Close
Stay informed: Sign up for eNews Subscribe

The Dark Mirror German Cinema between Hitler and Hollywood

Request  an Exam or Desk Copy Recommend to Your Library (PDF) RightsLink Rights and Permissions Read an Excerpt

The pandemic has created major supply chain challenges for publishers, manufacturers, warehousing facilities and shipping companies. Please allow for a minimum of 15 business days to receive your order. If you need your order sooner, consider purchasing from one of our retail partner links in the buying options. Thank you!

Read Chapter 7
Close

CHAPTER 7

PIANOS, PRIESTS, AND POPULAR CULTURE

 

SIRK, LANG, AND THE LEGACY OF AMERICAN POPULISM

Robert Siodmak's triumph in Hollywood dovetailed with the boom of the American film industry during and shortly after World War II. Siodmak's film noirs of the mid-1940s indicated the extent to which the war had brought a host of new talents, a spirit of innovation, and relative progressivism to the classical studio system. As a B genre par excellence, film noir in the 1940s might have relied on the same kind of industry structures and moviegoing habits that had characterized American cinema since the arrival of synchronized sound in the late 1920s. It was designed for viewers who considered motion pictures an integral part of American cultural life and who went to the movies at least once a week on average. But on the other hand the rise of film noir in the early 1940s inaugurated a period in which various political, economic, social, and technological forces would deeply change dominant industry structures and audience expectations. Film noir demonstrated that the war experience had passed a new kind of maturity on to American audiences as much as to the film industry. Siodmak's success around 1945 in no small part relied on his ability to use studio filmmaking at the height of its productivity to communicate a pending sense of crisis and industrial transformation. His films espoused the entire range of modern experience and mass culture, yet at the same time they gratified newly emerging demands for greater product differentiation and cultural diversification.

Although American global power in the immediate postwar era was radically on the rise, the Hollywood film industry experienced a dramatic downturn in 1947. The late 1940s in fact became the most afflicted period of American filmmaking. The industry was plagued not only by drastically declining box office returns but also by labor struggles and runaway production costs, by censorship battles and anticommunist hysteria, by defiant exhibitors and antitrust rulings.1For many the 1948 Paramount Case—which outlawed the practice of vertical integration that had proven so profitable for the major studios and thus effectively terminated classical studio operations within less than a decade—signified the climax of Hollywood's postwar troubles. But the downfall of American filmmaking starting in the second half of the 1940s did not simply reflect the impact of unprecedented political interventions into studio structures, nor did it result solely from inner-industrial struggles or the escalating uncoupling of star and studio systems. Rather, it had much to do with postwar transformations of American society as a whole: "[P]ostwar changes in the average work week, leisure time, disposable income, and consumer interest disrupted the loyal partnership that had existed for more than twenty years between the motion picture industry and its audience."2Suburbanization moved audiences away from inner-city theaters. Instead of spending their money for movies, Americans in the immediate postwar period invested in homes, cars, house appliances, or bank accounts. After years of wartime shortages consumers suddenly yearned for new kinds of leisure activities that privileged participatory recreation over mass-produced entertainment. They wanted to engage in golfing or boating, camping or gardening, and found Hollywood particularly ill prepared to satisfy their demands for more diversified pastimes.

In spite of dwindling audience figures and growing political constraints, however, Hollywood features of the immediate postwar era showed some surprising signs of vitality and aesthetic experimentation. Films such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler), Crossfire (1947, Edward Dmytryk), Gentleman's Agreement (1947, Elia Kazan), and All the King's Men (1949, Robert Rossen) infused American cinema with an innovative blend of realism and social awareness. They addressed burning issues of the day (veteran's reintegration, anti-Semitism, political corruption), brandished present hypocrisies from a liberal-left perspective, and upset dominant standards of illusionism and identification. By 1950, however, little was left of this spirit of departure. Troubled by both the HUAC inquiries and the dramatic decline of the market, studios such as MGM, Warner's, Paramount, and RKO eschewed whatever could be read as a trace of left-leaning liberalism. With the notable exception of Twentieth Century-Fox, Hollywood major studios turned openly conservative. They desisted from aesthetic innovation and social realism to appease anticommunist inquisitors as much as to recapture viewers who preferred to spend their leisure time amid the more alluring scenes of the outdoors and of suburban commodity consumption.

James Agee, in a 1948 column for The Nation, described the troubled position of postwar American cinema as follows:

It is hard to believe that absolutely first-rate works of art can ever again be made in Hollywood, but it would be idiotic to assume that flatly. If they are to be made there, they will most probably develop along the directions worked out during the past year or two; they will be journalistic, semi-documentary, and "social-minded," or will start that way and transcend those levels. . . . It is now an absolute certainty that every most hopeful thing that has been stirring in Hollywood is petrified more grimly than ever before.3
Agee was certainly correct in pointing out that there was a major fault line separating American filmmaking around 1950 from its role during the war and prewar era. But he was wrong in predicting that Hollywood could and would reclaim lost territory by forgoing spectacle and illusionism in the name of some new realist aesthetic. As we will see in further detail in chapter 8, Hollywood's primary response to postwar declines was to invest in technology and spectacle. Although since the arrival of sound Hollywood studios had sensed no real need for new technologies to hold the interest of the moviegoing public, postwar transformations of American society caused the industry to develop a different kind of screen presentation and to rebuild the parameters of cinematic viewership through widescreen processes such as CinemaScope. Contrary to Agee's recommendation, the American film industry before long embarked on what must be understood as a veritable revolution. Deprived of the steady audiences of the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood endorsed widescreen cinema in the 1950s so as to recuperate the erstwhile place of moviegoing in American cultural life. It designed a new kind of cinema of attraction and astonishment, a cinema of startlingly amplified sights and sounds that would refocus the viewer's attention on the extraordinary nature of the apparatus itself.

This chapter and the next will comment in a series of typological readings on the role of German émigré directors in the troubled last years of the classical Hollywood studio system. Although it would surely go too far to assign Hitler refugees a special position in what happened to Hollywood after Hitler, it is interesting to note that for some émigrés the disintegration of studio power resulted in new career opportunities. Fred Zinnemann and Otto Preminger did some of their most important directorial work after 1952; Billy Wilder was able to enhance his recognition as a bold producer-director throughout the 1950s and early 1960s; and Douglas Sirk's Universal melodramas clearly fitted well into the very culture of leisure and consumption that had caused audiences to abandon classical Hollywood features after the war. Furthermore, it is important to understand that in some films that were shot around 1950 at the margins of the tormented studio system, in independent or semi-independent production contexts, German émigré directors either addressed the burgeoning transformations of American mass culture head-on or provided striking allegories for the troubled position of Hollywood after 1946. As we will see in a moment, this self-thematization of modern industrial culture around 1950 was often expressed through a confrontation with the legacy of American populism, an ideological heritage with which Germans—recollecting the disastrous path of populism in Germany from 1914 to 19454—had and continue to have an ambivalent relationship, to say the least.

Two films are central to my discussion in this chapter, Douglas Sirk's The First Legion (1951) and Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious (1952). Sirk's The First Legion undertakes a high cultural recuperation of the popular carried out to undercut the susceptibility of populism for commercialized mass culture. The film immerses the viewer in a quasi-heroic struggle against the consumption of sights and sounds in the present age; it suggests a Wagnerian overhaul of the popular's own reified Wagnerianism. Speaking from the entrenched position of American cinema circa 1950, The First Legion aspires to rejuvenate contemporary filmmaking by challenging popular culture over the right to inherit the legacy of the nineteenth century—its utopian dreams, sentimental affinities, and Wagnerian excesses. Lang's Rancho Notorious, by contrast, takes recourse to the most populist of all Hollywood film genres, the western, in order to engage the audience in a quasi-Brechtian reworking of the populist legacy. Lang's point is of course not to persuade his American audiences in any way to engage in communist political practice. Rather, by taking recourse to Brechtian strategies of distanciation and textual counterpoint, Rancho Notorious hopes to reinstate the heterogeneity of the popular and mobilize populism against its own petrification. Unlike Sirk, for whom the popular in The First Legion represents a site of manipulation, materialism, and vacuity, Lang insists on the relative autonomy of popular expressions from commodification and ideology. Whereas The First Legion denounces mass culture as a realm of spectacular seduction, Lang aims to reinvigorate the popular from within—by probing the viewer's relation to the single most popular genre of the studio era.

Their fundamental differences notwithstanding, both Sirk's Wagnerian recuperation of the popular and Lang's Brechtian overhaul of Hollywood populism must be understood as parts of an integral chapter of Berlin in Hollywood. Both directors approach American realities around 1950 refracted through the prism of particular German cultural perspectives. Through the use of melos and music both films engage the viewer in their critical assessment of modern culture. For both Lang and Sirk sound becomes a valuable means of exploring modern culture as a heterogeneous space of contestation. Contrary to Nazi cinema's view of culture as homogeneous, Lang's and Sirk's films permit us to think of modern culture as multivocal: a vehicle of power and social homogenization as much as a mouthpiece of emancipation, nonidentity, and visions of a better life.

 

Populism and Its Discontents

Hollywood filmmaking during the studio era was deeply influenced by the legacy of the two major American reform movements around 1900, agrarian populism and urban progressivism.5Neither populism nor progressivism ever developed a fully coherent system of ideas, but both came to dominate American cultural life in the first half of the twentieth century because both addressed critical issues related to ongoing processes of social, economic, and technological modernization. In a country lacking any established vocabulary of socialism, both populism and progressivism challenged the rule of big government and business with the help of an amorphous array of ideas that revolved around the image of individual self-determination and "the people." At once utopian and activist, they offered unifying symbols to a widespread spectrum of wills and interests.

Populists opposed political and economic concentration, the rise of administrative centers, and the urban culture of intellectuals. They advocated the Edenic image of agrarian life, propagating the unhampered use of "land" as the primary vehicle of individual self-realization and communal integration. Unlike contemporary socialist movements in Europe, American populists mainly aspired to reform the current system by replacing corrupt and conspiratorial elites "with representatives of the truer, agricultural America."6Like turn-of-the-century populists, progressives believed that the roots of American democracy were originally formed on the farms and in small villages and that urbanization, industrialization, and mass immigration increasingly destroyed the kind of individualism and codes of conduct coupled with agrarian life. But rather than relying on traditional moral values alone, progressives hoped to find in the institutional framework of modern industrial America and in governmental policies the very means to correct the problems of the present. In contrast to populism, progressivism developed a more positive concept of the political. Politics' proper task was to reconstruct the possibility of individual self-expression and moral integrity, of economic self-determination and unrestricted communality. Its paramount, albeit paradoxical, mission was to make itself superfluous.

As a result of the Great Depression and New Deal politics, the 1930s witnessed a dramatic upswing of precisely the kind of phenomena that turn-of-the-century populists and progressives had loathed the most: industrial concentration, big government, and a more prominent role for intellectual elites in American cultural life. Hollywood's dream factories, however, in spite of their own drive toward bureaucratization and market control, continued to draw heavily on the rhetorical tropes of progressivism and populism, "blurring their differences and fusing them into a common ideological strand."7Classical Hollywood cinema upheld what historical developments seemed to negate. The populist and progressive myths of moral individualism and agency, of agrarian democracy and conspiratorial politics, helped define narrative conventions and character motivations throughout the studio era. These ideological tropes fundamentally influenced what became a cinema of active, goal-oriented protagonists.

Hitler refugees in the United States had an uneasy relationship with American populism, for populist sentiments had, of course, been key to National Socialist politics as well. Similar to American populists, Nazi politics relied on the integrative power of diffuse resentments and cultural prejudices. It disputed the rule of money and instrumental reason in modernity, translated discontent into celebrations of absolute difference, and privileged the local over the global. Unlike American populists, however, the Nazi movement channeled popular xenophobia into a full-fledged eliminationist program. It emphasized ethnic belonging rather than economic individualism as the principal path to national reawakening. Nazi discourse adulated the land as a mythic source of racial identity, not—like turn-of-the-century populists—as a means of economic self-realization. And in their efforts to renovate the body politic, Nazi populists had a much more ambivalent relationship to domestic traditions than did their American counterparts. Nazi ideologues embraced some political traditions, but they rejected many other traditions that were, for instance, coupled with eighteenth-century projects of enlightenment and emancipation.

Recalling the populist elements in Nazi politics, German exiles in Hollywood developed at least three distinct strategies to respond to the continued currency of populism in the United States. In all three strategies populist ideology often emerged as a screen of multiple misrecognitions, of cross-cultural displacements and projective anxieties. One response was to deny any affinity between German and American populism and to espouse the credo of economic individualism in the gesture of a fatherless child who embraces a new paternal authority. In this first model the populist defense of the local and unhampered self-realization was seen as a liberal-democratic bulwark against totalitarianism. The second possible reaction involved a quasi-Oedipal revolt against what was seen as direct correspondences between the affective agendas of American populists and the ultranationalism of Nazi politics. American populism in this view offered an allegory for Nazi realities, and vice versa. Both erased the normative substance and universalist reach of modern politics; both exchanged symmetrical communication and critical reason with prejudice, hysteria, and the glorification of authority. Finally, the third response—driven by a Marxist model of ideology critique—pointed at underlying complicities informing fascism, the rise of American populism, and the emergence of organized consumer capitalism in order to reveal their mutual implication in a self-destructive dialectic of modernization. Both American populism and Fordist capitalism, it was argued, want to speak in the name of the "common man." Both seek to provide something for everyone. But to do so, they obliterate personality, alterity, and nonidentity from above, duplicating the destruction of individuality and solidarity in German fascism.

Fritz Lang's and Douglas Sirk's role in the encounter of German film exiles with American populism is interesting not least of all because the success of both directors prior to Hollywood had rested in significant ways on their ability to cast populist sentiments into compelling cinematic expressions. Lang's Metropolis (1927) showcased images of cross-class mediation that referred to various populisms of the time,8and Sierck's German melodramas such as To New Shores and La Habanera supplied Nazi mass culture with populist visions of cultural synthesis. Furthermore, the Hollywood work of both directors evinces a recurring preoccupation with the vicissitudes of American populism. Often considered a film allegorizing Lang's experience of National Socialism, Fury (1936) explored the susceptibility of populism to mass hysteria and vigilantism; Sirk's Universal melodramas of the 1950s, by contrast, professed to be Balzacian panoramas of mainstream America, a cinematic folklore sampling popular values, ideas, and practices. The First Legion and Rancho Notorious may expose both directors as occupying opposite positions from their "accepted" ones: Lang as an emphatic populist, Sirk as an elitist critic of the popular. But the exceptional character of this material should not keep us from investigating it further. For, on the one hand, it is in the atypical that struggles over values and meanings often crystallize most intensely; and, on the other hand, it is not the individual biography that matters most for cultural studies but how the voices of individual actors participate in larger discourses of a given time, how the symbolic material at hand may confirm, nuance, or challenge these discourses in paradigmatic ways.9

 

To Old Shores?

Married to a Jew, Detlef Sierck left Nazi Germany at the peak of his success at UFA in December 1937. He spent two years in Italy, Austria, and the Netherlands before Warner invited him to Hollywood in 1939 to shoot a remake of To New Shores, a project terminated in 1940. Sierck's first American film assignment was a 1941 documentary on winemaking in a monastery in Napa Valley. The film traveled to Catholic parishes all over the United States. Even though most filmographies fail to list this production, it in all likelihood remains Sierck's greatest popular success. Also in 1941 Detlef Sierck changed his name to Douglas Sirk. He dissociated his name from any German trace in order to accommodate Hollywood producers waging war against Hitler Germany and to appease the many German exiles who considered him a Nazi collaborator. In contrast to Max Ophüls, whose name experienced a series of dismemberments in exile (Ophuls, Opuls),10Sirk's cognominal redress signaled his eagerness to meet Hollywood more than halfway—to leave his past behind and excel in American culture on its own grounds.

"I was in love with America, and I often have a great nostalgia for it," Sirk recalled in 1971. "I think I was one of the few German émigrés who came to America with a certain background of reading about the country and a great interest in it—and I was about the only one who got around and about."11Sirk's move to Hollywood and change of name did not signify a radical rupture in his career. His preoccupation with America, as we have seen in chapter 3, had commenced long before his arrival in Hollywood. Films such as To New Shores and La Habanera had been deeply enmeshed in the ambivalent project of Nazi Americanism. Much of his Hollywood work, on the other hand, recalled and further developed the iconographic, thematic, and stylistic registers of his earlier films. It is in particular the use of organized religion as a sign for the popular (which, as I argued before, should not be automatically conflated with the category of industrial mass culture) that links Sirk's German and Hollywood periods. In To New Shores religious material elicited the viewer's desire for cultural synthesis. It conjured the vision of a new popular in which the divided tracks of modern culture—aesthetic refinement and commodified diversion—could reunify. Similarly, in the melodramas of the 1950s Sirk's references to organized religion are part of a persistent inquiry into the divisions and utopian potentials of modern American culture. They reveal the status of melodrama as a paradoxical source of transcendence in a postsacred world12but simultaneously express what Sirk considered the popular beliefs, meanings, and goals of American society.

Whereas films such as The First Legion (1951) or Battle Hymn (1956) directly address the delicate role of religious institutions in secularized America, other films are often literally framed by religious symbols. Church towers, for example, figure prominently in the opening shots of both All I Desire (1953) and All That Heaven Allows (1954). They set the stage on which small-t