The 1920’s “The Pioneers”

The Two-Way Street from Berlin to Hollywood

The artistry of the early German cinema of the silent era attracted the Hollywood studios, who were eager to bring new talent to the American film industry. Directors, actors, and cinematographers  who had worked in Berlin found their way to Hollywood and made their  mark.  The combination of German artistry and Hollywood commerce paved the way for the Golden Age of Hollywood that was to come, but many who followed these pioneers did not do so out of choice.

In Germany, German director Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947) had made such financially successful movies as Carmen (1918) starring Pola Negri, and Madame DuBarry (1919) starring Negri and Emil Jannings.  While in America to promote his film The Loves of the Pharoah (1922), he made connections in the U.S. film industry and, at the invitation of actress Mary Pickford, he returned to America for good. “The studio equipment is far superior to that of Europe and beyond doubt American photography and lighting are the best in the world”, he observed.  His unique sophisticated humor and style came to be known as “The Lubitsch Touch,” and his films also enjoyed enormous success with American audiences.  Two of his most popular films are Ninotschka (1939) with Greta Garbo and To Be or Not to Be (1942) with Jack Benny.   He was a mentor to Billy Wilder, who had a sign in his office that read: “How would Lubitsch do it?”  “The Lubitsch Touch” has influenced generations of comedy filmmakers.

In 1926, the Fox Film Corporation brought F.W. Murnau to Hollywood to direct Sunrise (1927).  Murnau, a native from Bielefeld, was the genius behind the much-acclaimed films Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926).  His unique lighting techniques, varied camera perspectives and creation of mood and rhythm in his narratives are considered groundbreaking. In Faust, he photographed Mephistopheles’ flight over the town bearing the curse of the black plague as a black billowing cape. Sunrise is often called the most German film ever made in Hollywood, and it won the first Best Picture Oscar.

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The actor Emil Jannings made a succession of films for Paramount including The Patriot (1928) directed by Lubitsch and The Last Command (1928) directed by Austrian-born Josef von Sternberg.  He won the first Best Actor Oscar for his performances in The Way of All Flesh (1927) and The Last Command.  His fame in Germany had been secured by his roles as the hotel doorman in Murnau’s Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh) and as Mephistopheles in Murnau’s Faust.  His thick German accent made a career in America difficult after sound, and he returned to Germany to star opposite Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel ((1930).  Emil Jannings remained in Germany during the Nazi regime and made several  pro-Nazi propaganda films.

After his work with Emil Jannings, Josef von Sternberg, who had developed a reputation at Paramount, was invited to come to Berlin to make The Blue Angel (1930) with Jannings and Marlene Dietrich. The film made Dietrich an overnight star, and von Sternberg invited Dietrich to America.  Von Sternberg and Dietrich subsequently collaborated on six films: Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus 1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil is a Woman (1935).

Paul Leni (1885-1929) had directed many successful silent films, including Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924) released in the United States as Waxworks.  Invited by Carl Laemmle to direct at Universal, Leni  made The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Man Who Laughs(1928), two films which secured Universal’s reputation for horror films.  Both movies starred German-born Conrad Veidt, famous for his role in the German horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

Cinematographer Karl Freund (1890-1969) worked at UFA for directors Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. His work on German classic silent films such as Metropolis (1927) and The Last Laugh (1924) created the “Weimar Cinema Style.”  Freund emigrated to America in 1929, and was hired by Universal where he worked as cinematographer on All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Freund was involved in the production of several Universal horror classics and directed The Mummy (1932).  He went on to develop the “Three-Camera System” used to shoot television series, and did the cinematography for the popular TV show I Love Lucy.