Anybody with a passion for movies of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s will find more than a mere walk down memory lane in this PBS documentary, which charts the Jewish émigrés that fled Hitler’s Germany and found sanctuary — with various degrees of comfort and success — in Hollywood, prompting the town to be nicknamed “Weimar on the Pacific.” Exploring the stories of those displaced by the Nazis adds a layer of resonance to their films, from “Casablanca” to “High Noon.” Most profound, perhaps, is the filmmakers’ impact on horror, given the real-life horrors that they left behind.
Narrated by Sigourney Weaver, “Cinema’s Exiles” begins with the golden age of German cinema that preceded Hitler’s rise, with such landmark films as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “M.” In the ’30s, however, with Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels announcing plans to seize control of the movie industry, more than 800 members of Germany’s creative community departed for Hollywood, where hurdles included actors’ accents and writers having to master expressing themselves in a new language.
Some adapted better than others, with director Fritz Lang, for example, chafing against the studio system, while Ernst Lubitsch thrived and also loaded “Ninotchka” with fellow expatriates. The archival footage draws on interviews with directors such as Lang, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann, whose portrait of mustering courage to stand alone against evil in “High Noon” takes on new dimensions viewed through this prism.
Although there was a collective of escaped Germans that helped support new arrivals, not everyone made the transition equally well. The documentary flits around a bit promiscuously, understandably, to reflect the breadth of talent and their personal histories, from actors Marlene Dietrich and Peter Lorre to composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (“The Adventures of Robin Hood”) to directors such as Lubitsch and Wilder.
TCM has stolen some of PBS’ thunder as a sober chronicler of movie history (coupling its original documentaries with themed movie retrospectives), but when it comes to exhibiting an appreciation for film history, the more the merrier. As such, “Cinema’s Exiles” is a first-class way to ring in the new year.