Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna
Edited by Noah Isenberg; translated by Shelley Frisch
(Princeton University Press, 224 pages, $19 paperback)
How did Billy Wilder (1906-2002) become the Hollywood legend who created such film classics as Sunset Boulevard (1950), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960)? That is the question animating editor Noah Isenberg and translator Shelley Frisch’s English-language anthology of Wilder’s early journalistic writing from his time in Vienna and Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s. Recently released in paperback, Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna explores the early work of the award-winning writer and director, whose keen observations about the human experience, mastery of dialogue, and romance with the camera have inspired filmmakers and movie watchers for more than eight decades.
Although Wilder was born in Sucha, a small town thirty miles outside of Krakow, which was part of the Austrian empire at the time, the Wilder family relocated to Vienna a few years later. Wilder’s birth name was Samuel, however, his mother started calling him “Billie” (which would later become “Billy”) after seeing an American show, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. As a young man, Wilder decided to become a newspaperman, disappointing his father, who had hoped that he would pursue a career in the law. After graduating from high school, Billie sent a letter to the editorial staff at the Vienna-based newspaper Die Bühne, requesting advice about launching a career in journalism. Although Wilder was informed that that his limited command of the English language would be an impediment to his success, he remained undeterred. He visited Die Bühne’s office one Saturday and inadvertently walked in on the newspaper’s theater critic, Herr Doktor Liebstöckl, having sex with his secretary. Liebstöckl reportedly quipped, “You’re lucky I was working overtime today.”
And that’s how Wilder’s journalism career was launched. He soon became immersed in Vienna’s literary scene, which centered around Café Herrenhof, befriending influential people such as the theater and film director Max Reinhardt, the writers Alfred Polgar and Joseph Roth, the critic Anton Kuh, and the Hungarian stage actor László Löwenstein, who later found fame on the silver screen under the stage name Peter Lorre. Wilder later made his way from Vienna to Berlin through a pivotal encounter with the American jazz orchestra leader Paul Whiteman, who invited the young journalist to accompany him on his Berlin tour, a professional association that raised Wilder’s public profile.
Billy Wilder on Assignment compiles Wilder’s early, German-language writings from publications including Vienna’s Die Bühne and Die Stunde and Berlin’s Berliner Börsen-Courier, Der Querschnitt, and Berliner Zeitung am Mittag. The book, which is divided into three sections — “Reportage, Opinion Pieces, and Features from Real Life,” “Portraits of Extraordinary and Ordinary People,” and “Film and Theater Reviews” — features many of the themes that would later define Wilder’s films. His early ruminations about the “survival of the fittest” nature of both the journalism and film industries would resurface repeatedly in his later work.
In 1928, Wilder had the opportunity to pursue his dual passion when he earned solo writing credit and played a small walk-on part in the film Der Teufelsreporter (Hell of a Reporter), which depicts the escapades of an ambitious reporter at a Berlin-based tabloid. The reporter character, laser focused on getting the story at any cost, would continue to figure prominently in Wilder’s movies, such as Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) in his Ace in the Hole (1951) and Walter Burns (Walter Matthau) in his 1974 remake of The Front Page.
Billy Wilder on Assignment is also a deeply personal repository of Wilder’s reflections on his own experiences. The most intimate chapter, which is entitled “‘Waiter, A Dancer, Please!’: From the Life of a Dancer for Hire,” depicts his two-month stint as a paid “social dancer” at a Berlin hotel:
I dance with young and old; with the very short and those who are two heads taller than I; with the pretty and the less attractive; with the very slender and those who drink teas designed to slim them down; with ladies who send the waiter to get me and savor the tango with eyes closed in rapture; with wives, with fashion plates sporting black-rimmed monocles, and whose escorts, themselves utterly unable to dance, hire me…. This is no easy way to earn your daily bread, nor is it the kind that sentimental softhearted types can stomach.
Not surprisingly, some of the characters in Wilder’s films sacrifice their dignity for money. Sunset Boulevard’s struggling screenplay writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) dancing with aging silent-screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is perhaps the most famous example. The Apartment’s C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), who is coerced into loaning out his apartment to “company bigwigs” for extramarital trysts in the hope that they might “put in a good word” for him with management, is also memorable.
Wilder was a master at the personal portrait, as shown in his essay interviews with noteworthy famous and “ordinary” people, including a 1926 interview for Die Bühne with the then Prince of Wales, who would later become King Edward VIII and then abdicate the throne to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. Wilder’s humorous summary of this interview largely highlighted the difference between European and American fashion and buying habits. “An Englishman orders ten suits and five pairs of shoes at a time” but does not buy another article of clothing for the next five years. The American, by contrast, “buys himself a new suit, every summer, every winter, wears it day after day, then tosses it into the trash can after six months.” The collection includes an equally entertaining 1926 interview for Die Stunde with Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., the fifth-generation heir to the famous shipping- and railroad-industry dynasty, who described himself as having “so much work to do that I don’t get around to thinking about whether being rich makes me happy or bored.”
The anthology provides context and commentary on the transition from silent to sound films in Wilder’s reviews of some early German sound films, including Max Mack’s 1928 Ein Tag Film (A Day in Film), the first German film to use the Tri-Ergon sound-on-film system, a new photoelectric method for recording sound. A profile of the German actor-director Erich von Stroheim in a 1929 article for Der Querschnitt discusses Gloria Swanson’s performance in von Stroheim’s silent film Queen Kelly. Isenberg describes this review as Wilder’s first inspiration to cast Swanson and von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard as former silent-screen legends whom the world of talking pictures left behind. The book is peppered with anecdotes from his days “on assignment” that would be recreated in his films.
Billy Wilder on Assignment is a beautifully assembled collection of the early writings of a master storyteller whose body of work has entertained moviemakers and movie watchers for generations. We love Wilder because he had a unique ability to see the cynicism in the world without succumbing to it. Even in the darkest of circumstances, his characters still can alter their destiny. Recall The Apartment’s Baxter choosing his romance with Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) over a key to the executive washroom and The Lost Weekend’s alcoholic protagonist Don Birnam (Ray Milland) giving up the bottle at the end of the film. Billy Wilder reminds us that a happy ending is always within our reach. This hopeful quality is present from the beginning of his career to the end, from his journalism to his films. And that is why we continue to watch his movies.