlin give the comedy in A Foreign Affair an unsettling aftertaste, and his frank depiction of misbehaving American soldiers especially prompted denunciations from the Department of Defense, the House of Representatives, and the Motion Picture Export Association, eventually causing Paramount Pictures to withdraw A Foreign Affair from circulation. But, like the best émigré directors of his age, Wilder made films calculated not only to entertain but to reveal, not only to delight but to disquiet.