- On Émigrés and British Cinema
The attention historians have given to the impact of German-speaking émigré filmmakers—including John Russell Taylor’s Strangers in Paradise: The Hollywood Émigrés, 1933–1950 (1984) and Ehrhard Bahr’s more wide-ranging Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism (2007)—has focused overwhelmingly on their success or failure within the American studio system. British cinema, always under the shadow of Hollywood, remained largely unexplored in this regard, though there was important pioneering work by Kevin Gough-Yates and several contributions to the collection The Unknown 1930s: An Alternative History of the British Cinema, 1929–1939 (2000), edited by Jeffrey Richards. The two studies considered in this review give the topic the detailed, specific, and focused consideration it deserves, mapping out and analyzing the variegated and conflicted histories of German-speaking actors, [End Page 100] cinematographers, composers, designers, directors, producers, and scriptwriters as they migrated or fled to Britain, and encompassing the degree to which these “interlopers” were welcomed, treated with indifference, or even subjected to suspicion and hostility.
Taking their cue from “Film Europe” and “Film America”: Cinema, Commerce and Cultural Exchange, 1920–1939 (1999), edited by Andrew Higson and Richard Maltby, which emphasized the internationalism of the film industry in the 1920 and 1930s, both books widen their scope to encompass a broader subject matter than that of the émigrés who fled Nazi Germany; and the designation “German-speaking” also allows consideration of Austrian and Hungarian film personnel. Each book shows the influence of Thomas Elsaesser’s Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary (2000), which emphasized the complexity of this phenomenon as well as the importance of understanding individual trajectories and the two-way reciprocities that characterized this international “exchange,” particularly before 1933, after which a return to Germany became impossible for those who had Jewish ancestry or connections. The two studies are notable for their clarity of focus and depth of scholarship, but a collection is clearly different in nature from a single-authored monograph, so I will take each in turn.
Destination London is a welcome reissue in paperback of a study that first appeared in hardback in 2008. It was the principal outcome of a three-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK, and directed by the two editors. Many of the chapters were expanded from papers given at the project’s major international conference in 2005 and reflect how profitably the research drew on work from scholars in Britain, Germany, and America. Most of the seventeen essays have a tight focus on individual filmmakers, but Tim Bergfelder’s succinct introduction does much to bind the collection together, raising the significant conceptual and historical issues the volume goes on to explore. Bergfelder contends that the impact of German-speaking émigrés—there were four hundred in the British film industry toward the end of the 1930s—was multifarious, encompassing varied aesthetic innovations, methods of production, professional training, and technological developments. Although the term “émigré” is preferable to “exile,” which would be applicable only to the post-1933 period (and then not completely, as the importance of some filmmakers to Nazi cinema meant that the exclusion of Jewish personnel was applied selectively for a period), even that label is itself rather broad-brush. Bergfelder offers the useful term “commercial travellers” to describe filmmakers [End Page 101] who moved to Britain (often temporarily) for economic reasons. There was two-way traffic. Some English personnel, famously Alfred Hitchcock, were encouraged to film in Germany to learn their craft. The reasons behind this border-crossing were both cultural and economic. British cinema, in a parlous state...