Tuesday, December 4, 2012

One may smile, and smile, and be a villain

I fight against fascism. That is my trade. 

So says the character Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas, reprising his Broadway role) in the 1943 Oscar nominated Watch on the Rhine.  In this clunkily plotted film--written by Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett--Muller does this by raising money in the United States for his anti-Nazi activities.  In this case, $20,000 in cash in his briefcase.

Now let's turn to Marlene Dietrich's 1987 'autobiography', Marlene;
The "Hollywood Committee," which had been founded when the Nazis seized power, was all ready for action on the day of the mobilization [Hitler's declaration of war against the US, December 11, 1941].  Its chief organizers were Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder.
We sent sums of money to a contact man in Switzerland, a certain "Engel" for the purpose of liberating hundreds of prisoners from the German concentration camps and bringing them to America.  I never got to know this Mr. Engel, but he must have been a wonderful person.  He undertook this service to humanity regardless of the risks such activity involved.
Not exactly. The "Hollywood Committee" would have been The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League for the Defense of Democracy, founded in the summer of 1936.  Thanks to a Czech Jew using the name Rudolph Breda when speaking to a crowd of celebrities at the Victor Hugo restaurant.  Though Wilder and Lubitsch knew him as Otto Katz, in Berlin in the 1920s.

So did Dietrich.  In the biblical sense.  Before she became famous for The Blue Angel, made by the director Josef von Sternberg, who later brought Dietrich to Hollywood in 1931, and made her a star.

The left-wing journalist Claud Cockburn wrote that Katz adamantly claimed to have been Dietrich's first husband--no record of any such marriage exists--and there is a rumor that Katz was the actual father of Dietrich's only daughter, Maria Riva.  Though Dietrich was married to Rudolph Sieber in 1923, over a year before the child was born in December 1924.

Nonetheless, Lillian Hellman also clearly knew who Otto Katz really was; a Communist and an agent of Joseph Stalin.  One who wasn't too modest to tell tales of his own daring to impressionable movie people.  As he clearly did that night at the Victor Hugo restaurant (as Breda).

No record of his speech exists, but some remembered it as filled with stories of claim checks, for bundled secret documents, surreptitiously passed to him at European train station cafes. Of  border crossings with forged passports under the eyes of armed and suspicious German soldiers.  Swims to safety with rifle bullets whizzing past his head.

Anything to rouse the movie millionaires to contribute their money and their time to Katz's cause.  Even genuflecting and kissing the ring of an astonished Archbishop of Los Angeles, according to witnesses.

A fascinating, brazen character, but hardly 'a wonderful person'.  In fact he was a cold-blooded, calculating murderer.  Responsible for many killings in Spain during that country's civil war (where he met Ernest Hemingway, and likely, George Orwell), possibly having a hand in Trotsky's death in Mexico in 1940 and Czech Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk's defenestration in Prague in 1948.

One deserving of a movie that is faithful to the facts.  Unlike the Hellman/Hammett paean to him.  Or, the other Oscar nominated film of 1943--and winner of Best Picture--that also has a character, Victor Lazlo, recognizable as Katz.

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