267: Ufa’s Aryanization

Archival Spaces 267

The „Aryanization“ of the Ufa

Uploaded 16 April 2021

Der Kongress tanzt / The Congress Dances (1931, Erik Charell), Ufa’s worldwide mega-hit

Some historians have always understood the Third Reich as a dictatorship that suppressed democratic institutions and oppressed, even murdered its citizenry without due process, but as the example of Germany’s largest film company, the Universum Film A.G. (Ufa) demonstrated, a significant portion of the population, including the business community, the military and the judiciary were willing conspirators in the establishment of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party before Hitler was legally named Chancellor in January 1933. Even before the Nazi government passed anti-Semitic legislation, banning Jewish people from public life, the Ufa’s Board of Directors, in what the Germans call „voraus eilendende Gehorsamkeit” (anticipatory obedience) declared contracts with their German-Jewish employees to be null and void.

When the Nazis declared a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses on 1 April 1933, it resulted in the destruction and looting of Jewish businesses by Brown Shirts, while innocent Jews were beaten and humiliated in the streets. Obviously, the Ufa’s Board of Directors could not have known that the fascist disregard for law would manifest itself in violence and death when they met on the morning of 29 March – the same morning the papers announced the boycott. But they did vote to fire no less than twenty-four prominent film directors, writers, and actors.  Attending the meeting were Ludwig Klitzsch (CEO), Ernst Hugo Correll (Production chief), Alexander Grau (Film Theatre Dept.), Hermann Grieving (Studio Operations, Accounting), Paul Lehmann (Newsreels, Advertising Films), and Wilhelm Meydam (Distribution), as well as some non-Board members and company lawyers, the latter responsible for dissolving contracts.

Alfred Hugenberg and friend in 1933

Although the company’s majority stockholder, Dr. Alfred Hugenberg, was a member of Hitler‘s cabinet, the Board minutes reflect a certain guilty reticence on the Board’s part, probably because the talent involved were their biggest moneymakers. Then there was the uncomfortable fact that one of their own, Meydam, was a so-called „half-Jew,“ who was not forced out until 1941. But, in fact, Joseph Goebbels had informed Klitzsch of Nazi plans for the 1 April Jewish boycott, before the papers announced it, so the CEO was prepared. As a result, Jewish Board members Salomon Marx and Curt Sobernheim were not even invited to the meeting and were officially removed shortly thereafter, „due to the national revolution in Germany.“ Marx, who had been a member of the Board since its founding in 1917, died in October 1936, after his private bank had been confiscated, while Sobernheim fled to Paris, where he was murdered by German occupation forces in June 1940, days after the Fall of France.

Rosa von Borsardy and Anton Walbrook in Walzerkrieg (1933)

On 29 March fifteen of Ufa‘s most important filmmakers were sacked, while the fate of nine others was tabled in the hopes of quietly keeping them, a hope that proved illusory.  Except for the head of UFA Distribution, Hermann Kahlenberg and five secretaries, all the axed employees were prominent film talent: two producers (Erich Pommer, Fritz Wechsler), four directors (Ludwig Berger, Erik Charell, Erich Engel, Vikor Gertler), four scriptwriters (Robert Liebmann, Hans Müller, Otto Hein, Fritz Zeckendorf), two composers (Werner Richard Heymann, Gérard Jacobson), three actors (Rosy Barsony, Julius Falkenstein, Otto Wallburg), a set designer (Rudi Feld) und two technical department heads (Gerhard Goldbaum, Georg Engel).

Most were, at that moment, in production: Erik Charell was in pre-production on an Odyssey film, while Pommer, Berger, Liebmann, Müller, and Barsony were making War of the Waltzes (1933), and Heymann and Jacobson were in post-production on Season in Cairo (1933). The latter was directed by Reinhold Schünzel, another „Halbjude“, whose contract had been renewed to finish the film before the end of April. Schünzel was able to continue working for Ufa as an „honorary Aryan“ (Goebbels) until 1937, then got into political hot water over the supposed anti-Hitler satire, The Land of Love (1937). Only Erich Engel, who was on the list for leftist sympathies, rather than racial „impurity,“ was able to continue his career in Nazi Germany after that fateful Ufa Board meeting.

Kurt Gerron and Dolly Haasin Dolly macht Karriere (1931)

Ultimately, many other German-Jewish filmmakers were victims of the Ufa’s policies, not just those specifically named in the minutes. For example, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch were also under contract in 1933, the latter actually suing Ufa for breach of contract. Ditto Fritz Zeckendorf. Film director Kurt Gerron was fired after he finished his film in May 1933. Gerron, who was also a well-known character actor, co-starring in The Blue Angel (1930), worked for the Nazis again in 1944, when as an inmate of Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, he was forced to direct a Nazi propaganda film about the happy communal life in Theresienstadt (1944), before being murdered in Auschwitz.

Ufa’s anti-Semitic blacklist, included other first tier talent, like producers Gregor Rabinowitsch, Arnold Pressburger and Alfred Zeisler, scriptwriters Irmgard von Cube, Otto Eis, Max Jungk, Felix Joachimson, the cameraman Otto Kanturek, composers Friedrich Hollaender, Bronislav Kaper and Franz Wachsmann, and actors Walter Rilla and Rose Stradner, and eventually Anton Walbrook, because he was gay.

The Rabinovitch-Pressburger films were international hits

One wonders how many lower-level film technicians (not named in the credits), – painters, carpenters, plumbers, gaffers, camera assistants, drivers, etc. – lost their livelihood in this anti-Semitic purge? Since the movie theater business had literally been founded in Germany as elsewhere by a generation of Jewish pioneers, it stands to reason that literally hundreds of employees in Ufa’s extensive first-run theater circuit were also fired. There are no statistics for Germany, but Klaus Christian Vögl has compiled figures for Austria after the so-called „Anschluss“ in 1938. In Vienna alone, the Nazis „Aryanized“ over eighty cinemas, which had a value of 6.6. million Reichsmarks.

Jewish Cinema in Vienna, 1938

Of the eighteen filmmakers fired by the Ufa on 29 March, at least five are known to have perished in the Nazi German genocide, i.e. almost one-third.  While Fritz Gertler actually survived the camps, Wallburg, Goldbaum, Zeckendorf, Jacobson, and Liebermann died at the hands of the Nazis. The others survived, with only some of them able to continue their careers in Hollywood or elsewhere. The Ufa’s decision to fire Jewish employees prior to any anti-Semitic government legislation sadly indicated the willingness of German private industry to accommodate the Nazis. Their action constituted literally the first shot in a war against European Jewry, genocide, and confiscated Jewish wealth financing Nazi Germany’s ultimately failed wars of aggression. 

Theresienstadt (1944, Kurt Gerron)

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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