Billy Wilder on Assignment

Before Billy Wilder was Billy Wilder of Hollywood, feted director of Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot and The Lost Weekend, he was a jobbing journalist in Germany and Austria. He filed copy on entertainment, celebrity gossip and popular culture, all the while honing his keen humour and sharpening his critical eye.  

Born Shmuel Vildr (Samuel Wilder) in 1906 in Poland, Wilder’s family was in the hospitality trade. During the Great War, the family moved to Vienna. Circulating in the demimonde of Vienna, as a teen, Wilder frequented bars, cafés and cinemas. He hustled at pool, attended boxing matches and people watched. At hotels where prostitutes took client, Wilder daydreamed about the life stories of the clientele. His family’s unclear national status in a fragmented inter-war Europe meant that Wilder relied on his wits rather than (as a non-citizen resident of Austria) entering a prestigious career that required qualifications. He fell in with journalists socially and his familiarity with the worlds of theatre and cinema put him an ideal situation to take work as a freelance journalist and critic.

Inter-war Vienna and Weimar-era Berlin were exciting tumultuous places, pulsating with creativity and risk. Modernism in the arts, the expansion of cinema and the movement of artists, writers and musicians across Europe made the artistic fertility palpable. Art Deco, jazz and the rise of the New Woman (economically and sexually liberated) declared a rapid and seemingly irreversible change in city life. Political violence – including street violence and assassination – was common and added heightened intensity to daily life.

Starting in September 1925, Wilder wrote for Die Stunde, Berliner Börsen Courier, Berliner Zeitung am Mittag, Der Querschnitt, Die Bühne and other publications. In 1926 he got an assignment to cover an American big band (roughly, the rock bands of that era) touring Germany and Austria, which took him to Berlin. He would stay in Berlin until 1933. The young journalist quickly realised that the key to his craft was treating his reporting as stories, “classically organized in three acts […] never boring for the reader”. Editor Noah Isenberg describes Wilder’s feuilletons (cultural essays). “Wilder’s feuilletons often took the form of jaunty, mordant, self-stylized personal essays; on occasion they read a bit more like the pointed writing we find on today’s op-ed pages.”

Billy Wilder on Assignment (adroitly edited by Noah Isenberg and vividly translated by Shelley Frisch) covers Wilder’s six years as a journalist/critic and is organised thematically. It includes theatre reviews and social commentary. One piece describes the nascent commercial flights industry.  He covered musical performances and tours of pop celebrities such as the Tiller Girls dance troupe. His opening line was “This morning, thirty-four of the most enticing legs emerged from the Berlin express train when it arrived at the Westbahnhof station.”

“Waiter, a Dancer, Please!” is a description of Wilder’s stint as a paid ballroom dancer. The author’s sardonic attitude shines through the terse prose. “In the ballroom. Packed, Cigarette haze. Perfume and brilliantine. Preened ladies from twenty to fifty. Bald heads. Mamas with prepubescent daughters. Young men with garish neckties and brightly colored spats. Whole families. The jazz band on the upper level is slouching over their instruments and bobbing to the rhythm. Aside from the banjo player, who is looking down, bored and mouth agape, at the couples as they jump, grind, chuff, and hop.” Paid dancers act as companions to strangers, drinking and dancing for hours on end in a blur of boredom, exertion and alcohol. “I dance with young and old; with the very short and those who are two heads taller than I […] with ladies who send the waiter to get me and savor the tango with eyes closed in rapture […] with ladies who are there every day and no one knows where they’re from and where they’re going.”

His interviews are of the famous and humble: actors, musicians, tycoons, statesmen and the oldest woman in Berlin. He interviewed Grock, the Swiss clown, and a self-proclaimed witch who was hired to perform spells to promote commercial products and reassured Wilder that (in relation to her curses) “criminal charges would never stick”.

Wilder flew to Venice in an early commercial flight in winter 1927. “Americans are bent over newspapers as big as bedsheets, a newlywed couple is eating whipped cream with a spoon, young Venetians with wavy hair are playing Briscola, two others are playing Italian billiards.” He is underwhelmed by the shabby Genovese birthplace of Christopher Columbus. Wilder also experienced the innovation of a night-time passenger flight on a three-engine aeroplane at a time when zeppelins were offering my sedate and expensive journeys.

Wilder’s gift of the humorous insight sparkles in these short texts. He writes of a dry cleaner “embalming” his coat. He laments the eradication of a coffeehouse’s history when a woman decides to redecorate. “Women, with their horribly deficient sense of history, which manifests itself in such a blessedly disastrous manner as a love of tidiness and cleanliness.” He notes how the French buy books because they are cheap but “Germans buy a book with the same seriousness used to buy something like a shirt. Durability is the key.”

The brief notices of theatre performances and films that appear in this collection show the future director scrutinising and judging a field he would later master. Pointed criticism indicate that Wilder was already imagining how to solve technical deficiencies. Sadly, most of subjects are too obscure for the non-specialist reader to evaluate his critiques from first-hand knowledge. He describes early developments in talking pictures.

In 1929 Wilder co-wrote the film Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), a silent film shot in Berlin. “We worked on our film for nine months. It was a rotten time. It was a lovely time.” Made on a low budget with first-time actors and one camera, it was based on Wilder’s observations of Berlin life. It captures the brief window of Weimar Germany, with all its modernity and romantic hedonism, including many passages of documentary footage of street scenes and working life. Back in 1927 he had written of being camera shy and disliking his appearance on film. (“My legs seemed somewhat overly crooked – most likely a problem with the lens.”)

Menschen am Sonntag proved to be Wilder’s ticket out of journalism. He started writing and directing films and abandoned journalism in 1930. With the ascension of Hitler in 1933, Wilder departed Germany, first for Paris and then for Hollywood, already with numerous cinematic credits to his name. The editor notes how some of Wilder’s written assignments made tangential appearances in his later films. Readers will have fun picking out elements, traits and incidents in these lively witty texts and attempting to match them with Wilder’s later cinematic masterpieces.

Billy Wilder, Noah Isenberg (ed.), Shelley Frisch (trans.), Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna, Princeton University Press, 1 June 2021, cloth hardback, 212pp, £20, ISBN 978 0 691 1 94943

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