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November 26th, 2008
Filmmaker Interview: Karen Thomas

Over the years, Karen Thomas has produced films on many artists including Isaac Stern, Robert Rauschenberg, Edgar Allen Poe, and as well as history features on the American Bill of Rights. Now, the award-winning director/producer/writer takes an in-depth look at the impact of German refugees in wartime Tinseltown. Below, she discusses the making of her latest film, CINEMA’S EXILES: FROM HITLER TO HOLLYWOOD, which premieres January 1 at 9:30 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings).

What was the genesis for this project?
Serendipity. I received a telephone call from a man named John Waxman in the fall 2001. He had seen the documentary we had made on violinist Isaac Stern for PBS’ AMERICAN MASTERS, and wanted to know where we had found archive footage that featured his late father, composer Franz Waxman. John came to Washington some time later, and asked if we might have lunch. At that time, he told me about his father, who had orchestrated The Blue Angel, and had become a composer for the German cinema. When Adolf Hitler came to power, Franz Waxman fled to safety in America. Waxman went on to run the music division of Universal Studios, scored hundreds of Hollywood films, and earned two Academy Awards. At our lunch, John Waxman said that there were many German exiles from the film industry who had similar and similarly dramatic stories, but they had never been told. Did I, he asked, think it would make a good television documentary? Yes.

Tell us a little more about Franz Waxman’s story.
Franz Waxman was German, lived in Berlin, and had been the orchestrator of The Blue Angel. One evening, shortly after Adolf Hitler had come to power, Waxman was walking home from the studio when he was pulled into a dark alley by a group of Nazi thugs, and beaten. He got himself home to his apartment, and told his fiancée to pack her bags. They were going to leave Berlin that night. They took the train to Paris. A job in Paris took Waxman to a job in Hollywood. By Christmas time, Waxman’s visa was about to expire. He was invited to a Christmas party at the home of writer Salka Viertel. There, he met director James Whale, who said he had a picture he wanted Waxman to score. It was called The Bride of Frankenstein.

Why make Cinema’s Exiles for public television?
I have spent my entire career in public television. My career began at PBS, and I have been producing, directing and writing documentaries for public television ever since. Public television, and especially funders such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, give producers the encouragement and the wherewithal to make television programs that matter.

Do you have any special ties to this particular Hollywood community? Is this story a part of your personal/family history?
Although I have always admired the work of Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre, Paul Henreid – I had never known that they were refugees from Adolf Hitler. This story was new to me.

Once I began working on the film, I did find that I had a connection to the story. A good friend and fellow Washington producer, Catherine Wyler (whose father was William Wyler), suggested that I speak with her late mother’s best friend, Lupita Tovar Kohner, who had lived through this time. I spoke with Mrs. Kohner, then filmed an interview with her. Mrs. Kohner became a key witness to the story.

When making this film, did you encounter any resistance from the Hollywood community? The Berlin film community?
We have had nothing but encouragement and support from the Hollywood film community, and from the Museum of Film and Television in Berlin.

Have you heard from any of the families of the subjects you featured?
Every family that we contacted went out of their way to be helpful to us on this project. The families of Marlene Dietrich, Werner Richard Heymann, Frederich Hollander, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Henry Koster, Ernst Lubitsch, Erich Pommer, Miklos Rozsa, Curt Siodmak, Salka Viertel, Franz Waxman, Fred Zinnemann – all of them have provided footage and photographs and encouragement.

What do you hope that the audience takes away from the film?
On the one hand, we hope that our audience will recognize and appreciate the contributions that the exiles have made to our great American cinema. We are, of course, a nation of immigrants, and the story of the exiles is another of the many examples that demonstrates what makes this country so unique. In addition, we hope that the program causes the audience to reflect on the courage of these men and women, individually and collectively. The indomitability of the human spirit is indeed remarkable. Despite unbelievable hardships, they soldiered on. Very few of them returned to Germany. America was now home.

What brought Sigourney Weaver to the project to narrate?
Several years ago, I saw Sigourney Weaver on stage in a play written by my friend Chris Durang, Sex and Longing. I was then, and have been ever since, impressed by her. She brings an intelligence, curiosity and understanding to any script. I asked Chris if he would bring us together, and he kindly did so.

What most surprised you when you were researching?

The sheer numbers of men and women who were forced to flee Adolf Hitler. And their courage. Their acceptance of the situation, and their steadfastness in moving forward. One might expect that these émigrés would spend the rest of their lives mourning the life left behind. We did not find anyone (or relatively few) who did so. Most of them recognized what had been left behind. (Everyone lost families in the Holocaust.) They did not look back.

Any story that had to be left on the cutting room floor you’d like to tell?
Director Douglas Sirk had a fascinating story. His wife was Jewish, although Sirk was not. Sirk began his career in the theater, then moved to directing films for UFA. He had always worked with the melodrama format, and used it for social commentary. By the late 1930’s, Sirk decided to leave Germany. He and his wife escaped over the border to Switzerland, and found their way to America. In Hollywood, he was initially shunned by fellow Germans. He directed an anti-Nazi film, then a series of widescreen and Technicolor melodramas for Universal Pictures. Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life are two of those successful pictures. Imitation of Life was, at the time, Universal Pictures’ most commercially successful film. Sirk was very successful in the United States, but did not like the Hollywood system. After Imitation of Life, he left the U.S.

What were the greatest difficulties for exiled talent once they arrived in Hollywood?

Aljean Harmetz, one of our consultants (also a writer for The New York Times), and author of an important study on Casablanca says that one cannot overstate the problem of language. Most of the exiles arrived speaking no English. Most of them had strong German/middle European accents. For actors especially, the accent could be a career-ender. The exception was the anti-Nazi films, which during the war were a boon to careers; the irony, of course, was that they were hired to play Nazis. Some actors, Peter Lorre being one of them, worked very hard to lose his Viennese accent. He succeeded, as did Paul Henreid, but the majority did not.

The unions were also a problem, particularly for those involved in crafts such as set direction, lighting, cinematography. These craftsmen and women found it extremely difficult to gain entry to the union; some of Germany’s finest cinematographers (and German cameramen were renowned throughout Europe) were refused admission. Fred Zinnemann was one of those rejected cinematographers; he took another route, became a director’s assistant, and ultimately a director.

Were the Germans and Austrians the primary group to exile here in such a fashion, or through the years have there been others?
Berlin, and the German cinema, had been a magnet for the talented filmmakers and actors in Europe in the 1920’s and the 1930’s. Composers, directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, etc. came to Berlin from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Poland – throughout middle Europe. The first wave of émigrés came to the United States from Berlin soon after Hitler’s takeover of the government. The next “wave” came from Austria, when Hitler took control in that country. However, it is important to note that those who could get out tried to do so whenever they could do – often with the assistance of men and women like Marlene Dietrich and Ernst Lubitsch.

What’s your next project?
Our next project is a documentary on American artist James McNeill Whistler. The development phase has been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. Nancy Porter, director of Louisa May Alcott, an upcoming AMERICAN MASTERS special, is working with us on the program as a director.

  • Brooks Leffler

    I had not seen any of Karen Thomas’s productions until this one, and was delighted to discover that she was the same Karen Thomas I worked with at PBS in the 70s. Excellent program. Brava, Karen!

  • Prof. Robert Jones

    I was under the impression that below-the-line unions (camera, set, etc.) were started in the late 40’s with the Warner Bros. debacle. Your excellent film implies that there were unions in place in the 30’s. Please clarify. Thank you.

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