Traces of a Viennese Youth
Vienna is no more. What you seek there, you will not find.
-Josef von Sternberg, Hollywood 1968
Dealing with a subject as elusive as an undocumented childhood is a daunting task, one that requires considerable resourcefulness, tact, and imagination and that ultimately relies on a fair amount of detective work and scholarly conjecture. Yet when it comes to a figure like Edgar G. Ulmer, whose life and career often seem enshrouded in unverifiable claims, some of them quite extravagant-for instance, that he was related to the eminent turn-of-the-century Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler; that he once served as a case study for Freud's childhood analyses; that he invented the "unchained" camera, the dolly shot, and pioneered German expressionism; or, perhaps most fabulous of all, that he directed the Atlanta fire sequence in Gone with the Wind and stepped in for Fellini to execute a long tracking shot in La dolce vita-it is perhaps fitting that what we know of his childhood be marked by a similar degree of murkiness, fantasy, and mendacity as his adult life. Indeed, as film scholar Lotte Eisner once claimed in a more provocative spirit, Ulmer might be considered "the greatest liar in the history of cinema."
Ulmer first came to public attention in the mid-1950s, when French critics from Cahiers du cinéma, the same unwavering auteurists who took special delight in finding virtues in the depraved, neglected, and misunderstood renegade directors toiling on the fringes of Hollywood (Anthony Mann, Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray, among others), began to champion the director. In 1956 Luc Moullet dubbed Ulmer "le plus maudit des cinéastes," and though he may not really have been the most "accursed" of filmmakers-indeed that same year François Truffaut hailed his work as "a small gift from Hollywood" and soon declared Ulmer one of America's best directors-his largely subterranean career, and even the reception of what is likely his best-known film, Detour (1945), has often seemed utterly doomed. Like the poète maudit on which the term is based, the cinéaste maudit has been commonly understood as a romantic, tragic figure, whose style and sensibility spurn the mainstream, who is self-consciously outré or oppositional. The Cahiers critics gravitated toward this idea with uncommon zeal; to label a director or a film maudit was to grant a special status (Fritz Lang's M was released in France under the title M le maudit), to recognize an aesthetic whose greatness was, perhaps, accepted by a mere few, those who were the true purveyors of the cultural avant-garde. Ulmer would come to embody this very spirit and over the course of his life and career retained his marginal status, a "termite" artist as opposed to a "white elephant" artist, in Manny Farber's famous comparative scheme laid out in the pages of Film Culture in 1962. The peculiar force of termite art, wrote Farber, is that "it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity."
For many decades now, Ulmer has understandably remained something of an enigma in the history of American and European cinema. "Ulmer occupies an unknown, uncharted, and apparently invisible space on the margins of cinema history," remarked John Belton in 1997. Although he was made the subject of several interviews, in Cahiers du cinéma in the early1960s and in extensive conversations with Peter Bogdanovich, recorded only two years before Ulmer's death and first published posthumously, in 1974, in Film Culture, and although bits of biographical information have trickled out over the years, the mystery still lingers. Of the many entries contained in Rudolf Ulrich's comprehensive reference guide Österreicher in Hollywood (Austrians in Hollywood, 1993), there is only a brief and partially inaccurate piece on Ulmer. What Ulrich does get right, however, is his opening assertion: "The first years of his life lie somewhat in the dark, as Ulmer himself gave different years of his birth in different interviews."
Focusing on this aspect of Ulmer's story-both the shadowy details surrounding his life and the fact that he spent his career in the shadows of his cohort of famous Viennese émigré directors, including Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, and Fred Zinnemann-Austrian film critic Stefan Grissemann published his aptly titled 2003 biography of Ulmer Mann im Schatten (Man in the shadows). Regarding the filmmaker's childhood, Grissemann observes the following:
He grew up in a Viennese rental apartment located on the Hofenedergasse during the early years of the past century. It is a rather quiet, unusually hidden street in the Second District [the Leopoldstadt], only a few minutes on foot from the Praterstern, and yet not quite visible, as if cut off from the city life which begins to assert itself just two blocks away, easily reachable, but only to a person who knows what he's looking for. Edgar Georg Ulmer's childhood matches the kind of cinema that he would later produce: close to all that's timely and popular, very near to that which is big, explicit, and evocative of success, and still hardly visible, kept in secrecy, almost private-something of a mystery.
More enigmatic than all other phases of his life and career, Ulmer's childhood, and what we know of it, has to be traced along a disparate route made up of verifiable facts and assertions that fall somewhere in the murky zone between truth and fiction. As French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, who together with Luc Moullet interviewed Ulmer in the early 1960s, has said of him: "He is a character even beyond his films, one of the rare people that when you read what he has said it's practically impossible to be able to write his life because he was everywhere at the same time." Tavernier regards Ulmer as someone given to extraordinary "invention, dream, mythomania," a compulsive liar and inveterate fabulist, "someone who was totally original and sometimes a little mad." Adding a critical rejoinder, however, Tavernier also considers Ulmer someone who, when you least expect it, is capable of telling the most outlandish story that turns out to be "totally accurate," a story almost more spectacular than the patently fabricated ones he was famous for telling. Finally, as he has said of Ulmer more recently, "He seems almost like a fictitious character himself, but I can testify: He lived!"
The Early Years
What we do know is that Ulmer was born on September 17, 1904. And even if he often pronounced himself a native of Vienna, sometimes claiming to be four years older than he actually was-presumably as a means of lending greater credence to his assertions of having worked on various films when he would have barely been a teenager-the truth of the matter is that he came into the world not in the Habsburg capital but at his family's summer residence in the provinces, in the Moravian town of Olmütz (Olomouc), in what is today the Czech Republic. His birth certificate makes it clear that his family address, which was originally where his paternal grandparents resided, was Resselgasse 1 (today Resslova 1) in the Olmütz district of Neugasse (today Nová ulice). He was born at home, not at the hospital, and owing to the story told by his family, that he first appeared completely covered in placenta, he was thought to have emerged from "underneath a veil," appropriately hidden from direct view. His younger Viennese-born sister Elvira, known as Elly, used to like to tease her elder siblings, all of whom were born outside the city, calling them Bauernkinder (peasant children). Soon after his birth, however, Ulmer and his family returned to Vienna, the birthplace of his mother, where Edgar was raised in the Leopoldstadt, a district known for its high concentration of Jews, many of them from the outer reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There he was provided the basic petit-bourgeois comforts of his parents, Siegfried (Figure 1), a Moravian wine merchant, and Henriette (née Edels), an unsuccessful opera singer (Figure 2). In these early years Ulmer's father was frequently on the road, said to return for only brief periods-just long enough to leave his wife pregnant with the next child-and his mother, not known for her warmth, earned a lifelong reputation for a nasty temper and an occasionally brutal punitive streak (when Edgar would misbehave, his wife, Shirley Ulmer, recounted many years later, "she would lock him in a dark closet and leave him there for a whole day"). Edgar was the eldest of four children, two boys (Edgar and Max) and two girls (Karola and Elly) (Figure 3); a fifth child, a daughter, died soon after birth.
Brought up as a thoroughly secular, assimilated Viennese Jew, Ulmer claimed to have attended a local Jesuit school; in his interview with Bogdanovich he said he had never known he was a Jew until he went to high school (B 577). Yet it remains altogether unclear which school in Vienna he actually attended. It was not, in any case, the prestigious Akademisches Gymnasium to which he alludes in his unpublished autobiographical novel, "Beyond the Boundary"; nor was it the Schottengymnasium, of equally high repute in the world of Viennese secondary education. There is, as I learned after dogged efforts to secure information, no record at either schoolof an Edgar Georg Ulmer ever having been a pupil there. Yet despite the paucity of hard documentation, it is still possible to speculate-based on correspondence and personal accounts-on the abilities and talents Ulmer possessed as a youngster. "He was an unusual child from all I've heard," writes his wife, Shirley-whom he would marry in 1935 and who would be his lifelong collaborator and ardent defender of his reputation-in a letter of June 1939, to their young daughter, Arianné, then two years old, in an attempt to sketch a personal account of Ulmer's family background, "eager, sensitive, strong willed and periodically morose. His tremendous ego has been fed and nurtured by himself since infancy, and despite all obstacles-all family attachments-all sentimentalities, he could remain unmoved until his purpose be achieved." Indeed, in an early portrait of Ulmer as a teen, taken at a Viennese photo studio located around the corner from his family apartment, near the amusement parlors of the Prater, he has his arms folded and his chin slightly raised, projecting an air of self-confidence and maturity (Figure 4).
The city of Vienna undoubtedly left its mark on the young Edgar, whose early life was thoroughly saturated with the cultural heritage of his time. This was, after all, the same Vienna that fellow filmmaker Josef von Sternberg, ten years Ulmer's senior, once pronounced a Kinderparadies (children's paradise) and that famed turn-of-the-century Viennese novelist Stefan Zweig so lovingly described in his sentimental memoir Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday, 1943) as a "golden age of security." As unsustainable as the mythical, near utopian status of the city may have been-Zweig himself admitted that it ultimately proved to be little more than a "castle of dreams"-its cultural landscape helped shape, and was shaped by, a generation of young Austrians, largely of Jewish extraction, who saw the city as their cradle. In the many years since, several critics have drawn attention to Ulmer's relentless inclusion of high art references (ambitious classical scores, modernist sets, assorted highbrow literary references, and aesthetic flourishes) in even some of his lowliest productions. Ulmer managed to bring "art and culture," as Tavernier observes, "to the most unexpected places." From the outset he was a self-described aesthete, a Kulturfreak, as another commentator has remarked, somebody "who engorged himself and his family-and of course his films-with art of all kinds from Schumann's piano concertos to the Venus de Milo."
But Vienna's impact on the blossoming youth was not solely affirmative. In the spring of 1916, before Ulmer had reached his twelfth birthday, his father died of kidney failure while in Austrian uniform fighting on the Italian front in the First World War; like so many patriotic Austro-Hungarian Jews, Siegfried Ulmer had volunteered to serve in Emperor Franz Josef's army. Young Edgar, not quite a full-blown adolescent, is said to have been sent alone, rather mercilessly, to identify the body of his father and to help transfer his remains to Vienna. There can be little doubt that such a devastating loss-a loss he forever associated with the city-was tough to digest for a young boy, and it certainly left an indelible scar, not only personally but also artistically. "In so many of his films," observes Michael Henry Wilson, "the father figure is absent or is dead and is influencing the character from beyond the grave." We merely need to think of some of the most prominent examples from Ulmer's repertoire, such as Strange Illusion (1945), Carnegie Hall (1947), or Ruthless (1948). On April 12, 1916, Siegfried Ulmer was buried in Vienna's Zentralfriedhof.
Beyond the Boundary
Some two decades after the death of his father, Ulmer dedicated a draft of his unfinished novel "Beyond the Boundary," which is dated "Hollywood 1935": "To one of the many thousand soldiers, who died in the first World War; In memoriam of Siegfried Ulmer, my father." The ravages of war form not only the backdrop of Ulmer's fragmented, elliptical, and deeply autobiographical text-which follows the psychological and sexual travails of Viennese adolescent George (the Anglicized version of Ulmer's middle name) Weichert on his path through the war-torn capital-but also highlight, to a considerable extent, his own coming of age and his budding creative sensibility. Indeed, he would continue to draw on the war experience throughout his later years. Ulmer's wife, Shirley, who typed much of the manuscript while her husband dictated it to her, has said that the book "was something that he didn't want anybody to know about ... like it was a diary," or what Ulmer thought of as "[his] little private work." He chose to write a novel, as he explains to Bogdanovich, "because I did not believe the literature during and after the war on both sides: in Germany and in England, it was very much the heroic thing, where enemies were friends like you never saw. I couldn't believe that" (B 576).
For years, as he continued his labors intermittently between film projects, it became something of a family joke, a book that would be published, if at all, in some later century. Realizing perhaps that this was not his usual métier, and that he needed to write in a style and a language that was not his own, he once confided to his wife, "You know, I'm a bit of a thief, because I'm trying to follow the style of Franz Werfel and [Thomas] Mann." Both Werfel and Mann, who, like Ulmer, had taken up residence in the larger community of German and Austrian-born émigrés and refugees in Los Angeles of the 1930s and 1940s, were names evocative of that golden age of literature and culture with which Ulmer frequently and passionately identified himself. Consider, for instance, the opening paragraphs of the novel:
It is quiet in the large dark room. The dawn hasn't broken yet. The presence of sleeping humans is obvious. The window is open and past the snow-covered ledge, streams in the cold winter air. It gets quite cold in Vienna in the winter.
The window looks out upon a back yard. Fore-shortened in perspective, one feels the back wall of the other house alongside. And opposite that bleak back wall, in "L" form runs a wing, housing the servant- and kitchen-quarters. Beyond that ... the skyline of Vienna.
It's futile to describe it. Listen to Schubert, Johann Strauss, to Mozart and Hayden, and you will feel the strange substance of sentimentality, charm ... the Spanish court-ceremonial and the Wienerwald ... the Danube.
The novel follows its protagonist, George, through the streets of the semidestitute city, from the breadlines to the brothels, and chronicles his coming of age-the traumatic death of his father, his sexual awakening in adolescence at the hands of a local prostitute, and his final departure from his maternal home, scenes taken from Ulmer's own life. Although it is far from first-rate in terms of its overall literary quality-the text is littered with errors, frequent ellipses, and handwritten notations suggesting he hoped in vain to return to it later-it does offer something in the way of substance concerning Ulmer's cultural sensibility, which would be transposed, never completely, often as mere traces, into his cinematic output. Indeed the sounds of Vienna, not to mention the "ghostlike" figures and "shadows" ("like thoughts in dreams") that populate Ulmer's oneiric work, would crop up continuously in his aural and visual lexicon.
The novel's heavy emphasis on music not only jibes with the most prominent cultural currents of fin-de-siècle Vienna but also fits the self-fashioned profile of its author, who considered music his first passion and who was known to use a baton-one that originally belonged to Franz Liszt and was passed to Ulmer by the Hungarian-born musician Leo Erdody, a frequent collaborator, whose father had received it as a gift-on the set. A penciled notation ("Why does the discord of an orchestra tuning up never disturb me?") atop the first page of the text is repeated in the closing lines of the chapter, followed by Ulmer's rather heavy-handed, overextension of his chosen metaphor: "And so the boy George became part of the orchestra itself ... with all its many instrumental sections.... He somehow too felt he was being tuned up ... but did not actually know it." Leading up to this, we are made to witness George's nocturnal strolls with his maid, Poldi-a peasant girl who holds a certain erotic attraction over the adolescent boy-through the city streets and alleys; and we are treated to a critical flashback of George's father in military uniform. His parting words, after explaining to his son that he may not return from the front and that he should be prepared to take care of his mother and siblings, are instructive: "Never forget your and my name ... our good name." Ulmer himself would bear the burden of upholding his father's name and employs the novel as a means of paying personal homage, from its dedication onward.
Throughout the narrative the trauma of war figures with great prominence. When George visits the comparatively grand, sumptuous home of his friend Heinrich, who "played the piano like a virtuoso" and is two classes ahead of George, they debate the merits of the patriotic fervor-the so-called spirit of 1914-that swept the country in the early years of the Austrian military campaign. Playing on the Latin education of Viennese schoolchildren of Ulmer's generation, George cites Horace's Odes, "Dulce est pro patria mori" (It is sweet to die for one's country), and goes on, in one of the more thinly veiled autobiographical moments of the novel, to confront Heinrich: "So my father was killed in your war. What does that make us children? War orphans! ... My mother was left with four children." George castigates his friend for not being more sympathetic to the predicament in which thousands of women and children found themselves, standing in the breadlines with ration cards and waiting in vain for proper sustenance, an atmosphere perhaps most poignantly captured in Hugo Bettauer's novel Die freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street, 1925), adapted to the screen by G.W. Pabst a year later. The rotten taste of "warbread" serves as a redolent leitmotif in the novel.
Following their heated discussion, George ends up storming off from his friend's home only to find himself with a prostitute called Peppi, whom he recognizes from the breadlines in which he waits with his maid. Peppi offers a kind of familiar, possibly maternal comfort-she affectionately calls George "Bubi" (an Austrian term of affection for a small boy)-that he is willing to pay for. As his first sexual partner, Peppi is accorded special status. George insists, as a means of preserving her status as long as possible, that she accept his extra payment of ten kronen so she can spend the entire night sequestered in their hotel room without entertaining additional patrons. Upon leaving Peppi at the hotel, Ulmer draws again on his musical lexicon and has George observe, "If I were a great composer like Johann Sebastian Bach, I would write another Passion. Not with the son of God on the cross, but woman." He then underscores the transformation: "The child George had died; because there had to be room in his soul for the man George."
In a highly compressed chapter, limited to a single typewritten page, Ulmer opens with yet another musical allusion, marking the chosen tempo of his work "allegro con brio," an ostensible reference to the countless Viennese composers, from Haydn through Schoenberg, who were known to begin their symphonies in that same tempo. The setting here, however, is the horrible winter of 1916-17, when rations were cut and the initial war frenzy had begun to wane. "The once gay and noisy people of Vienna had become ominously silent," he writes. "They shuffled like shadows through winter cold streets.... A melody like a dirge began slowly to rise." The fateful night with Peppi, now months in the past, remains on the forefront of George's mind: "Somehow he felt that this experience had unnaturally and prematurely brought him to maturity." The young boy retreats inside himself, closing off the outside world and, like Ulmer himself ostensibly did, closing off his relationship to his mother. Ulmer writes of George, "He wanted no part of his home, nor his mother." Over the years, in his personal writings, Ulmer would frequently revisit his animosity toward his own mother and the conflicted feelings that took root in him. "I hated my mother mentally," he writes in a long, introspective letter to his wife, sent from Rome on April 25, 1949, and explicitly indebted to Freud ("The great inventor and prophet of psychoanalysis," as he calls him); yet, he then adds, with the slightly bungled syntax of an émigré, "as a woman I adored her." It is worth recalling that Ulmer wrote this work, in his adopted language, only ten years after arriving on these shores. His general linguistic mastery-minor syntactical errors and, in spoken English, his thick Viennese accent notwithstanding-is impressive.
As for his protagonist, George leaves his mother's house behind and moves in with a Dr. Erika Donat, an avowedly "sexless" woman he meets during a long night of drinking at a coffeehouse and who, according to the narrator, is "one of the very few young human beings who successfully has overcome the inheritance of being Viennese and therefore sentimental and gemütlich." George announces, "I haven't any home; never had one," a bold pronouncement with far wider reverberations later in Ulmer's life. Indebted to the precedent of Schnitzler, Freud, and other fin-de-siècle Viennese writers who sought to plumb the depths of the subconscious, Ulmer couches his penultimate chapter in a haze of intoxication and dreams. "This is a dream," asserts George. "This is alcohol speaking through me." Almost clinical in her approach, Dr. Donat engages with George in a kind of dialogic analysis, a talking cure of sorts. "You are in the embryonic development of the intellectual," she tells him, noting that she belongs "to that class of physicians that prefer to tell their patients the truth." She then goes on to explain to George, with more than a subtle nod to Nietzsche: "The intellectualist is perforce an egomaniac and possessing these requirements you shall undoubtedly become a valuable addition to that select circle of critics and oracles."
For Ulmer, as he noted repeatedly in his letters, the pure intellectual or artist, loyal to his or her pursuit-the genius perhaps-forms a separate social class. As he writes to his daughter, Arianné, from Munich, just after Christmas 1955, seemingly glossing Thus Spoke Zarathustra once more: "Art is a very high peak which very few people have really ascended. The air is thin, cold, way up there. Practically no people live up there. It's warmer in the valley where all the other people live. There is laughter down there, children and the comfortable house and somebody who belongs to you." To George, who fashions himself "the smartest boy in [his] class," the path is similarly lonely. The penultimate chapter concludes with George lying down to sleep, with a final thought of transformation: "Always something happened to lift him from the greatest despondency to a state of security from which he was able to start the trek of his earthly existence anew."
The novel offers little in the way of resolution. In fact, the fifth and final chapter is just as skeletal as some of the other more compressed parts. There is no formal denouement. Instead, George awakens the next morning, somewhat confused and disoriented, at Dr. Donat's home. A young woman, Miss Ilse, a student at the Academy of Dramatic Arts who was taken in by Dr. Donat two years ago, greets him in her pink robe. She teases George for wearing one of Erika's sleeping gowns, calls him "the run-away" and mistakenly addresses him as "Joseph" instead of George, possibly an allusion to the biblical figure known to be an interpreter of dreams. George is "put properly in his place" by the rhetorical skills of the aspiring actress, and the story essentially comes to a halt there. As elsewhere in the writing process, Ulmer shows a high degree of self-awareness; indeed, the very act of writing a fragmentary, autobiographical work with literary pretensions is itself highlighted throughout the text. For example, George receives Stendhal's Souvenirs d'égotisme (Memoirs of an Egotist), a work that is similarly autobiographical and fragmentary, as a gift for his fifteenth birthday from his friend Heinrich. Dr. Erika Donat, in conversation with George, declares herself to be "good material for a novel or play in the modern vein" and suggests possible affinities to Jakob Wassermann and Henrik Ibsen. "Amusing to be conscious of one's own value as story material," she concludes, with a tacit reference to the nature of the entire project. Long after setting out to write his novel, Ulmer would remain enthralled by notions of self-mythologizing and the vast powers of the human imagination.
Big City of Dreams
Like many artists before him, Ulmer felt the need to declare himself a native son of Vienna and, in so doing, claimed a profound attachment-emotional, cultural, and otherwise-to the storied city. "When Truffaut and the critics of the Cahiers du cinéma interviewed the man, he gave Vienna as his birthplace," observes Bernd Herzogenrath. "Fashioning himself as a representative of European High Culture, Ulmer almost naturally felt the urge to repress provinciality." By the eve of the Great War, just as Ulmer was approaching his tenth birthday, a catchy tune entitled "Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume" (Vienna, you are the city of my dreams), written by Rudolf Sieczynski, was making the rounds in the Imperial capital and becoming a worldwide hit (Stanley Kubrick would later use it to set the tone for his final film, the fin-de-siècle, Schnitzler-inspired Eyes Wide Shut, 1999). The song's refrain goes as follows:
Wien, Wien, nur Du allein
Sollst stets die Stadt meiner Träume sein
Dort wo die alten Häuser stehn,
Dort wo die lieblichen Mädchen gehn ...
(Vienna, Vienna, none but you,
Can be the city of my dreams come true
Here, where the dear old houses loom,
Where I for lovely young girls swoon ...)
As the scene of Ulmer's first metropolitan experience, Vienna certainly attained the status of city of dreams, and he continued to treat it as such long after he left it behind, first for Sweden, then for Berlin to work on Max Reinhardt's stage productions, and still later on for New York, Hollywood, and eventually back to Europe once more. Indeed, the course of Austrian cinema was not unlike the itinerary of Ulmer's life. From the very beginning the industry was necessarily international, with well-trodden paths leading to Berlin, Paris, and, somewhat later, Hollywood. "Austrian film history is a phantasm," the German film critic Frieda Grafe once remarked, "because it is not tied to a fixed place; its cinema is a kind of film without a specific space." In her pithy summation, with a wink to the city's famous literati and psychoanalysts, "Vienna was a reservoir of dreams."
By the time Ulmer reached his teens, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that vibrant amalgamation of cultures and ethnicities, no longer existed. And even before that, the Jews of Vienna, as Carl Schorske has noted, had become regarded as a "supra-national people." It should perhaps come as no surprise, then, that the Viennese-born, or in Ulmer's case Viennese-trained, film directors were particularly adroit fabulists when it came to dreaming up their pasts in the film world of Hollywood, the factory of dreams. Erich von Stroheim would take on a self-avowed air of Prussian aristocracy; Otto Preminger pedaled the image of a Teutonic tyrant, something he shared with Fritz Lang; Billy Wilder embraced the identity of a former gigolo and star reporter ("In a single morning," he boasted to Playboy's Richard Gehman, "I interviewed Sigmund Freud, his colleague Alfred Adler, the playwright and novelist Arthur Schnitzler, and the composer Richard Strauss. In one morning"); and Ulmer, no less immodestly, fashioned himself a wunderkind from Reinhardt's renowned drama school and an "aesthete from the Alps." Each of these roles, and there were of course many more, would offer a new identity to the displaced émigré in need of a quick makeover, especially one that might bring more work or, at the very least, some additional grist for the public relations mill. As Ulmer once remarked of Stroheim, with a tone of approval, if not outright adulation: "I loved Stroheim. The man invented his own character-everything" (B 568).
From childhood onward, Ulmer would remain engaged in the process of self-invention; his Viennese youth, the skills he learned, and the cultural mythology that seems to have followed him to the New World featured prominently in this process. "He is a king without a country," insisted Frieda Grafe. "Out of necessity, he made films in Hollywood almost without any means, dark films conjured from his imagination." The Viennese seemed especially well equipped for this task. "The secret affinity that existed between Hollywood on one side and Vienna or Paris on the other," observes Thomas Elsaesser, "was that they were societies of the spectacle, cities of make-believe and of the show. The decadence of the Habsburg monarchy was in some ways the pervasive sense of impersonation, of pretending to be in possession of values and status that relied for credibility not on substance but on convincing performance, on persuading others to take an appearance for the reality."
There were, however, real-life events that punctuated the illusion of living merely in a spectacular world of appearances. After his father Siegfried's death-it's hard not to think of the event in mythical, even Wagnerian, terms-with the help of a Jewish aid organization and the U.S. Hoover Commission, Edgar and his sister Karola were sent to a foster family in Sweden, where they remained until the end of the war (his brother, Max, found foster care in England, his sister Elvira in Holland). To qualify for financial support, Ulmer's mother, Henriette, allegedly had to present her children as orphaned nieces and nephews. A surviving photo from that period shows Ulmer, in 1919, with his Swedish host family. Surrounded by mostly smiling young girls, he looks strangely ill at ease, uncharacteristically serious and without any hint of play, staring rather blankly at the camera (Figure 5).
Yet a much later letter, sent in May 1947 and written by Eric Kronning (né Katz) of Stockholm, one of the children in Ulmer's host family, tells of the happy times being cared for by various Jewish families in and around Stockholm, and Ulmer himself spoke equally fondly of his time in Sweden. Likewise, Ulmer seems to have left a strong impression on his Swedish foster family, and it is perhaps that positive experience that made it possible for him, upon leaving Sweden, to return notto his mother (who, by 1920, had begun a relationship with a new man, something that her teenage son had difficulty countenancing) but instead, much like the character of George in "Beyond the Boundary," to enter into yet another nonbiological family structure.
Returning to Vienna in 1920, Ulmer moved in with the Schildkrauts, a father-son acting duo, Rudolf and Joseph, who were largely responsible for introducing him to the world of theater and cinema. Around this same time, in continued rebellion against his mother, he rejected her plans for him to become a furrier, a trade that Middle European Jews of his generation pursued in relatively large numbers, and instead registered for courses at Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts. This sort of rebellion was not uncommon among Ulmer's cohort of aspiring filmmakers. "Indeed, in the Vienna of the Twenties," writes Neil Sinyard in his study of Fred Zinnemann, "there was a great gap between the mostly conservative and tradition-bound professional class and film people, who were definitely not regarded as solid citizens." At the Academy of Fine Arts, Ulmer is said to have taken courses with Alfred Roller, who, like Rudolph Schildkraut, was a close collaborator of Max Reinhardt and helped him to establish the Salzburger Festspiele. There is, regrettably, no surviving record at Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts of Ulmer ever having formally enrolled; records of this sort are generally kept only for graduates of the academy, which suggests that, assuming he attended at all, he never graduated. In Shirley Ulmer's rendition, written in a personal letter from 1939, "[Ulmer] had wanted to be a symphony conductor, but his widowed mother wouldn't sponsor his education along these lines. Even so, he took the next best route along 'the world of make believe'-the stage."
Regardless of the precise circumstances surrounding his formal studies-as Ulmer tells it, before his time with Reinhardt, "I took my schooling at the Burg Theater in Vienna" (B 562), the city's most historically renowned dramatic venue-the true details of which will likely never be known, what is clear is that the Schildkrauts served as an important conduit for Ulmer, an initial apprenticeship of sorts in preparation for his later career. As Ulmer describes it himself, in conversation with Bogdanovich: "In my youth, the first time I ran away from home was with Rudolph Schildkraut and Pepi [i.e., Joseph]. Pepi was at the beginning in the theatre with me. Rudolph was, of course, a fantastic actor, and he understood kids" (B 577). In a slight variation of his own story, Ulmer's daughter, Arianné Ulmer Cipes, a former actress who appeared in several of her father's films, puts it this way: "My father was in Sweden as a war orphan after the First World War, and when he came back to Vienna, Rudolph Schildkraut-'Pepe' [sic] Schildkraut's father-took him into his home, and Joseph and Dad (who were pretty much the same age) became close friends. Rudolph Schildkraut was a matinee idol, the Barrymore of that time. He not only took my father in as a teenager, he got him into Max Reinhardt's dramatic school, where Dad started initially as a student to be an actor."
Without relying too heavily on armchair psychoanalysis-or, quite simply, on the symbol-laden absence of a biological father-it would seem to make complete sense that Rudolph Schildkraut, an actor made famous by playing a series of patriarchs and grand Shakespearian figures, from Shylock to King Lear, should be well suited to be Ulmer's surrogate father. "At the core of Schildkraut's art," wrote Weimar-era theater critic Julius Bab, lies the "caring father." For Bab, what was so special, and what remained seared in one's memory after viewing Schildkraut's many performances, was the "Vatergefühl" (paternal feeling) he transmitted. Indeed, Egon Dietrichstein featured the elder Schildkraut in his survey Die Berühmten (The Celebrities, 1920), calling him one of the last great comic actors, "strong, virtuous, formidable, like the mimes of the old school. But fine, delicate, nuanced. One cries and laughs with Schildkraut." Schildkraut's son, in his autobiography My Father and I (1959), cites an unnamed critic, possibly Bab, making a similarly laudatory assertion: "Loving, majestic, kind and cheerful, helplessly crushed and frightening in his anger-always a father. This actor from a little village in Romania put his indelible mark on the German theater because he could rise to the highest levels of his art-whenever called upon to create the character of father."
Alas, in his some 250-page memoir, much of it of the self-serving variety of ghostwritten autobiography, the younger Schildkraut, who enjoyed an enormously successful acting career in the United States and went on to win an Oscar for his portrayal of Captain Dreyfus in William Dieterle's The Life of Emile Zola (1937), does not see fit to mention his friendship with Ulmer (admittedly, he also fails to mention other key friendships, including that of Peter Lorre). Yet he does speak at great length about his father and his ties to Max Reinhardt, the so-called high priest of art, and mentions the great import of the Yiddish Theatre on New York's Lower East Side, where Rudolph acted in a number of classic plays and where Ulmer mentions having been introduced to some of the players with whom he would later collaborate on his four Yiddish features made in the late 1930s. Although the Schildkrauts shuttled back and forth to Europe in the 1910s and 1920s, the dates that Ulmer gives in his interview match up, and it is fully conceivable that the Schildkrauts served as another kind of host family and as theatrical mentors to Ulmer for a brief, yet significant time.
Max Reinhardt; or, An Aesthetic Education
As was the case with most German and Austrian filmmakers of his generation, Ulmer learned much of his trade in the theater. And like these acclaimed figures (F.W. Murnau, Otto Preminger, William Dieterle, and others), he eventually made his way to Max Reinhardt. "It's very difficult to imagine today what the name Max Reinhardt meant when I grew up in Vienna," notes Preminger in an interview from the early 1970s; and, as he suggests later in the same interview, "nobody who watched him direct and became a director could escape his influence." The Schildkrauts are credited with having arranged Ulmer's formal introduction to Reinhardt, and they both had far-reaching ties to the renowned theater impresario. Ulmer's tenure at Reinhardt's Berlin-based drama school, at the Deutsches Theater, or somewhat later at the Viennese Theater in der Josefstadt, however, has yet to be documented (and, in fact, given the staggering number of students who trained with Reinhardt, it may never be). What can be ascertained with relative assuredness, however, is Ulmer's journey to New York to assist in the staging of Reinhardt's grand production of Das Mirakel (The Miracle) at the Century Theatre, which entailed nothing short of the total transformation of a run-of-the-mill theater on the Upper West Side into a Gothic cathedral.
Ulmer himself claims to have been involved in the stage design for the production, and he describes his first trip to New York, at the age of nineteen, as having been organized by the Schildkrauts. Indeed, Rudolph Schildkraut was part of the original cast of The Miracle that traveled to New York with the show. It is fully plausible that Ulmer had a hand, perhaps as one of the many designers or simply one of the some seven hundred people enlisted in the play's highly successful ten-month, 298-performance run. The Berlin-born actor Fritz Feld, a principal in the Reinhardt production and a repeat player in Ulmer's pictures of the 1940s, attests to this fact in his eulogy to Ulmer, delivered on October 3, 1972. "Edgar came to the United States in the same year as I did," he begins, "49 years ago. We first met in Salzburg, Austria. Both of us belonged to the staff of Professor Max Reinhardt. Edgar was born in the romantic Vienna and he had all the charm of the true Viennese." Yet the official record at Ellis Island, which indicates his transatlantic passage on the SS President Roosevelt and his arrival in New York Harbor on April 12, 1924 (also his place of residence as "Wein" [sic!]), puts him in Manhattan long after the opening on January 16, 1924. There are nevertheless a number of plausible scenarios regarding Ulmer's involvement in The Miracle: (1) that Ulmer came at the request of his friends Feld and Schildkraut, both of whom were officially engaged in the production; (2) that he came to assist Reinhardt and his chief American collaborator, Norman Bel Geddes, in set design or some other capacity (the ship manifest lists his profession as "actor"), in the ongoing performance; or (3) that he simply seized the chance to travel to the Unites States, like countless other European theater and film people, in search of greater opportunities and financial prosperity.
In an end-of-season review in the New York Times, on November 9, 1924, more than ten months after its premiere, and seven months after Ulmer's arrival in New York, critic Stark Young hailed The Miracle as "a landmark in the history of American theatre" and went on to note that for the immense and rather lavish production-with outlay costs of more than $600,000 and total earnings of $2 million-"700 people are said to have been employed." Ulmer is not listed in the official entry on The Miracle contained in Heinrich Huesmann's Welttheater Reinhardt, the most detailed, exhaustive reference guide to Reinhardt's productions. But Huesmann does not account for the hundreds involved and, in fact, lists only those who participated in the play's premiere, when Ulmer had not yet landed on American shores.
Anecdotal evidence from Reinhardt's acclaimed New York production, as conflicting and unreliable as it may be, abounds. For instance, Shirley Ulmer tells how her husband, whose English was quite poor at the time of his arrival, allegedly offended the play's leading lady, Diana Manners, by using expletives unwittingly as stage directions during rehearsal. In that same interview she shares the opinion with Michael Henry Wilson that The Miracle was "an inspiration for a long time in his work" and that, as a kind of morality play, it provided an archetype for Ulmer's later projects as a filmmaker. Of course, the success of the production, and the breakthrough that it marked for Reinhardt's American career, made it all the more attractive for a young émigré like Ulmer looking to build a strong résumé. The kind of ardent press attention and rave reviews that the production garnered-a bold headline from the New York Journal read "Professor Reinhardt Proves He Is Fully as Great an Artist as Heralded" and eminent critic Brooks Atkinson hailed it as "a stupendous enterprise"-are reviews that any aspiring artist can only dream of.
Regardless of the true scope of his engagement with Reinhardt, though, Ulmer clearly identified himself as part of the Reinhardt school. His visiting card from the period (presumably from the early to mid-1920s) boldly asserts his affiliation (Figure 6). Here he lists his self-appointed title of Ausstatungschef (head of design) for the Reinhardt stage and also gives Vienna, Berlin, and New York as his cities of operation, an early gesture toward the cosmopolitan identity Ulmer embraced until his death (the transatlantic commute he began in the 1920s would resume in the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s). As for the aesthetic legacy from Reinhardt, Ulmer's unwavering attention to mise-en-scène, to artifice and aesthetic detail may indeed be attributed to the precedent set by Reinhardt.
Another strand of this legacy is reflected in his continued artistic collaborations (with people like set designer Rochus Gliese, cameraman Eugen Schüfftan, composer Leo Erdody, and émigré actors Fritz Kortner, Felix Bressart, Hedy Lamarr, and Eva Gabor, among others). We can also note his frequent reliance on European sources (stories by Viennese writers Gina Kaus, Fritz Rotter, Salka Viertel, and others) and the shameless inclusion of inside jokes, accented asides, and allusions ostensibly aimed at the sensibility of German-speaking émigrés in Hollywood (for example, his playful characterization of the collapsed Habsburg Empire and the haunted architect Hjalmar Poelzig in The Black Cat or his villainous figure referred to as "Karl Kraus" in Beyond the Time Barrier). Although much of his work, both before and after migration to America, can be checked against the historical record, there are instances, such as his professed collaborations with Fritz Lang on such acclaimed productions as Metropolis and M, that have trouble withstanding the glare of critical scrutiny. "Herr Ulmer never worked for me," insisted Lang when asked about the repeated claims of collaboration, "neither as a film architect nor as a set designer, nor in any other capacity."
In the end, then, Ulmer remains something of a phantom figure, a Phantombild, as Grissemann has dubbed him. Tracking his early years is akin to tracking a Zelig-like character that seems to have been everywhere and involved in everything all at the same time. As with Woody Allen's Zelig, we are often left to ask ourselves whether such a figure could possibly have existed or whether he's merely a figment of our imagination. It is with good reason that the most memorable line from Andrew Sarris's 1968 entry on the director, tucked away in the "Expressive Esoterica" section of his highly influential compendium The American Cinema, reads: "But yes, Virginia, there is an Edgar G. Ulmer, and he is no longer one of the private jokes shared by auteur critics, but one of the minor glories of the cinema." Even if Ulmer's work did not always demand a defensive reflex-Sarris calls him "a director without alibis"-his wider reputation as a teller of tall tales never quite left him. When Film Comment ran an article, in the spring of 1990, on ten of the all-time greatest apocryphal Hollywood stories, they published the piece under the wicked title "Ready When You Are, Mr. Ulmer."
In his witty musings in "The Decay of Lying," Oscar Wilde comes to an apt conclusion: "The final revelation is that Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art." While it may not be the proper aim of life, Ulmer's life and his art often seem to merge, blurring on repeated occasion almost beyond recognition. "Brother, when it comes to lying," boxer Kid Slug Rosenthal (Maxie Rosenbloom) tells his manager Big Time (Roscoe Karns) early on in Ulmer's wartime comedy My Son, the Hero, "you're the champ." Another illustrative moment taken from Ulmer's repertoire comes in his acclaimed western The Naked Dawn-rated especially highly by Truffaut and his Cahiers colleagues-when the rebel protagonist attempts to impress his female admirer. The romantic, wandering outlaw Santiago (played by Arthur Kennedy, still relatively fresh off the set of Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious) tells Maria (Betta St. John) of the legendary beauties of Veracruz: the dancing, the drinking, and the women. Yet, after serving up a series of florid embellishments, he admits to Maria that it is really nothing more than a "fever swamp," a fitting allegory for many of Ulmer's cheapie productions.
Given Ulmer's own proclivity for the romantic, a predilection on which he prided himself-declaring his allegiance to the "art-possessed" directors as opposed to those vulgar enough to consider film a business-it is perhaps worth considering another romantic summation. "Did he have a tendency to exaggerate-as some have accused him?" asks Bogdanovich in the preface to the 1998 reprint of his interview with Ulmer. "Don't most people? Certainly the movies are a fabulist's paradise, because anything is possible. Didn't Edgar prove that with nearly every picture? Ulmer was a child of theatre and of the movies in their childhood and he never lost his innocent wonder at the challenge and magic of the medium." Listening to the taped interviews with Bogdanovich, it's hard not to feel the passion that Ulmer had for art, for music, and of course for cinema. He told many elaborate heartfelt stories, not all of them included in the printed text, about his own legendary productions and about such stirring contemporary work as John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (1969), a picture he saw multiple times and that left a deep impression on him. "I know that some directors lie," observes Tavernier. "They have to-or they invent things and after a few years, they believe their own lie." While we may not choose to believe wholesale all that has been told by and about Edgar G. Ulmer, the story of his life, in particular his youth, would be impossible without the inclusion of at least a few of the half-truths and fabrications that helped shape him. In the remaining chapters it will be up to us to sort through the persisting myths and balance them with a more judicious, more precise understanding of the filmmaker as he came into his own.