- Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir
Toward the end of World War Two and shortly after it, film critics in the United States and France respectively discerned darker visual styles and themes in recent American motion pictures than were typical for Hollywood productions. French critics dubbed this trend film noir. It denoted a cycle of movies beginning in the late 1930s and eventually extending into the 1950s. This series of moving pictures was characterized by amoral or deranged male leads, diabolical femme fatales, menacing urban exterior shots, oblique and vertical lines segmenting visual planes, a shrouding of images in nighttime shadows, and intricate schemes of betrayal, fraud, or murder. The characters populating such movies were dominated by their psychological impulses and corrupted by the crime-ridden metropolitan environments in which they resided.
Scholars have identified a number of factors to account for the qualities film noir exhibited. Most concur that its style and subject matter drew on both the German Expressionist films of the 1920s and the French poetic realist ones of the 1930s. Others trace its low-key lighting to the wartime policies of blackouts and rationing. The “hard-boiled” interwar American novels revolving around the exploits of amoral tough guys, usually adventurers or detectives, inspired cinematic adaptations or served as templates for many film noir characters. Some scholars perceive the cynicism, paranoia, ruthlessness, and violence such anti-heroes manifest as expressions of the discomforting zeitgeist engendered sequentially by the economic despair of the Depression, the rise of fascism, the unprecedented destructiveness of World War Two, the postwar [End Page 194] congressional investigations of communist infiltration in the film industry, the ominous potential for nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, and the vacuous veneer of conformity and prosperity in peacetime American society. Finally, the disproportionate contribution of German expatriate directors to the corpus of film noir has been cited to explain its heightened sense of vulnerability, pervasive pessimism, and use of European cinematic styles.
Vincent Brook delves deeper into the émigré nexus by focusing on German Jewish émigré directors who fled to the United States to escape persecution in the 1930s. These include Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Willy Wilder (who arrived in America in the 1920s but did not make films until the 1940s), Otto Preminger, Edgar Ulmer, Curtis Bernhardt, Max Ophuls, John Brahm, Anatole Litvak (a Ukrainian Jew who honed his filmmaking skills in Weimar Germany before resettling in the United States on the eve of Hitler’s accession to power), and Fred Zinnemann. Brook persuasively demonstrates that this wave of Jewish émigré directors exerted a profound quantitative and qualitative impact on American film noir. He contends that the deep cultural and psychological wounds inflicted on this cohort of directors when their homelands disenfranchised and persecuted Jews rendered them more receptive to film noir’s gloomy sensibilities. A majority of them had been involved in the production of German Expressionist films, and some, like Bernhardt and Siodmak, transmitted a similar aesthetic into the films they made in France before coming to the United States. Moreover, they were acutely aware of the plight of their friends and relatives who remained in Europe.
Finding sanctuary in the United States did not necessarily diminish the insecurities these directors’ projected in their films. American antisemitism and nativism intensified during the Depression. The ambivalence Jewish émigré directors felt towards their Hollywood haven also emerged from the humiliating role reversal they experienced in the film industry. As highly assimilated German Jews, they traditionally looked down upon their identifiably Jewish brethren from Eastern Europe. Now, the less cultured and more business-minded Ostjuden who constituted the majority of studio owners supervised the auteurs, who resented them. During World War Two, the American government designated German émigrés enemy agents, forcing them to observe a curfew and impounding their royalties from foreign films. In the postwar period, whatever leftist connections the émigrés had established as anti-fascists loomed as grounds for being tagged and blacklisted as communists...