Making it to Hollywood is still the dream of almost all European filmmakers. However, very few of them do so. Although, there was a time when the world capital of the film industry was bustling with Central and Eastern Europeans. In the first half of the 20th century they laid down the foundations of the dream factory’s mind-blowing success, which continues today. Péter Muszatics, a film historian, takes a close look at this cultural-historical phenomenon is his book "Vienna, Budapest, Hollywood – The influence of Austro-Hungary on American movies" (original title: "Bécs, Budapest, Hollywood – Ausztria-Magyarország hatása az amerikai filmre"), which was published in June by the Kossuth publishing company. The work had only been published in Hungarian until now.

Muszatics has been an organising partner at the Miskolc Film Festival called Jameson CineFest and the curator of its CineClassics event series for 13 years. He has been publishing for the past 12 years. He writes regularly in Hungarian cultural and film magazines such as Vigilia, Metropolis and Revizor. Muszatics met The Budapest Times to speak about Hungarians and Austrians in Hollywood, the meaning of a common cultural language and what he has in common with crime story writers.

Why are you so interested in this topic?

I have always been interested in film history. I have been participating in organising the CineClassics event series at the international Jameson CineFest Film Festival for the past nine years, where we are dealing with film history topics, but also organise retrospectives and conferences about the key figures of the film industry. We mostly focus on Central Europeans who made a career in Hollywood.

I was interested why it was specifically these people who were able to become so successful. Why were so many of the ones that became legends of the Hollywood film history coming from this region and not for instance from France or Spain? What did they bring with them?

Did the Central Europeans, including the Hungarians, really used to have a powerful influence on the American film industry?

Yes, exactly. Conspicuously, many of the successful people from the early Hollywood history came from this region. I am not saying that they were only Central- and Eastern Europeans, that’s stupid. Of course there were other names, like John Ford from Ireland or Frank Capra from Italy, who also had an important impact.

Why do you think the Central- and Eastern-Europeans still took the lead of all nations?

I was trying to find the answer for that in my book, or at least to consider possible answers. For me it’s important to emphasise that I am not trying to find the absolute truth. Maybe the answers that I deliver are to be understood as suggestions to think about.

In the book I primarily focus on the role of the monarchy by the Danube: Around 1900, after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise, the region started flourishing. At the same time it was a time of fragmentation too. The Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, etc. and of course the Hungarians too wanted to be independent, they wanted to use their own language and maintain their own culture. Still, a common international art language existed within the huge nation made up of four nationalities. It was a so-called Art Boulevard or Operetta language, which used the same clichés, typical characters and dramaturgic framework.

But what does that have to do with Hollywood?

The people who immigrated to Hollywood from Austro-Hungary had learned to tell stories back in their home country, which spoke to an especially broad, heterogeneous public.


Are you saying that, unlike for instance in France, where the artists only had to address the French, and thus a relatively homogenous population, the artist who wanted to become successful in the Monarchy had to face a more difficult challenge, since they had to appeal to many diverse nations at the same time?

Maybe not consciously but it was somehow an economic pressure too. When they were presenting a play in Kolozsvár, where Hungarians, Germans and Romanians were also part of the public, the play could not tell only one national story, it needed an approach that goes beyond nations – something that could appeal to all these different nationalities.

A larger audience meant more profit. It was also their interest that their works could be comprehended by as many people as possible. For that they had to be not too deep but not too shallow either. This demanded a very subtle storytelling, which was realised primarily in the popular culture of the era in the multicultural Danube-monarchy, namely in Operettas and Boulevard plays.

So your theory is that since the USA is also a nation composed of many nationalities, the storytelling independent of nationalities that the immigrants brought with them could become really successful there?

Yes, absolutely. There was a big difference though: while the different nations of the monarchy were striving for national independence and cultural division by that time, the situation in the USA was just the opposite: People wanted to cooperate, belong together and be 150% American. At that time the immigrants with their way of telling stories to everyone were, so to speak. "the right men in the right place". This was especially true for the film medium, which managed to reach the far parts of the multicultural society in the USA.

When you describe it like that it all sounds very reasonable, but mustn’t it have been somewhat difficult to translate this very European cultural language for the USA citizens?

In the book I mention among other things that the dramatic ending, used for example by directors such as Erich von Strohheim, did not work in Hollywood. The American public wanted a happy ending. People wanted to see life positively, although they knew of course that at most ten out of a hundred people were able to live the American dream. That was just a question of mentality.

Still, there were always directors like him who refused to follow the mainstream but still filled an important role in American film history. Strohheim’s "Greed" and "Citizen Kane" by Orson Welles or later "Dr. Strangelove" by Stanley Kubrick all show a different face of America. They show the abyss and tell us about human nature.

The book says that this insight into the abyss was also a reason for the success of Central Europeans in Hollywood.

Exactly. Although these immigrants arrived in waves, they had learned a lot about the dark side of humanity back in Europe. Many saw how the monarchy collapsed, how the revolutions and dictatorships came and were gone. Some experienced two world wars and parts of the Holocaust. So they brought a lot of personal experience with themselves. All of this together with a good mixture of the boulevard language that these filmmakers were able to speak was part of the recipe for success of the Central and Eastern Europeans.

In the book you are talking about three exceptional careers that demonstrated the influence of Central- and Eastern-Europe in Hollywood. Interesting that all three were working with the same material. Why was that?

That’s right. I took "The Merry Widow" as an example. Ferenc Lehár’s operetta premiered in 1905 originally, and then in 1925 in a silent movie by Erich von Stroheim, and also in 1934 as a sound movie by Ernst Lubitsch. However, I am not trying to describe the three different interpretations but I am telling three very different career stories in connection to this same story.

# Both Erich von Stroheim and Ernst Lubitsch made a movie based on Lehár's "The Merry Widow"

Erich von Stroheim for example, born in Vienna, arrived in America because he was looking for adventure. Still, he was a very serious and non-compromising director who was not afraid to show the dark side too.

Ernst Lubitsch, who moved to America from Berlin in 1922, was on the other hand a mainstream director. He used a lot of irony and humour in his movies. He just could not take life too seriously. He influenced many filmmakers with his vision, ranging from Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder up until Quentin Tarantino.

Hollywood’s openness in those times towards filmmakers from Central and Eastern European filmmakers looks as good as gone by today. Or do they still have some influence there?

Sometimes maybe they do – for example take Roman Polanski, Miloš Forman or Janusz Kamiński – but they are not so formative anymore as they used to be in the first half of the 20th century. Still, many things that Lubitsch and the others created back then – meaning dramaturgic elements and character presentations, the planning of camera work – this can all be traced back to Central and Eastern Europeans. So they still do exert their influence.

The book is based on your doctoral thesis at Budapest College of Theatre and Film, written in 2015. Did you have to change a lot of things in the material before the commercial publication? Do you think that only the professional public will read your book?

No, I wanted to write a book that would be interesting for everyone. In addition I don’t like those textbooks that take themselves so seriously. I think that it’s possible to talk about almost any topic in a comprehensive way. It was not always easy for me to do, of course.

For the publication I have denounced the many footnotes so that the text becomes more readable, otherwise the text is the same as in my doctorate.

I already knew when I was writing the doctorate that I wanted to publish it as a book. After all, there is a lot of work behind it and I did not want it to be buried in a library gathering dust next to 15 other dissertations.

How did you researching this topic?

I had already processed a lot of material in the framework of other programs but of course I added a lot of reading to that. I think if you want to speak about the monarchy around this time you need to read novels, for example from Robert Musil and Hermann Broch, as well as the works of Claudio Magris, Václav Havel, François Fejtő or György Konrád.

It’s important to get as complex a view of the topic as possible.

Was there anything else that you found surprising during your research?

Maybe the fact how many Hungarian theatre plays Ernst Lubitsch processed in his movies. There were eight in total and I was really surprised by that, also because they came from authors of the second and third tier. These theatre plays were partly totally unknown in Hungary but the films that Lubitsch made out of them became classics.

What was the greatest challenge you faced during writing the book?

Composing the structure was the hardest part: how will I start and how will I end it, and, of course, what will I be talking about in between? I don’t know why but I wrote the last 20 pages – so the conclusion – first, but the foreword was completed at the very end. I wrote the book quasi from the end towards the beginning. Supposedly the crime story writers are following the same method (he laughs).

"Vienna, Budapest, Hollywood" is not your first publication. Two earlier books were surprisingly not about films at all. What were they about?

My first book titled "A travel into the depth of Europe" (original title "Utazás Európa mélyére") was published in 2016 by the Osiris publishing company. It contains the portraits of eight Central and Eastern European cities – from Tallinn to Thessaloniki; like a cut from the north to the south. I wanted to clarify a few clichés about this European region in my book and show that reality is much more diverse. Besides travel essays this book also contains political and historical meditations about the current status of Central Europe.

My second book titled "Russian stories" (original title "Orosz történetek") was incidentally published in the same year. It should have been published earlier by the way but the release was delayed. I was always generally interested in Russia. In this book I wanted to bring this country closer to the readers through everyday stories and city descriptions, which also lead them to the outer districts. However, this is not a guidebook, it’s rather an intentionally fragmented collection of political and historical notes, funny anecdotes and portraits of the most different people.

Both books are essay books, same as "Vienna, Budapest, Hollywood". They are not textbooks that strive to be comprehensive and without any mistakes. My writing is partly very personal. This also means that I could be wrong and the reader is welcome to discuss with me.

Are you already planning on writing your next book?

I don’t know yet what my next one will be about. I am working on many different projects at the moment. There are some programs, conferences and smaller festivals for which I curate. For example, I am travelling to India next. They are organising a Hungarian Film Festival in Delhi and I will give two lectures about Hungarian film in general.

We wish you all the best for that!

Péter Muszatics: "Vienna, Budapest, Hollywood – The influence of Austro-Hungary on American movies"
Published in June 2018 by the Kossuth publishing company
176 pages
ISBN 978-963-09-9249-7
HUF 2,990
The book can be purchased at most bookstores or ordered online, among other places at the publisher's website

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