Review: “Billy Wilder On Assignment” Captures Director’s Life Before Hollywood


In Vienna, Wilder’s crowning achievement was interviewing jazz titan Paul Whiteman. Already affecting the rakish hat that has remained with him throughout his adult life, he fitted into Whiteman’s entourage when he and his orchestra traveled from Vienna to Berlin. Wilder remained in Berlin, one of the most important cities in the film industry in the world. It was from Berlin in the early 1930s, seeing how Nazism would take control of Germany, that Wilder joined the Jewish exodus, heading first to Paris, then, when Columbia Pictures bought his screenplay. for a comedy called Pam-pam and even offered to pay the price of the boat, Wilder sailed for Los Angeles. Wilder’s father had died in Berlin while visiting his son. But his mother, grandmother and stepfather remained in Austria. All were murdered in the camps.

Wilder’s journalism shows us the European roots of the Americana, and of course the colossal enthusiasm for America – the Amerikanismus –it was all over Berlin and Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s, an association quashed by Hitler’s dark nationalist diktat, then erased from cultural memory by the hostility of the America and Germany during World War II. Wilder loved the American report by his great journalistic mentor in Berlin, Egon Erwin Kisch, who published his account of the trips to the United States in a tone of ironic enthusiasm as Paradies Amerika. Wilder naturally revisited Hollywood films, including those of his own future stars Gloria Swanson and Erich Von Stroheim. Wilder the critic is dismissive in these pages about Von Stroheim’s much loved and cut masterpiece Greed: “Unbalanced and full of meaningless symbols.” Has Von Stroheim seen this review before? Did Wilder ever dare to tell him about it when they were working together?

It was in 1929 for the Berlin newspaper Tempo, for Wilder to mention the taste of a wildly trendy new drink that would not yet have been familiar to his readers: “Coca-Cola, which tastes like burnt tires. But they say it’s very refreshing. (Later, in Wilder’s 1961 film One two Three, James Cagney was to play the role of a Coca-Cola executive in the Cold War in Berlin.) Like so many European newcomers to the United States, Wilder brought with him something that is often overlooked in immigration stories. pre-war – an existing passion for America, whose cultural life Europeans have naturally invigorated and reinvented themselves thanks to their own experience and expertise. You could read Wilder’s journalism as part of America’s prehistory, or maybe you could read his films, especially his comedies, as a post-history of Europe – the styles and talents of Europe, largely assimilated and normalized in America’s Secure Prosperity and freed from the tragic horror of European history.


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