Making the movies un-american

“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities raised this question with unrelenting zeal in a series of hearings over nine blustery and widely publicized days in October 1947. Spotlights flooded the hall and there was a row of cameramen perched at one side of the room, prompting an unnamed reporter from one of the movie industry trade papers to pronounce the atmosphere “worse than a Hollywood premiere.” Ten “unfriendly” witnesses, who refused to cooperate and skirted the issue of party membership—the Hollywood Ten, as they came to be known—were convicted of contempt and forced to serve jail time.

Keep reading at The New Republic


Voluptuous Panic

“In the streets of Berlin, one is often struck by the momentary insight that someday all this will suddenly burst apart,” observed the critic and journalist Siegfried Kracauer in a 1926 essay on the city’s picture palaces. Because of its fragility, the irreconcilable forces that threatened it, and the apocalyptic air that came to enshroud its short-lived existence, the Weimar Republic has often been perceived as “a dance on the edge of a volcano,” as the great Yale historian Peter Gay famously called it, or a “voluptuous panic,” as Mel Gordon titled his erotic history of the period.

Keep reading at The New York Review of Books

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Hollywood’s Biggest Stars Seen Inside and Out

In many respects a study in contrasts, Eyman’s remarkably absorbing, supremely entertaining joint biography of two Hollywood legends reveals just how immutable the bonds were between “Hank” Fonda, an impious, New Deal Democrat with a volatile home life, and “Jim” Stewart, a churchgoing, conservative Republican with a devoted family. 

Keep reading at The New York Times

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The same old story: Why “Casablanca” persists

When a movie is still talked about three quarters of a century after its debut, revered in the kind of hushed tones normally reserved for discussing a nation’s most precious cultural treasures, people often want to know why. In the case of “Casablanca,” that holy grail of classical Hollywood that turns 75 on Sunday, there is no easy answer.

Keep reading at Salon


The Poet of Ill Tidings

Although far better known internationally as a playwright than as a poet, Bertolt Brecht had a supreme gift for language. He applied much of the same plucky, rebellious spirit to his poems that he did to his world-class theater productions of the late Weimar years, which included The Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Brecht began publishing his poetry as a teen, around the same time that Germany was gearing up for the First World War. 

Keep reading at The Nation

On the Trail of Casablanca

“With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas,” intones the unnamed narrator at the start of Casablanca, which celebrates its 75th birthday this year. As the prologue continues, a swift montage shows a spinning globe intercut with documentary footage of throngs of refugees fleeing Nazis advances, while the voiceover goes on to describe a roundabout trail leading from Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran, Algeria and on to French Morocco.

Keep reading at The New Republic

‘Casablanca’s’ Refugee Tale Is Shockingly Relevant For 2017

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Casablanca, one of the most cherished films ever made. Commemorations are scheduled to take place around the country and the globe, while Warner Bros. plans a much-anticipated theatrical release this fall, complete with all the glitz and fanfare reserved for its biggest successes and most decorated stars. Ironically, this Hollywood juggernaut was made by and about one of the least glamorous groups of people in the world: refugees.

Keep reading at The Daily Beast

The Reluctant Enthusiast: Orson Welles on Casablanca

In anticipation of Casablanca’s seventy-fifth anniversary this year, I’ve made a sustained attempt to reappraise the significance of the film and its illustrious afterlife—in particular how the film, which involved so many European-refugee actors and studio professionals, resonates in the current political climate, with the increasing turn to the right, toward protectionism and isolationism, and a global refugee crisis of a similar scale. But in searching out some of the lesser-known, and least likely, voices on the subject, I’ve been reminded of another critical reappraisal of the film, one that dates back several decades and that hasn’t really received much attention.

Keep reading at The Paris Review

The Making of Steven Spielberg

The director of Jaws grew up “a wimp in a world of jocks.” He just wanted to be accepted

Considering the staggering success of Steven Spielberg—the youngest director to sign a long-term studio contract, mastermind of the summer blockbuster, co-founder of his own studio, and a filmmaker with enough Oscars to fill a knapsack—it’s hard to imagine that this Hollywood wunderkind nonpareil has spent much of his life suffering from acute fears.

Keep reading at The New Republic


Eavesdropping on WEimar

In the preface to her posthumously published memoirs, It Was All Quite Different, written in 1960, the last year of her life, Viennese-born writer Vicki Baum begins with a reckoning of sorts: "You can live down any number of failures, but you can’t live down a great success. For thirty years I’ve been a walking example of this truism. People are apt to forgive and forget a flop because they care little about things that aren’t in the papers or on television, and a book that fails dies silently enough. . . ."

Keep reading at The New York Review of Books

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reflections on cinephilia

When invited to give a lecture at Berkeley last spring as part of a tribute symposium to my dissertation advisor, the great German film scholar Anton Kaes, I found myself returning to an idea that has long animated my work, if more on a personal level than an intellectual one. I’ve always thought of myself as something of a cinephile, unfashionable as that tag may be in certain academic circles, and this seemed like an ideal occasion, looking back over the twenty years since I’d finished my graduate studies, to try to understand how I got this way.

Keep reading at The Threepenny Review

Werner Herzog’s Maniacal Quests

Early on in Les Blank’s 1980 short documentary film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, the star says in his unmistakable Bavarian-inflected English: “I’m quite convinced that cooking is the only alternative to filmmaking.” But almost as quickly as Herzog makes this bold if earnest assertion, he qualifies it: “Maybe there’s also another alternative: That’s walking on foot.” 

Keep reading at The Nation


“My problem,” novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg told Kurt Vonnegut at the close of a 2001 interview published in these pages, “is that I’m not going to live long enough to do all the different things I want to do. My time is beginning to run out a bit.”

Keep reading at The Paris Review


Vienna Is No More? Film History, Psycho-Geography, and the Great City of Dreams

Sometime during the fateful year of 1968, when a relatively young German film critic named Frieda Grafe was engaged in an extended correspondence with the eminent Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg, they reached a critical point in their exchange at which Sternberg, having left Austria for good as a young boy, almost seems to have lost his patience. “Vienna is no more,” he insisted rather emphatically. “What you seek there, you will not find.”

Keep reading at Film Quarterly


Grand Collusion - a review of the collaboration

In the spring of 1947, when German-émigré film scholar Siegfried Kracauer published his groundbreaking history of Weimar cinema,From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, theater critic Eric Bentley accused him, in the pages of the New York Times, of being “led into exaggeration” by hindsight and pursuing a “refugee’s revenge.” It’s true that Kracauer, who barely managed to flee Nazi-engulfed...

Keep reading at Bookforum

The best years of their lives

Why World War II offered Hollywood directors an escape into reality

There’s a brief scene just a few minutes into William Wyler’s acclaimed war film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) when the three lead characters, all veterans returning home, hitch a ride on a repurposed bomber. They’ve just concluded their respective odysseys at the battlefront and are eager to get back to Boone City, a fictional stand-in for pretty much any Middle American town.

Keep reading at The Nation

Other Worlds: Edgar G. Ulmer’s Underground Films of the 1950's

When the émigré filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer passed away on the last day of September 1972 at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills, the prevailing fear among family members was that his work would be forgotten forever — something he himself had articulated near the end of his life — that it would slowly, inexorably drift into oblivion. Although his departure did not go entirely unnoticed, with obituaries published in Variety, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times, the legacy of his life and career was surely in jeopardy. Because of the irreversible decline in his health, he was never able to finish the multisession interview with Peter Bogdanovich that he began in February 1970, after the initial strokes had already left him partially paralyzed. . . .

Keep reading at the L.A. Review of Books


A Last Gasp of Stale Air - Edgar G. Ulmer’s late noir Murder Is My Beat (1955)

After directing a few generally unnoticed pictures abroad, including the Italian production I Pirati di Capri (Pirates of Capri, 1949) and the Spanish-English co-production Muchachas de Bagdad (Babes in Bagdad, 1952), and continuing to work as a freelancer, Edgar G. Ulmer returned to the terrain of American hard-boiled noir one last time.

Keep reading at Moving Image Source

'Play it again, sam' – and again and again

Movie-lovers can't get enough of Casablanca, which may explain new talk about a long-planned sequel

For almost as long as there have been movies, there have been sequels. The GodfatherStar WarsThe Lord of the Rings, the Twilight series—if there's anything Hollywood likes more than a blockbuster, it's the follow-up to one.

Keep reading at The Wall Street Journal

illuminations - a review of cinema and experience: siegfried kracauer, walter benjamin, theodor w. adorno

Any student of silent cinema, critical theory, and the Frankfurt School, or film aesthetics and the avant-garde, will surely at one point or another have come into contact with the work of Miriam Hansen. Her groundbreaking study Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (1991) inspired a generation of film scholars to place greater emphasis on the ways in which film audiences constitute an alternative...

Keep reading at Bookforum

I me mime - a review of the anatomy of harpo marx

“Originally I intended to write a book about Harpo’s relation to history and literature,” remarks Wayne Koestenbaum on the first page of his fittingly zany, aphoristic, and meandering study of the great mime of Marx Brothers fame. “A tiny chapter on Harpo and Hegel. A tiny chapter on Harpo and Marx. A tiny chapter on Harpo and Stein. A tiny chapter on Harpo and Hitler.” That idea didn’t stick. Plan B, we are told, was...

Keep reading at Bookforum


Tales of Buffalo Billy: Noel Simsolo's Masters of Cinema: Billy Wilder

“Every director has his own colors, like a painter,” observed Billy Wilder in 1962. “Some paint like Dufy, others are darker, like Soutine, say, but I’ve never wondered about whether I was bitter or cruel or pessimistic or anything. I like the story, that’s all there is to it. I tell stories I like.” A writer by nature, Wilder was a man of uncommon wit and unforgiving sarcasm who made his martinis with the same verve as he made his movies (“I like to mix a little vinegar in the cocktail,” he once quipped).

Keep reading at the L.A. Review of Books


“We wanted workers,” Swiss playwright Max Frisch once remarked of the so-called Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, that began pouring into Germany in the early 1960s, “and we got people.” These same people, mostly from Turkey, Greece, the former Yugoslavia, and Italy, eventually had families. And the children of these families grew up in a country that, while perhaps not entirely their own, has become, at least on a cultural and social level, as much theirs as is the country of their parents.

Keep reading at Film Quarterly

a matter of memory: on ingo schulze

The unvarnished fiction of One More Story explores Germany's papered-over past

On a cool, drizzly autumn afternoon last November, German chancellor Angela Merkel walked across the Bornholmer Bridge flanked by former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and former Polish opposition leader Lech Walesa. The Bornholmer was the first of several border checkpoints between East and West Berlin to have been burst open by throngs of East Germans on November 9, 1989. "This is not just a day of celebration for Germany," intoned Merkel, the first German head of state to hail from the former East after the so-called Wende, or "turning point." It is, she hastened to add, "a day of celebration for the whole of Europe."

Keep reading at The Nation


When Faces Counted Most

While children across the globe were busy tearing open their presents on Christmas Day 2008, Ann Savage, the 87 year-old bad girl of film noir was battling a series of strokes—one of the few fights she would ultimately lose—in a Hollywood nursing home. By the time of her passing, Savage had in fact successfully clawed her way through thirty-plus screen roles, the bulk of them quite nasty, in her extended career as an actress.

Keep reading at Vertigo

Walter Benjamin Forever: A Critic’s Coveted Afterlife

Following the quirky, revolutionary life path of one of the most celebrated twentieth-century intellectuals

Among the many writers and intellectuals whose posthumous fame far outshines that of when they were alive–Kafka, say, or Emily Dickinson or even Machiavelli–Walter Benjamin is the object of a particular kind of obsession. In Germany, even his address book from his years of exile has been deemed worthy of publication in a facsimile edition.

Keep reading at The Nation

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realism or revisionism? germans revisit the war

"A signal is needed against the one-sided mourning in Germany," declared Peter Lauer, a sixty-four year-old schoolteacher taking part in a neo-Nazi counter-demonstration to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden on February 13 of this year. "We must also mourn the German victims."

Keep reading at Bookforum


Fighting the abyss

Although The Aesthetics of Resistance delves into leftist notions of art and class struggle, this account of an anti-Nazi youth group in Germany seems outdated now

“In our last conversation, several hours before he died, we spoke of the source of artistic creation,” recalled Gunilla Palmsteirna-Weiss in her speech accepting the Büchner Prize, one of Germany’s most coveted literary prizes, on behalf of her recently deceased husband, the German-born writer Peter Weiss.

Keep reading at The Nation

elevator musician - A review of the cello player

''Some people can do anything, others next to nothing.'' This formulaic if truthful statement serves the first-person narrator of Michael Krüger's slim, elegant novel, ''The Cello Player,'' as a means of understanding the history of music. It also helps explain his life story. A onetime musical wunderkind and reformed 1960's idealist, he's now a successful composer of ''terrible theme songs'' for German television. In exchange for his wealth, he faces chronic disappointment in his efforts to complete his masterwork, an opera dedicated to the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam -- an elusive grail he spends his spare time trying to capture.

Keep reading at The New York Times