Photograph: Fritz Lang on Set
The director Fritz Lang while filming Frau im Mond (1929; Woman in the Moon), photographed by Horst von Harbou
Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, © Horst von Harbou – Deutsche Kinemathek


Das Schwergewicht der künstlerisch ernsthaften deutschen Filmproduktion ist unzweifelhaft nach Paris verlagert worden. Alles, was im deutschen Filmschaffen der letzten Jahre Rang und Namen hatte, produziert jetzt dank Dr. Goebbels in Paris, so daß man wohl ohne Übertreibung behaupten kann: Der wahrhaft repräsentative deutsche Film wird von nun an in Frankreich hergestellt.

[The majority of artistically serious German film-makers and producers have undoubtedly been relocated to Paris. Everyone of name and rank in the German film industry of the past years is now producing in Paris thanks to Dr. Goebbels, so that one can maintain without exaggeration that the truly representative German film will from now on be produced in France. (ed. trans.)]

Pariser Tageblatt: Film-Berlin an der Seine [Berlin’s Film Word on the Seine], 15 December 1933

The “Golden Twenties” in Berlin coincided with a film boom: the young medium fascinated artists and writers, technicians and scientists from all over Europe, who cooperated to build the most creative, technically outstanding film production business of the age in Germany. Many of the films made there are regarded as milestones in cinematic history, even today.

The Nazis’ takeover led to a radical break with this tradition: it is true that the Nazis also saw film as a key medium; but above all, they understood it as an instrument of propaganda. At the end of March 1933, Joseph Goebbels was already demanding “folklorist contours” in film from the “Dachorganisation der deutschen Filmschaffenden” (Umbrella Organisation of German Filmmakers). The NSDAP systematically withdrew any chances to work from the many Jewish filmmakers in particular. From 1935 onwards only “Aryans” were permitted to join the Reichsfilmkammer (Film Chamber of the Reich), which was a precondition to working in the German film industry. Financial need was compounded by public denunciation and repression suffered by Jewish and avantgarde filmmakers.

More than 1.500 filmmakers from Germany went into exile between 1933 and 1941. The first places of refuge – primarily for language reasons – were Austria and Switzerland, but they soon included France and Great Britain, the Netherlands, Hungary, Portugal, Czechoslovakia and Italy. A few film emigrants succeeded in working in Asia, e.g. in India. Many lived on the poverty line, as language barriers and restrictive labour legislation made the search for employment more difficult, particularly for actors. Occasionally directors, authors and producers were sometimes able to build on their previous successes; those in technical professions (e.g. architects, cameramen or editors) often profited from their excellent training or, because teamwork was called for, had more hope finding employment. But often they too had to work illegally and without being named. Those who failed to establish themselves in the film industry of their country of exile were dependent on support from aid organisations, had to search for alternative earning opportunities – or moved on.

Nevertheless, in many cases the exiles did influence film production in their host countries, helping, for example, to shape film music in Hollywood, the genre of European costume drama in Great Britain, the anti-Nazi film, and not least the style of film noir in Hollywood. In Germany the loss of some great directors and technicians from the first fifty years of cinema led to a decisive break in development, and made a massive impact on the country’s film culture.