In Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood, writer/director Karen Thomas provides a broad but densely packed chronology of the pre-WWII events that forced the massive German-Jewish talent pool to flee into parts of Europe, and for most, eventually settle in the U.S. where many had to virtually start their careers and lives from scratch, having no money, valuables, and a working knowledge of English.
The outbreak of WWII as well as the persecution of European Jews eventually manifested itself in studio films, with Warner Bros. breaking the silence with Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). Casablanca (1943) was a more elegant, romantic drama of the refugees seeking safety while passing through the exotic no man’s land of Morocco, but few films actually acknowledged the mass extermination of Jews in Europe.
In Not Idly By: Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust (2009), director Pierre Sauvage uses Bergson’s voice and images to make the case that the mass media was aware of the slaughter but subjugated its importance within the United States.
One can argue that the lack of front page coverage or massive outrage towards the Nazi regime ensured the movies, the music, and the radio shows coming from Hollywood were evenly tempered, leaving extremists to make the call for action. Among the most aggressive was screenwriter Ben Hecht (His Girl Friday, Nothing Sacred ), a top talent who wrote plays and a choral pageant in 1943 to agitate and provoke Jewish Americans into a reactionary political force. Hecht’s efforts aren’t the focus of Not Idly By, but the archival extracts in Sauvage’s documentary show a group essentially screaming in print and on stage ‘shame on you’ to audiences, in place of the star-studded dramas that, perhaps with the exception of Casablanca, were trite, clichéd, and kitschy.
If Sauvage’s film captures the outrage as filtered through the views of Bergson alone, Thomas’ doc uses anecdotes and recollections from diverse levels of the ex-German film community as they struggled with the issues Bergson likely felt were inconsequential compared to an ongoing Holocaust; economic uncertainty, career changes, culture shock, fractured families, and the process of rebuilding lives after the end of WWII were everyday struggles for the refugees, in addition to the loss of loved ones in Europe.
That sense of helplessness is apparent in Thomas’ film, and the only support network for the refugees came from a small section of the Hollywood community (included newly settled refugees Like Marlene Dietrcht, Erich Pommer, and Paul Kohner) who offered food, funds, small work, and emotional support while the industry town cranked out propaganda designed to support the national troops and allies rather than deal with mass extermination.
Cass Warner’s documentary, The Brothers Warner (2008), is a personal discovery of the brothers who built the family business – Warner Bros. – but the chapter on WWII indirectly shows brother Harry’s struggle to ‘sneak in’ social messages in the films from an otherwise commercial business. Confessions of a Nazi Spy was an overt anti-Nazi statement by a corporation who refused to do business in Nazi Germany during the war, but it’s also a hot-button film with a teasingly provocative title that infers pulp magazine thrills to lure the broadest possible audience.
There are major tonal differences in each of three documentaries (no to mention their distinctive primary subjects – exiles, a Revisionist Zionist, and the founders of a Hollywood studio), but collectively they provide glimpses into the corporate, social, and political forces in Hollywood as the Nazis rose to power, forced some of their best filmmakers to flee Europe, and the industry town of Hollywood, whose mandate was to entertain, but was confronted with conflicts abroad, and at home.
Mark R. Hasan, Editor