Some Like It Fraught

Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna edited by Noah Isenberg, translated from German by Shelley Frisch. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 224 pages. $24.
Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge by Joseph mcbride. new york: columbia university press. 680 pages. $40.
Mr. Wilder and Me BY Jonathan Coe. Europa Editions. . $16.

IN AUGUST 1945, THREE MONTHS AFTER ADOLF HITLER’S SUICIDE in the bunker and the Allied victory in Europe, the Hollywood film director Billy Wilder arrived in Berlin. Wilder’s film Double Indemnity, that pinnacle of film noir, had come out the previous summer to great acclaim and box office success. The Lost Weekend, Wilder’s next film, equally dark and also a future classic, was being readied for fall release at Paramount. Now Wilder had been enlisted by the US Office of War Information to return to the city he’d fled in 1933, when he was forced out of screenwriting because he was a Jew. The OWI wanted him to make and oversee films that would help “recivilize” the German population as they were de-Nazified by the Allies.

Double Indemnity had been shut out at the Academy Awards the previous March, in the first Oscars ceremony that was broadcast nationally. (It only took seventy minutes.) Wilder was annoyed that his film lost to Going My Way, which starred Bing Crosby as a priest, so he tripped the film’s director, Leo McCarey, on his way to the podium to get his award. But that was just Hollywood clowning. Oscar or not, no one could deny that Billy Wilder was sitting on top of the world. Chased out by Hitler, he returned to Berlin with a conquering army, eleven years after arriving in America with only eleven dollars in his pocket.

Had an artist of Wilder’s caliber ever been in a situation like that before? Certainly no film director had. Wilder’s Hollywood mentor, Ernst Lubitsch, for whom he had cowritten Ninotchka in 1939, had last visited Berlin, his birthplace, in the winter of 1932. A key figure in the German cinema, Lubitsch had gone to Hollywood in the silent era, and went on to invent the romantic comedy and then the musical. He was also Jewish, famous in the film world since the 1910s, initially as an actor for his comic portrayals of cosmopolitan Jewish strivers, and therefore a special target for German anti-Semites. “Nothing good is going to happen here for a long time,” Lubitsch told the local press about their country that December. “The sun shines every day in Hollywood,” he added.

BILLY  WILDER was born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906, in the Galician town of Sucha, now in Poland but then part of Austria-Hungary, a vast empire that ceased to exist when Wilder was twelve years old. His mother called him “Billie,” because he was a rambunctious kid and she had seen Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show during a brief period living in New York. In Hollywood, Wilder would modify his name to “Billy” with a y when he realized that Billie with an ie was considered a girl’s name in the US, a fact that plays into his lifelong fascination, as a writer and director, with cross-dressing and gender roles. 

Wilder’s father was the manager of a string of railroad cafés and moved the family to Kraków to run a hotel, and from there to Vienna. He died when Wilder was twenty-two. Wilder disliked school and by eighteen he was writing for newspapers in Vienna, starting in the crossword puzzle department and working his way into movie reviews and feuilletons. He got his first job after writing to an Austrian paper asking to be their American correspondent. They laughed at that but Wilder showed up at their offices unannounced, he later claimed, and caught either the editor or the drama critic in flagrante with a secretary on the office couch, a very Wilderian situation that also echoes a 1914 German short, The Pride of the Firm, which Ernst Lubitsch appeared in but did not direct, and which Wilder had probably seen. Why should I hire you? the editor-or-critic supposedly asked Wilder. Because I am a keen observer, he said. He got the job.

Covering the American bandleader Paul Whiteman’s 1926 tour of Europe for a Vienna newspaper, Wilder, a jazz fan, followed Whiteman and his musicians to Berlin, and stayed. There, he captured in print, for low pay, the fads and celebrities of the Weimar Republic in bloom. Wilder’s prose improved under the guidance of Berlin newspapermen and cabaret sketch writers. He became a café-dwelling Berlin hipster who wore snap-brims to cover his red hair. Soon he started ghosting screenplays, then writing his own.

In 1929 he wrote People on Sunday (1930), a groundbreaking film of the Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”), the style, or movement, that was replacing the German Expressionism of the 1920s defined by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1920) and the films of F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. The New Objectivity favored sociological naturalism and a cold eye on real life, a kind of modernism in opposition to Expressionism’s intense angularity and stark chiaroscuro, its psychology of horror and crime. Made in the capital of the German film world but away from the studios by a group that included future émigré directors Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Fred Zinnemann, People on Sunday, a Strassenfilm (“street film”), predicted Italian neorealism and the French New Wave. 

The lessons of People on Sunday stayed with Wilder. He used a hidden camera on the streets of New York for The Lost Weekend. In Sunset Boulevard (1950), he ferried the darkness of the silent era into the noir of postwar Hollywood, making the film a Neue Sachlichkeit commentary on German Expressionism, on how one era looked to another, melting in the California sun.

Theatrical poster detail for Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, 1950.
Theatrical poster detail for Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, 1950.

WILDER’S MOTHER, HIS STEPFATHER, AND HIS GRANDMOTHER WERE ALL MISSING when Wilder got to Berlin at the end of World War II. He suspected that they had been shipped to concentration camps, though he did not know for sure. It was not until later that he was told that his stepfather and grandmother had been killed at Auschwitz in 1941 (evidence later proved that his stepfather died at the Belzec death camp and his grandmother in Kraków). Wilder never learned his mother’s fate; in fact she was killed in the Kraków-Płaszów slave labor camp in 1943. In any case, Wilder had seen hours of abhorrent film footage from the camps, sent to London as Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau were liberated by the Allies, watching in hope that he might spot one of his relatives. Working on that footage for the OWI, the same footage Alfred Hitchcock had assembled for the British into another documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, Wilder put together a twenty-two-minute film called Death Mills. It was his goal to make it mandatory viewing. He suggested that every German seeking a ration card should be required to watch it. “After all, it was only a short walk from any German city to the nearest concentration camp,” as the film’s narration has it. Now you can see Death Mills on YouTube, though not many people have watched it in the six years it’s been up.

The summer of 1945 was hotter than usual in Berlin. Bodies were still buried in the rubble of the city and it stunk. As Wilder drove around in a jeep with American soldiers to interview his former colleagues from the German film industry, he could not believe the devastation the war had brought. The Eighth Air Force and the Red Army had devastated the Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s Broadway. The city of People on Sunday was destroyed.

Fifteen years before, Wilder had been sitting at cafés, writing films and interviewing celebrities for newspapers. One vaudeville performer he wrote about was Omikron, a novelty act billed as “the human gasometer.” “He gulps in enough gas to send off a couple of people into the hereafter with some to spare. He uses this gas to light lamps, heat an iron, cook a fried egg. You wind up with a bitter taste in your mouth, but you’re amazed by this fellow, and how!” Wilder raved in the May 10, 1927, edition of the Berliner Börsen Courier. In 1945, people he had written about and worked for were sucking up to him. Those who stayed behind and did nothing when his name was removed from the credits of films he’d written were asking him to believe they had not been Nazis. The whole situation was tragic, horrible, and petty.

Of course it gave Wilder an idea for a movie. Two years later, he returned to Berlin to shoot A Foreign Affair, with Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich. Bankrolled by Hollywood, he was finally able to direct his own movie in the place his film career began. The difference was that now he had to move from street film to Trümmerfilm (“rubble film”).

“WHO ELSE BUT WILDER would make a romantic comedy set in the postwar ruins of Berlin?” asks Joseph McBride, the prolific film historian, critic, and screenwriter whose weighty book, Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge, came out alongside two slimmer volumes of Wilderiana. Those are Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna, a collection of Wilder’s newspaper pieces edited by Noah Isenberg and translated by Shelley Frisch, and Mr Wilder and Me, a beautifully elegiac novel by Jonathan Coe, the author of the Brexit novel Middle England and books on Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart.

Coe’s novel follows Wilder as he shoots Fedora, his troubled swan song to the cinema, a film he made on another return to Germany, in 1977. Mr Wilder and Me has not been published in the US. It should be. One of the best movie-set novels, it sticks closely to the facts but turns them into an elegant, melancholy reflection on Wilder’s escape from Germany, his return to Berlin, and the troubled production of his late-career film maudit. All three books are excellent reminders of a German complaint published in the Berliner Zeitung when Wilder’s breakneck Cold War spoof One, Two, Three came out in 1961, right before the construction of the Berlin Wall: “What breaks our heart, Billy Wilder finds funny.”

There have been many books on Billy Wilder published over the years, including Ed Sikov’s excellent 1998 biography, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. These three new ones each add something vital. Though Leo A. Lensing, in the Times Literary Supplement, has noted that Isenberg’s collection is missing important pieces, and that the book seems organized more for film buffs than scholarship, the opportunity to read Wilder’s journalism in English is welcome.

Wilder also writes about figures he knew personally, not just celebrities of the day. The one-named writer Klabund got Wilder to report his first important piece, a multipart series on Wilder’s experience as a taxi dancer in a hotel, working as a kind of Weimar gigolo. Klabund died young, of tuberculosis, in 1928. Wilder’s piece on him, “Klabund Died a Year Ago,” shows an unexpectedly tender side to the director of Some Like It Hot. This 1929 essay—a concise three pages, subtle, witty, mournful, dry—looks back on 1926 like it was an eon ago. Such is youth.

His piece on Erich von Stroheim is perceptive and resonant, especially for cinephiles. In it Wilder reminds the readers of a Berlin magazine in 1929 that Stroheim’s Greed was “five years ahead of us.” This stayed with Wilder—Stroheim, with his love of screen-crowding detail and sexual kink, is his other great influence. When he met him for the first time on the Paramount lot after casting Stroheim as the Nazi field marshal Rommel in Five Graves to Cairo in 1943, Wilder told the director-actor that he had been “ten years ahead of his time.” “Twenty,” Stroheim replied, thereby increasing Wilder’s original assessment by a factor of four.

What’s particularly impressive, even slightly eerie, is how many times this young film buff and Americanophile wrote about people he would later work with in Hollywood. Of course Wilder could not have known that someday, in California, he would write screenplays for Lubitsch and employ Stroheim and Gloria Swanson as actors in his own films. In Vienna and Berlin, he was a young nobody filing stories on short deadlines. Wilder’s secret was that he never forgot anything. McBride notices that hand gestures Wilder had witnessed in films he wrote and even in Death Mills show up in his own movies, years later.

McBride met and interviewed Wilder several times before Wilder’s death in 2002. That adds depth and insight to his book, and McBride doesn’t let us forget they met. At this point in McBride’s long career, however, he’s earned this kind of autobiographical tallying-up. He’s written, cowritten, or edited more than twenty books, not just on film, also memoir and books on baseball and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He had a stint at Daily Variety as their film critic and he cowrote the screenplay for Rock ’n’ Roll High School (1979), starring the Ramones. His other accomplishments include acting in Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind (2018) and shepherding its long journey to the screen.

Sometimes all this trips him up. McBride reveals that when he interviewed Nancy Olson, who plays a fledgling screenwriter in Sunset Boulevard, he explained to her that the character she played in the film was his dating ideal. “I’m very sorry to hear that,” Olson says to him. “I am still puzzling over that remark,” McBride writes. While inadvertently funny asides like that slow down his otherwise brilliant exegesis of Wilder’s life and work, they also prevent him from replicating the straight narrative approach of Sikov’s biography and other Wilder books. McBride divides his thematically, grouping Wilder’s films with the events in his life—Wilder’s, not McBride’s. His approach works well, illuminating Wilder’s themes and obsessions across the entire span of a lifetime, and therefore across almost the entire twentieth century, since Wilder lived to be ninety-five.

WILDER OUTLIVED Lubitsch by fifty-five years but always kept a sign in his writing office that read: How would Lubitsch do it? (Saul Steinberg painted it for him.) Wilder and his two principal co-scenarists, first Charles Brackett, then I. A. L. Diamond, spent their working hours figuring out the Lubitsch touch—how to tell the audience without telling them. “How do we do that, without doing that?” Lubitsch would ask his writers. Later in life, a favorite restaurant in LA, Mr. Chow, put a plaque over Wilder’s table: Make subtlety obvious.

When Wilder cowrote the language-besotted Ball of Fire with Brackett in 1941, he made sure to watch as Howard Hawks directed it. Wilder had been outraged by a change director Mitchell Leisen and actor Charles Boyer made to his and Brackett’s previous script, the elimination of dialogue delivered to a cockroach crawling on the wall of a cheap hotel room in Hold Back the Dawn. After that, he knew he had to start directing his work himself. Wilder was part of the screenwriter-to-director class of the early 1940s that also included John Huston, Preston Sturges, and, in his way, Welles. Sturges turned to directing because he too became frustrated with Leisen’s changes.

Brackett’s diaries, which have been published, reveal that he and Wilder thought Sturges was a nut, but Sturges made the end-run around Leisen first, in 1940. Wilder’s Hollywood directorial debut, The Major and the Minor, with Ginger Rogers fleeing New York by impersonating a twelve-year-old girl so she could buy a cheaper train ticket, came out in 1942. Naughty but commercial, the film was a hit. Wilder learned a lesson with it: you could get away with a lot if you didn’t back down to the studio heads, and they would be happy if everybody made money. In a film he wrote in Germany, Scampolo (1932), a character explains the most important words in various languages. The two most important words in English? The money. His pithiest line of dialogue proved he understood Hollywood before he got there.

For nine years, Wilder turned out risky hits for Paramount. They got darker and weirder and angered producers at other studios for their acid depictions of the film industry and of America. “I portray Americans as beasts,” Wilder confessed. Ace in the Hole (1951) proved it. Audiences stayed away from this cynical, angry exposé of news media ethics and the voyeuristic stupidity of crowds. 

Movies like that were getting risky in another way. The blacklist was now in full swing. Wilder, an outspoken leftist, avoided it because he worked with the old-school Republican Brackett and openly mocked other writers. Of the “unfriendly witnesses” of the Hollywood Ten, called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Wilder said, “Only two of them have talent. The rest are just unfriendly.” Stalag 17 (1953), Wilder’s most underrated film, the story of an informer in a Nazi prison camp (it’s a comedy), excoriates groupthink and holds up a wrongfully accused con man (William Holden) as sane in a fascist environment. Paramount wanted him to change the informer character from German to Polish for the German dubbing, so as not to offend this newly opened market. The Polish Jew Wilder refused, quit Paramount, and never returned.

He reached his apotheosis in 1959 and 1960, a great period in cinema history in which Wilder, usually ahead of his time, found himself, in an unexpected way, in line with developments like the French New Wave. Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, Wilder’s frank, funny appraisals of sex and romance in black-and white, succeeded with audiences and the industry and allowed him the same kind of freedom he had after Sunset Boulevard’s success a decade before—the freedom to offend the public all over again. He made Kiss Me, Stupid, with Dean Martin and Kim Novak, and everyone hated it except, of all people, Joan Didion. “The Wilder world is one seen at dawn through a hangover,” she wrote at the time. “A world of cheap double entendre and stale smoke and drinks in which the ice has melted: the true country of despair. Kiss Me, Stupid is, in fact, suffused with the despair of an America many of us prefer not to know.”

WILDER WAS NOT A FAVORITE of serious American film critics while he was making films. He had the rare distinction of being disliked by opposite schools. Andrew Sarris thought he was too cynical; Pauline Kael found him contemptuous. And Peter Bogdanovich thought he was just plain mean. Wilder was aware of this and didn’t like it. What could he do but try to make the films he wanted to make? In Fedora, William Holden’s character, a film producer looking to revive his career by bringing a star actress out of retirement, quoted Samuel Goldwyn, the Hollywood producer and malaprop master, about the proper attitude toward such things: “In life you have to take the bitter with the sour.”

By the early 1970s, after what was supposed to be Wilder’s chef d’ouevre, the big-budget Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, was mutilated by Wilder’s producers and released to general indifference amid the turmoil of its era, Wilder began to resent the New Hollywood, “the kids with beards,” as he called them. A portrait by David Hockney from 1982, a Polaroid composite, depicts Wilder photographing the artist as Audrey Wilder smiles at her husband in profile. Wilder, who wrote a piece in 1927 called “Film Terror,” about how he didn’t like to be photographed or filmed, was captured there by Hockney at almost the exact moment of the end of his career, right after the release of Buddy Buddy, his final movie. McBride describes it as “not funny in the slightest,” quoting the critic Dennis Cozzalio, who wrote that the film is “an aging director’s defiant ‘fuck you’ to the system he could sense was about to toss him to the curb, a last blast of venom disguised as a tired formula comedy.”

Wilder spent the last twenty years of his life going to his office to write, even after Diamond died. He tried to get many new films off the ground, most of them weird in brand-new ways. One was to be called Naked in a Volkswagen; one was about a former child star, based on Shirley Temple, who moves into an old folks home where no one can stand her; another was going to cast Cary Grant as a medieval locksmith specializing in chastity belts. The strangest of all was a biopic about the turn-of-the-century French vaudeville performer, Le Pétomane, whose act, according to McBride, “consisted of creative variations on farting, including playing ‘O Sole Mio’ and ‘La Marseillaise’ through his ass.” Some of Wilder’s best films were set in the insurance industry (Double Indemnity, The Apartment), but in the end part of the problem was that Wilder was considered too old to insure, a Wilderian irony in real life.

Wilder had been a collector of modern art since his Berlin days. His and Audrey’s condo in Westwood was stuffed with it, the walls filled with works by Picasso, Miró, Klee, Matisse, Dufy, Chagall, Kandinsky, and Grosz. One of the pleasures of documentaries made about Wilder while he was alive is seeing all this art in his living room, and in his office and beach house in Trancas, as he unspools anecdotes about Hollywood and theories about screenwriting. He had so much art that a lot of it was stacked on the floor, leaning against walls, because he had run out of wall space. In 1989, he decided to sell almost all of it. A Picasso he’d bought for $5,000 sold for $4.8 million at auction in New York, and the rest went for close to thirty million dollars—more money than he had made in his entire career as a film director.

It’s not the money that’s important here, however. It’s something unspoken anywhere in his biography: his collection to a large extent replicated the artists in the Nazi “Degenerate Art” exhibition of 1937. Here he’d triumphed over the Nazis once again. Just as he brought the sensibility of Berlin to Hollywood, he surrounded himself with its art in California, inadvertently saving it from Hitler as he collected it one piece at a time in the US.

As Fedora says, as Norma Desmond knew, “Endings are very important. That’s what people remember—the last exit, the final close-up.” And endings are hard. Some Like It Hot famously ends with Jack Lemmon revealing he’s not a woman to the millionaire (Joe E. Brown) he has somehow become engaged to marry. “Well, nobody’s perfect,” Brown says, and THE END appears on-screen, accompanied by jazzy musical stings.

Maybe the card-playing Shirley MacLaine’s final line to Lemmon in The Apartment is better, and should have been the one on Wilder’s gravestone. It summed it all up, the whole ninety-five years, from Poland to Vienna, from Berlin to the long sunny days in Los Angeles, including the nights he had to sleep in the Chateau Marmont ladies’ room because he was broke. “Shut up and deal,” she says.

A. S. Hamrah is film critic at The Baffler and the author of The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002–2018 (n+1 Books, 2018).