Germans in Hollywood

The Three Waves of Hollywood Immigration

WAVE ONE (The Pioneers): 1910-1931
From the earliest days of American motion picture production a more-or-less constant stream of Austrian, German, and German Swiss emigrés has crossed the Atlantic to influence the cinematography, acting, directing, set design, music and other aspects of American cinema. Some, such as the German Carl Laemmle (1867-1939) who founded Universal Studios, and the Austrian Marcus Loew (1870-1927), co-founder of the MGM studios and the Loew’s theater chain, were present almost from the beginning and played a significant part in getting Hollywood’s infant industry off to its start.

F Lang star

The Austrian director Fritz Lang has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Why start with 1910? That is the year Hollywood became a part of Los Angeles and marks the beginning of the American film industry’s move from the east coast to southern California.

The flow continued in the silent era boom of the 1920s. And it was not always in one direction. A few Americans, most notably actress Louise Brooks (1906-1985, Pandora’s Box), were successful in “the other Hollywood” in Berlin. But the German director Ernst Lubitsch, the German actor Conrad Veidt, the German-Swiss director William Wyler, and the Austro-Hungarian director Michael Curtiz were just four of the very successful film people who moved from Europe to Hollywood in the 1920s. Marlene Dietrich arrived in 1930 with her star director, Josef von Sternberg, with whom she would make a series of Hollywood films.

WAVE TWO (The Exiles): 1932-1945
From about 1932 on, the flow became a flood. Almost all of the emigrés of this period were forced into involuntary Hollywood exile by the horrible events created by the Third Reich. The Nazis drove some of the best film talent in Europe out of Austria and Germany to France, England, and with few exceptions, eventually to Hollywood. Some of the new arrivals thrived in the American film capital and went on to fame and success. This group includes such notables as the Austrians Hedy Lamarr, Fritz Lang, Max Steiner (film music), Billy Wilder, and Peter Lorre (See photo below.).

Man Who Knew Too Much - title

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) featured Peter Lorre in one of his first sound pictures. PHOTO: Gaumont British Picture Corp.

Many other exiles, particularly the writers and composers, had a bad case of culture shock and were neither terribly successful nor very happy in Tinseltown. With the increasing number of artistic refugees, many ended up either unemployed or under-employed. Even relatively successful directors such as Wilhelm (William) Thiele (1890-1975), who had enjoyed highly respected standing in Europe, were forced to settle for making second-rate, low-budget films in Hollywood. Thiele, one of Germany’s most successful directors in the 1930s, was reduced to directing Tarzan films and other B-film fare in Hollywood, even if he always made more out of them than might be expected under the circumstances. But he was far better off than other film exiles who were driving cabs in order to survive in Los Angeles.

WAVE THREE (The Contemporaries): 1946-Present
In recent years Hollywood has continued to act as a strong magnet, drawing the German directors Roland Emmerich (Godzilla, Independence Day, The Patriot) and Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One, The Perfect Storm), cameramen such as Michael Ballhaus (Air Force One, The Departed) and Karl Walter Lindenlaub (Rob Roy), not to mention the Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger (1947- ), or the German film music composers Hans Zimmer (Rain Man, The Lion King, Gladiator) and Berlin-born Christopher Franke (Universal Soldier, Tarzan and the Lost City). One of the more recent Hollywood arrivals is the Swiss-German director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace, and World War Z).

Tarzan in Acapulco
The US Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984) is also part of the German-Hollywood connection. Weissmuller was born in Austria-Hungary, in what is today Romania, but he claimed he was born in Pennsylvania. After growing up in Chicago in German-speaking communities, Weissmuller went on to play Tarzan in 12 movies from 1932 to 1948. The little-known story of how he ended up being buried in an Acapulco cemetery is fascinating. More…

A Fourth Category: Germanic Heritage
They didn’t immigrate, but another group in the German-Hollywood Connection is made up of American-born film people whose parents or grandparents came from Germany, Austria, or German Switzerland. This group includes some very famous people in Hollywood, including dancer Fred Astaire (Austerlitz, Austrian father), Lauren Bacall (Betty Perske, German-Jewish ancestry), Sandra Bullock (German mother), Doris Day (Doris Kappelhof, German ancestry), Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio (German mother), Kirsten Dunst (German father), and Renée Zellweger (Swiss-German father).

Others have influenced Hollywood through their work, even though they remained in Europe. German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl is the most notable example. In one way or another, many Austrians, Germans and Swiss, past and present, have contributed in some significant way to what moviegoers all over the world see on the silver screen.

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Related Pages

  • Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale)
  • Boulevard of the Stars – Berlin’s answer to the Hollywood Walk of Fame opened with the unveiling of Marlene Dietrich’s star on February 12, 2010.
  • Marlene Dietrich – After her long Hollywood acting career, she was a sultry singer on stage and on TV screens.
  • Marlene Dietrich stars in Berlin – Our blog about Berlin’s Boulevard of Stars
  • Tarzan in Acapulco – Johnny Weissmuller is probably the most famous, most popular Tarzan of the movies. He was born in Austria-Hungary, but his grave is in Acapulco, Mexico. Why?
  • Leonardo DiCaprio – His middle name is Wilhelm, and his mother is German.
  • Marc Forster – Swiss-German director best known for Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace and World War Z.
  • Peter Lorre – Best known for the small roles that he made big in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon.
  • Hedy Lamarr – She was a big Hollywood star in the 1940s and ’50s, plus a noted inventor!
  • Fritz Lang – His silent Metropolis and M, his first sound film, are classics. He had more modest success in Hollywood.
  • Max Steiner – Austrian film-music composer (Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, The Caine Mutiny)
  • Leni Riefenstahl – Among other things, “Hitler’s favorite director” revolutionized the way sporting events were filmed
  • Conrad Veidt – The German actor had two Hollywood careers, one in the silent era, another in the 1940s (Casablanca).
  • Cinema in Germanydeutsches Kino
  • Notable People from Austria, Germany and Switzerland


  • Berlinale – Official website – in English or German

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