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Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir, by Vincent Brook. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009. 285 pp. $26.95.
Toward the end of World War Two and shortly after it, film critics in the United States and France respectively discerned darker visual styles and themes in recent American motion pictures than were typical for Hollywood productions. French critics dubbed this trend film noir. It denoted a cycle of movies beginning in the late 1930s and eventually extending into the 1950s. This series of moving pictures was characterized by amoral or deranged male leads, diabolical femme fatales, menacing urban exterior shots, oblique and vertical lines segmenting visual planes, a shrouding of images in nighttime shadows, and intricate schemes of betrayal, fraud, or murder. The characters populating such movies were dominated by their psychological impulses and corrupted by the crime-ridden metropolitan environments in which they resided.
Scholars have identified a number of factors to account for the qualities film noir exhibited. Most concur that its style and subject matter drew on both the German Expressionist films of the l920s and the French poetic realist ones of the 1930s. Others trace its low-key lighting to the wartime policies of blackouts and rationing. The “hard-boiled” interwar American novels revolving around the exploits of amoral tough guys, usually adventurers or detectives, inspired cinematic adaptations or served as templates for many film noir characters. Some scholars perceive the cynicism, paranoia, ruthlessness, and violence such anti-heroes manifest as expressions of the discomforting zeitgeist engendered sequentially by the economic despair of the Depression, the rise of fascism, the unprecedented destructiveness of World War Two, the postwar congressional investigations of communist infiltration in the film industry, the ominous potential for nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, and the vacuous veneer of conformity and prosperity in peacetime American society. Finally, the disproportionate contribution of German expatriate directors to the corpus of film noir has been cited to explain its heightened sense of vulnerability, pervasive pessimism, and use of European cinematic styles.
Vincent Brook delves deeper into the émigré nexus by focusing on German Jewish émigré directors who fled to the United States to escape persecution in the 1930s. These include Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Willy Wilder (who arrived in America in the 1920s but did not make films until the 1940s), Otto Preminger, Edgar Ulmer, Curtis Bernhardt, Max Ophuls, John Brahm, Anatole Litvak (a Ukrainian Jew who honed his filmmaking skills in Weimar Germany before resettling in the United States on the eve of Hitler’s accession to power), and Fred Zinnemann. Brook persuasively demonstrates that this wave of Jewish émigré directors exerted a profound quantitative and qualitative impact on American film noir. He contends that the deep cultural and psychological wounds inflicted on this cohort of directors when their homelands disenfranchised and persecuted Jews rendered them more receptive to film noir’s gloomy sensibilities. A majority of them had been involved in the production of German Expressionist films, and some, like Bernhardt and Siodmak, transmitted a similar aesthetic into the films they made in France before coming to the United States. Moreover, they were acutely aware of the plight of their friends and relatives who remained in Europe.
Finding sanctuary in the United States did not necessarily diminish the insecurities these directors’ projected in their films. American antisemitism and nativism intensified during the Depression. The ambivalence Jewish émigré directors felt towards their Hollywood haven also emerged from the humiliating role reversal they experienced in the film industry. As highly assimilated German Jews, they traditionally looked down upon their identifiably Jewish brethren from Eastern Europe. Now, the less cultured and more business-minded Ostjuden who constituted the majority of studio owners supervised the auteurs, who resented them. During World War Two, the American government designated German émigrés enemy agents, forcing them to observe a curfew and impounding their royalties from foreign films. In the postwar period, whatever leftist connections the émigrés had established as anti-fascists loomed as grounds for being tagged and blacklisted as communists or fellow travelers. Rather than integrating into American society, the Jewish émigré directors socialized with other exiled German artists, intellectuals, and writers who despite finding a respite from censorship and persecution in Los Angeles still confronted commercial limitations on their creativity and questions of their political loyalties. In the cultural salons they formed there, they reinforced each other’s sense of victimization and suspicion of the evil that lurked beneath the tolerant façade of American capitalism and liberalism.
According to Brook, what differentiates the films of these Jewish émigré directors from those of other American film noir directors is their choice and treatment of primary characters. Whereas the latter preferred hard-boiled male leads, the former gravitated towards “soft-boiled” men who were cerebral, effeminate, gullible, psychotic, unsuccessful, or weak. By comparison, the female foils of these emasculated men appeared more assertive, clever, sexually assured, or sympathetic to audiences. Indeed, this privileging of female characters was particularly apparent in the films of Curtis Bernhardt and Max Ophuls, who were reputed to be “woman’s directors.”
Brook attributes this predilection for weak male and strong female characters in Jewish émigré film noir to traditional stereotypes of Jewish men as feminine and passive and Jewish women as masculine and aggressive. Barred from military service, relegated to middle-man occupations, and ritually castrated by circumcision in pre-modern Christian Europe, Jewish men were considered effeminate and effete by most Gentiles. Jewish rabbinic values turned this liability into an asset by conferring a higher status on the Talmudic scholar than on the manual laborer. Conversely, Jewish women were stereotyped as seductive Jewesses or domineering wives who ran the domestic and economic affairs of the household to enable their husbands to devote themselves to the study of religious texts. This inversion of normative gender roles, Brook argues, prefigured the distinctive way Jewish émigré directors coded their male and female characters.
As might be evident in my brief synopsis of Brook’s reasoning, which I concede is not as qualified as his elucidation of it, his claims often verge on an essentialism about traits and values rooted in both Jewish scripture and the marginalization of Jews in European history. Since Brook admits that the directors he discusses “were raised, without exception, in nonobservant, largely secular households, and remained detached from religious observance in their adult lives” (p. 20), his generalizations about specific Jewish influences on their movies remain speculative. The strength of his book lies in the careful analyses of the narratives and visual styles of their film noir works and in placing these within the biographical contexts of their creators. Their shared experience of exile explains the sinister vision of the world they captured on screen.
San Diego State University