Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Celluloid Dreams, Studio Babelsberg and Clou Partners Join Forces to Create Production Powerhouse The Manipulators

Taking their cue from their rivals across the Atlantic, three of the top European film production /financing companies, Paris based production and sales outfit Celluloid Dreams, Berlin/Potsdam based Studio Babelsberg and Munich based Clou Partners have joined forces. Each company brings their own expertise and know-how into their venture - named The Manipulators - and between them, they cover all areas of film-making except exhibition.

The Manipulators' first project is the highly anticipated first live action feature by Oscar nominated directors of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. Azrael is slated to start shooting this year at Studio Babelsberg.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Tournages Paris - Berlin - Hollywood, 1910 - 1939, An Exhibition at the Cinematheque Francaise

Focussing on the three film capitals of the first two decades of the 20th century, Paris, Berlin and Hollywood, a new exhibition at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris highlights the impact of European directors and technicians on American cinema. The exhibition consists of 200 photographs coming from two collection, that of Cinematheque Francaise itself and another that belonged to the late Gabriel Depierre, a cinephile and film historian.

These photographs are neither film stills nor are they portraits, but rather snapshots almost, of directors such as Ernst Lubitsch and Erich von Stroheim at work on the set or on location.

The exhibition is accompanied by a series of films, divided into three cycles, Julien Duvivier, Robert Siodmak, and Pola Negri.

The exhibition opened on 10th March and runs until 1st August.

For more information (in French), please go to Cinematheque-Francaise.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Helmut G. Asper And Exile Research

Helmut G. Asper, exile scholar and professor at the faculty for linguistics and literature at University of Bielefeld

Next to Jan-Christopher Horak (see previous post) Helmut G. Asper is another scholar who has significantly contributed to the field of exile research, and next to Horak and John Spalek he has emerged as one of the most important figure in the field. Horak's and Asper's respective approaches complement each other insofar as Horak’s study of the émigrés is astute in its analytical assessment, while Asper is best described as a painstaking gatherer of empirical data with an unerring focus on the existing gaps in exile research. Asper is a professor at Bielefeld University, specialising in German theatre in the 17th and 18th century as well as film, radio and theatre in the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. His contribution to exile research is threefold. First, with his primary area of expertise being the theatre, Asper’s first publications on exile focussed on exiled stage actors such as Fritz Kortner and Walter Wicclair, thus approaching the field from a heretofore unexplored perspective. Second, by way of his thorough archival research and the oral histories he conducted, Asper memorialised many émigrés whom time had forgotten - such as, for instance, Fini Rudiger, Ernst Matray, Oskar Fischinger, etc. - reminding us that while the struggle for survival may have been difficult for the émigrés, back home in Nazi Germany their friends, colleagues and families perished in the concentration camps. Third, Asper was instrumental in a shift of focus in exile research from directors and actors, expanding the field to technicians such as cinematographers, editors and production designers.

Asper’s preoccupation with theatre is evident in his first publications on exile, Walter Wicclair und Marta Mierendorff: Im Rampenlicht der dunklen Jahre, which Asper edited. As the title suggests, the book homes in on the German stage actor Walter Wicclair - who fled Nazi Germany to settle in Hollywood - and his companion, Marta Mierendorff, containing essays on theatre in exile, the Third Reich and in post-war Germany. In Asper’s subsequent publication, Wenn wir von gestern reden sprechen wir ueber heute und morgen - Festschrift fuer Marta Mierendorff zum 80. Geburtstag, the field of vision is expanded from theatre in exile to exile in general (e.g. exiled writers, screenwriters, painters, etc.), while Asper’s own contribution to the book revolves around another German stage actor, Fritz Kortner, and his film, The Last Illusion (W Germany 1948/ 49). Kortner, renowned for his theatre work in Germany until the Nazis forced him into exile, would eventually once again become one of Germany’s most noted post-war theatre directors. The Last Illusion constitutes Kortner’s first project following his return to Germany from his exile in the United States. The film revolves around a professor - Mauthner, played by Kortner - who was forced into exile following Hitler’s rise to power. Once back in post-war Germany, the hostility and aversion towards Mauthner eventually lead to his death. Hence, Asper’s concern in this particular essay is not so much emigration as remigration as Asper looks at Kortner’s intention to make this particular film - whose plot parallels Kortner‘s own experiences - and the reaction the film received when it was first shown to German audiences. Asper’s study of The Last Illusion, based to a vast extent, on Kortner’s autobiography, Kortner’s correspondence, and on reviews in German newspapers of the time of the film’s release, had thus far received insufficient attention from exile researchers and film historians. Asper illustrates how eager the West Germans were to highlight their own suffering while regarding the returning émigrés with distrust. This is exemplified by the fact that prior to The Last Illusion, the only German films that dealt with the topic of remigration were made by directors who had stayed in Nazi-Germany, notably Between Yesterday And Tomorrow (W Germany 1947) and Mr. Gaspary‘s Sons (W Germany 1948). Hence, “the topic of remigration was being dealt with from the viewpoint of those who stayed” (Asper 1991: 287), resulting in a grotesque reversal of reality as it portrayed the émigré as a traitor, a defector, who left the fatherland in its darkest hour. In Between Yesterday And Tomorrow , a former émigré is accused of a jewellery heist while in Mr. Gaspary‘s Sons, following the end of the war a refugee finds himself irreconcilably estranged from his wife and son, both of whom he had to leave behind in Nazi Germany. Although in the case of Between Yesterday And Tomorrow, the émigré is eventually acquitted, the film leaves a bitter aftertaste that an erstwhile émigré is not to be trusted. Similarly, in Mr. Gaspary‘s Sons, the émigré becomes the guilty party, for the message seems to be that had he stayed, the family would still be together. On the other hand, The Last Illusion - even though directed by Josef von Baky, a non-émigré - was the brainchild of Kortner and written solely by him. Kortner saw the film as an act of reconciliation with Germany and the Germans. That he failed in this attempt, with The Last Illusion resulting in a critical as well as a commercial failure, is testimony to post-war Germany’s reluctance to come to terms with its Nazi past. Hence, Asper’s thoroughly researched study of Kortner’s forgotten, yet significant film and the history surrounding it, not only represents a vital chapter in exile research, but must also be regarded as an invaluable contribution to the examination of immediate post-war German cinema.

Among Asper’s chief publications on exile research is his seminal Etwas besseres als den Tod …. Although published in 2002, its afterword indicates that Asper started his research on the book seventeen years prior to its publication, interviewing many of the émigrés featured in the book between 1985 and 1987, among them Henry Koster, Walter Reisch, Paul Henreid and Felix Jackson. Some of the émigrés Asper interviewed had never been interviewed before by any researcher, such as, for instance, Ernest Lenart, Herbert Luft, Annemarie Schuenzel-Stewart, Rudi Fehr or Rudi Feld. This fact, not to mention its scope (655 pages, afterword and appendix not included), makes Etwas … a unique research tool for any exile researcher or film historian, particularly as Etwas … constitutes the first of Asper’s publications where his focus shifts to screenwriters and technicians, film-artists who tend to be neglected by exile research and information on whom is few and far between. Worth mentioning in this context is Asper’s chapter on animator and experimental filmmaker Oskar Fischinger, who not only contributed to the success of Walt Disney’s Fantasia (USA 1940), but who was a filmmaker in his own right as through films like Motion Painting No. 1 (USA 1947) Fischinger became a major force in the American avant-garde film movement. Besides Fischinger, Asper discusses a number of other émigrés who had thus far received scant attention from film historians, such as the aforementioned Fini Rudiger - who also worked for Disney - the editors Albrecht Joseph and Rudi Fehr, the production designer Rudi Feld and the choreographers Ernst and Maria Matray. Hence, by drawing our attention to these forgotten film artists, Asper memorialises them by highlighting their contribution to film in general and American cinema in particular.
The parallels to Horak are clear: like Horak, Asper, too, started his research on the exiled film-artists by conducting a series of oral histories, with Asper having the advantage of being able to draw on Horak’s findings, Horak having started his own oral history project precisely ten years earlier. To some extent, Etwas … could even be regarded as an expansion of Horak’s Fluchtpunkt Hollywood, as it represents an in-depth overview on exile, illustrating the diversity and the consequences of the German-speaking emigration to Los Angeles.

In the introduction to Etwas …, Asper briefly discusses the political situation in Germany following Hitler’s rise to power, before moving on to talk about the various stations of exile such as France, England, the Netherlands, and Palestine, briefly mentioning Helmar Lerski’s Awodah (Horak, J.C. Avodah. In Filmexil, nr. 11, Nov. 1998), by dedicating a paragraph to those film-artists who did not make it into exile and subsequently were killed in the concentration camps, including Willy Rosen, Otto Wallburg, Kurt Gerron, Paul Morgan, etc. Drawing our attention not only to the exiles - read: survivors - among the film-artists but also to the Nazi victims among them, further stresses Asper’s intent to memorialise, which evidently was his primary impetus to write the book, as its title suggests. Following that, Asper concisely outlines emigration to Los Angeles, concluding the introduction with a brief summary on re-migration. The body of Etwas … consists of ten chapters, each one dedicated to a particular profession at the Hollywood film-studios in which Asper discusses the respective input of the émigrés. It is interesting to note, that all professions associated with the filmmaking, are covered - directing, producing, acting, writing, editing, cinematography, production-design, post-production. Asper concentrates on those among the émigrés, who are rarely mentioned by exile researchers, including Reginald Le Borg, Gerd Oswald (directors), Helmut Dantine, Wolfgang Zilzer (actors), or Albrecht Joseph (editor), Rudi Feld (production-designer) and Fini Rudiger (animator). In the last chapter of his book, Asper looks at exile-film and film-genres. Once more echoing Horak, Asper singles out Zuckmayer’s play Der Hauptmann von Koepenick , which was remade in Hollywood under the title, I Was a Criminal (USA 1945). Horak, in his chapter on exile film , used I Was a Criminal as an example to emphasize the difficulties in defining the concept of national cinema as the film was made in the US, is based on a German play, cast nearly in its entirety with émigré actors, with an émigré director, remaking a film he himself had previously made in Weimar Germany, prompting Horak to question whether this film should be seen as part of American or German film history. By contrast, Asper gives a intriguing, extensive, account of how the film was made while also providing the reader with a few anecdotes and some background information regarding the film’s participants. This is exemplary for the difference in approach between Horak and Asper that not only underscores their individual contribution to exile research and film history, but also proves how both approaches complement each other. However, my previous observation - Horak being more analytical while Asper’s forte lies in the reflective investigation of empirical data - also applies to Etwas …, which has the added characteristic of being anecdotal as it is written in a journalistic, rather than an academic, style, something which Asper professes in the book’s afterword, he did deliberately, as his intention was “to relate the fate and achievement of the exiled film-artists to as wide an audience as possible” (Asper 2002: 658).

Nevertheless, an ambitious work such as Etwas … is bound to have its shortcomings. One of them is the book’s anthological character, which sometimes detracts from the fact that Etwas … is indeed a veritable and reliable treasure trove of information. On another level, in spite of its enormous scope, Etwas … also fails to mention any aid organisations in which the émigrés were involved other than the European Film Fund, to whom a small chapter is dedicated. However, such is the nature of Etwas … that Asper’s account of the organisation remains strictly factual and anecdotal and as a result, ultimately comes up short. Other aid organisations such as, for instance, the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, the Emergency Rescue Committee or the American Guild for German Cultural Freedom, to name but a few, are ignored entirely, highlighting a gap in exile research that is waiting to be filled.

In Nachrichten aus Hollywood, New York und anderswo, Asper continues his preoccupation with émigré technicians by looking at the correspondence of cinematographer Eugen Schuefftan and his wife Marlise with Siegfried and Lili Kracauer. Asper edited the book by contributing the introduction, which consists of a biography of both Schuefftan and Kracauer, entitled “Mann muss eben struggeln, um oben zu bleiben”, based on secondary as well as archival material, interspersed with excerpts from the Schuefftan-Kracauer correspondence. Here, Asper recapitulates their lives following their arrival in the United States. Having come across their correspondence by accident, Asper stresses that Schuefftan’s and Kracauer’s friendship “was already mentioned by Karsten Witte in the afterword of the [second] German edition of Kracauer’s seminal From Caligari to Hitler, yet nobody has so far followed up on it ” (Asper 2003: 1). Hence, Nachrichten … closes a gap in exile research, making it a standard work for any historian seeking material on Schuefftan and/ or Kracauer as it shows how émigrés bonded during their years of exile, particularly when they had fallen on hard times. This highlights the importance of refugee organisations and it is thus not surprising that both, Kracauer and Schuefftan, were at one time members of the European Film Fund. Written in a journalistic style, Asper’s introduction is replete with facts and data, based on painstaking research, evident in the numerous references in the footnotes. Echoing his chapter on Schuefftan in Etwas …, Asper tells of Schuefftan’s futile efforts to become a member of the ASC, the American Society of Cinematographers, which made it very difficult for him to find - credited - work. Not surprisingly, Schuefftan often had to rely on fellow émigrés to hire him for their independent productions. Kracauer’s travails were not dissimilar to Schuefftan’s, as he found it impossible to interest a producer in any of his film treatments, nor did the publication of his book From Caligari to Hitler provide him with the much anticipated financial boost. Asper’s account is revealing insofar as he illustrates that even the help of such well established fellow émigrés as the agent Paul Kohner was of little avail to alleviate the plight of Kracauer and Schuefftan.

In the light of the eventual success of the émigrés - Schuefftan’s and Kracauer’s included - it is easy to forget that exile is, above all, the story of the struggle to survive in a foreign country, of what it means to be deprived of one’s livelihood, one’s native tongue, one’s habitual surroundings. And yet, as he had already done in the introduction to Etwas …, Asper’s account is a painful reminder that even though Kracauer and Schuefftan had a hard time trying to stay above water - as did many other émigrés - back home in Nazi Germany their friends, colleagues and family members were deported to the concentration camps .

Like Etwas …, Asper’s Filmexilanten im Universal Studio also has its origins in interviews Asper conducted in the 1980s with a number of émigrés, in this case Henry Koster, Hans J. Salter and Curt Siodmak, drawing Asper’s attention to “the vast extent and significance of the work of the exiled German speaking film artists at Universal” (Asper 292: 2005). However, Asper mentions that it was the appointment of Jan-Christopher Horak as founding director of Universal Studio’s Archives and Collections which inspired him to embark on the project as Horak not only “opened the archives to researchers from day one, but also encouraged [Asper] in his undertaking …”(Asper 292: 2005). This again stresses the connection between Horak and Asper, their synergy eventually resulting in an article, Three Smart Guys , to which Asper refers in Filmexilanten as being an “interim result of his undertaking” (Asper 292: 2005) as the intention of the book, Filmexilanten, as well as of the article is to examine the influence of the émigrés on one particular studio, Universal. The difference between article and book is that Three Smart Guys looks at the influence of a small group of émigrés - Henry Koster, Felix Jackson and Joe Pasternak - on Universal, while Filmexilanten examines how Universal was influenced and shaped by the émigrés as a whole. In so doing, Asper does not solely focus on the twelve years of Nazi power, but looks at the studio’s history from its beginnings until the 1950s, as a pioneering effort which makes Filmexilanten a crucial contribution to exile research as well as film history in general. That Filmexilanten was influenced and inspired by Horak is evident in the fact that he, Horak, is the author of similar studies, examining the impact of the émigrés on certain aspects of Hollywood or/ and American culture .

The reason why Asper singled out Universal among all the film-studios in Hollywood is explained not merely by the fact that the idea for Filmelixanten was sparked while he was doing research on another project and that he had easy access to Universal’s archival material. He argues that “Universal is particularly suited for such an examination [of measuring the émigrés’ influence] as émigré - directors, producers, screenwriters, composers, actors and actresses worked there for well-nigh thirty years …” (Asper 11: 2005). It must be mentioned in this context, that although this also applies to Warner Bros. , of all the major studios, only Paramount and Universal were founded and run by owners who were first-generation immigrants . In addition, Universal had close affiliations with the German film industry going back to the Weimar Republic while Paramount’s - as well as MGM’s - affiliations with UFA were of a mere financial nature . Lastly, although most of the major studios took on their fair share of refugees following Hitler’s rise to power, it is safe to say that Universal, along with Paramount and Warner Bros., was more of a haven for refugees than, for instance, Columbia, RKO or even MGM. All this to say that the German - American link was tighter at Universal than it was at other studios and thus more likely to leave a mark. Hence, Asper concludes by saying that Universal not only gave a great deal of the émigrés their first start in the US film-industry, but by doing so it contributed substantially to their successful integration into American society, referring to Curt Siodmak, Koster, Pasternak, Jackson, Salter, etc. As a result, none of them returned to Germany following the end of WWII as other, less integrated, émigrés did. On the other hand, the émigrés saved Universal from financial ruin, as evidenced in the Deanna Durbin musicals which were a collaborate effort between producer Joe Pasternak, director Henry Koster and screenwriter Felix Jackson. Moreover, the émigrés’ “contributed to a transfer of European culture by adapting it for an American audience”(Asper 289 : 2005). This transfer of culture is particularly palpable in the Deanna Durbin musicals, which have a distinct European flair, as opposed to, for instance, MGM’s Meet Me In St. Louis , which seems far more American by comparison. In Three Smart Girls , there are the obvious European elements such as the setting (contemporary Switzerland) and the use of classical music, which, in a traditional Hollywood musical, was entirely unheard of. Meet Me In St. Louis, on the other hand, is set, as the title suggests, in St. Louis in 1903, just before the World Fair. The songs featured in St. Louis’, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, would become American classics. In fact, the song that gave the film its title had already been an American classic at the time of the making of the film . The European heritage in Koster’s film is even more evident when looking at the narrative and the characters: a single parent - a divorcee - whose ex-husband is about to marry an adventurous had no place in Louis B. Mayer’s “view of America [which] became America’s view of itself - a place and a people more virtuous, more godly, more resilient than anyplace else” (Eyman 516 : 2005). And while in Meet Me In St. Louis, “a paean to hearth and home” (Eyman 354: 2005), plans to move from the peaceful and quiet city of St. Louis to the iniquitous New York, are abandoned , this is precisely where the family reunion in Koster’s film takes place. Although Mayer, as well as Koster, was also an immigrant, the difference is, of course, that Koster was a refugee from the Nazis, forced to abandon a successful career in Europe in exchange for an uncertain future in the US, while Mayer arrived in America at the age of three, with America being the only home he would ever have or remember . As a result, he felt he owed everything to America, “the motivating factors in [his] life being belonging and acceptance, and fear of losing what he had earned - not so much the money, but the standing and respect” (Eyman 514 : 2005), prompting Mayer to emulate - in real-life and on-screen - what he deemed to be the ultimate American values as evidenced in the Andy Hardy series or Meet Me In St. Louis, films that conjured up an idealised, sentimental, version of America by telling ‘stories that celebrated home and family’ (Schatz 1988: 257).

Considering the crucial contribution to exile research Filmexilanten has become, one can not help but wonder what else Asper may have unearthed, had the Universal archives not been closed following the Vivendi takeover , as Asper states in the book’s afterword, consequently disabling him from completing his research. The fact that this invaluable archival material should forever remain unattainable to researchers could translate into certain chapters in film history never being closed - nor new ones opened - for sheer lack of accessible material. On another level, Asper’s study gives rise to speculations as to the émigrés influence on other studios - Warner Bros., MGM, Columbia, RKO, United Artists, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, not to mention the smaller ones like Republic or Monogram. It is certain that émigrés worked at all of these studios, but their impact, input and influence - if there was any - has never been thoroughly investigated. Filmexilanten must be regarded as an inspiration to do just that.

In summary, Asper’s contribution to film history in general and exile research in particular, is unquestionably crucial, as I hope to have shown. Together with Horak, by whom he was influenced and inspired, Asper has emerged as one of the field’s leading figures. With Horak’s approach being analytical and diagnostic, while Asper’s own being investigative and biographical, the methodologies of both scholars complement each other inasmuch as the detection of facts and data is as fundamental a part of exile research as their critical and contextual analysis. As Asper initially approached the field by looking at stage actors, he drew our attention to a hitherto unexamined area of exile research. Furthermore, Asper was instrumental in memorialising those émigrés who tended to be ignored by exile researchers, thus instigating a shift of focus from émigré - directors and actors to technicians such as cinematographers, editors, production-designers, etc. In Filmexilanten, Asper investigated the émigrés’ impact on Universal Studio, resulting in a groundbreaking study on how the émigrés brought their heritage to bear on one particular film studio. Clearly taking his cue from Horak, who had previously examined the émigrés’ influence on a particular film genre - the anti-Nazi films - Asper’s findings are not only an invaluable contribution to exile research, but also to film history in general, notably the study of trans-national cinema, as it brings to light the influence of European film-artists on American cinema and culture. Moreover, because one of Asper’s strong points is the unearthing and gathering of empirical data, the sum of his contributions must be taken as impetus for film historians to follow up on his findings.

Asper, Helmut G. Walter Wicclair und Marta Mierendorff: Im Rampenlicht der dunklen Jahre. Berlin: Sigma, 1989.
Asper, Helmut G. Wenn wir von gestern reden, sprechen wir ueber heute und morgen - Festschrift fuer Marta Mierendorff zum 80. Geburtstag. Berlin: Sigma, 1991.
Asper, Helmut G., Horak, Jan-C. Three Smart Guys: How a Few Penniless German Émigrés Saved Universal Studios. In: Film History, Vol. XI, nr. 2 (1999, 2).
Asper, Helmut G. Etwas besseres als den Tod … Marburg: Schueren Verlag, 2002.
Asper, Helmut G. Nachrichten aus Hollywood, New York und anderswo. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2003.
Asper, Helmut G. Filmexilanten im Universal Studio. Berlin: Bertz & Fischer Verlag, 2005.
Eyman, Scott. The Lion of Hollywood. New York, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Horak, Jan-C. Anti-Nazi Filme der deutschsprachigen Emigration von Hollywood 1939 - 1945. Muenster: MAKS, 1984.
Horak, Jan-C. Fluchtpunkt Hollywood. Muenster: MAKS, 1984.
Horak, Jan-C. Avodah. In: Filmexil, nr. 11, Nov. 1998.
Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947.
Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System. New York/ NY: Pantheon Books, 1988.
Zuckmayer, Carl. Der Hauptmann von Koepenick. Berlin: Propylaen, 1931.

Baky, Josef von, The Last Illusion (Der Ruf), Germany 1949
Braun, Harald, Between Yesterday and Tomorrow (Zwischen Gestern und Morgen), Germany 1947
Disney, Walt, Fantasia, USA 1940
Koster, Henry, Three Smart Girls, USA 1936
Koster, Henry, One Hundred Men And a Girl, USA 1937
Koster, Henry, Three Smart Girls Grow Up, USA 1939
Koster, Henry, First Love, USA 1939
Koster, Henry, Spring Parade, USA 1940
Koster, Henry, It Started With Eve, USA 1941
Lerski, Helmar, Avodah, Palestine 1935
Meyer, Rolf, Mr. Gaspary’s Sons (Die Soehne des Herrn Gaspary), Germany 1948
Minnelli, Vincente, Meet Me In St. Louis, USA 1944
Oswald, Richard, The Captain From Koepenick (Der Hauptmann von Koepenick), Germany 1931
Oswald, Richard, I Was A Criminal, USA 1945
Seitz, George B., A Family Affair, USA 1937
Seitz, George B., You’re Only Young Once, 1937
Seitz, George B., Judge Hardy’s Children, USA 1937
Seitz, George B., Andy Hardy’s Dilemma, USA 1938
Seitz, George B., Love Finds Andy Hardy, USA 1938
Seitz, George B., Out West With The Hardys, USA 1938
Seitz, George B., The Hardys Ride High, USA 1939
Dyke, W. S. van, Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever, USA 1939
Seitz, George B., Judge Hardy And Son, USA 1939
Seitz, George B., Andy Hardy Meets Debutante, USA 1940
Seitz, George B., Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary, USA 1941
Seitz, George B., Life Begins For Andy Hardy, USA 1941
Seitz, George B., The Courtship Of Andy Hardy, USA 1942
Seitz, George B., Andy Hardy’s Double Life, USA 1942
Seitz, George B., Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble, USA 1944
Goldbeck, Willis, Love Laughs At Andy Hardy, USA 1946
Koch, Howard W., Andy Hardy Comes Home, USA 1958

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Jan-Christopher Horak And His Publications On Film Exile

Film-historian, film scholar and exile-research pioneer Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak has emerged as a leading figure in exile research. A committed, indefatigable, scholar, Horak’s contribution to exile research is manifold. To begin with, he was the first scholar to shed a light on the exiled film-artists, which, until then, had been neglected by exile researchers who were concerned primarily with the literary and academic emigration. Horak’s interest in the exiled film-artists was sparked while doing his MA on Ernst Lubitsch and the Founding of UFA at Boston University, from which he graduated in 1975. While his MA on Lubitsch kindled Horak’s interest in other Germans settling in Hollywood, it must not be overlooked that Horak himself is half-German (his mother is from Cologne) and that he was educated in the US as well as in Germany. Horak’s father, Czech by birth, is a concentration camp survivor who fled to West Germany after the putsch in Czechoslovakia in 1948. Hence I suggest, that Horak’s interest in exile research is a consequence of his background and upbringing. Furthermore, it is important to bear in mind that Horak’s preoccupation with exile research came at a crucial moment in German history, as a political shift to the left made itself felt in the country’s political and cultural landscape, subsequently provoking the scholarly examination of Germany’s Nazi past.

Following the completion of his MA, Horak received a grant from the American Film Institute, enabling him to conduct a series of oral histories by interviewing a number of émigrés, among whom were Douglas Sirk, Paul Andor, Johanna Kortner and Carl Esmond (formerly Willi Eichberger). Horak’s approach was entirely biographical at the time, as nothing had been done in the field of scholarly research among the exiled film-artists who fled Nazi-Germany for Hollywood. As such, his oral histories were a groundbreaking, pioneering effort which subsequently inspired fellow scholars to embark on a similar effort, for example, John Spalek, who would also conduct oral histories, although focussing on a different set of émigrés such as Miklos Rosza, Dolly Haas, the widow of Walter Reisch, etc. Horak’s oral histories were the basis for his article The Palm Trees Were Gently Swaying …(Image 23.1., 1980), which “is regarded as the first written publication on film emigration” (Horak XiX: 1984). His article, starting with a quote from Max Reinhard referring to the ‘wandering Jew’ and the age-old persecution of the Jews does not bear down on any particular aspect of emigration, but rather sets out to establish the parameters of exile in respects to the German-Jewish film-artists. Hence, Palm Trees … is an introduction, a general overview, of emigration, looking at the exigencies and consequences of exile such as the problem of language which, as a consequence, meant the loss of a readership for writers and it made it difficult for actors to find work because of their accents. Horak also touches on the visa regulations in various countries of exile as well as the journey of exile which in most cases did not lead directly to Hollywood but usually either via Vienna or Paris until political developments, such as the Anschluss or the outbreak of WWII, forced the émigrés to move on. Also briefly discussed are the restrictions technicians faced due to Hollywood’s union regulations, which, for instance, affected the cinematographers Eugen Schuefftan and Curt Courant, making it difficult for them to find work. Another issue he raises is the relative ease with which musicians such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, Bronislau Kaper, Friedrich Hollaender, to name but a few, established themselves in Hollywood. As mentioned earlier, Palm Trees … was Horak’s first foray into the field of the exiled film-artists, and therefore his intention was not to zoom in on a particular aspect of exile as he would do later. Nor does he look at the influence the émigrés may have had on the film-industries of their respective host-country. As Horak himself elucidates, “To measure the influence of the Middle European émigrés on Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s would be a much larger task than the one set forth here” (Horak 1980: 32). Since exile research was still in its infancy, with the material available extremely limited outside Horak’s own oral histories, it is not surprising that Palm Trees … should have its inadequacies; for example, Horak mentions Feuchtwanger and Werfel alongside Polgar, Mehring, Doeblin and Heinrich Mann, as having received a writer’s contract from the big studios, whereas we now know that the former two rejected these contracts outright as they were sufficiently independent financially to do without. These inadequacies notwithstanding, given that The Palm Trees … is a pioneering study it does cover a lot of ground, constituting Horak’s initial contribution to exile research as it marks the beginning of the scholarly examination of the exiled film-artists.

Fluchtpunkt Hollywood (Muenster: MAKS, 1984), published as an appendix to his doctoral thesis, can be regarded as an expansion of The Palm Trees Were Gently Swaying. However, with four years between them, Fluchtpunkt is vaster in scope, more comprehensive and detailed. It is worth mentioning in this context, that the first scholarly publications on film exile were beginning to appear, namely Maria Hilchenbach’s doctoral thesis Kino im Exil (Munich: K.G. Saur 1981) and Exil: Sechs Schauspieler aus Deutschland (Berlin: Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, 1983). In other words, the field had been opened, with reliable data and facts on exile becoming more widely accessible as the number of primary literature increased. In Fluchtpunkt …, Horak looks at particular aspects of exile more closely, for example, emigration to Austria, Hungary, France and the UK, as these were the countries were most of the émigrés first sought refuge, making it clear that it were the political developments (e.g. yielding to Nazism by Austria and Hungary; invasion of France and the UK by Nazi-Germany) that forced the émigrés to move on to the US. He also takes into account the film-industries of both Germany and the US, looking at how they were linked and interacted prior to 1933, concluding that because they had close ties (e.g. Universal had offices in Berlin; Paramount part-financed German films; a number of notable German actors and directors were already well established in Hollywood; etc.) the subsequent immigration and integration was facilitated as, for instance, Hollywood already had a substantial German community by the time the majority of the émigrés arrived. Other aspects discussed in Fluchtpunkt omitted from Palm Trees … are, for instance, the various “waves of emigration” (e.g. the “first big wave” arrived following the Anschluss, the second after the outbreak of WWII), anti-Semitism and anti-German sentiments the émigrés faced in the US, the founding of the Hollywood-Anti-Nazi-League, etc. Certain topics receive more attention than others, such as the collaboration in both Europe and the US between Henry Koster, Joe Pasternak and Felix Jackson and the anti-Nazi films. While Fluchtpunkt … does not claim to examine the lives and contribution of the émigrés in detail, it constitutes an invaluable point of reference for any researcher, giving a clear and all-inclusive outline of exile in Hollywood and its consequences. Horak concludes by briefly looking at the topic of remigration which took place in only a small number of cases as, so he says, “In the world of the Heimat - and Heinz-Ruehmann films and the Conny-Froboess-Schlager, there was no room for people who had left Germany” (Horak 1984/ 2 : 37).

Horak’s second important contribution to exile research concerns the influence of the émigrés on the film-industry of their host countries. Following his MA on Ernst Lubitsch and the Founding of UFA, Horak went on to do a PhD at the University of Muenster, where he studied under Professor Winfried B. Lerg. His doctoral thesis, Anti-Nazi-Filme der deutschsprachigen Emigration ( Muenster: MAKS, 1984) is, as the title suggests, an examination of how the émigrés influenced and virtually created the genre of anti-Nazi films. To quote Horak, “once the biographical and filmographical facts are established, research can now move on to the next stage” (Horak 1984 1: XV). Hence, Anti-Nazi-Filme is a continuation of Horak’s preoccupation with exile, constituting the first scholarly attempt to assess the mark the émigrés left on the film industry of a host country, in this case the United States. As Horak points out in the introduction, his study “combines two areas of research which thus far have always been looked at separately - if at all - research on the German speaking emigration in Hollywood and research on American war propaganda” (Horak 1984 1: Xvii). He starts out on the premise that the contribution of the émigrés to the film industry of the United States made itself more felt in the anti-Nazi films than in any other genre, maintaining that “the influence of the emigrant film-artists in Hollywood should not be underestimated, since as Europeans, they were in the position to fill certain gaps in Hollywood’s film industry” (Horak 1984 1: XV). According to Horak, “of around 180 films, made between 1939 and 1945, which can be classified as anti-Nazi films, the émigrés contributed to sixty of them” (Horak 1984 1: 80). Horak surmises that even though the émigrés had a tendency to complain about the lack of realism in the anti-Nazi films, their input is nevertheless discernible. Not only did they manage to include in the narrative news from Nazi-occupied territory, gleaned from the exile press (e.g. Aufbau), but in some cases they even had their own experience to draw on, as in the case of Mortal Storm (USA 1940), which owes its accurate depiction of Nazi barbarity to the experiences of émigré screenwriters George Froeschel and Paul Hans Rameau, who had suffered at the hand of the Nazis. Anti-Nazi-Filme was a watershed in film history and exile research insofar as never before had the influence and contribution of the émigrés on the film industry of a host country been taken into account, much less the input of émigré-producers, something Horak also considers crucial in exile research as “they [the producers], more than anyone else, were in the position to find work for their fellow-émigrés” (Horak 1984 : XV). It is evident that Anti-Nazi-Filme was also meant to inspire and initiate other researchers to follow up on the ground Horak had broken, as happened, for instance, in the case of Helmut G. Asper.

Horak further investigated the émigrés’ influence on the film industry of the United States in his article Three Smart Guys (Film Criticsim, Vol. XI, nr.2, 1999), which was written in collaboration with Helmut G. Asper. Moving away from anti-Nazi films, the title of the article refers to the first of a string of films by émigré-director Henry Koster, starring Deanna Durbin, Three Smart Girls (USA 1936), a musical comedy which echoes Koster’s previous European films, and which, due to its commercial success, proved very influential. Like all its sequels, Three Smart Girls was produced by fellow-émigré Joe Pasternak, with whom Koster had already collaborated in Europe. The financial success of their film gave Koster and Pasternak enough clout to send for their partner, the screenwriter Felix Jackson, who was still in need of a visa. When Horak and Asper worked on their article, Horak was employed by Universal Studios as head of the archive department, granting him unrestricted access to the studio’s archives and records, which allows us to conclude that Three Smart Guys is based on archival facts and documents. Horak and Asper convincingly demonstrate how “three refuges from Adolf Hitler’s Germany [Henry Koster, Joe Pasternak, Felix Jackson] adapted themselves to the working methods of the studio system, while at the same time bringing to bear on their European heritage. In doing so, they not only influenced briefly the formation of a major American film genre, the musical comedy, through the discovery and nurturing of a young star [Deanna Durbin], but in the process also literally saved a major studio, Universal, from certain bankruptcy” (Asper & Horak 1999, 2: 135). Horak and Asper draw interesting parallels between the light, musical comedies Koster, Pasternak and Jackson had made in Europe and their subsequent Deanna Durbin pictures, illustrating how the latter were a continuation of the former, while replacing the stars of their European outputs - Franziska Gaal and Dolly Haas - with their American equivalent, Deanna Durbin. The article also exemplifies how the concept of Koster, Pasternak and Jackson, since it had proven so profitable, was emulated by studios such as MGM, thus underlining the impact the émigrés - and these three in particular - had on the US film industry.

With his chapter on Exilfilm in Geschichte des deutschen Films (Eds. Jacobsen, Kaes, Prinzler. Stuttgart, Weimar: Metzler, 1993), Horak’s contribution to exile research is twofold: to begin with, he introduces a first definition of exile film and furthermore, he redefines our present comprehension of national cinema. While essentially based on his previous publications, Fluchtpunkt … and Anti-Nazi-Filme … it is evident that with Exilfilm Horak’s preoccupations have shifted, his focus veering away from the émigrés themselves to questions concerning our understanding of exile. The first important point he raises is the definition of exile film as opposed to film exile. A question of definition that has received scant attention from film historians, film exile and exile film are two different entities, the former, according to Horak, denoting the actual duration of exile of the exiled film artist, while the latter specifically defines a film “that was made outside Germany after 1933, produced, directed, and written by German emigrants” (Horak, in Jacobsen, Kaes, Prinzler 1993 : 101). Demarcating exile film facilitates the identification of possible contributions and influences of the émigrés on the film industries of their respective host countries - be it France, the Netherlands, or the United States - by establishing the participation of the émigrés by film and examining those films for their genre specifics and for characteristics carried over from Weimar cinema. Horak maintains that “exile film is not a genre, since neither plot nor style have any particular characteristics; but because exile film is determined by the political and economic conditions under which it is produced, it constitutes a cinema of genres” (Horak in Jacobsen, Kaes, Prinzler 1993 : 106). A second, arguably more groundbreaking, point he raises in this chapter, is his claim that “exile film must be embedded in film history as a chapter that runs parallel to that of the Third Reich, as the film culture of ‘the other’, non-fascist, Germany” (Horak in Jacobsen, Kaes, Prinzler 102 : 1993), for, as Horak explains, “for a lot of German film-makers of the 1960s, the real German film history was not defined by the fathers, tainted by the Third Reich, but by émigrés like Fritz Lang and Lotte Eisner” (Horak in Jacobsen, Kaes, Prinzler 1993 : 102). Horak underlines this valid and important point by giving several examples, among which are genres in which the émigrés had already excelled during the Weimar period and which they imported abroad, for instance the Kostuemfilm (e.g. Mayerling, France 1935), or its subgenre, the biography film or biopic, which highlights this point in particular as several biopics, made by émigrés in Hollywood, were copied by Nazi Germany, albeit with an ideological bias for “… the US versions were based on scientific facts with the hero showing signs of human weaknesses, [while] the Third Reich counterparts appeal to irrationality, infallibility of genius” (examples: The Story of Louis Pasteur, USA 1935 vs. Robert Koch, Germany 1939; Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, USA 1940 vs. Paracelsus, Germany 1943; etc. Horak in Jacobsen, Kaes, Prinzler 1993 : 109). In addition to that, a number of Hollywood films were based on German plays by émigré authors, e.g. Carl Zuckmayer’s Der Hauptmann von Koepenick which was released in the US as I Was A Criminal (USA 1945), involving a host of émigré-contributors, in this case Alfred Basserman (male lead), Richard Oswald (directing), Albrecht Joseph (screenplay), among others, proving Horak’s point that exile film and Third Reich film can not be separated and, in fact, are more closely linked than one is led to believe. Not only were the films, made in Hollywood by émigré-film-artists, copied by Nazi Germany, but the émigrés also imported the traditions of Weimar cinema into their host-countries whereby they influenced their respective film industries, resulting in an increasingly unsettled and fluctuating definition of national cinema as the boundaries between what is ’German’ and what is ’American’ (or ‘Dutch’, etc.) become almost indistinguishable. To quote Horak, “for the exiled film-artists, exile film, like exile literature and exile journalism, was a continuation of the democratic traditions of German culture, such as they were prior to Hitler’s rise to power” (Horak in Jacobsen, Kaes, Prinzler 1993 : 102). Exilfilm is a case in point of exile research being an ongoing process as increasing knowledge on exile requires new examination and as a continuous debate and analysis is bound to alter our understanding of exile and may subsequently lead to a shift in our reading of exile film.

With Sirk’s Early Exile Films: Boefje And Hitler’s Madmen (Film Criticism, Vol. XXIII, nr. 2-3, Winter - Spring 1999) Horak continues to assess the mark left by the émigrés on the film industries of their host countries, in this case the Netherlands and the United States. In this essay, Horak adjusts his previous definition of exile film, as stated in Exilfilm, slightly by adding that “In some cases, films can be considered to be the product of exile even if only the participating director and author, or producer and director, or producer and writer, were in exile. Other émigrés often worked behind the scenes in technical positions such as cameramen and designers” (Horak 1999 : 124). What is noteworthy about this statement is, firstly, that it ties in with what I put forward in the previous paragraph: exile research being an ongoing process, which, for all we know, may never be completed, thus apt to alter our views on exile and exile film by way of a continuous debate and examination. It is worth mentioning in this context, how this ongoing examination of exile film may also lead to a shift in how we read and interpret the narrative of a particular film. While in his erstwhile analysis of Boefje in Anti-Nazi Filme …, Horak focussed on the real-life events the film is based on (the massacre of Lidice by the Nazis), he is now preoccupied with the religious iconography in the film, concluding that “by appealing to the religious values of their American audience, they [émigré-producer Seymour Nebenzal and director Douglas Sirk) hope to create sympathy for the peoples of Europe” (Horak 1999 : 132). Although Horak does not specify what caused him to focus on Boefje’s religious iconography when reassessing the film, I suggest that multiple viewings, in addition to a more coherent understanding of Sirk’s life and work, invariably lead to a shift in interpreting his films. Secondly, the above statement is interesting insofar, as it points towards a further contribution Horak made to exile research as by shifting his focus - expanding the field of vision beyond directors, actors and screenwriters to technicians - he looks at people whose input and contribution to film in general, and exile film in particular, tends to be overlooked.

This shift of focus was already evident in Horak’s profile on the photographer and cinematographer Helmar Lerski, Avodah (Filmexil, nr. 11, Nov. 1998). In Avodah - Hebrew for work - Horak draws our attention to a contributor to German expressionist cinema whose input and involvement in films like Waxworks (Germany 1925), Die Perruecke (Germany 1924) and Der heilige Berg (Germany 1925) has also been ignored as film historians traditionally tend to focus the films‘, arguably more illustrious, directors. However, in Avodah Horak makes it strikingly clear that it is often those whose name and involvement in a film usually go unnoticed that contribute to a film’s lasting influence. Says Horak, “Sadly, Lerski’s cinematography in Waxworks received less attention than the expressionistic sets … for instance, had it not been for Lerski, the Jack-the-Ripper sequence could not have been filmed” (Horak 1998 : 10).

Seen in the context of his previous publications, Horak’s obituary for writer/ director/ screenwriter Curt Siodmak, In geistiger Freiheit (Film-dienst, Vol. LIII, nr. 20, Sept. 2000) is a continuance of his preoccupation with those émigrés who have been disregarded by exile research. The name Siodmak is usually associated with Curt’s more well-known brother, Robert. Horak writes of a lifelong rivalry between the two brothers, which went back to the time when they were still in Germany. Although there is no mention of the cause for this rivalry, nor does he offer any explanation why Robert’s name has burned itself into our memory far more distinctly than that of his brother’s, fact remains that Curt has thus far received scant attention from exile researchers, and that “although it is Curt’s creation, The Wolf Man (USA 1941), which seeped into America’s collective subconscious as a mythos” (Horak 16 : 2000). The obituary is full of unconcealed and unashamed praise - atonement, perhaps, for the fact that Horak himself only came to admire Curt Siodmak belatedly for when he started his oral histories programme back in 1975, he “did not venture to Three Rivers [Curt Siodmak’s home in California], not just because the $ 750 bursary was rather parsimonious, but also because I had not yet learned to appreciate Curt Siodmak” (Horak 16 : 2000). Horak talks about Curt Siodmak’s difficult relationship with Germany, which remained ambiguous throughout his life, something which was true for many of the émigrés. This, no doubt, also applies to Horak himself: German-born, to a German mother and a Czech father - a concentration camp survivor - Horak was raised and educated in Germany and the US, and to this day continues to work in both countries. Although Horak is not an émigré as such, his family background certainly resembles that of many an émigré. As a result, Horak’s empathy for the émigrés should not be underestimated. When Horak refers to Siodmak as a man with “two souls in his chest” (Horak 17 : 2000) one cannot help feeling that he is also referring to himself.

Taking into account Horak’s dual citizenship, his family history, and his education in both the US and Germany, it comes as no surprise that he should have made exile research his chief preoccupation, emerging as one of the leading figures therein. A pioneering scholar, to whom every subsequent exile researcher is indebted inasmuch as Horak paved the way by embarking on groundbreaking examination of the exiled film-artists at a time when no academic studies were available on this topic. As a great deal of émigrés were still alive when he embarked on exile research, he was able to rely on first-hand accounts. This, as we have seen, is Horak’s initial contribution to the field of exile research. Furthermore, by shifting his focus from the émigrés themselves to their creative output, he opened our eyes to their influence and the mark they left on the film industries of their respective host countries. It is important to mention in this context that Horak was the first to clearly define exile film, thus narrowing the field from a plethora of films to which a number of émigrés contributed by various degrees, to those in which the input of the émigrés is distinctly discernible. In addition to that, he draws our attention to the concept of national cinema, concluding that in the light of the substantial émigré contribution, its boundaries and its definition are blurred and thus open for debate. Lastly, by looking at the contribution of cinematographers to (exile-) film, Horak opened the field of vision beyond directors, screenwriters and actors to technicians.
In spite of Horak’s important contributions to exile research - or, possibly, because of them - there is still ample room for further exploration. For instance, organisations that evolved as a result of exile have thus far received scant attention from exile researchers, yet their role was pivotal and often crucial to the survival of the émigrés. Therefore, Horak’s contribution to exile research must be seen as an incentive, an inspiration, to follow his lead and continue further examining the field in which he pioneered.

Horak, Jan-Christopher. The Palm Trees Were Gently Swaying. In: Image 23.1, 1980.
Horak, Jan-Christopher. Anti-Nazi Filme der deutschsprachigen Emigration von Hollywood 1939 - 1945. Muenster: MAKS, 1984.
Horak, Jan-Christopher. Fluchtpunkt Hollywood. Muenster: MAKS, 1984.
Horak, Jan-Christopher. Exilfilm. In: Geschichte des deutschen Films. Eds. Jacobsen, Kaes, Prinzler. Stuttgart, Weimar: Metzler, 1993.
Horak, Jan-Christopher. Avodah. In: Filmexil, nr. 11, Nov. 1998.
Horak, Jan-Christopher. Sirk’s Early Exile-Films: Boefje and Hitler’s Madman. In: Film Criticism, Vol. XXIII, nr 2-3, Winter-Spring 1999.
Horak, Jan-Christopher, Asper, Helmut G. Three Smart Guys: How a Few Penniless German Émigrés Saved Universal Studios. In: Film History, Vol. XI, nr. 2 (1999, 2).
Horak, Jan-Christopher. In geistiger Freiheit. In: Film-dienst, Vol. LIII, nr. 20 (Sept. 2000).

Borzage, Frank, Mortal Storm, USA 1940
Dieterle, William, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullett, USA 1940
Dieterle, William, The Story of Louis Pasteur, USA 1935
Franck, Arnold, Der heilige Berg, Germany 1925
Koster, Henry, Three Smart Girls, USA 1936
Leni, Paul, Waxworks, Germany 1924
Lerski, Helmar, Avodah, Palestine 1935
Litvak, Anatole, Mayerling, France 1935
Murnau, Friedrich-Wilhelm, Nosferatu, Germany 1922
Oswald, Richard, I Was A Criminal, USA 1945
Pabst, G.W., Paracelsus, Germany 1943
Sirk, Douglas, Hitler’s Madman, USA 1943
Sirk, Douglas, Boefje, Netherlands 1939
Steinhoff, Hans, Robert Koch, Germany 1939
Viertel, Berthold, Die Perruecke, Germany 1925
Waggner, George, The Wolf Man, USA 1941

Monday, 1 March 2010

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Fincher, USA 2008

The Curious case of Forrest Gump

Button has all the makings of an Oscar winner: an iconic, heart-rending backdrop in the form of the hurricane Katrina, a tragic love story between two beautiful people at the centre, misty and nostalgically beautiful imagery, and, last but not least, a loving and caring African-American mama at the heart of the story which - with Obama now president - may amplify the story’s resonance with the audience. Or so Fincher thought.

And yet - what does the film actually tell us?

Not having read Fitzgerald’s short story on which the film is based, I can’t know what he himself has to say about a man who is born old and grows gradually younger - what prompted him to write the story in the first place - but in Fincher’s film at least, there doesn’t seem to be any point to the story at all other than, perhaps, that there is only a short time in the relationship between two people when their love is at full bloom, when they are, in fact, fully compatible - at precisely the point when their ages cross in his process of getting younger and hers of getting older - and that what comes before and after is best forgotten. Even that, however, seems a moot point since it didn’t require a story like Button to point that out, and much less one that comes along so heavy-handed and that takes itself so seriously.
There are only a few moments when the film really comes to life, when it sheds its seriousness, and when all of a sudden it doesn’t matter anymore whether the story makes sense or not because it has discarded its self-importance and pompousness and taken on the mantle of a light, beautifully told, fairy-tale - and that’s when Tilda Swinton makes her appearance, adding some much needed spice to Fincher’s tedious, stale and overly long film.

As if to inject some ‘deeper meaning‘ to the story, Fincher has thrown in a little reference to Run Lola Run (Germany 1998) by speculating on what might have happened if … (and here I deliberately refrain from further elaboration as this will spoil the film for future viewers). This scene, however, seems totally disjointed from the rest of the film and certainly doesn’t add anything to further its story, let alone really inject it with ’deeper meaning’. The same goes for the ending, where in a sudden burst of philosophical deliberation, Benjamin dwells on the meaning of life for each individual.

One cannot help thinking that if Fincher had simply stuck to recounting an old-fashioned, conventionally told, love story rather than trying far too hard to be meaningful, he might have had a film, particularly when taking into account the considerable talent he had at his disposal. As is, Button comes across as a pretentious, hollow, experience that will only be remembered for its similarities to Forrest Gump (USA 1994), another film where the hero stumbles through American and world history with similar detachment, although, for all its sentimentality, Zemeckis’ film has a lightness which Fincher’s film doesn’t.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is out on DVD.