From Teutonia to Tinseltown: 16 German and Austrian Directors from Hollywood’s Classic Era

December 5 is a very special day: not only is it Krampusnacht, but it is also the birthday of both Otto Preminger (1905-86) and Fritz Lang (1890-1975), the latter pictured above. As it happens, 2022 also marks a century since Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947) made his move to Hollywood, as well as the centennial of Murnau’s Nosferatu. It seemed to me a sort of charmed day on which to do a post to help you sort out the tangle of famous German and Austrian directors who came to Hollywood to work during the first half of the 20th century.

That’s a thing, right? It’s an icon, even a stereotype. The autocratic director with the jodhpurs, riding crop, monocle, megaphone, equestrian boots, khakis, pith helmet or beret, and a camp chair. This look was so widely emulated that you will find widespread speculation about its origin on the internet. Cecil B. DeMille is one of the earliest and most famous to be associated with it, though I believe the real answer everyone is looking for is Erich von Stroheim (1885-1957), one of the first of the German-speaking directors to come to Hollywood and one especially known for his, shall we say, conspicuous devotion to strict order and discipline? Directorial image aside, there were also other factors at play when this look evolved. One is that, horses were still a practical fact of life, especially in the shooting of westerns, but really across most screen genres, at least in the teens when this look originated. The other is that World War One glamorized militarism for a time. Anyway, this “German director” image was amplified by the fact that several of these guys also dabbled in acting. Von Stroheim is the one we know the best this way through dozens of roles, most famously Max in Sunset Boulevard; but Wilder also cast Preminger in Stalag 17, and you can see a monocle sporting Lang in Godard’s Contempt.

The irony, of course, is that even as they cultivated a Prussian image, or played Nazis, Von Stroheim and Preminger were actually Viennese Jews. Many or most of the men we’ll be profiling below were Jewish. We’re accustomed to regarding them all as exiles or refugees from the Nazis, although it is instructive to note that many came to Hollywood long before conditions in Europe worsened, lured there by carrots rather than chased there by sticks. They brought with them sensibilities and styles ranging from German Expressionistic horror, to Viennese Light Opera. Though they worked for most of the major studios, I think it can be said that German-born born Carl Laemmle was a key figure in this development, for it was he who first hired Von Stroheim to direct, fostered the talent of his cousin William Wyler, and ran the studio most associated with classic horror, where directors like Freund, Ulmer, and others made their mark. Another crucial figure is Baden-born director Max Reinhardt. Though he was mostly a stage director, and he only co-directed one Hollywood film, the 1935 adaptation of his stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he mentored several of the men we treat of below.

Another interesting fact is that this influx of talent occurred during a time when German and Austrian emigration to America was in decline, following the massive influx that had characterized the 1840s to the 1890s, influencing American culture in countless ways as we chronicled here. Germans had been among America’s earliest American immigrant groups, dating to the late 17th century. World War One put the chill on America’s attitudes towards Germans, and on immigration, in general.

Henry “Pathe” Lehrman (1881-1946)

Probably because his entire career was spent directing slapstick comedy shorts, Lehrman is almost never included on lists of this type, although he really ought to be. Not just because I’m a firm believer in the dignity and worth of comedy, but because he was an important guy in screen history, not only a writer and director of films, but also for a time a producer and head of his own studio divisions. An immigrant from Vienna, he began to work at Biograph in 1909 and became the acolyte of Mack Sennett. Later he left Keystone for Fox, and took a lot of Sennett’s talent with him. Today he is primarily remembered from the couple of movies he made with Charlie Chaplin, and for his involvement with Virginia Rappe (whose death resulted in the railroading of Roscoe Arbuckle). More about him here.

Erich Von Stroheim (1885-1957)

Von Stroheim’s origins are somewhat shrouded in mist. His Viennese birth and his 1909 steamship crossing are both documented, but there seems to be a general consensus that he wasn’t the aristocrat he claimed to be, and that there was something unusual about the way he spoke German. As a director, Von Stroheim is best known for his 1924 masterpiece Greed. Greed used to be included on everyone’s “ten best” list — I just learned that it didn’t even make the Sight and Sound Top 100 a few days ago! I’ll confess that I find that appalling. I’m all for the including lots more films by women and people of color, but the things I personally would bump would be more along the lines of Singing in the Rain and Northwest by Northwest. Greed? That’s sacrosanct. Anyway, I’ll return to this topic upon its centennial a couple of years from now. Unlike most of the other directors on this list, Von Stroheim started his career in Hollywood, not Europe. He was initially a stunt man and bit player starting in the mid teens, then rose to greater roles, was an adviser on movies with German themes, and then an assistant director under D.W. Griffith. He began directing himself in 1919, but proved so difficult and extravagant that he only managed to direct a few movies. He’s also memorable as an actor in ushc films as The Great Gabbo (1929), The Grand Illusion (1937), The Great Flammarion (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Josef Von Sternberg (1894-1969)

Because of the similarity of their names, newbies are apt to mix Von Sternberg up with Von Stroheim, though they were very different men and very different directors. Von Sternberg is especially known for his close artistic relationship with his muse Marlene Dietrich in seven movies: The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil is a Woman (1935). Some of his later pictures would have been great vehicles for Dietrich as well, and I bet he missed her: The King Steps Out (1936) featuring Grace Moore as Empress Elisabeth of Austria, The Shanghai Gesture (1941) with Gene Tierney, and Macao (1952) with Jane Russell. Other interesting Von Sternberg projects include the now lost Edna Purviance vehicle A Woman of the Sea (1926) and the 1931 version of An American Tragedy. Von Sternberg had immigrated to New York from Vienna when he was only seven years old, making him perhaps one of the more “Americanized” of the gentlemen we’re discussing, though he was known for the perfectionism of his lighting, a trait much associated with German directors. He got in the film business on the bottom rung as early as 1911, and was an assistant director by 1919. His first film as director was The Salvation Hunters (1925) with George K. Arthur and Georgia Hale, which is surely what brought him to the notice of Chaplin, who produced the Purviance project.

Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947): Read my post here.

William Wyler (1902-81)

As we mentioned, Wyler was a relative of Carl Laemmle. Originally from Alsace-Lorraine, he came to Hollywood circa 1923 and started out as a scenery shifter before graduating to assistant director. In 1925 he began directing silent westerns, churning them out by the bushelful. He started to seriously find his footing in the mid ’30s with quality stuff like The Good Fairy (1935), from a Preston Sturges screenplay, and Sidney Howard’s 1936 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Dodworth. Then, a fairly unbelievable string of hits and lasting classics: Dead End (1937), Jezebel (1938), Wuthering Heights (1939, during which Olivier credits him with teaching him screen acting), The Westerner (1940), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1942), the World War Two documentary Memphis Belle (1944), the multiple Oscar winning The Best Days of Our Lives (1946), The Heiress (1949), Detective Story (1951), Carrie (1952), Roman Holiday (1953), The Desperate Hours (1955), Friendly Persuasion (1956), The Big Country (1958), Ben Hur (1959), The Childrens Hour (1961), Funny Girl (1968), et al. Adaptations of literature and stage plays were a particular specialty.

F. W. Murnau (1888-1931)

Murnau, like Lang (below) is one of the few whose German films are as well known as his American ones — in Murnau’s case, better. He was born in Bielefeld, Germany, about an hour east of Munster, as the crow flies. A protege of Max Reinhardt’s, he is especially associated with horror and expressionism and is most famous for his pirated Dracula adaptation Nosferatu (1922). His other German films include The Hunchback and the Dancer (1920), Der Januskopf (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1920), The Haunted Castle (1921), Phantom (1922), The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926). His crowning achievement and masterpiece however was made in Hollywood, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), a movie so beautifully made and shattering, it’s easily on my short list for the best movie ever. His next film 4 Devils (1928) was also critically acclaimed but is now lost. After making City Girl (1930) and Tabu: A Tale of the South Seas (1931), Murnau was killed in a car accident, a major loss for world cinema.

Edgar Ulmer (1904-1972): Read my post here.

Karl Freund (1890-1969): Read my post here.

William Dieterle (1893-1972)

Another member of the Reinhardt company, Dieterle was a Rhinelander who had acted in such films as Waxworks (1924) and Murnau’s Faust (1926). He began working in Hollywood in 1930 directing German language versions of films like Moby Dick (1930). Co-directing Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream put his career into high gear. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) is probably the Hollywood film that hearkens back the most to his German period. Portrait of Jennie (1948) is also a spooky, atmospheric tale. Other well known and well-regarded Dieterle films include The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Juarez (1939), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941, Kimset (1944), and Salome (1953). Associations with Communists like Bertolt Brecht later got him semi-blacklisted and he returned to Europe in the late 1950s.

Billy Wilder (1906-2002): Read my post here.

Otto Preminger (1905-86)

Another Reinhardt disciple, who had acted alongside Dieterle in Vienna. He became a famous stage director in his native country but only directed one film there before being summoned by Hollywood. There is an interesting dichotomy to his personality: famous for a scandalous private life and liberal, taboo-shattering films, he was also known as a martinet and bully as director (in the mold of his doppelganger Von Stroheim). Both Gypsy Rose Lee and Dorothy Dandridge (the one, a burlesque performer, the other, a woman of color) were his long term extramarital lovers, bold, risky behavior in his day. The movies he directed included Kidnapped (1938), Laura (1944), Daisey Kenyon (1947), River of No Return (1954), Carmen Jones (1954), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), The Courtmartial of Billy Mitchell (1955), Saint Joan (1957), Porgy and Bess (1959), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Exodus (1960), Advise and Consent (1962), Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), and the notorious Skidoo (1968) with Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing and Groucho Marx, et al. Batman fans cherish his performances as the villain Mr. Freeze.

Fritz Lang (1890-1976)

One of the few directors whose German films are as well known and as widely watched in America as his American ones. They include Metropolis (1927), M (1931), Women in the Moon (1929) and the Dr. Mabuse films (1922-60). His Hollywood classics include Fury (1936), The Return of Frank James (1940), Scarlet Street (1945), Rancho Notorious (1952), Clash By Night (1953), The Blue Gardenia (1953) and The Big Heat (1953) and several others. It is said that Goebbels approached him to head up the German film industry in 1933. Lang fled as fast his feet could carry him..

Robert Siodmak (1900-1973)

Dresden born Siodmark had been a stage director before beginning to work for Curtis Bernhardt (below) as a scenario writer and film editor in 1925. In 1930 he co-directed his first film People on Sunday (Germany’s last silent film) with Edgar Ulmer, from a script by Billy Wilder and his his brother Curt Siodmak, who later wrote The Wolf Man and Donovan’s Brain. After making several more films in Germany he fled when the Nazis came to power in 1933. His Hollywood films include Son of Dracula (1943), Phantom Lady (1944), Cobra Woman (1944), The Killers (1946), The Crimson Pirate (1952) and dozens of others. From the mid ’50s most of his films were European, although he did return to America occasionally to direct pictures such as Custer of the West (1967).

Fred Zinnemann (1907-1997)

Austrian-Jewish Zinneman held a law degree, and also trained in cinematography in Paris and was one of the many who worked on People on Sunday. When the Depression hit, he moved to Hollywood, where he was directing short films by the mid ’30s. He graduated to features in 1942. His best known include High Noon (1952), The Member of the Wedding (1953), From Here to Eternity (1953), Oklahoma! (1955), A Hatful of Rain (1957), The Sundowners (1960), A Man for All Seasons (1966), The Day of the Jackal (1973) and Julia (1977).

Douglas Sirk (1897-1987)

Sirk was from Hamburg and originally a stage director. He broke into film-making in Germany in the mid ’30s but was forced to flee in 1937 out of concern for his wife, who was Jewish. It took him a few years to find his footing in Hollywood but by 1943 he was given the opportunity to direct his first feature, Hitler’s Madman. Today he is downright revered for his gorgeous Technicolor melodramas of the 1950s, including Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959), but in his own time he was scorned by critics. Other Sirk films include Shockproof (1949), Has Anbody Seen My Gal (1952), Meet Me at the Fair (1953), and the western Taza, Son of Cochise (1954).

Curtis Bernhardt (1899-1981)

Though well-regarded in his native Germany where he had begun making movies in the mid ’20s, Curt Bernhardt is easily the least well-known and least distinguished on this list, when it comes to his Hollywood movies. Having fled Germany in 1933, he spent the remained of the decade making films in London and Paris, finally arriving in Hollywood in 1941. His American movies include Possessed (1947) with Joan Crawford and Van Heflin, Sirocco (1951) with Humphrey Bogart, The Merry Widow (1952), Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), Beau Brummel (1954), Damon and Pythias (1962), and Kisses for My President (1964).

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Oh, one last thing: this year also marks the 40th year since the final release by any of these film-makers, Fred Zinnemann’s Five Days One Summer (1982). Naturally, the German-speaking world went on to produce countless brilliant film-makers during the postwar period, and some of them came to America. But honestly they didn’t have to. As Billy Wilder told us in One, Two, Three (1961), America was now coming to them.