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Brecht in Hollywood: Hangmen Also Die and the Anti-Nazi Film
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The Drama Review 43.4 (1999) 65-76


Die beste Schule für Dialektik ist die Emigration. Die schärfsten Dialektiker sind die Flüchtlinge.

--Bertolt Brecht, Flüchtlingsgespräche (1967, 14:1462)

[The best school for dialectics is emigration. The refugees are the sharpest dialectic thinkers.]


Bertolt Brecht arrived in San Pedro, California, on 21 July 1941 and departed from the United States on 1 November 1947, one day after his HUAC hearing in Washington, DC. Often referred to as an exile in paradise, Brecht's stay in this country proved to be one of the most difficult times of his life. It also turned out to be one of Brecht's most prolific periods, leading to an outpouring of poetry and prose, and to the writing of many plays which, when first performed upon his return to Germany, established his world fame. From the very beginning of his stay, Brecht also wrote scripts, outlines, and treatments -- more than 50 in all (Gersch 1975:355-56)--which he hoped to sell to the Hollywood film industry. Yet apart from his ill-fated collaboration with Fritz Lang, Hangmen Also Die (1943), none of them ever made it onto the screen. Most literary critics have considered Brecht's scripts and film stories as insignificant, and very much inferior to the plays and poems written during his 15 years of exile. Brecht himself set the tone for this interpretation, calling these writings bread-and-butter jobs to which he subjected himself, all the while scolding the industry for which they were written. We all know the famous verses about the market where lies are sold, and about the stench of greed and misery that suffocates the city of angels.

The fact that Brecht failed in Hollywood has mostly been read as the consequence of the incompatibility of the German Marxist émigré and the capitalist film industry. It has been blamed, too, on Hollywood's strict formulas governing film writing, which left no room for Brecht's real talents, or, alternately, on Brecht's refusal to meet the expectations of the studios by compromising the notions of realism and anti-illusionism which had made him a successful modernist in Weimar Germany. Rather than adding my name to the long list of those who have commented on this issue by simply taking sides (mostly the side of Brecht; see, for example, Lyon 1980:58-71), I am interested in analyzing the reasons for Brecht's lack of success in Hollywood within the larger context of German exile cinema. That is to say, I want to claim Brecht here as a German film émigré--against his own self-understanding and self-representation as an exiled Stückeschreiber [playwright], and against the overwhelming majority of critics and commentators who have considered Brecht's oeuvre exclusively within the parameters of "Exilliteratur."

This different contextualization has important implications because it allows us to question Brecht's works in new and productive ways. Whereas the field of Exilliteratur sees Brecht's scripts usually as a mere footnote to his literary work and confines itself to questioning how "successful" Brecht was -- for example, in translating elements of epic theatre onto the screen -- discussions of exile cinema, in contrast, give such notions of fidelity, authenticity, and artistic integrity secondary significance. First and foremost, genre films produced within the studio system can rarely be discussed in such auteurist terms. The work of film writers was considered the product and property of the film studio and subject to endless revisions and rewritings, often involving numerous (noncredited) authors (see Schatz 1989). Furthermore, unlike the exiled writers who, for the most part, continued writing in German, exile film professionals worked in English, either cowriting with English-language writers, or having their work translated by the studios. More importantly, they wrote for an American audience on topics the studios considered profitable and in a mode of address recognizable and understandable by domestic filmgoers. While the exiled writers often understood themselves to be the representatives of a "better Germany" whose traditions needed to be upheld and continued abroad (not seldom because they considered them "culturally superior"), film émigrés could not claim...

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