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