How to Succeed in Nazi Cinema without Really Trying

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I’m hoovering up Gunther Peter Straschek epic series Filmemigration aus Nazidetschland with my eyeballs and earballs. It is just interviews with German film professionals who fled their homeland to escape the Nazis. Five hours of just that. I wish there were fifty.

Anatole Litvak tells a remarkable story, more remarkable perhaps than any he ever filmed. I like A.L. quite a bit as a director, though perhaps he never made a masterpiece. But I think THE SNAKE PIT is aces.

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Litvak was working in Berlin in the early thirties, and suddenly he was arrested. He spent a night in a jail cell, unable to understand what had happened. He knew that as an expat Russian he could rely on no embassy to help. Fortunately, he got a message to his employers at UFA asking help.

The next day he was questioned by a,,, “Not a policeman.” Litvak is telling his tale in German, he only occasionally struggles for a word. The man who interrogated him is a puzzle, in fact, because he seems like a kind of Kafkaesque authority figure representing obscure forces…

He asks Litvak, “Did you take photos of the border between Italian and French territories in 1929?”

Litvak is roughly as puzzled as you or I would be if asked that question, but then he recalls that he was a camera assistant on an Arabian Nights adventure shot in North Africa and the French and Italians did have some territory there. He tries to explain. He didn’t take any photos. They were making a film. He was a camera assistant.

The not-a-policeman, who has a big file on Litvak in front of him, nevertheless writes down that his information is confirmed. Then he asks Litvak if he took photos of French fortifications in Paris in 1932.

Again, Litvak is baffled. But he was in Paris, directing COEUR DE LILAS with Jean Gabin in that year. And he remembers that the district he was in had a spot called Les Fortifs — Napoleonic era fortifications, nothing left of them now, grassed over. He tries to explain this but the notcop writes down again that it’s true.

Fortunately, the UFA lawyer gets him out. Then the lawyer asks him, is there anyone in Berlin who could confirm your story?

“Certainly, there’s an assistant, Leschke, and there’s the great cameraman, Curt Courant…”

Well, it turns out Courant is away from Berlin but his mother is at home and she has also been the victim of an anonymous denunciation. At which point Litvak realises that the assistant Leschke, “because he had a fit of madness, and because h was a Nazi, and because he wanted to get ahead in films, had…”

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And at this point, an extraordinary thing occurs. Litvak, a Russian who had learned German to work in Germany, and French to work in France, and the English to work in America, and is now living in France again… all his languages desert him. Tens of seconds drift by. It’s the longest pause I’ve ever seen performed by a living human being. Straschek’s rigorous technique of simply recording in unbroken takes from a single set-up is electrifyingly justified her.

Litvak is NOT not overcome by emotion. But there are just no WORDS for this. Not in German, nor French, English or Russian. His hands are moving, his fingers are literally making tiny snatches at the air as if to grab the elusive, intangible, slippery words he needs.

Eventually he quietly says something like “…made up this story…” and it’s obvious that he’s not happy with these words, but they will have to suffice.

Georg Leschke’s last film credit is 1935, though who knows, he may have gone on being uncredited as he was on the two films where he worked with Litvak. His career certainly doesn’t seem to have flourished. Maybe, even in the Third Reich, film crews didn’t much care for a rat.

22 Responses to “How to Succeed in Nazi Cinema without Really Trying”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Wow. Reality is indeed stranger than fiction. As for Litvak besides “The Snake Pit” I also like “Sorry Wrong Number” and “Anastasia”

  2. I became prejudiced against Anastasia when, for some reason, I chapter hopped through it and every chapter seemed to begin with somebody coming through the same door, shot from the same camera angle. I formed the conclusion that Mr. Litvak was a bit tired when he did that one.

    But The Night of the Generals is pretty lively, so I should give it another look.

    Sorry, Wrong Number is fabulous, and Confessions of a Nazi Spy and The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse are real jaw-droppers.

    Keep meaning to watch: Mayerling.

  3. ehrenstein47 Says:

    “Anastasia” is most memorable for Bergman’s climactic confrontation with Helen Hayes — Diva vs. Diva.

  4. Tony Williams Says:

    David E, ANASTASIA was the first Ingrid film I ever remember seeing theatrically and that scene remains in my mind. Does not the film end with Hayes pronouncing the line (when she hears Yul and Ingrid have run off together) before some reception answering the question “What shall we tell them? with “Tell them they can all go home” uniting both the screen and cinema audience?

    Also, Benny Hill did a superb impersonation of Yul on his late 50s BBC TV Show in the 50s long before he turned to doing slapstick.

    David C, where did you see this series that I assume is sub-titled?

  5. That’s quite a story. Thanks for recounting it.

    Litvak is at his liveliest when his films have Night in the title: The Night of the Generals, Blues in the Night, and The Long Night are the obvious examples, to which I would add his early musical The Song of a Night, the French version of which has a Mamoulian-like energy. I haven’t seen Five Miles to Midnight, however, so my generalisation may not hold up.

  6. Is this series on DVD?

  7. Alas, no official release that I’m aware of. My copy is so far from being official, it has a German TV announcer in front of it.

    Decision Before Dawn maybe counts as an honorary Litvak night-title? Be Mine Tonight AKA Tell Me Tonight seems to be the English-language version of The Song of a Night, with a different cast. Does the Brit influence deaden things?

  8. Decision Before Dawn is an interesting film, and a good showcase for Oskar Werner. I haven’t seen Tell Me Tonight, but I suspect that you’re right about the deadening influence: as far as the cast goes, Edmund Gwenn is more charismatic than Lucien Baroux, but it’s hard to believe that Sonnie Hale could be as delightful as Pierre Brasseur.

  9. “Sonnie Hale” and “delightful” definitely don’t belong in the same sentence, though I guess there was a time when Jessie Matthews disagreed.

  10. ehrenstein47 Says:

    “Anastasia” got Ingrid an Oscar and marked her return to “professional” filmmaking after all those years of making home movies with Roberto Rossellini. I love the score and a pre-“Mairenbad” Sasha Pietoff

  11. The Night of the Generals is one of those films whose parts are so good that it’s a real shame it isn’t better as a whole. It’s quite sharp on the ease with which ex-Nazis could adjust to the post-war order, and has a brilliant performance from Donald Pleasance. But Peter O’Toole is just impossible, over-emphasizing the lurid elements of the plot with his ham acting; he also seems too young. It should have been Peter van Eyck or Curd Jürgens.

  12. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, Mimic. It has been some time since I’ve seen it and agree with you. Some very good performances (Philippe Noiret,Coral Browne, Donald Pleasence) Tom Courtney), but isn’t Omar a wee bit non-Aryan for his featured role sans mustache?

  13. Oh well, to paraphrase John Ford casting Donal Donnelly as a cockney, we’ve seen enough non-Arabs fuck up Arab parts, it’s about time we had an Arab fucking up non-Arab ones.

  14. Tony Williams Says:

    Didn’t Topol play an Arab in CAST A GIANT SHADOW (1966), that inspired the book HOW TO MAKE A JEWISH MOVIE? “Oy, vey”!

  15. I was told that Melville Shavelson came back from filming his epic on the founding of Israel “worse than Hitler,” after being thoroughly ripped off by all and sundry, but I have no definite knowledge of this and hope it’s not true. I’d love to read his book but it seems to be quite expensive second-hand.

  16. Tony Williams Says:

    We have it in our library but in storage so will have to wait until university re-opens.

  17. Armin Jäger Says:

    I would be a bit careful with these stories. Quite a few emigres also made up stuff with Fritz Lang being the most famous example. Having a big file on Litvak at hand in early 1933 is e.g. highly unlikely.
    But the villain of this piece, Leschke, indeed joined the NSDAP in February 1932, so this fits the story.

  18. One good extra thing about the series: Straschek interviews a “committed Nazi” who speaks of Hitler’s cultural interests with some authority. AH was a big Chaplin fan, apparently: “If only we had a Chaplin!” (You can’t have a Chaplin, Adolf.) And he was, we are told, desperate to entice Dietrich and Memarque back to Germany (I’d heard this before so I believe it.) And Lang! “I forget his first name. Yes, Fritz Lang. He would have rolled out every red carpet to make Fritz Lang stay.”

    So I think this supports Lang’s oft-told tale (which he tells again here, in one of several appearances) which Patrick McGilligan has tried to pour cold water on. Though Lang no doubt dramatized things, Goebbels wooing him is consistent with his pursuit of Conrad Veidt, which we know about, and so it seems to me Lang did something very strong in leaving a country where he was the most respected filmmaker and going to America where he became a studio employee of relatively minor status.

  19. City for Conquest and Goodbye Again are both worthwhile.

  20. Thanks, been meaning to see the former for ages.

  21. alexrinse Says:

    Someone has put them up on youtube just this week past: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Inlf74CL9NA

  22. Great! I may be writing a little more on them.

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