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'Cinema's Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood'

January 03, 2009|Susan King

From the time Adolf Hitler became Germany's chancellor in 1933 to the opening salvos of World War II in 1939, about 800 actors, directors, writers, composers and producers fled Europe for the safety of America. The Third Reich's loss was Hollywood's gain as the infusion of artistic talent changed moviemaking for decades to come.

A new PBS documentary, "Cinema's Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood," which airs at 8 tonight on KCET, charts the contributions these emigres -- many of them secular Jews -- made in their adopted homeland.

Among the talent were directors Billy Wilder ("Sunset Boulevard," "Some Like It Hot"), Fritz Lang ("Fury," "The Big Heat"), Henry Koster ("Harvey"), Fred Zinnemann ("High Noon," "From Here to Eternity") and Robert Siodmak ("The Killers"); composers Frederick Hollander, Franz Waxman and Erich Wolfgang Korngold; cinematographer Rudolph Mate; and actors such as Hedy Lamarr and Peter Lorre. And there were others who left Germany before Hitler took power, including director Ernst Lubitsch and actress Marlene Dietrich.

"So many people who came to our shores just picked up and made a life for themselves here," said "Exiles" writer and director Karen Thomas. "So few of them, and this is what really surprised me, looked back or appeared to be angry about what happened. Some of them did struggle, but they were too busy having a life."

This is not to say they didn't suffer. They were forced to mourn the tragic loss of family and friends in their homeland who became the inevitable casualties of either the war or the Holocaust. (The mother, stepfather and grandmother of Austrian-born Billy Wilder perished at Auschwitz.)

The Oscar-winning 1942 World War II classic "Casablanca" is just one of many films populated with these exiles. Actors Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Lorre, S.Z. Sakall, Leonid Kinskey, Helmut Dantine, Marcel Dalio, Ludwig Stossel and Wolfgang Zilzer all came to America to avoid Nazi rule.

"I think if anybody watches this film, they are not going to look at 'Casablanca' the same way again," said Thomas.

Before the rise of the Nazi party, German cinema was celebrated for its innovation and creativity. In 1920, the German Expressionistic film movement was born with the nightmarish "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." Other German films -- under the guiding force of producer Erich Pommer -- followed: F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu" and "The Last Laugh," and Lang's "Metropolis."

But this kind of film -- many are regarded as masterpieces -- disappeared as soon as the Nazis came to power and seized control of Germany's film studios. The exodus of cinema artists began quickly. Most got out with little more than the shirts on their back and a pittance to start their new lives.

Paul Kohner, who eventually opened up a Hollywood talent agency, and his wife, actress Lupita Tovar, smuggled money to help former colleagues.

After he returned to Hollywood, Kohner kept trying to get artists and their families out of Europe. In letter after letter, Kohner pleads with people to leave Germany. But not everyone saw the situation as dire.

"There is a moment when one director in Berlin didn't really think he needed to come to America," said Thomas. "But Paul Kohner kept writing him, saying, 'I can get you a job if you want to come.' But by the time the man wrote in 1938 wanting to come, Kohner had to tell him, 'I can't do anything for you now. It's too late.' "

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susan.king@latimes.com

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'Cinema's Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood'

Where: KCET

When: 8-10 p.m. today

Rating: TV-PG (may be inappropriate for young children).

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