Shadows in Paradise: Hitler’s Exiles in Hollywood premiers on WNET on Oct. 9 at 10 p.m. The Monster Among Us is available from mediaprojects.org.
October 2, 2008
At first glance, the title Shadows in Paradise: Hitler’s Exiles in Hollywood seems a misnomer. The Nazis did not “exile” the scores of German composers, artists, authors, and musicians who settled in southern California. They saw the writing on the wall and made their escape.
As difficult as they might have found leaving the homeland where they once enjoyed fame and fortune, members of this small group — a fraction of the 30,000 “intellectuals and radicals…80 percent of which were Jewish” — were still alive, free and able to work in their chosen fields in that “paradise” setting.
In fact, the cameras’ focus on the lush California greenery and Pacific Ocean waves rolling onto beaches doesn’t do much to expound the hardships these men and women faced. Nor does showing the luxurious — for the most part — residences in which they lived, complete with tennis courts and swimming pools, or hearing about dinners at the Brown Derby. If this is meant to evoke sympathy, it’s not very effective.
By now, the format of documentaries such as Shadows has its own term: “Burnsian,” after Kevin Burns, whose resume includes films on the Civil War, baseball, jazz, and World War II, among others. The camera pans over photographs while actors read from the letters and diaries of such figures as Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg, and others. Original home movies run in the background. James Conlon, music director of the Los Angeles Opera, serves as the on-camera shepherd for Shadows, which intersperses musical numbers by several of the emigre composers.
The narrative thumps the difficulties these people faced in California: Some could not find work befitting their station and reputation, especially those accused of having communist sympathies. Others were afflicted by alcoholism and ruined relationships. But as terrible as these problems were, I doubt any of these artists would have preferred to trade places with their countrymen in Europe during those trying times.
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Perhaps, more distressing than the anti-Semitism of the Nazi era is its resurgence in contemporary Europe. The Monster Among Us considers the situation in 21st-century Great Britain, France, Belgium, and other nations, as the Muslim population — and anti-Zionist sentiment — grows.
The interviewees, mostly 40-and under, report being verbally and physically assaulted because they were wearing a kipa or magen David in the “wrong circumstances.” In addition, synagogue properties and Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized.
Small groups of Jews sit in cafes and university libraries ruminating over the proper response, inevitably drawing comparisons to generations past. Will they have to uproot their families and leave? Can they trust their governments to protect them? The whole thing sounds eerily familiar.
In contrast with Shadows’ sad, muted tones, Monster bombards the viewer with images of anti-Semitic/anti-Israel protests, crude propaganda videos by terrorist groups, and — perhaps most disturbing — scenes of young children in military regalia, replete with “play” suicide bomb belts, chanting “death to Israel” slogans.