February 16, 2017


American Noir for the Age of Trump (J. Hoberman, 2/16/17, Tablet)

It may be an exaggeration to credit a group of Jewish refugees with inventing the Hollywood tendency known as film noir--but not by much.

The key noir creators--directors Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Otto Preminger, John Brahm, Billy Wilder, director-cinematographer Rudolph Maté, producer Seymour Nebenzal, actor Peter Lorre--were all Central European Jews who sought refuge in America. (One minor figure, Alfred Zeisler, was the reverse, an American-born Jew who began his career in the German film industry, then, driven out by the Nazis, made his way back to Hollywood to direct a B-movie update of Crime and Punishment appropriately titled Fear.)

Fritz Lang, the leading German director of the silent period and the godfather of film noir, may have been the most psychologically complex of these exiles. Originally from Vienna, Lang was the son of a converted Jewish mother and, almost until the moment he left Hitler's Germany, wed to the Nazi Thea von Harbou, for whom he left his first Jewish wife. (Once in America, Lang was a prominent member of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League--and consequently a person of interest for the FBI.)

Before noir, American movies were known for their optimism. The noir-ists infused American crime thrillers with a mixture of expressionist brio and existential dread. They knew, as their contemporary Hannah Arendt wrote in her article "We Refugees," published in The Menorah Journal in January 1943, "Hell is no longer a religious belief or a fantasy, but something as real as houses and stones and trees."

Whether suffering a degree of survivor guilt, knowing what had befallen their families and co-religionists trapped in Europe, transposing the terror they associated with Europe to the "innocent" American scene, or simply reflecting the terminal uncertainty of exile life, noir filmmakers made movies steeped in overt violence and hidden dangers, as well as the constant possibility of betrayal.

...was the film code, which made it so thought when the poor shlubs tried walking on the wild side it never worked out.  It makes the genre profoundly religious, as we know every protagonist is embracing his own doom.

Posted by at February 16, 2017 6:16 AM