Reflections at the Beginning of the New Year


On December 31, 2011, I watched a Connecticut Public TV special called From Hitler to Hollywood. It caught my attention because it profiled the process by which the German and Central European film industry was built between the end of World War I and 1933, dismantled by Hitler because a significant part of the film industry participants were Jewish, and then recreated in Hollywood between 1933 and 1945.

There were several noteworthy insights from the program:

  • The German and Central European film-makers were incredibly innovative, and they sparked the development of many features of American cinema that changed the films Americans saw, especially after World War II, when the industry was free to resume its normal kind of film-making. Most noteworthy was the development of the “film noir” style of movie. “Film noir” was a genre of film that usually was done in black-and-white, as opposed to color, presentation. It was set in harsh urban settings, was a type of drama and action film, and often involved criminals or gangsters. Films like The Asphalt Jungle, Dark Passage (which starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall), and even On the Waterfront could be considered “film noir” movies.
  • The filmmakers who emigrated from Germany and Central Europe created funds to help others trapped back in Europe come to the United States. They not only sent money back to people trying to escape from Nazi-occupied countries, but helped them with contacts and created the equivalent of an “underground railroad” to enable people to get help crossing borders, hiding inside Nazi-occupied countries, and eventually finding their way to friendly countries. Germany and the countries it occupied saw a huge drain on their artistic talent, but it would not have been as big of a drain as it turned out to be, had not American-based exiles provided a considerable amount of financial support.

As an aside, we underestimate the importance of support from abroad in almost every attempt to rebel against totalitarian governments. I saw this in the early 1980’s when I walked by the Holy Name Church in the South End of Stamford, Connecticut, a Polish church that was clearly soliciting money from both parishioners and members of the public to support the Solidarity movement in Poland.

  • The exiles from Germany and Central Europe brought a particular passion to their roles in certain kinds of films. Perhaps the most insightful part of the documentary was the presentation of different scenes in Casablanca, and the description of the actor or actress in that scene who had emigrated from Germany or another Nazi-occupied country and their passion for portraying the European experience. The saddest ironies in films like Casablanca were that the Nazi characters were often portrayed by Jewish actors, such as Richard Ryen, a German who played Major Strasser’s Nazi aide Captain Heintz, in Casablanca.

The Casablanca stories were inspiring and tragic. Madeleine LeBeau, who played Yvonne, the lover spurned by Rick, fled France, along with her Jewish actor husband Marcel Dalio, who played the croupier. They had a very circuitous route to America, having to get to Portugal, to Mexico, and to Canada, before having the opportunity to enter the United States. S.K. Sakall, who played Carl, the waiter, fled Hungary and lost three of his sisters in concentration camps.

However difficult our lives are in America or in other parts of the world, we should remember that there are individuals today who are living far away from where they started or would like to be living. Moreover, most of us are not living in a war zone, and we have far more creature comforts than people living middle or even upper middle class lives had 1-2 generations ago. As I write this, I am sitting in a very comfortable Starbucks restaurant in Darien, Connecticut, and enjoying a great morning cup of coffee (I usually go to another coffee shop, but it is New Year’s Day and nothing much is open here.)

The other lesson I took from this documentary is that we should reconsider our ridiculously restrictive immigration policies. We should be able to distinguish between criminals and terrorists, whom we do not want to admit to America, and those with great skills and capabilities, who will enrich our country and create opportunities for many Americans lacking those opportunities today. That is the argument persuasively made in the book Borderless Economics: Chinese Sea Turtles, Indian Fridges and the New Fruits of Global Capitalism by Robert Guest.

Finally, we should recognize that an untapped source of support for people in developing economies is the direct transfer of money from individual to individual. The major, centralized government programs, or even the programs developed by not-for-profit organizations often have too much waste, too many centrally-imposed conditions, and too many intermediaries to be as effective as direct money transfers. Let’s encourage more efficient money transfer from rich to poor than we do today.

Most of all, as we look ahead to what is often an uncertain and somewhat frightening future, we should take stock of how blessed we are, and how grateful we should be, for those who fought for our freedom generation after generation.