In a PBS documentary on Isaac Stern she produced several years ago, Karen Thomas used some old footage of Stern accompanied by an unidentified man standing at a piano.
After the program aired, Thomas got a call from a man asking where she got that footage.
“From under Isaac Stern’s bed,” she told John Waxman, son of composer Franz Waxman, who recognized his dad as the gentleman by the piano.
Thomas, who at the time knew nothing of Franz Waxman, or his incredible story, met with his son, and heard a tale she decided was definitely worth telling.
Franz Waxman’s journey as one of over 1,500 writers, composers, directors and actors exiled from Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1940 is the subject of Thomas’ “Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood,” which will air on WQED at 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 1.
Thomas, an award-winning producer, has written, directed and produced this new documentary examining the experiences of these artists in exile, and their effect on the Hollywood culture which absorbed them.
“John Waxman told me the story of his father, who was the orchestrator of ‘The Blue Angel, (a classic film starring Marlene Dietrich) ” Thomas recalled. “ Franz Waxman was walking home after work one night [in Berlin], when he was dragged into an ally by Nazi thugs and beaten up.” He immediately fled Berlin for Paris, and eventually landed in Los Angeles, where he went on to score over 200 films including “Rebecca,” and “Sunset Boulevard.”
Thomas discovered that hundreds of Hollywood notables, including Billy Wilder, Peter Lorre and Hedy Lamar also escaped to Hollywood during the Nazi occupation of Europe, and went on to enrich American cinema in new and innovative ways.
“This [documentary] is really about the effect of the Diaspora on the receiving culture,” said Thomas. “It’s basically about the impact on the country that’s taking them in. What’s really fascinating is how people on the outside make us look a little differently on ourselves.”
The exiled artists were “predominately but not exclusively Jewish,” Thomas said. “Some were anti-Fascist. Some had Jewish spouses. It is fair to say they were all really quite secular. They came out of the Bohemian culture in Berlin and Austria. They kind of didn’t understand the religious angle. And they didn’t become more religious once they came to the United States.”
Thomas noted that these creative immigrants were able to contribute greatly to many genres of movies, especially film noir.
“Film noir is really about the dark side of human nature,” Thomas said. “Every single one of these people lost someone in the concentration camps. And they all worked on film noir pictures.”
Because of the influence of opera, and more dramatic staging techniques in Germany, the artists were able to introduce elements new to American film.
“If you look at the early horror pictures before 1933, if there’s music, there’s very little. When they [the immigrants] came, you have scoring from beginning to end. That’s a huge contribution,” said Thomas.
“Also, the dramatic lighting for the horror pictures comes strongly out of the German tradition. Now, it’s all part and parcel of what we think of as our American cinema.”
Narrated by actress Sigourney Weaver, the documentary uses film clips, and eyewitness accounts. Behind-the scenes archival footage of director Fritz Lang in Germany, and many previously unseen home movies and personal photographs that were provided by the families of the artists, are also featured.
“One of the incredible things about the generation that followed,” said Thomas, “is the length to which the children go to honor their parents. It’s really wonderful. Everybody is happy to participate in getting the story out because they are so proud of what their parents and grandparents accomplished in their struggles.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com)