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

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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.

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.

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.