How Fascism and Immigrant Filmmakers Helped Shape the American Identity and Saved Hollywood

If we can judge the future by the events of the past, then Hollywood may be on the cusp of a Renaissance that could force America’s movie industry out of its insistently counterproductive march toward utter homogeneity.

When the movies first began as a medium utterly free from any dependence on a single spoken language, there was no guarantee that Hollywood was going to wind up as the center of the industry. While Hollywood films settled rather quickly into basically an adaptation of the 19th century novel as a means of narrative storytelling, filmmakers in countries like Russia, Germany, France and Sweden were expanding the language of film.

That language of cinema being explored to a much greater degree in Europe extended beyond the way scenes were being shot, composed, lit and edited to include a content. Hollywood’s directors working under the guiding influence of moguls looking to imprint a signature style upon their respective studios were starting to develop an efficient assembly line production style . This method essentially perfected the conventional narrative structure of exposition, action that rises to a climax before falling and a very quick denouement.

Meanwhile, European directors exploring ways to utilize the camera less for following a plot than for examining character. Even when the movies of Europe were no more visually innovative or technologically experimental than Hollywood’s counterparts, the stories were poking into the psychology of characters and the politics of events. Directors like Ernst Lubitsch heightened the ways in which the camera could be moved to essentially create a double entendre without a single word being spoken. F.W. Murnau was making movies in which a variety of effects could create an emotional mood that conveyed the state of mind of the characters inhabiting the stories.

These guys were making movies under conditions far less rigidly overseen by non-creative businessmen than the directors in Hollywood. They were also freely utilizing the culture, folklore, mythology and distinct sense of ethnic identity in a way that was freer than Hollywood’s implicit and underlying goal of helping to create an American identity through symbolic representations of itself on the screen. Hollywood movies had to tell stories about an America that was as familiar to the residents of tall buildings in New York City as it was to West Coast kids who could still hear first-hand stories of settling the frontier from grandparents who crossed the country by covered wagon.

In one of those enchanting upending of intentions and expectations wrongly categorized as irony, it may well be nothing less than fascism and its irrational adoption of rabid anti-Semitism that settled the competition for world dominance of cinema and ultimately made America the unqualified capital of the entertainment industry. The subconscious goal of developing a homogeneous vision of America and what it meant to be an American was on an inevitable collision course with the tedium of a colorless lack of features having nothing to do with every movie being filmed in black and white. The subtext running silently beneath so much of Hollywood’s output during the 1920’s received the benefit of a much-needed outsider’s perspective of what that burgeoning idea of Americanism meant from one of the most extraordinarily talented collections of political refugees ever.

What Hitler cast away or scared off in the form of Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak and his brother Curt, Fred Zinneman, Fritz Lang, William Dieterle, Bertolt Brecht and countless others, Hollywood put to use in a way that not only may have saved the American cinema, but played a vital part in establishing a much truer identity. While thankfully there is no immediate ideological threat behind the arrival in Hollywood of internationally acclaimed directors like Tomas Alfredson, Park Chan-wook (or Chan Wook-park depending on your source), and Joon-ho Bong (or Bong Joon-Ho) there is certainly a welcome sense of déjà vu.

Now let’s just hope that today’s studios heads are as smart as the moguls who founded those studios when it comes to keeping their dirty little bottom-line mitts as much out of the process as they can manage.