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Action (1973) - Alfred Hitchcock: The German Years




  • An interview between Bob Thomas and Alfred Hitchcock.


Alfred Hitchcock had just returned from an exploitation tour, an exercise in which he is as expert as in the direction of suspenseful movies. The journey had taken him to West Germany, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland, for the purpose of publicizing his new film, Frenzy. He relished some of the memories of the trip, including his travels in a railroad car designed for Herman Goering. In Zurich, the mayor had conducted the press conference.

"These tours are very important to the success of a film," Hitchcock remarked. "It's essential that they be timed just right — immediately before the opening of the picture in those countries."

Hitchcock was talking one morning in his offices at Universal studio, where he has been working for the last decade. The office is roomy and decorated in the style you would expect of Hitchcock: elegant with a touch of the macabre. On the wall facing his desk is a painting of Mt. Rushmore, the monument he used as a prop in North by Northwest. If you look closely enough, you'll note that one of the granite portraits is unmistakable — the cherubic Hitchcock himself.

Hitchcock is rarely nostalgic, but the European trip had brought back memories of his beginnings in films. He had returned to Munich, where he had directed his first two films, The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle.

"I got my first training in an American studio, you know," Hitchcock commented. "I started in 1920 at Famous Players-Lasky, which Adolph Zukor had opened in London in an attempt to capture the English market. Then in 1924 I went to Berlin. Those were the great days of German pictures. Ernst Lubitsch was directing Pola Negri, Fritz Lang was making films like Metropolis, and F. W. Murnau was making his classic films. The studio where I worked was tremendous, bigger than Universal is today. They had a complete railroad station built on the back lot. For a version of Siegfried they built the whole forest of the Nieblungenlied.

"I arrived in Berlin knowing not a single word of German. My job was as art director, and I worked side by side with a German draftsman. The only way we could communicate was by pencil-drawing things so we could understand each other. That's how I learned German.

"I don't know why there was such a ferment in the German film at that time. It was just after the war and Germany was beginning to fall into chaos. Yet the movies thrived. That makes it all the greater mystery as to why the German film industry is in such bad condition now."

Hitchcock said that the German experience played an important role in his career.

"The Germans in those times placed great emphasis on telling the story visually; if possible with no titles or at least with very few," Hitchcock said. "In The Last Laugh Murnau was able to do that, to dispense with titles altogether, except in an epilogue. I don't believe that was accomplished by anyone else. I think Charles Ray tried it in The Old Swimming Hole but he cheated: he used a diary throughout the picture. There was another film made a few years ago without dialogue, The Thief with Ray Milland. I didn't see it."

The Germans sometimes photographed their films at odd angles, Hitchcock remarked, and they built their sets at odd angles, too. He recalled the railroad set for The Last Laugh. The focus of the set was on a large railway clock. All the lines in the set went to the clock, emphasizing the element of time. The remainder of the set in the background was built in a foreshortened perspective so that it seemed to be a great length.

"The locomotive, a whole stream of coaches, and the glass roof of the railway station were all in perspective," the director recalled. "The set had one drawback: as the perspective diminished there was no light in it. They solved that by putting a real train at the point in the distance where the lines met and had people coming out of the train."

Hitchcock directed his first film, The Pleasure Garden, in 1925. Locations were shot in Italy, and the studio work was done in Munich. It was a co-production, with Michael Balcon of England's Gainsborough and Eric Pommer of Germany's Emelka-GBA as producers. It was memorable to Hitchcock mostly because his assistant director and script girl was Alma Reville, who became his wife.

"My next picture was The Mountain Eagle which filmed with locations in the Austrian Tyrol and studio work at Emelka in Munich," the director recalled. "Even in those days Britain was trying to get the American market. For the role of the demure village school mistress, Gainsborough sent me Nita Naldi, the American vamp. She was the successor to Theda Bara, I believe.

"Miss Naldi arrived at the location with nails an inch long, and she refused to cut them. She had her boyfriend along with her, an elderly gentleman, she called 'father.'"

Hitchcock returned to England in 1926 to make his third film and the first in the long and distinctive string of his Hitchcock suspense films, The Lodger. It showed an enormous influence from his two years in the German studios, he said, and the German influence has continued through all of his films, especially in his emphasis on the visual.

"The only trouble with silent pictures was that when people opened their mouths, nothing came out," he said. "The trouble with talking pictures is that too many of them are merely pictures of people talking. I have seen such pictures in theaters on the Champs Elysee with French subtitles and I feel for the poor audience. They spend their evenings reading.

"I've always believed that you can tell as much visually as you can with words. That's what I learned from the Germans."

Hitchcock recalled that his first talking film was made with a German star, Anny Ondra. It was Blackmail, filmed in 1929 for British International Pictures.

"We were already into the movie when it was decided that we should use sound," he said. "I suddenly realized that the leading lady spoke with a broken accent. In those days we knew nothing about dubbing so it was a big problem. I finally solved it by placing a girl at the side of the set and having her speak the dialogue as Anny Ondra mouthed the words."

Hitchcock had one more experience with German film making and it was disastrous. It came in 1930 with another Anglo-German co-production, Murder! He recalled: "Murder! was a whodunit, a rather sophisticated play which had done well in London. Two versions of the script were written, one in German and one in English, and I went to Berlin with the idea of making two versions at the same time, filming a scene with English actors and then following immediately with German actors.

"I took the script to Berlin, and the Germans suggested many changes. I objected that if the two scripts were too much different I would end up making two pictures instead of one and we would lose the economic advantage of simultaneous shooting.

"That was a mistake. The English and the German versions could not be so closely paralleled because of differences in customs and language. I ran into terrible obstacles in the German version when I came to direct the picture. Although I spoke German, I didn't know the cadences of speech, and I was lost on the set. The actors sounded colloquial to me but I couldn't really understand what they were saying.

"The hero of the English version was Herbert Marshall, and the German was a well-known actor, Alfred Abel. I had problems with Abel because he would not do certain things which he felt were beneath his dignity. The role was that of an actor-manager like a Laurence Olivier or a Gerald du Maurier, and I laid his office in Her Majesty's Theater. During those scenes he would wear a black coat, as you would expect of such a gentleman. Later on as a private eye he visited the girl in jail and I had him wear a tweed suit for his visit there. I figured that would be natural in the course of his sleuthing.

"'I don't visit a girl in these clothes,' Abel insisted. He demanded to be dressed in a black coat and striped trousers. There was no arguing with him." Abel also refused a comedic scene arguing, "You can't do this to such a man." Hitchcock countered that the "Whole point of comedy is to reduce dignity." Replied Abel: "Not for the Germans."

As a result, said Hitchcock, the English version was a success and the German Murder! was a complete bust.

The German influence spread to America, Hitchcock noted, with the advent to Hollywood of such directors as Lubitsch, Murnau, Lang, William Dieterle, Michael Curtiz, and Billy Wilder.

"It's curious that while German directors succeeded in Hollywood the French didn't," he added.

"Julian Duvivier, Rene Clair, Jean Renoir, and other Frenchman made films here, but never with the success they had in France. Why? I don't really know. Except perhaps it's that German emphasis on the visual which permitted Germans to adapt to American films but not the French."