> How German emigres defined Hollywood’s golden age

How German emigres defined Hollywood’s golden age

(Credits: Far Out / Picryl / Museums Victoria)


Like many houses in Los Angeles, 165 Mabery Road in Santa Monica stands in utter contrast to its surroundings. You’d expect to find a Tudor revival cottage nestled amongst pines and gnarled elms. Instead, this one sits behind a curtain of citrus trees, the fruits steadily releasing their fragrance as the Californian sun slinks towards its peak. This architectural oddity was once the home of Salka Viertel, an Austro-Hungarian emigree who co-wrote many of her close friend Great Garbo’s greatest films.

When she wasn’t working on the dialogue for Anna Karenina or Queen Christiana, however, Viertel was either acting or hosting one of her legendary salons, which became an important meeting place for German intellectuals who had fled persecution in Nazi Germany. Everyone from Billy Wilder and Marlene Dietrich to Thomas Mann and Ava Gardner attended Viertel’s sumptuous parties — nearly all of them declaring her famous Sachertorte the best they’d ever sampled.

Viertel’s salons represented the very heart of what author Ehrhard Bahr has since named “Weimar on the Pacific”. As well as being a generous host (Christopher Isherwood lived in the apartment above her garage), Viertel cared deeply about forging creative connections between fellow emigres. Hollywood composer Franz Waxman landed his first job after meeting Frankenstein director James Whale in Viertel’s living room.

She even attempted to set up a collaboration with exiled serialist composer Arnold Schoenberg and studio head Irving Thalberg, who was on the hunt for a composer for an adaptation of The Good Earth. Thalberg allegedly complimented the composer on his “lovely music,” prompting a stern-faced Arnold to reply: “I don’t write ‘lovely’ music”.

Salka and her husband Berthold, a fellow screenwriter, relocated to America in 1928. They planned to stay only for a couple of years. Alas, by 1932, Hitler was on the rise, and life was becoming challenging for members of the German-Jewish intelligentsia, as it was for anyone the Nazis deemed “degenerate”. France provided temporary refuge for those who felt Hitler’s reign wouldn’t amount to much. Many travelled to Sanary-sur-Mer on the Riviera, which was quickly destroyed with the arrival of Nazi forces in 1939.

Those who refused to leave Europe were arrested and sent to camps. Kurt Gerronm, who played the cabaret owner in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, was captured and deported to Theresienstadt, where he was forced to direct a propaganda film about the camp before being sent to Auschwitz for extermination. Billy Wilder’s entire family met a similar fate. The Some Like It Hot screenwriter would later recall: “The optimists died in the gas chambers; the pessimists have pools in Beverly Hills.”

By the time this new wave of German emigres arrived in Hollywood, Americans had already embraced the expressionist filmmaking of F.W Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch of Trouble In Paradise fame, and Erich von Stroheim. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, around 800 German-speaking Jews made the crossing to this bright new world. Their first-class training on German film sets made them brilliant studio runners, tailors and prop designers.

Those who were already established in Hollywood, like Lubitsch and Viertel, contributed money to a fund that was used to secure visas and guaranteed work for Jews fleeing Europe. A handful of screenwriters and directors got early breaks because of this support network. Novelist Heinrich Mann, for example, was offered a one-year contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

According to Ehrhard Bahr, L.A. provided German exiles with the perfect environment to create their work. At that time, California was a blank slate. As such, it gave directors, writers, and composers somewhere to project the ideals of the Weimar Republic without limitation and competition. All of this greatly influenced the formation of what would be labelled ‘noir‘. This genre flourished through collaborations between American writers like Raymond Chandler and emigres grappling with the reality of life as an exile.

Many felt intense guilt for escaping with their lives, not to mention severe cognitive dissonance at being in such a beautiful, sun-kissed paradise while death stalked Europe. Noir thrillers bought dark, psychologically complex characters to the fore, characters who, in their anger and cynicism, reflected the guilt and pain endured by those who had managed to escape Hitler’s clutches.

With the parties long since over, 165 N Mabery Road stands as one of the last physical reminders of the hubbub of creative activity that was Weimar on the Pacific. Although the Sachertorte has been cleared from the tables, the cigarettes extinguished, and the conversations preserved in letters and diaries, the influence of German exiles in Hollywood lives on in the fabric of cinema.

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