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Review: Gerd Gemünden’s Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema 1933-1951

His extensive definition of “exile” draws on the likes of theorists Theodor Adorno, Edward Said, and Salman Rushdie to explain how complex self-expression can become when displaced from one’s homeland.

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Review: Gerd Gemünden’s Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema 1933-1951

In spite of a subtitle that suggests a survey of German exile cinema over an 18-year period, Gerd Gemünden’s new book cunningly circumnavigates the typical pitfalls of cinema historicism by turning his focus to a variety of themes, influences, and industrial forces, rather than singling out only one. While canonical films such as 1942’s To Be or Not to Be and 1943’s Hangmen Also Die receive chapter-length studies, so too do less exhausted works like 1934’s The Black Cat, 1939’s The Life of Emile Zola, and 1949’s Act of Violence, each with precise and comprehensive results.

Gemünden is an excellent writer; his introduction clearly sets the terms of analysis without losing the rigor one expects from an academic text. In particular, his extensive definition of “exile” draws on the likes of theorists Theodor Adorno, Edward Said, and Salman Rushdie to explain how complex self-expression can become when displaced from one’s homeland—what Adorno would call the “damaged life.” Nevertheless, Said and Rushdie are more optimistic, emphasizing that while many things are lost in translation, something may also be gained. Gemünden defines this gain for German exile cinema during this period as an “in-between” state that engages the traditions of Weimar cinema, but also forms a “dark mirror of Nazi cinema.” Ultimately, this leads to one of Gemünden’s larger questions: What does authorship mean in relationship to exile?

Gemünden answers this question throughout by considering individual directors, the studio system, and lengthy production histories for each film. With The Black Cat, Gemünden explains a troubled script and tumultuous working relationship between Edgar G. Ulmer and Universal, which explains why auteurist criticism “seems particularly problematic in regard to Ulmer.” This claim distinguishes Gemünden’s work from Noah Isenberg’s recent Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins, which did very little to problematize an auteurist critique. Moreover, Gemünden insists that “hasty writing or last minute changes or cuts” in Ulmer’s films should not be confused with avant-garde filmmaking intentions. Such a statement demonstrates Gemünden’s larger scope, which isn’t content to march through these films with only the director’s oeuvre as its guide.

Case in point, the following chapter details how biography became a popular genre for émigré directors, but insists on including Warner Bros. role in the process, particularly the studio’s input on The Life of Emile Zola, directed by William Dieterle. Not only was Warners insistent that the film primarily cover the Dreyfus affair instead of Zola’s life, but the studio became complicit in downplaying the Jewishness of the film’s lead characters.

Such omissions are important for Gemünden or, perhaps more importantly, important for Ernst Lubitsch, whose To Be or Not to Be focuses on revealing Nazism as rhetorical theater, engaged in a similar practice as the film’s theater troupe. In addition, Gemünden emphasizes the film as an allegory of Hollywood filmmaking and the ways in which Hollywood has historically forced Jews to hide their ethnicity; in doing so, Hollywood retroactively becomes complicit in the Holocaust. In a provocative statement, Gemünden claims Lubitsch’s film to be as equally anti-Hollywood as anti-Nazism.

Much of exile cinema fell under the influence of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, developed in 1936, and European Film Fund, developed in 1939. These organizations sought to help exiled European artists and solicited Hollywood’s help in combating an impending external threat. Gemünden offers Hangmen Also Die as the “high point” in exile filmmaking’s struggle against Nazi Germany. The film brought together Fritz Lang as director and Bertolt Brecht as screenwriter, who disagreed not only on artistic, but political matters. Gemünden nevertheless argues for the pair’s compatibility with regard to depicting mass psychology, where lines between good and bad become blurred.

The next chapter fascinatingly examines Act of Violence as the convergence of exile and veteran anxieties, as films became more concerned with psychological rather than physical repercussions of war. Naturally, this lends itself to a discussion of film noir, but Gemünden avoids such easy trappings by aligning the Fred Zinnemann film with 1950’s In a Lonely Place, in which Humphrey Bogart’s troubled screenwriter is also a war vet. In these films, gender relationships are in crisis and trauma is tied to the transformation of one’s homeland—the true nightmare of noir.

Likely the book’s weakest chapter is a final case study of 1951’s Der Verlorene, Peter Lorre’s sole film as director, made shortly upon his return to Germany in 1951. While certainly informative for a film that remains woefully neglected and unavailable in North America, its placement within this text unnecessarily draws attention away from the director/studio relationship and engages an auteurist lens other chapters carefully avoid. The chapter would have been better served as a shorter, perhaps even paragraph-length explanation in the epilogue for the difficulty exiles faced in returning to their native countries after the war.

Nevertheless, even at one chapter too many, Gemünden’s book typifies a kind of conceptually thoughtful and exciting scholarship often missing from more historically rooted works. As such, there’s much here to attract many readers, especially with regard to new studies of important films and directors that are not simply engaging the exact form of auteur criticism created by Andrew Sarris and Cahiers du Cinéma over 50 years ago, respectively. Gemünden, finally, aligns his emphasis on exile with resonances felt within the New German Cinema and how “studying exile cinema today forces us to rethink the general role of cinema in constructing modern subjectivities.” Gemünden also pushes us to rethink forms of criticism and that dual threat makes this a most important book.

Gerd Gemünden’s Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema 1933-1951 is available now from Columbia University Press; to purchase it, click here.

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Let Your Sanity Go on Vacation with a Trip to the Moons of Madness

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

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Moons of Madness
Photo: Rock Pocket Games

The announcement trailer for Moons of Madness opens with an empty shot of the Invictus, a research installation that’s been established on Mars. The camera lingers over well-lit but equally abandoned corridors, drifting over a picture of a family left millions of kilometers behind on Earth before finally settling on the first-person perspective of Shane Newehart, an engineer working for the Orochi Group. Fans of a different Funcom series, The Secret World, will instantly know that something’s wrong. And sure enough, in what may be the understatement of the year, Newehart is soon talking about how he “seems to have a situation here”—you know, what with all the antiquated Gothic hallways, glitching cameras, and tentacled creatures that start appearing before him.

As with Dead Space, it’s not long before the station is running on emergency power, with eerie whispers echoing through the station and bloody, cryptic symbols being scrawled on the walls. Did we mention tentacles? Though the gameplay hasn’t officially been revealed, this brief teaser suggests that players will have to find ways both to survive the physical pressures of this lifeless planet and all sorts of sanity-challenging supernatural occurrences, with at least a soupçon of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmicism thrown in for good measure.

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

Rock Pocket Games will release Moons of Madness later this year.

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Watch: Two Episode Trailers for Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone Reboot

Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes.

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The Twilight Zone
Photo: CBS All Access

Jordan Peele is sitting on top of the world—or, at least, at the top of the box office, with his sophomore film, Us, having delivered (and then some) on the promise of his Get Out. Next up for the filmmaker is the much-anticipated reboot of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which the filmmaker executive produced and hosts. Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes, “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” In the former, Kumail Nanjiani stars as the eponymous comedian, who agonizingly wrestles with how far he will go for a laugh. And in the other, a spin on the classic “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet” episode of the original series starring William Shatner, Adam Scott plays a man locked in a battle with his paranoid psyche. Watch both trailers below:

The Twilight Zone premieres on April 1.

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Scott Walker Dead at 76

Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde.

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Scott Walker
Photo: 4AD

American-born British singer-songwriter, composer, and record producer Scott Walker, who began his career as a 1950s-style chanteur in an old-fashioned vocal trio, has died at 76. In a statement from his label 4AD, the musician, born Noel Scott Engel, is celebrated for having “enriched the lives of thousands, first as one third of the Walker Brothers, and later as a solo artist, producer and composer of uncompromising originality.”

Walker was born in Hamilton, Ohio on January 9, 1943 and earned his reputation very early on for his distinctive baritone. He changed his name after joining the Walker Brothers in the early 1960s, during which time the pop group enjoyed much success with such number one chart hits as “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).”

The reclusive Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde. Walker, who was making music until his death, received much critical acclaim with 2006’s Drift and 2012’s Bish Bosch, as well as with 2014’s Soused, his collaboration with Sunn O))). He also produced the soundtrack to Leos Carax’s 1999 romantic drama Pola X and composed the scores for Brady Corbet’s first two films as a director, 2016’s The Childhood of a Leader and last year’s Vox Lux.

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