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Driven to Darkness

Driven to Darkness: Jewish Emigre Directors and the Rise of Film Noir

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Driven to Darkness
    Book Description:

    From its earliest days, the American film industry has attracted European artists. With the rise of Hitler, filmmakers of conscience in Germany and other countries, particularly those of Jewish origin, found it difficult to survive and fledùfor their work and their livesùto the United States. Some had trouble adapting to Hollywood, but many were celebrated for their cinematic contributions, especially to the dark shadows of film noir.

    Driven to Darknessexplores the influence of Jewish TmigrT directors and the development of this genre. While filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, and Edward G. Ulmer have been acknowledged as crucial to the noir canon, the impact of their Jewishness on their work has remained largely unexamined until now. Through lively and original analyses of key films, Vincent Brook penetrates the darkness, shedding new light on this popular film form and the artists who helped create it.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4833-3
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-21)

    “History,” said George Santayana, “is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten.”¹ This study of Jewish émigré filmmakers of the 1930s and 1940s aims to rewrite a wrong in the historiography of American cinema generally and film noir specifically. The error is one of omission, and relates to the crucial contributions of Jewish, German-speaking, refugee directors to the emergence and evolution of film noir. Not that these directors’ importance to the noir cycle per se has been neglected; quite the contrary. The disproportionate number and seminal influence of Austrian and German film noir directors—Fritz Lang, Billy...

  5. 2 Jews in Germany: TORN BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
    (pp. 22-37)

    Jews may not have invented the term “ambivalence”—its coining is credited to the non-Jewish Swiss psychoanalyst Eugen Bleuler in 1911—but their relationship to the notion of a conflicted self is uniquely overdetermined, both discursively and experientially. The biblical banishment of the ur-couple from paradise planted the seeds of a primal spirit/matter split, not only for Jews but for all humanity. Early Christian theologians reified the schism in the concept of original sin, Cartesian philosophers rationalized it in cogito ergo sum, and the Romantic poet Goethe gave it voice through the figure of Faust:

    Two souls, alas, are dwelling...

  6. 3 Jews and Expressionism: “PERFORMING HIGH AND LOW”
    (pp. 38-57)

    Just as the role of Jews qua Jews in the rise and evolution of film noir has tended to be underestimated or ignored, so has their contribution to the emergence and development of German Expressionism been downplayed or overlooked. Given that Expressionist cinema is seen as a major forerunner of film noir, the oversight in regard to the former widens the lacuna in regard to the latter. The twin attributional flaws can partially be explained by an epistemological similarity between the art form and the film type: both are notoriously difficult to define or categorize. As with noir’s resistance to...

  7. 4 The Father of Film Noir: FRITZ LANG
    (pp. 58-78)

    Auteurist caveats notwithstanding, Fritz Lang qualifies as the sire of film noir on several levels, both as progenitor and practitioner. After apprenticing as a writer and then director on a series of German films in 1919 and 1920, all commingling favored noir themes such as death, doubling, and the “destiny of woman,” Lang’s work in the Weimar period increasingly veered, with occasional mythic/romantic detours (partly prompted by his wife/collaborator, Thea von Harbou), toward cinema’s dark side, both visually and thematically.¹ HisDer Müde Tod(The Weary Death, akaDestiny, 1921) “defied all known standards” of the Reinhardtian “interplay of light...

  8. 5 Fritz Lang in Hollywood
    (pp. 79-103)

    Had he not made another film after the Weimar period, Lang’s place in the film noir pantheon, based on the seminalMand his overall influence, would be assured. That he went on to make some of the earliest, most influential, and most highly regarded noirs in the United States only adds to his preeminence. His pioneering role in American noir is not surprising given his predilection for dark-themed films from the onset of his career. Indeed, Lang is the émigré director whose noir orientation can be traced most directly and unequivocally to his work in Weimar Germany. Siodmak and...

  9. 6 The French Connection: ROBERT SIODMAK
    (pp. 104-123)

    Whether one agrees with Michael Walker’s claim that Robert Siodmak “contributed most extensively tofilm noir” (Lang is more commonly given the nod), Mark Bould’s assessment is indisputable: “Two émigrés—Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang—are absolutely central to the development of film noir.”¹ Yet while these two Jewish émigré directors are comparable in their noir output and impact, they diverge considerably in their noir trajectories.

    Lang, as we have seen, exhibited a noir bent from his earliest efforts in the Weimar period, contributed substantially to the noir vocabulary, and continued his pioneering role upon his arrival in the United...

  10. 7 Viennese Twins: BILLY AND WILLY WILDER
    (pp. 124-144)

    The chapter title is a bit of a fudge (or a Sachertorte), but that’s part of the point. The Wilder brothers were not joined at the hip at birth, but rather were born two years apart: Willy in 1904, Billy in 1906. And they both entered the world not in Vienna but in Sucha, Galicia, a town in the Polish region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But the two boys did spend their formative years in the imperial capital, where they moved with their German-speaking Jewish parents in 1916, and where they were exposed to the bounties of cosmopolitan culture and...

    (pp. 145-166)

    Though not blood-related, Otto Preminger and Edgar Ulmer constitute a Viennese-twin grouping of their own. Here the kinship, and contrast, relates not to psychological conflict between the two Vienna-bred directors but rather to the divergent production modes within which most of their work can be subsumed. All of Preminger’s film noirs, like most of Lang’s and Siodmak’s and all of Billy Wilder’s, were made within the comparatively privileged A film category; the majority of Ulmer’s, like Willy Wilder’s, fit into the more marginal B-film type. The alphabetic differences are more than nominal, having strictly governed budget levels during the classical...

  12. 9 Woman’s Directors: CURTIS BERNHARDT AND MAX OPHULS
    (pp. 167-184)

    A predilection for prominent, sympathetic women characters is, as we’ve seen, a distinctive feature of Jewish émigré noir. This gynophilic tendency in the work of Curtis Bernhardt and Max Ophuls, in particular, led them to be typed, somewhat pejoratively, as “woman’s directors.” That the American filmmaker most noted as a “woman’s director,” George Cukor, was also widely known (at least within the industry) to be gay, reinforced the derogatory connotations. Indeed, Bernhardt may have been attempting to even the score, orientationally speaking, when he pointed out, in an interview with Mary Kiersch in 1977: “It’s funny, because in Germany all...

  13. 10 Pathological Noir, Populist Noir, and an Act of Violence: JOHN BRAHM, ANATOLE LITVAK, FRED ZINNEMANN
    (pp. 185-212)

    The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, Suspicion, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Dr. Kildare, Medic, Johnny Staccato, Naked City, M Squad, andThe Defenders, as well as the anthology seriesPlayhouse 90, Lux Playhouse, Screen Directors Playhouse, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Studio 57, Alcoa Premiere, General Electric Theater—these are only the most prominent of the television programs for which John Brahm directed multiple episodes in the 1950s and 1960s. For some critics, such as auteurist patriarch Andrew Sarris, this wholesale migration to the small screen signaled, almost by definition, a sharp decline in Brahm’s career.¹ For more...

    (pp. 213-214)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 215-260)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 261-268)
  17. Index
    (pp. 269-285)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 286-286)