The Nazi purge of Jews from the German film industry became official on July 1, 1933, and the vast majority of all those employed there were forced to seek work elsewhere. Exiled from their homeland, they often sought refuge—sometimes in Vienna until a 1936 ban on Jews in the film industry there forced their departure– perhaps in Budapest or Paris or London. But most eventually made their way to Hollywood, often by circuitous routes that may have taken them through Mexico and often awaiting sponsors willing to sign affidavits pledging employment and financial support that paved the way for their immigration to America. Nazi persecution even reached across the Atlantic—a Hollywood studio that wanted their film released in Germany had to certify that the production was not made by Jewish emigrants. Hollywood studios were compelled to remove Jewish names from the credits of their films before exporting them to Germany.
Exiles in need of official and financial support received assistance from many of the earlier German immigrants and émigrés . Carl Laemmle personally sponsored 600 German Jews, a number referred to as “Laemmle’s List.” Paul Kohner’s talent agency helped new arrivals secure visas and find employment.. The European Film Fund, cofounded by Kohner and Ernst Lubitsch, collected and distributed funds to new arrivals. Those who were able pledged one percent of their salaries to give to refugees who were less fortunate.
More than 800 émigrés working in cinema fled Nazi Europe and made their way to Los Angeles, which was soon dubbed “Weimar on the Pacific”. Producers, directors, writers, actors, composers, cinematographers, set designers and others employed in the film industry came to Hollywood seeking opportunities. It is estimated that only one in three found success there. They faced the difficulties common to all immigrants—names that were difficult for Americans to pronounce, an unfamiliar culture, and often a new language. Samuel Goldwyn expressed the impact of the exodus caused by the Nazi upheaval: “Many of the people who have been engaged in making pictures in Germany are among the most capable in the world, and the German government cannot but suffer a grievous loss because of the steps it has taken.”
The difficulties faced by the newcomers depended on their specialty. Producers and directors often had an easier time, although the personalities and style of directing did not always translate. Composers could work in music’s universal language. Actors had the hardest time making the transition. Many had achieved great fame in Europe, but were virtually unknown in America. Their German accents were a hindrance to employment until America’s entry into World War II, when ironically they were in demand to play the Nazi villains that had forced their departure. Actor Martin Kosleck actually portrayed Josef Goebbels in five films.
Like immigrants before them, they formed their own enclaves. The émigré screenwriter Salka Viertel hosted a Sunday afternoon salon at her home at 165 Mabery Road in Santa Monica that welcomed the likes of Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Max Reinhardt, Arnold Schoenberg, Fred Zinnemann, William Dieterle, and F.W. Murnau. Writer Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta similarly opened their home in Pacific Palisades, now known as Villa Aurora, to émigré artists. Although the California climate was not at all what they were accustomed to, many like Ernst Lubitsch wondered at the fact that, “The sun shines every day in California.”
Many of the films the émigrés worked on, for the Hollywood studios, have become icons of American culture. Director William Wyler made Ben Hur (1959). Luise Rainer and Paul Muni starred in The Good Earth (1937), Rudi Fehr was film editor for Key Largo (1948), composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote the music for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Most of the cast and crew for the classic film Casablanca (1942) were German or European émigrés.
Emigré directors was Fritz Lang (1890-1976), came to Hollywood with an international reputation for being a genius based on films like the darkly expressionist Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922) the epic film, Die Nibelungen:Siegrfried (1924), the futuristic classic Metropolis (1927) and crime thriller M (1931). In 1933 Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels offered Lang to be the head of the German film studio UFA. Institute. Lang declined and left for Paris. The position was later given to director Leni Riefenstahl. Lang, like Erich von Stroheim, wore a monocle and was perceived by American actors to be a tyrant on the set. His first film for MGM was Fury (1936), a commercial success starring Spencer Tracy. His diverse directing talents include: Western Union (1941), a film based on Zane Grey’s novel, Hangmen Also Die( 1943), an anti-Nazi film, and Scarlet Street (1945), a noir film starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett. Other noir films include The Big Heat (1953), While the City Sleeps(1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt(1956). Lang returned to Germany to make films for German producer Artur Brauner, where he revisited his early Dr. Mabuse films, and directed The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse(1960), his last film.
Among the most recognizable of the émigré actors was Peter Lorre (1904-1964). His role as a serial killer in Lang’s M brought him fame, and his roles continued to be sinister, often criminal types. Lorre mainly worked for Warner Brothers and appeared in such classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942)
Another émigré who worked with Lang in Germany was cinematographer Eugen Schuefftan (1893-1977). He invented the Schuefftan process, a special effects technique that employed mirrors to insert actors into miniature sets. Schuefftan had an amazingly long career. His first film was Lang’s Metropolis (1927), and he won the Academy Award of Best Cinematography, Black-and-White for The Hustler (1961).
Director Fred Zinneman made such American classics as High Noon (1952), From Here to Eternity (1953) Oklahoma! (1955) and A Man For All Seasons (1966). Nineteen actors appearing in his films received Academy Award nominations for their performances, and Zinnemann won Best Director for From Here to Eternity and both Best Director and the Best Picture for A Man for All Seasons. During the war, he directed the anti-Nazi film The Seventh Cross (1944), based on the novel by Anna Seghers.
During America’s involvement in the war and in the early years after it, many German-speaking actors found roles in films about the war and its aftermath. The most notable of these films were Casablanca (1942), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Five Graves to Cairo (1943), The Seventh Cross (1944), A Foreign Affair (1948), The Big Lift (1950), Decision Before Dawn (1951), Stalag 17 (1953), The Enemy Below (1957), The Young Lions (1958) , The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and Judgement at Nuremburg (1961). Actors often seen in these roles were Erich von Stroheim,Werner Klemperer, Otto Preminger, Gerd Froebe, Conrad Veidt, Oskar Werner, Theodore Bikel, Helmut Dantine, Maximilian Schell, Curd Juergens. , and Marlene Dietrich. AMpas images of these actors.