Noah Isenberg

  • Oh, Brothers

    Hollywood has always been a place of invention and reinvention, a world where outsiders could fashion themselves as architects of American mythology, and where the outsize success stories of dogged scoundrels are celebrated with enthusiasm. Perhaps no studio, and no family, better represents this spirit than Warner Bros., established in the first decades of the twentieth century by the Polish-born Wonskolasor siblings Harry (né Moses), Albert (né Aaron), and Sam (né Szmul), along with their brash little brother Jack (né Jacob), who was born in Canada after the family fled to the New World.

  • School’s Out

    There’s a scene in Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel The Corrections in which Chip Lambert, the wayward Marxist academic of the family, prepares to bring his cherished book collection to the Strand Book Store for resale. The putative aim is to recoup what little money he can from the piles of books, among them the core writings of the Frankfurt School, which otherwise no longer hold any value for him. “He turned away from their reproachful spines,” writes Franzen, describing Chip’s bitter decision to part with the words of Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and company, “remembering how each one

  • City Writes

    “Properly written texts are like spiders’ webs,” remarked Theodor Adorno in his renowned compendium of aphoristic observations Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (1951). “Tight, concentric, transparent, well-spun and firm. They draw into themselves all the creatures of the air. Metaphors flitting hastily through them become their nourishing prey.” For the literary scholar and cultural critic Andreas Huyssen, this evocative passage largely sums up the modernist miniature as he conceives it in his bold new study, Miniature Metropolis. Buttressed by uncommon erudition and far-reaching

  • Grand Collusion

    In the spring of 1947, when German-émigré film scholar Siegfried Kracauer published his groundbreaking history of Weimar cinema, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, theater critic Eric Bentley accused him, in the pages of the New York Times, of being “led into exaggeration” by hindsight and pursuing a “refugee’s revenge.” It’s true that Kracauer, who barely managed to flee Nazi-engulfed Europe on one of the last ships to leave the port of Lisbon, had some difficulty retracing the course of German cinema in the period between the wars without recalling the horrors

  • It’s Complicated

    Of all the things one can portray in a movie, marriage is surely not the most titillating. It can’t possibly hold a candle to sex or violence—or some lurid combination of the two—and is an equally tough sell against horror, slapstick, sci-fi, romance, or the western. “Embrace happy marriage in real life,” director Frank Capra once remarked, “but keep away from it onscreen.” And yet there have been a great number of films, from the silent era until today, that have defied Capra’s warning and compellingly depicted one of the world’s most enduring institutions. (Capra himself offered a fiendish

  • I Me Mime

    “Originally I intended to write a book about Harpo’s relation to history and literature,” remarks Wayne Koestenbaum on the first page of his fittingly zany, aphoristic, and meandering study of the great mime of Marx Brothers fame. “A tiny chapter on Harpo and Hegel. A tiny chapter on Harpo and Marx. A tiny chapter on Harpo and Stein. A tiny chapter on Harpo and Hitler.” That idea didn’t stick. Plan B, we are told, was a novella, The Pillow Book of Harpo Marx: “The narrator, Harpo, was a queer Jewish masseur who lived in Variety Springs, New York, and whose grandparents had starred in vaudeville

  • Illuminations

    Any student of silent cinema, critical theory, and the Frankfurt School, or film aesthetics and the avant-garde, will surely at one point or another have come into contact with the work of Miriam Hansen. Her groundbreaking study Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (1991) inspired a generation of film scholars to place greater emphasis on the ways in which film audiences constitute an alternative public sphere. Likewise, her trenchant essays published over the last few decades in New German Critique, on whose editorial board she served, Critical Inquiry, October, and elsewhere

  • Teuts Uncommon

    Anyone who visits Germany for long can find it to be a daunting place. There is, of course, the dark past—or pasts, when we add the years of Communist tyranny to the legacy of the Nazi era—which have a tendency to weigh heavily on one’s impressions. Then there’s the food (can there really be that many types of sausage?) and the social habits (why does hiking require a special outfit and a ski pole?), not to mention the Kultur (does each little town need its own opera house?). Generations of historians have sought to explain the messy, chaotic, and frequently contradictory narrative of this

  • Screen Saver

    "The picture business can only exist,” observed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer mogul Irving Thalberg in a long letter to a fellow studio executive in 1933, “on the basis of real entertainment, glamour, good taste, and stars.” Thalberg adhered to that formula for much of his intense, frequently brilliant career as one of Hollywood’s most influential producers in the age of the studio system. By the time he penned these words—he was in his early thirties and beginning to fear that the assembly-line approach introduced at other big studios would forever compromise the kind of filmmaking he espoused—he had

  • Self-Expressionist

    Nikolai Hoffner is a man with more than a few skeletons tucked away in his closet. The tough, hard-drinking chief inspector of the Kriminalpolizei, Weimar Berlin’s legendary Kripo, has a pronounced tendency to get police work entangled with his private life. By the time we’re introduced to him in Jonathan Rabb’s Shadow and Light, the second novel in a trilogy set in Germany between the wars, his wife, Martha, has long been murdered, killed as a result of his sleuthing, and his older son, Sascha, who’s become caught up in the rise of fascism, is completely estranged from him. But like any good

  • The Hitler Salute: On the Meaning of a Gesture

    It’s hard not to wonder whether anyone back in the mid-1980s—when Don DeLillo was busy crafting White Noise’s Jack Gladney, the wily chairman of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill—could have anticipated that an entire book on the subject of the Hitler salute would someday be published. And yet even a casual visit to the book exhibition at the annual meeting of the German Studies Association, where a small army of swastikas can be found goose-stepping across dust jackets as if choreographed for Mel Brooks’s “Springtime for Hitler,” would have suggested that it was far from unimaginable.


    For those familiar with the legends, and the truths, of the German and Austrian migration to Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s, Otto Preminger’s life serves as an exemplary tale. First, there is his confabulation of Vienna as his rightful birthplace, when in fact he, like Billy Wilder and Edgar G. Ulmer, two other self-professed Viennese-born directors, really entered the world in a less glamorous backwater province (Wiznitz, Poland, in Preminger’s case). Then there is his immodest assertion that he was “the first apprentice actor of the Viennese Reinhardt Company.” Which Austrian- or German-born


    An eye-catching photograph graces the dust jacket of Ehrhard Bahr’s Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism. Taken in 1941, the shot— more posed than candid—captures Thomas Mann standing on the bluffs of Pacific Palisades, where he lived for most of the war years and into the early 1950s, dressed in a dark suit with an elegantly folded pocket kerchief, a starched white shirt, and an understated necktie; he is clasping a thin cigar in his left hand. Staring straight into the camera, he has the confident look of someone who made good use of the

  • Bombs Away

    When Der Brand, Jörg Friedrich's best-selling history of the Allied bombings of German cities during World War II, was published in Germany, in 2002, it unleashed a firestorm. For some, the notion that the British and American air campaigns against cities like Dresden, Hamburg and Essen constituted a new and atrocious war, utilizing weapons of mass destruction and targeting civilians rather than industrial centers, is problematic in itself. But Friedrich's harrowing descriptions of the incineration of men, women, and children—a story that aligned his book with other taboo-confronting efforts