“When I came here, Sunset Boulevard was in the country. It was not even asphalted when I came here in 1934.”
– Billy Wilder, quoted in Conversations with Wilder
Billy Wilder began his long film career in Germany. After six years as a successful screenwriter in Berlin, the rise of the Nazis forced the Austrian-born Jew to find other alternatives. After a short stint in France, Wilder made his way to Hollywood, where he arrived in 1934 as a “starving artist” with only rudimentary English skills. He quickly learned both the language and the culture of his new homeland. He was destined become one of the most celebrated film directors of American cinema.
Billy Wilder’s Films in Germany
As writer/co-writer in Germany:
Teufelsreporter | Hell of a Reporter (1929, silent) Directed by Ernst Laemmle (who died in Hollywood in 1950), this film reflects Wilder’s own experiences as a newspaper reporter. In a 1979 interview, Wilder said of this film: “Oh, it was bullshit, absolute bullshit. The leading man was an old Hungarian-American cowboy actor by the name of Eddie Polo… Then after that, the first picture I really count as having done was Menschen am Sonntag.”
Menschen am Sonntag | People on Sunday (1929, silent) Made by several filmmakers who would all eventually end up in Hollywood , this semi-documentary tells the story of people on a Sunday in Berlin, Germany. Today it offers a fascinating glimpse of life in Berlin in the late 1920s. Wilder: "It was… kind of cinéma vérité, for a good reason: We didn’t have the money to have actors, so we had to take the people vérité. And we had to shoot in real backgrounds.” DVD > Buy Menschen am Sonntag (NOTE: This Region 2 DVD will not play on a normal US DVD player.) DVD > Buy Menschen am Sonntag (PAL DVD from Amazon.de)
Scenes from Menschen am Sonntag (3:28)
Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht | A Man Seeks His Murderer (1931) Directed by Robert Siodmak, who later also went to Hollywood, this film stars Heinz Rühmann. DVD > Buy Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht (PAL DVD from Amazon.de)
Emil und die Detektive | Emil and the Detectives (1931) Adapted from the Erich Kästner novel of the same name; remade by Disney in 1964 and in Germany in 2001.
Ein blonder Traum | A Blonde’s Dream (1932) A musical romantic comedy directed by Paul Martin. Starring Lilian Harvey as Jou-Jou.
Was Frauen träumen | What Women Dream (1933) The Austrian Peter Lorre had a part in this romantic comedy. Later remade in the US as One Exciting Adventure (1934), directed by Ernest L. Frank. Wilder’s last film in Germany. When he saw that his on-screen credits had vanished, he decided it was time to leave the country.
Footnotes: 1. In Billy Wilder: Interviews (Conversations With Filmmakers Series), interview by Joseph McBride and Todd McCarthy (1979), Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2001.
2. Besides Wilder, Eugen Schüfftan (camera), Robert Siodmak (co-director), Edgar Ulmer (co-director) and Fred Zinnemann (camera) worked on Menschen am Sonntag. Ulmer and Schüfftan, the only pros in the group, had both earlier worked on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Billy Wilder’s Hollywood Films
As writer/co-writer in the USA:
Billy Wilder’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Music in the Air (1934) Directed by fellow Austrian Joe May, this musical comedy stars Gloria Swanson. Adapted from the stage hit by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Features the songs “I've Told Every Little Star” and “The Song is You.”
Champagne Waltz (1937) Former band leader Fred MacMurry and Jack Oakie star in this musical comedy directed by A. Edward Sutherland.
Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) Wilder got to work with the German-born director Ernst Lubitsch for the first time in this romantic comedy that stars Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert and David Niven.
Midnight (1939) Wilder co-wrote the script with Charles Brackett. Features Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, John Barrymore, Mary Astor and Francis Lederer. Remade in 1945 by the same director (Mitchell Leisen) as a weak musical comedy called Masquerade in Mexico with Dorothy Lamour. DVD > Buy Midnight (Amazon.com)
Ninotchka (1939) A classic Ernst Lubitsch comedy with Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas. A stern Russian woman (Garbo) sent to Paris on official business finds herself attracted to a man (Douglas) who represents everything she is supposed to detest. Another Wilder/Brackett project. DVD > Buy Ninotchka (Amazon.com)
Arise, My Love (1940) Mitchell Leisen directed this “dramedy” starring Claudette Colbert, Ray Milland and Dennis O'Keefe. Wilder co-wrote the script with Charles Brackett.
Hold Back the Dawn (1941) Mitchell Leisen directs. The script (co-written with Brackett) reflects Wilder’s own experience as an emigrant in limbo in Mexicali. With Charles Boyer, Olivia de Havilland, Paulette Goddard. A Romanian gigolo (Boyer) marries a naive American schoolteacher (de Havilland) in Mexico so he can legally enter the United States. Complications arise when he discovers he is falling in love with her.
Ball of Fire (1941) Howard Hawks directed this screwball comedy starring Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Oscar Homolka and S.Z. Sakall. Another Wilder/Brackett project. Remade by the same director as A Song is Born in 1948 with Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. DVD > Buy Ball of Fire (Amazon.com)
As director in the USA:
The Major and the Minor (1942) In his directorial debut, Wilder cast Ray Milland and Ginger Rogers in this comedy about a woman (Rogers) who disguises herself as a child to save on train fare and is taken under the wings of an army man (Milland) who doesn't notice the ruse. Remade as You're Never Too Young in 1955.
Five Graves to Cairo (1943) This World War II Rommel saga, starring Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Akim Tamiroff and Erich von Stroheim (as Rommel), is actually the third remake of Hotel Imperial (1927, 1939).
Double Indemnity (1944) Not only a great film noir (co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler), but one of Wilder’s best films ever. Insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) meets the seductive wife of one of his clients, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Soon the two are plotting a murder. Edward G. Robinson plays Neff’s boss and friend, Barton Keyes. DVD > Buy Double Indemnity
Death Mills (documentary, Die Todesmühlen, 1945) This 22-minute documentary, edited by Wilder and produced by the U.S. Army Signal Corps for the War Department, was the first to show the horrors the Allies found when they liberated the Nazi extermination camps. It also shows German civilians being forced to witness the aftermath of Hitler’s death camps. The soundtrack was originally in German for “re-education” screenings in occupied Germany and Austria. Hanus Burger was the writer and co-editor of the German version. Video > Death Mills (Part 1, 11-min., English, YouTube) Video > Death Mills (Part 2, 11-min., English, YouTube)
The Lost Weekend (1945) Starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman, this dark tale of alcoholism won four Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Milland) and Best Screenplay (Wilder and Charles Brackett).
The Emperor Waltz (1948) The screenplay by Wilder and Charles Brackett was inspired by a real-life incident involving Franz Joseph I of Austria. Wilder’s first color picture stars Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine, and was filmed in part in Canada’s Jasper National Park. Wilder later admitted it was not one of his best.
A Foreign Affair (1948) Wilder’s friend Marlene Dietrich has a key role in this romantic comedy set in post-war Germany. Jean Arthur (as Congresswoman Phoebe Frost) and John Lund (as an army officer) have the leading roles. Filmed in part on location in Germany. One of Wilder’s forgotten gems.