Felix Bressart and His Unexpected Topicality

Fans of classic movies all know and love character actor Felix Bressart (Solomon Breslau, 1892-1949). The wispy, willowy little man with an otter-like face often played music masters, professors, scientists and the like. He characters often wore a monocle or a pince-nez and he usually sported a bushy mustache. With his thick accent he invariably played Continental Europeans. He was a favorite of Ernst Lubitsch, who gave him great roles in Ninotchka (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and To Be Or Not to Be (1942). You can also see him in Swannee River (1939), Mr and Mrs North (1942, with Gracie Allen), Greenwich Village (1944), A Song is Born (1948) and Portrait of Jennie (1948), among other films. His last role was in My Friend Irma (1949) with Marie Wilson, the first movie to feature Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Bressart’s death of cancer during production caused his part to be recast with Hans Conried.

Today’s post is published on the 130th anniversary of Bressart’s birth. But besides the aesthetic satisfaction of contemplating a nice round number, we have another aim in timing this post for today. Bressart was a Jew from East Prussia. He was a film star in his native country prior to coming to the U.S. as a refugee in 1936. And so, his story resonates with the present moment, as hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees flee the invading Russians.

Hitler-Putin comparisons have perhaps become tiresome by this juncture, but unlike many we come equipped to talk about the topic with some specificity. For with his talk of historic territorial claims, his “brotherhood” with ethnic Russians outside his own border, and his false claims of their persecution as minorities in those nearby countries, Putin is 100 % copping from the Hitler playbook. After remilitarizing the Rhineland and annexing Austria and getting away with it, Hitler’s next gambits were the Sudetenland, which was within the borders of Czechoslovakia, and East Prussia, which had been a sort of island within Poland since the end of the First World War. (Most of Northern Poland had been part of the Prussian Empire prior to that. The return of those lands was one of Hitler’s demands. The pushback by Poland and her allies finally led to the long-brewing Second World War). And as we’ve seen, Putin has used the same approach, in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus. As for what would be next, certainly a likely and logical next goal for him would be…once again, a part of the former East Prussia, which is now the Russian oblast of Kaliningrad, still embedded in Poland, and still separated from its current governing country, which is now Russia instead of Germany. To get there, Putin would have to violate Latvia and Lithuania first, and this would almost certainly set off World War Three, were NATO to honor its commitments.

Why am I up on my soap box? Well, the Kenyan ambassador to the U.N. made a lovely speech the other day about the evils of ethnic nationalism and we’re seeing the fruits of that right now. It’s also the defining trait of Trumpism. It seems to be part of some kind of international, grassroots reaction to the “global” mentality that has driven the world since the 1990s. I think ultimately this little hissy fit by the world’s neurotics and psychotics will finally subside, because the world has not only gotten too small for it, but it has gotten too integrated. We communicate too easily, and we’re too mobile. Trying to make nations that correspond precisely to particular ethnicities is not just an impossible folly, but is invariably barbaric and cruel. It is 19th century thinking in a 21st century world. Felix Bressart could easily have been among the millions of dead 80 years ago, just as I saw the corpse of a six year old Ukrainian girl on the news yesterday. CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY. There is no other outcome possible for those who seek to make communities based on homogenous identity, a.k.a. Fascism.

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