During World War Two: It’s An Expat Thing

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Hollywood was rife with actors, directors, writers, and others who had fled Europe when Hitler came to power and who still had relatives living under Hitler’s thumb. Those who stayed behind, especially if they were Jewish, were subjected to the same treatment as anyone else, often dying by execution, in prison or in death camps (See a list here). People who had relatives who defected were looked on with especial suspicion by the Nazis, such as All Quiet On the Western Front author Erich Maria Remarque’s sister, Elfrieda Scholz, who was beheaded in what has been called judicial murder.

The stories of how these people came to America could make a year or two of posts by themselves, and there’s no way to name them all at one time. Directors Billy Wilder, Joe Pasternak, and Anatole Litvak were among those who left Europe in the nineteen-thirties. Depending on who’s asked, Hedy Lamarr‘s exit strategy either involved wearing all her jewelry to a dinner party or pretending to be a maid before disappearing. Helmut Dantine was freed from an Austrian concentration camp by a doctor. Paul Heinreid also fled Austria and made movies in Britain before coming to America. S.Z. Sakall, a Hungarian, was working in Germany in 1933 and would return to Hungary for a few years before emigrating with his wife in 1940. Felix Bressart, being Jewish, fled Germany with his wife. Fellow German Conrad Veidt, being virulently anti-Nazi, also fled with his wife. Franz Waxman came to Hollywood to arrange a score for producer Erich Pommer and never left. Peter Lorre made friends with Billy Wilder, having emigrated to America from England after making The Man Who Knew Too Much for Alfred Hitchcock.

Wilder and Lorre pose with a few of their fellow refugees. (The Paris Review)

Some who remained in Germany tried to go along to get along. One director, Herbert Selpin helmed a highly fictionalized, heavily propagandized film about the Titanic sinking for the Nazis, but when he became fed up with the drunken, flaky behavior of the soldiers, he snapped, criticizing and making fun of the Nazi military. Even though he had been drinking himself and therefore enabling the bad behavior, soon Selpin was dividing his time between filming Titanic and traveling to interrogation sessions in Berlin, the last one on July 30, 1942. Two days later Selpin was found hanging in his cell, likely a murder made to look like a suicide. The film, which was released in 1943, was only shown after the war with big chunks cut out and wasn’t released on home media until 2005. It can also be seen on YouTube and Internet Archive.

Of those who were already in America, more than one tried to bring over family and friends from Europe. It wasn’t easy; among the requirements for acceptance during the war years, a potential candidate had to know someone who already lived in the United States. Carl Laemmle alone saved three hundred families or around a thousand people, and tirelessly lobbied Congress to relax immigration laws so more Jewish people could emigrate to the States, but was ultimately unsuccessful.

Jewish Journal

Only one Hollywood actor, however, made Hitler’s personal hit list. Marlene Dietrich was a huge star in Weimar Germany but like many of her contemporaries came to Hollywood after Hitler came to power. She was asked (ordered, more likely) to come back to Germany and collaborate with the Nazis, and to their great ire, Dietrich not only refused but became an American citizen with a Jewish judge presiding over her ceremony.

German newspapers lost no time portraying her as a traitor, Dietrich’s movies were banned in Germany, and Dietrich herself was forbidden to enter Germany on pain of death. Dietrich, however, in a series of fabulous “Up Yours” moves, recorded several albums that beat out Lord Haw Haw for propaganda value, raised millions of dollars in war bonds and criss-crossed Europe entertaining troops. She was considered a traitor by the Germans even after she died, with Berliners spitting in her grave at her burial, but since then has been made an honorary Berliner.

Marlene Dietrich becomes an American citizen. (Getty Images)

The exodus of German and European filmmakers to Hollywood gave rise to emigre comedy, which was Jewish comedy rebranded, as well as films that put the Nazis on notice. As we’ve talked about on here before, Ernst Lubitsch was the patron saint of these films, and one of its prime examples is the 1942 film, To Be Or Not To Be, which starred Jack Benny, Carole Lombard in her last film, Felix Bressart, Robert Stack, and Lionel Atwill, among others, and is one of my favorite wartime films.

Bitingly funny, To Be Or Not To Be follows a Polish acting troupe who join the resistance and put their acting skills to excellent use. It’s got Shakespeare, it’s beautifully shot, it’s got intrigue, it’s got derring do, and it skewers the Nazis beyond recovery. Its boldness was a little shocking to people during the war, including a dead-on impression of Hitler by Tom Dugan–in one scene he walks down the street in his Der Fuhrer costume and people practically faint at the sight of him. I’d say more about the movie but I really don’t want to ruin it, and anyway, it deserves a full review someday.

Classic Film Freak

Another film that isn’t always thought of as a resistance film is Casablanca, which is populated by actual refugees and expats, including S.Z. Sakall and Conrad Veidt, giving the film a lot of extra oomph. Viktor Laszlo, played by Paul Heinreid, is a fearless fighter in the resistance and recently let out of a concentration camp. He’s persona non grata in occupied Europe, and the Nazis would like nothing more than to see him dead. Above all else, Viktor must get to America so he can continue the work he started from a safe place.

The film also emphasized the plight of the refugees. When a young couple, the Brandels are trying to get passage to Lisbon so they can go to America, their desperation is palpable. Although it’s not stated overtly, the wife, Annina, played by Joy Page, is clearly even willing to sleep with officials or anyone else who can possibly help them, and her relief at being spared such a fate is all over her face.


In another scene, Viktor, in an act of pure defiance, has Rick’s house band strike up La Marsellaise right in front of a group of Nazi officers. It’s techically illegal to do so, but the entire room sings vigorously and tremoulously, with their backs straight, some of them with tears running down their faces. Above all, the film emphasized tenacity for the fight against the Nazis, even if it meant giving up what seemed to be most important. Whatever it was, if it was meant to be, it could wait.

Another film in the same vein is 1943’s Watch On the Rhine, starring Paul Lukas and Bette Davis. The plot centers around Kurt and Sara Muller, who are on their way to America because Sara hasn’t seen her family in seventeen years, but there’s always the implication that the trip is to get Sara and the Mullers’ three children out of harms’ way while Kurt carries on the fight against fascism.


The fight, however, hits home, literally, when Teck Brancovis (George Coulouris) a visiting count staying at Sara’s family home in Virginia turns out to be a Nazi. Not that it isn’t totally obvious, since he’s a regular at the German embassy, but the film drives the point home when Teck reveals a prominent member of Kurt’s resistance group, who once carried Kurt for miles when he was wounded, has been captured by the Nazis. Teck is such a nice little cuss he also threatens Kurt with exposure and extorts Sara’s family out of thousands of dollars.

Watch On the Rhine is a gripping film that must have been uncomfortable for 1943 audiences, particularly in America, who felt isolated and safe with two oceans separating them from the war. The fight wasn’t in America’s backyards the way it was in Europe or the Pacific, or so they told themselves. However, the reality was quite different. As Sara’s mother, Fanny (Lucille Bremer) says, “We’ve been shaken out of our magnolias.”

History On the Net

Hitler and the Nazis would have loved nothing more than to do away with everyone who opposed them, but thank God none of their aims succeeded. It’s poetic justice that dozens of the people they wanted to do away with the most were able to not only survive but thrive, leaving behind a legacy of grit, determination and wonderful entertainment that has long outlasted the Third Reich.

A couple more posts are coming up a week from today. Thanks for reading, all, and have a good one…

To Be Or Not To Be (DVD and Blu-ray), Casablanca (DVD and Blu-ray), and Watch On the Rhine (DVD) are available to own from Amazon.

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If you’re enjoying what you see on Taking Up Room, please look for additional content on Substack, where you’ll find both free and subscriber-only articles. I publish every Wednesday and Saturday.

4 thoughts on “During World War Two: It’s An Expat Thing

  1. Great piece, Rebecca. The contribution these men and women made to cinema is immense. I love that the directors, writers and cinematographers used their first-hand experiences of the evil that was growing back home to create much darker content for their films for American and British audiences.

    That La Marsellaise scene gets me every single time. Did you know that many of the extras in that scene were real refugees as well? Their tears and defiant expressions were genuine.

    Liked by 1 person

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