Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Ödön von Horváth
Home | Up | News | Productions | Pieces | Résumé | Pictures | Studio | Publications | Links


Bookmark and Share

Ödön von Horváth

ÖDÖN VON HORVÁTH was born in Fiume (now Rijeka) near Trieste on 9 December 1901. His father being a diplomat, the family moved from country to country."I am a melange of Old Austria; Hungarian, Croat, Czech, German; alas, nothing Semitic". German became his main language, the subtleties of the Viennese dialect his masterly handled instrument. In 1924 he moved to Berlin where the stimulating artistic and political atmosphere suited him admirably. His Italienische Nacht (Italian Night), premiered in March 1931, caused considerable excitement, if only for the Nazi fury that it aroused. The greatest success of his life came in November of the same year (1931) when Gesichichten aus dem Wiener Wald (Tales from the Vienna Woods) with a star cast, including Peter Lorre and Carola Neher, appeared at the leading Deutsches Theater. Also in 1931 he was co-recipient of the much coveted Kleist-Prize.

Horváth was a merciless critic of the petit bourgeoisie whom he, nevertheless, viewed with great warmth. His interests were social rather than overtly political. He belongs to the Austrian tradition of Nestroy, Raimund and Karl Kraus with whom he shared a fascination for the bizarre and macabre. And yet he was an outstanding raconteur. Women adored him, but in spite of ail his relationships remained a 'loner'. (His pro-forma marriage to the singer Maria Fisner in 1933 was dissolved the following year). Although undoubtedly a passionate anti-Nazi, this aspect of his life still leaves some questions unanswered. On the day of the 'Anschluss' (13 March 1938) Horváth fled from Vienna to Budapest (he had retained Hungarian nationality). Then came brief stays, in helpless flight, in many major cities. In Amsterdam a clairvoyant — Horvath was very superstitious — urged him to go to Paris where "the most decisive event of his life" would happen. She was right. As we know, sheltering under a tree there, during a thunderstorm, he was killed instantly by a falling branch. He was 36 years old.

His output in that short lifetime totalled twenty-one plays — among them, View, Faith Hope and Charity, and The Day of Judgement, as well as those mentioned elsewhere on this page — and four prose works: Sporting Tales, The Eternal Philistine, Youth Without a God, and A Child of Our Time.

Horváth in Hollywood

by John Russell Taylor author of Strangers in Paradise, The Hollywood Emigres 1933-1950 (Faber and Faber)

In the late Thirties the composer Arnold Schoenberg gave a lecture entitled "Driven into Paradise". He was, of course, talking in and about Los Angeles, and the title nicely balances the irony inherent in the situation of an amazing number of European intellectuals beside himself. Los Angeles, in those smog-free days, was in many respects very like paradise: its dry, warm climate was wonderful for chest sufferers like Thomas Mann and Schoenberg; it always seemed to be summertime, and the living was easy; and at least it was about as far away as possible from the Nazis, Europe and war. And yet, those who landed up there were obviously there faute de mieux, driven there in spite of themselves by force of circumstances back home.

It had not always been thus for newcomers to Southern California. Since the great agglomeration of municipalities loosely known as Los Angeles included the locality and, more important, the concept of Hollywood, it was reasonable that Europeans somehow involved in films should gravitate towards it as the film capital of the world. In the Twenties the directors Ernst Lubitsch and F. W. Murnau did so with considerable success and after much wooing and cajoling. Fritz Lang came, looked around, and went back: what did he want with Hollywood when he could make films as grand as Metropolis in Germany? Then, because he did not need Hollywood, Hollywood was more than ever convinced that it needed him. But when he finally did return in 1934 it was after a little disagreement with the Nazis and an inconclusive attempt at film-making in France. Hollywood had him more or less at its mercy, and was correspondingly less impressed.

Lang at least had the advantage of arriving there before the trickle of westward emigrants became a flood. Most of those who left Germany as soon as Hitler came to power persisted in assuming, or at any rate hoping, that this was a very temporary aberration in the part of their fatherland, and moved as short a distance as they need — most frequently to France and, in the case of major writers like Thomas Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger and Franz Werfel (with his redoubtable wife Alma Mahler-Gropius-Werfel) to the Mediterranean haven of Sanary-sur-Mer. When Germany invaded France those who had not already (like Thomas Mann, who had a teaching job at Princeton) established a toehold in America made haste to do so, escaping if need be in the most melodramatic circumstances across the Pyrenees to Lisbon and New York.

But what should they do in America, these writers in an alien tongue? For the "big three" it did not matter too much: they all had their bestsellers in translation, and could afford to live wherever proved most agreeable. Los Angeles filled the bill, and once one or two had settled, there was every purely social reason for the rest to follow, with vague ambitions of founding a New Weimar by the western ocean and keeping the torch of liberal German culture burning throughout this dark night of the national soul.

For them, the coincidence of Los Angeles and Hollywood was picturesque but not very relevant. Others were not so fortunate. The poorer and less-translated members of the group had to earn a living, and Hollywood's potential as a vast employer of writers, artists and musicians (even if not for what they might ideally wish to be doing) had an undoubted pull. Moreover, the established German members of the film community did their best to help, though the results were frequently a little bizarre. Something called the European Film Fund was set up on the initiative of Lubitsch, the actress-turned-screenwriter Salka Viertel and the agent Paul Kohner, all of them successful émigrés. Mainly through emotional blackmail they persuaded two studios, MGM and Warner Brothers, to hire émigré writers at a nominal salary (about $125 a week) on one-year contracts. Heinrich Mann, Thomas's older brother, went dutifully to Warners' Studios from nine to five, but no one seems to have bothered to give him anything to do except read a few rejected scripts by other writers. Alfred Doeblin, author of Berlin-Alexanderplatz, was set to work by MGM on, of all things, Mrs Miniver and Random Harvest. Others, like Leonhard Frank, were not even so fortunate: the Film Fund jobs were clearly regarded as straight charity by the studios, and no thought was given to what contribution these writers might practically make. In the event, when their year was up they were all dropped and left to fend for themselves by a film industry that did not want to know about the extraordinary but unmanageable talents in their midst.

Of course, not all German arrivals were so helpless. Despite the pet American notion that all Europeans are cultivated and non-commercial, many of the writers who had worked in the German cinema managed to learn English and fight their way to the top of the Hollywood heap: Billy Wilder was merely the most spectacular example. Others remained aloof from Hollywood by their own choice: Schoenberg, for example, was approached by MGM to write the score for The Good Earth, and declined, after discussion, for the very decent Hollywood reason that they would not pay him the fee he required. And Bertolt Brecht, exception to all the rules, managed to arrive late, get one of his scripts (for Lang's Hangmen Also Die) on to the screen in, despite all his complaints, a recognisable form, and write, rewrite and have staged one of his major plays, Galileo, in Los Angeles before he left with the un-American Activities Committee snapping at his heels in 1947.

It is interesting to consider what would have happened to him and his reputation if he had not been driven out of paradise at that point. There are enough others whose apparently unassailable reputations went into total eclipse after their arrival in Southern California. Hollywood does strange things, and anything might have happened. As it might to Horváth if he had ever got on that boat ...

Some of the writers and other artists who left Germany for war-time America

Paul Abraham E W Korngold
Theodor W Adorno Fritz Kortner
Josef Albers Ernst Krenek
Günther Anders Fritz Lang
Julius Bab Lotte Lenya
Victor Barnowsky Leo Löwenthal
Albert Bassermann Peter Lorre
Vicki Baum Ernst Lorre
Richard Beer-Hofmann Ernst Lothar
Franz Beer Emil Ludwig
Ralph Benatzky Jan Lustig
Ludwig Berger Erika Mann
Curt Bois Golo Mann
Bertolt Brecht Heinrich Mann
Hermann Broch Klaus Mann
Ferdinand Bruckner Thomas Mann
Eric Charell Herbert Marcuse
Paul Czinner Fritzi Massary
Paul Dessau Walter Mehring
Ernst Deutsch Ferenc Molnar
Alfred Döblin Richard Mohaupt
William Dieterle Alfred Neumann
Marlene Dietrich Max Ophüls
Albert Einstein Max Osborne
Hanns Eisler Kurt Printhus
Lyonel Feininger Erwin Piscator
Lion Feuchtwanger Alfred Polgar
Bruno Frank Otto Preminger
Leonhard Frank Max Reinhardt
Erich Fromm Ludwig Reun
Ivan Goll Roda Roda
Valeska Gert Erich Maria Remarque
Lotte Goslar Arnold Schoenberg
Oskar Maria Graf Robert Siodmak
Walter Gropius Josef von Sternberg
George Grosz Oscar Straus
Alexander Granach Helene Thimig
Ludwig Hardt Ernst Toch
Lilian Harvey Ernst Toller
Wieland Herzfelde Fritz von Unruh
Stefan Heym Johannes Urzidil
Paul Hindemith Conrad Veidt
Hanna Hofer Berthold Viertel
Oskar Homolka Bruno Walter
Max Horkheimer Helene Weigel
Grumesch Kalman Kurt Weill
Erwin Kaiser Franz Werfel
Leopold Jessner Billy Wilder
Arthur Kaufman Fred Zinnemann
Hermann Kesten Carl Zuckmayer
Otto Klemperer Arnold Zweig
Annette Kolb


Compiled and translated by HUGH RANK

Lion Feuchtwanger (novelist):

Wherever these cheerless guests went they were unwanted, were not allowed to work, hardly to breathe. They were required to have papers which they didn't have or which were not good enough. Their passports had expired and were not renewed. So these refugees found it difficult to prove their identity. Very few thrived on their sufferings. Suffering will fortify the strong but weaken the weak. It is easier to do without principles than without bread and butter; and when it's a question of throwing some ballast overboard then morality goes first. Many went to seed. Their bad qualities which had been overlaid by prosperity came to the surface and their good qualities turned sour. Most became egomaniacs, lost their judgment and balance, no longer distinguished between what was permissible and what impermissible. Misery, in their own eyes, justified caprice and lack of restraint. They became self-pitying and quarrelsome. They became like fruit that had been picked too soon: not ripe but ugly and sour. Indeed, exile made us small and dejected. Yet it also hardened us and made us great, gave a wider horizon, greater elasticity. It taught us to pinpoint the essential. People who were shoved from New York to Moscow, from Stockholm to Capetown had to think deeper than those who, until then, had been sitting in their Berlin offices all their lives. Many hopes were set on these refugees both inside and outside Germany The faith persisted that these exiles were chosen to cast out the barbarians who had seized their homeland.

Alfred Polgar (essayist and critic):

In California the roses bloom many times a year; as if they wanted to teach the tired and disconsolate: "just try and one day you will succeed." You can say whoever is badly off in California is better badly off here than on the East coast. He can live here in decidedly more comfortable sad conditions than elsewhere. Trees blossom around his wretchedness and the humming-bird hovers gracefully... The European actors who were driven out by the Nazis sometimes find work here. They are used in many war films, mostly playing Nazis. What a strange fate to make a hit, perhaps to become a star, as a presenter of those bestialities of which they have become victims.

Marlene Dietrich:

On the day of our arrival in New York I was wearing a grey costume; that's how we usually travelled in Europe. But when a charming gentleman, Mr Blumenthal of Paramount, insisted that I could not leave the boat in such an attire, I was rather perplexed and undecided what to do. At last I was told I would have to disembark in a black dress -and a mink coat, if I had one. It was ten o'clock in the morning and I couldn't understand why I had to dress like that in broad daylight. Yet I had to obey. Of course, I felt embarrassed in this outfit but obviously it was the custom of the land. America to me and to all other Germans in a similar situation was a completely unknown quantity. We had heard of Red Indians, otherwise we knew next to nothing of the country.

Fritz Kortner (actor):

Roosevelt's policies with their humanity and their self-assured morality attracted me. For the first time in my life I appreciated, indeed I admired the head-of-state of a country in which I lived. Until then I had always been in opposition. Now as a mature man I lived in complete agreement with a government's policy and with the majority of the population, In Roosevelt's bitter opposition to fascism I glimpsed a worm's eye view of a possibility to return to a Germany that had been liberated from Hitler. I owed Roosevelt a state of mind such as I had never known before. There was no need to cavil or kick or to stumble in hopeless opposition from one political disappointment to the next. What until now had been the anxious whispering of a minority, here it became the fearless voice of the majority to which I belonged. And yet I remained attached to the navel of my mother language, to my linguistic homeland which refused to be my political fatherland.

Friedrich S Grosshut (essayist and novelist) in a letter to Walter A. Berendsohn:

My wife Sina and I decided to join a family as a "couple". For days on end we were sitting in an agency, chattels among other chattels. We were "shown" to a rich "lady" regarding a job three hours from here. We were to clean ten rooms, to do the washing, cooking and some gardening. When we arrived it turned out that this was an estate with 20 rooms, three children, cellars, stables etc. The "small" garden consisted of a lawn of about 1˝ acres. Working day 14 hours. After three days we nearly collapsed, The 20 rooms had not been dusted for generations. The children loved us. They jumped onto our beds at six a. m. Each of them had a huge room. Luxury, loneliness and TV had rendered them mentally sick. Our employers went out in style every night. We had to baby-sit until midnight. The lady knew who we were. Nevertheless, she exploited us shamelessly. I received the proofs of my essay on Klaus Mann while dealing with all the crockery. The "boss" never greeted us. Then the lady promised to take on a black couple for the heavy work. We were exhausted and refused. At the end of the week she gave us 40 dollars instead of the agreed 50. 16 dollars went on our fares. My heart is heavy. In spite of some literary successes I don't know what will become of us.

Hollywood Elegies

The village of Hollywood was planned according to the notion
People in these parts have of heaven. In these parts
They have come to the conclusion that God
Requiring a heaven and a hell, didn't need to Plan two establishments but
Just the one: heaven. It
Serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful
As hell.

Bertolt Brecht

I, The Survivor

I know of course: it's simply luck
That I've survived so many friends. But last night in a dream
I heard those friends
say of me: "Survival of the fittest"
And I hated myself.

Bertolt Brecht

Thomas Mann in a letter to Siegfried Marck, 19 September 1941:

We have had enough of German profundity for the time being. This "profundity" with which the German spirit confronted Western pragmatism, rationalism, eudemonism has become so stained in the course of a tragically unhappy evolution that Germany today thanks to this "depth, " stands revealed as the enemy of mankind. Before the Germans can acquire the right to be "profound" they should acquire something else that, on the quiet, they have completely lost, ie., decency. Just let Anglo-Saxon decency dominate the European continent.

... to Agnes Meyer, 7 October 1941:

A rich Swiss patron built a beautiful house in Montagnola in the Ticino for my friend Hermann Hesse. Why has no city, no University in this country thought to offer me something similar, be it only out of ambition and in order to be able to say: "We have him, he is ours" (T.M.'s English). They probably imagine that there is no need to help such a man; or perhaps it is merely thoughtlessness. The same thoughtlessness which counts on my idealism and makes claims on me without remuneration, because "such a man" cannot possibly think of money. It would be fairer and more dignified if I didn't have to think of it.

... to Agnes Meyer, 28 January 1943:

I don't believe that there will be a "democratic peace." There will be a Catholic-fascist peace. Maybe, Europe has not deserved anything better. The Anglo-Saxon armies will be used mainly to stifle the revolutions which are overdue in Germany France, Italy and Spam. The Russians can be a nuisance but one often hears the opinion that we shall have to come to grips with them after victory over Germany. Will you be off to Moscow?

... to Agnes Meyer, 27 October 1943: (From New York)

My experiences during this trip are very moving and put me to shame. The enthusiastic crowds, the packed halls, the hushed silence, the gratitude: all this is very confusing and hard to understand. In Montreal they had to call in the police because the over-flow crowd threatened to push in the doors. In Boston they had to send away 1000 people. I ask myself every time: what do they expect? Won't they be very disappointed? After all, I'm no Caruso. Yet they assure me that that was the most marvellous thing they ever heard. And to Katja (T.M.'s wife) they say: you are a lucky woman.

... to Bertolt Brecht, 10 December 1943:

This has nothing to do with the question which has been occupying my mind for weeks, whether the moment has come to form a Free German Committee in America. I have come to the conclusion that the formation of such a body would be premature, not only because the State Department considers it premature and does not want it at this juncture, but also on account of my own deliberations and experiences. It is a fact that, as soon as rumours of such a German union reached the public, there arose uneasiness and distrust among the representatives of a number of European states and that in no time words spread to the effect that such a German Committee would have to be broken up. An association of this kind would, undoubtedly, be interpreted as a clearly patriotic attempt to protect Germany from the consequences of her misdeeds. An apologia and defence of Germany and a demand for a "strong German democracy" would, at present, land us in a dangerous confrontation with the feelings of the peoples who suffer under the Nazi-yoke and who are near collapse. It is too soon to raise German demands...


Home | Up

Send mail to with questions or comments about this web site.  Copyright © 1999-2012

Last modified: 2012-03-15