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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Cinema Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood
Cinema Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood
Warner Bros. // Unrated // April 12, 2016
List Price: $21.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted May 14, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

Warner Archives is best known for releasing classic movies from the WB vaults, but that's not exclusively what they put out.  In this case they've unearthed an intriguing documentary that PBS produced and broadcast in 2009, Cinema's Exiles:  From Hitler to Hollywood.  This film traces the impact that Hitler's rise to power had on the film industry in both Germany and America.  It's filled with interviews from people who were there including Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang, and examines both the creators who would go on to have successful careers in Hollywood as well as those who could not adapt to the American system.

Narrated by Sigourney Weaver, the film starts by examining the state of German cinema before the rise of Hitler.  As most film fans know in the 1920's German cinema was experimenting and pushing the limits of what could be done in a film.  It was a country were silent masterpieces were born, from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferartu to The Last Laugh and Metropolis (the latter reportedly Hitler's favorite movie).  But all that would quickly change.  Once Hitler rose to power and assumed command of the German state, Jews were quickly fired from positions of authority, including at the state-run Ufa Studios.  The film recounts how the day after the mass firings, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, called a meeting at Ufa and told the actors and directors who were left that German movies should not show things from a Jewish point of view, and then listed twelve movies that were to be emulated.  Ten of them were directed by Jews.

Though they were the toast of the town a week before Hitler came to power, these Jewish German filmmakers were now jobless and penniless.  Their bank accounts were frozen and some were even beaten in the streets.  Most of them fled to Paris, and then eventually to America.

Once in America, they had to prove themselves all over again.  The lucky ones had international recognition and could get temporary work at the studios, like Fritz Lang.  Others had a more difficult time, especially the writers who now had to become proficient in English.  It was incredibly hard to do, but a few like Billy Wilder were able to rise to the task.

Along with the language there was a cultural barrier to overcome.  In Germany, the director was a god, as one emigre put it years later.  In the studio system, directors did not have autocratic control as Fritz Lang discovered while shooting his first American picture, Fury.  He did not get along with the cast and crew and Spencer Tracy reportedly hated the man.  MGM did not extend his one-picture contract.  But he learned his lesson.  The next time he was given the chance to direct, he appeared on the set in cowboy boots and glasses, rather than the riding boots and monocle that had been his style.  It was his attempt to fit in.

Not all of the emigres were able to make the adjustment however.  Joe May, one of the biggest director's in Germany and the man who gave Fritz Lang his break, never did learn how to get along with his American crews.  He was relegated to smaller and smaller pictures, and eventually left the movies and opened a restaurant.  His aristocratic wife, who spent most of her life being pampered, was the cook.

This documentary does a good job at tracing some of the larger names and telling their stories, but it also looks at the exiles as a whole and examines the impact they had on cinema.  For example, the movie High Noon was directed by Fred Zinnemann had to flee from Germany.  That story of a single man who has to stand up to villainy has a bit more impact when seen through the eyes of a German-Jew.

The DVD:


The nearly 2-hour long documentary comes on a single-sided DVD-r in a standard DVD case with cover art.
 
Audio:

Being a recent production, the mono soundtrack sounds fine.  There are a fair number of vintage interviews with directors and talent who are no longer with us, and some of that material is limited by the recording technology of the time, but none of it is hard on the ears.  

Video:

This was intended for broadcast on television, and the full frame image looks fine.  Using older interviews, clips from classic films, vintage footage of pre-war Berlin as well as 1940's California, the overall presentation is very good.  The images are generally clean and crisp and there are no digital artifacts worth noting.

Extras:

None.

Final Thoughts:

Though even the most novice film buff has heard that many film makers and actors fled from Nazi Germany, this documentary gives more than a cursory look at the subject.  They look at creators on both sides of the camera and not only tell their sad and sometimes tragic stories but also place them in the bigger context of cinematic history.  This is an very well done and interesting documentary that gets a strong recommendation.
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