Stars in the Dark: Émigrés, Exiles & Film Noir presented by the Santa Fe Jewish Film Festival
Émigrés, Exiles & Film Noir
IN the early ’30s, as the Nazi grip tightened on Germany and the fate of that country’s Jews grew ever more starkly apparent, the vital German film industry emptied out like air from a balloon. When the Nazis took power, banning Jews from working in film, and Joseph Goebbels took personal control of the industry, it triggered an exodus of more than 800 filmmakers working in Germany. They comprised a roster of talent from above the title to far below it, from directors, writers, composers, and stars to seamstresses and grips. Many of them wound up in Hollywood. And the face of American and German film was irrevocably changed.
From Sunday, May 24, to May 31, the Santa Fe Jewish Film Festival will celebrate the influx of Germanspeaking Jews into American movies and its impact on the American genre that became known as film noir. The weeklong series, titled Stars in the Dark: Émigrés, Exiles
& Film Noir, offers a full court press of movies, cabaret, salon gatherings, German pastries, and dinner under the stars accompanied by the screening of a classic noir. Before the flight of its Jews, German film flourished as a real rival to Hollywood. “Up until 1933, German cinema was arguably among the most innovative in the world and had been for over a decade,” said screenwriter Kirk Ellis, who will introduce the festival’s opening feature, the early talkie crime drama M. “The rise of Nazism resulted in the hemorrhage of the country’s best talent. German cinema didn’t recover for almost 30 years after the war. I remember Werner Herzog saying once about his early apprenticeship, ‘There was no German cinema to learn from. We had to invent it all over again.’”
M holds a place on most lists of great films. It was the first sound film by director Fritz Lang, a Catholic of Jewish heritage. He made M in 1931 before he fled Germany — first to Paris and then to Hollywood. The film also established the name of its star, the Hungarian Jewish actor Peter Lorre, who would quickly beat a similar path.
M sets the festival’s stage, with its dark theme and its powerful echoes of the camera and lighting techniques that flourished in the great German Expressionist tradition, in films like Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr.
Caligari. From M, the festival lineup (curated with the assistance of noir expert Jerry Barron) jumps to the mid’40s, where the shadow of that tradition stretches over the noir output of its émigré progeny in films like Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944), starring Edward G. Robinson as a criminology professor drawn into crime after meeting a beautiful woman ( Joan Bennett). Other entries are Double Indemnity, also from ’44, a classic of snappy dialogue and murderous scheming from Billy Wilder, who is heard from again near the end of the lineup with 1951’s Ace in the Hole, the biting story of a cynical big-time journalist (Kirk Douglas) reduced to working for an Albuquerque newspaper and hoping to ride a human interest disaster story back to the big time. Screening after Ace in the Hole is Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), a taut thriller derived from an Ernest Hemingway short story. It features the screen debut of a former circus acrobat and singing waiter named Burt Lancaster. Rounding out the festival’s slate of films noir is Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946), starring a sizzling Rita Hayworth, which will be screened under the stars on Saturday, May 30, at the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado.
“Lang and his compatriots brought a much-needed dose of cynicism and anxiety to a Hollywood machine that had grown complacent on feel-good entertainments,” observed Ellis. “Their stories were much richer, more complex, and more authentic psychologically, and they
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had an outsized influence on other genres.”
The journey of those displaced Jewish filmmakers is the subject of another of the festival’s films, the riveting documentary Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood, written and directed by Karen Thomas and narrated by Sigourney Weaver. The story casts a new light on some of the movies you think you know well. Casablanca, directed by Jewish refugee Michael Curtiz, is stocked with fellow European refugees, including Lorre (Ugarte), Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo), and Conrad Veidt (Major Strasser). Its story of desperate people escaping the Nazi net reflects the lives of the many Jewish expatriate actors crowding Rick’s, and the singing of “La Marseillaise” becomes an anthem of something inexpressibly sad and hopeful.
These uprooted lives and adapted careers provide topics of conversation for the salon talks that the festival will offer in several live and Skype-hosted presentations at the Center for Contemporary Arts; these are designed to replicate the scene and the stimulating talk of some of the famous Hollywood émigré salon gatherings of the period. Festival director Marcia Torobin emphasized that this year’s Santa Fe Jewish Film Festival goes way beyond the films themselves. “It’s an experiential event. It will take our audience on a journey from the cabarets and cafés of Europe frequented by the noir filmmakers to the shores of the Pacific, where many eventually settled.”
The legendary Berlin club scene of the ’20s, memorialized by the musical Cabaret, was one of the fond memories that the émigrés left behind, and it will be re-created in Between Fire and
Ice, an entertainment designed and performed by cabaret artist Adrienne Haan. This show kicks off the festival from the stage of the María Benítez Cabaret Theatre at The Lodge at Santa Fe.
“It will be a journey through time,” Torobin said. “What was it like in Europe at the end of the ’20s? When I was a kid, I hated history. In college I hated it so much that I went into the engineering school to avoid history classes. But all this is history, and it’s fascinating!”
Some of these émigrés took to their new environment and never looked back. A number never became entirely comfortable in their new land, and eventually, when the war was over, they drifted back to Europe. Some stayed there, while some found no semblance of their old homeland and returned to Hollywood.
For still others, the end of the war took a different turn. Many of the émigrés were idealists, with passionate political and philosophical beliefs that brought them under the baleful scrutiny of the anti-communist hysteria that began to consume this country as the war faded. Lists were made, names were taken, careers were ruined. A journey that began with a flight from Hitler’s fascism ended for some in another exile from the colony of refugees that they had come to know as Weimar on the Pacific.
Top right, Rita Hayworth and Steven Geray in Gilda (1946); opposite page, Peter Lorre in M (1931)
Top to bottom, Fritz Lang; Billy Widler; Robert Siodmak;
Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson in The Woman in the Window (1944); Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946); below, Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole (1951)