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The World and its Double
The Life and Work of Otto Preminger
By Chris Fujiwara
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2008 Chris Fujiwara
All rights reserved.
Breaking the Lightning
Otto Preminger's father, Markus Preminger, was born on January 15, 1877, in Czernowitz, the capital of Bukovina, then part of the Austrian Empire, and now in Ukraine (where it is called Chernivtsi). "His parents were poor devout Jews," wrote Otto in his autobiography. "His father, an intelligent man, a Talmudic scholar, wanted him to have a first-rate education." Markus completed his training as a lawyer in 1901, graduating cum laude, and subsequently served in Czernowitz as an investigating judge on the National Court and as a prosecutor in political criminal cases. "By the end of the [nineteenth] century an articulate educated class dominated the city's Jewry, German- speaking and modern in its outlook," William O. McCagg, Jr., wrote. Jews not only made up some 30 percent of the population of Czernowitz but also constituted the majority of the German- speaking population of Bukovina. "Even within Zionism there was a clear pattern of middle-class Jewish desire to save and abet the dying old Habsburg state," according to McCagg. Perhaps these facts help account for Markus's firm loyalty to the Austrian state and, decades later, his failure to foresee, until it was no longer in doubt, that Austria, too, would fall to the barbarism that had overtaken Germany.
In 1903 Markus married Josepha Fränkel (born on March 11, probably in either 1883 or 1884), the daughter of Abraham Fränkel, who ran a lumber business in Poland, and his wife, Eugenia. Markus and Josepha's first son, Otto Ludwig, was born on December 5, 1905. That date and his place of birth have been matters of controversy. As Otto put it, "One set of documents lists Vienna as my birthplace but another set, equally valid- looking, places my birth at my great-grandfather's farm some distance away. One records that I was born on the fifth of December, 1906, the other exactly one year earlier." Preminger preferred to use the later date, but 1905 was the year given in the registration forms for minorities (Meldezettel für Unterparteien) he filed in 1925 and 1933. The 1925 form gives Wiznitz, Romania (in 1905, part of Bukovina), as his place of birth; the 1933 form, Rozniatow, Poland (in 1905, part of Galicia). Rolf Aurich, who researched Preminger's origins, speculates that Preminger may have actually been born in Czernowitz and notes that in any case, "it is certain that he was not born in Vienna." The farm Preminger mentions, which belonged to his mother's father's parents, was probably located in Wiznitz; it may also have been in Rozniatow, or even in Roznow, Poland (part of Galicia in 1905), which is mentioned as Preminger's birthplace on another Viennese registration form. During Otto's childhood, his family spent several summers at that farm. Official documents from Preminger's first decade in the United States generally give his date and place of birth as December 5, 1905, Wiznitz, Romania.
When the First World War broke out, the Russian Army confronted Austria, and the Preminger family (by now augmented by the birth of a second son, Ingo, on February 25, 1911) were forced to move, first to Vienna for a short time in 1914, then to Graz, capital of the province of Styria, where Markus served as first lieutenant auditor of the Thalerhof internment camp. At Graz, nine-year-old Otto became the victim of an anti-Semitic assault. On his way home from school, he was waylaid in a recessed doorway by a group of older boys who beat him and "called [him] names [he] had never heard before." Returning home with his face bloody and his clothes torn, he told his parents that he had slipped and fallen, though they realized the truth at once, as Otto would learn only later. The incident was apparently never discussed openly among the family; Ingo had never heard of it until it was related to him by Otto's first biographer, Willi Frischauer. But as Ingo also said, "When you went to school, as a Jew, in those days, you learned about anti-Semitism. First day you're in school. When you're six years old, you know what it means to be a Jew." In 1912, another Viennese, Arthur Schnitzler, wrote, "It was not possible, especially not for a Jew in public life, to ignore the fact that he was a Jew; nobody else was doing so, not the Gentiles and even less the Jews. You had the choice of being counted as insensitive, obtrusive and fresh; or of being oversensitive, shy and suffering from feelings of persecution."
Markus Preminger knew "a little bit" of Hebrew, Ingo recalled, and went to synagogue once a year, on Yom Kippur, but otherwise the Premingers observed no religious traditions. Markus's attitude toward Zionism was favorable, said Ingo, "but he wasn't interested in going to Israel or anything like that."
In the spring of 1915 Markus Preminger was transferred to Vienna as legal adviser to the military court. Markus's politics apparently suited him for this position. According to Ingo, "He was not very interested in politics, but he was rather conservative." (He did, however, vote Social Democratic, as did almost all Viennese Jews.) The family lived in the 8th district, in what Ingo later remembered as "a nice little apartment" in the Strozzigasse. Later, as Markus's fortunes advanced, the family moved to a better apartment in 9, Mahlerstrasse. The Premingers would eventually occupy an apartment in the Ringstrasse, across from the university, though that was not until 1926 or so.
In Vienna, Otto first attended the Piaristengymnasium, a Catholic school, starting in the 1915–16 school year. During those same months Otto's father won prominence prosecuting leaders of the Czech independence movement, including Karel Kramár, Václav Klofác, and Edvard Bene. In 1918 Markus retired from public service and opened a private practice in which he became very successful.
Meanwhile, Otto Preminger had developed a precocious interest in the arts. "When I was nine, eleven years old, I wrote poetry," he later recalled. His burgeoning interest in theater, opera, and literature benefited from his being diagnosed with a heart murmur, which excluded him from the physical sports in which most of his peers spent their hours. (On the other hand, he was "very non-musical," according to Ingo.) Otto's taste ran toward the classics. He frequently missed classes in order to spend his days reading plays in the National Library. He had a good memory, which he exercised by reciting Shakespeare and Goethe to his maternal grandfather. At age fourteen or so, during one of his father's evening salons, Otto drew aside the famous actress Leopoldine Konstantin, on whom he had developed a crush, to give her a private recitation of Schiller's Das Lied von der Glocke, with its epigraph, "Vivas voco / Mortuos plango / Fulgura frango" (I call the living / I mourn the dead / I break the lightning).
Otto rapidly acquired experience acting in public, playing Lysander in an open-air production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Burggarten in 1922. In 1923, he took a decisive step by making contact with the famous director Max Reinhardt. The Austrian-born Reinhardt, then fifty, had from an early age been based mainly in Berlin, where he achieved renown. Lately he had announced plans to open a theater in Vienna. The Theater in der Josefstadt, as it was called, was purchased for Reinhardt by financier, industrialist, and patron of the arts Camillo Castiglioni, a rabbi's son who made his fortune in Vienna after the war. Then more than a century old, the dilapidated theater, located, in Gottfried Reinhardt's words, "in one of the seedier quarters of then impoverished Vienna on the verge of revolt" — and only a few steps away from the Piaristengymnasium, where Otto passed his final exams on June 21 — was beautifully restored in rococo style, with no expense being spared ("Unlimited funding was exactly the budget that suited [Reinhardt] best," quipped Preminger).
In later years, Max Reinhardt's willingness to accept the inexperienced Preminger as an apprentice actor would not be forgotten by the younger director. "That was one of the reasons he always made a point of seeing young actors," Erik Preminger recalled about his father. "Anybody who called for an appointment with him was given five minutes with him. He set aside an hour every week, five minutes per appointment, and would see, literally, anybody who called and wanted to see him."
The inaugural production of Reinhardt's new theater was Carlo Goldoni's eighteenth-century comedy Il Servitore di due padroni (Der Diener zweier Herren [The Servant of Two Masters]). Preminger was one of several costumed stagehands who performed set changes before the eyes of the audience and in tempo with the music.
By now Preminger had decided that he would make the theater his career. This news inspired little joy in his father, who, however, promised to support his son in whatever he did, as long as Otto finished his formal studies. Otto enrolled in the law program at the University of Vienna. Studying at home and benefiting from private tutors hired by his father, Otto eventually passed his exams and became a doctor of law in 1928.
In the first season at the Theater in der Josefstadt, Reinhardt gave Preminger only small parts. In April 1925, however, Reinhardt cast the young actor as Lysander in A Midsummer Nights Dream. Around the same time, Preminger studied in Reinhardt's course at the Viennese Academy of Music and Performing Arts and apparently impressed the master enough for Reinhardt to make him an assistant both in his seminar at the Schönbrunn Palace and at the Salzburg Festival, where Reinhardt revived his famous production of the pantomine-spectacle Das Mirakel (The Miracle).
So many contradictory things have been claimed about Max Reinhardt that it is now difficult for nonspecialists to come to an appreciation of his capital role in European theater (and film). Part of the problem is that he was an eclecticist. Samuel L. Leiter wrote, "Unlike those contemporaries of his who specialized in a narrow range of theatrical approaches, Reinhardt felt that each play was a separate entity with its own inherent style and that the director's task was to discover and then transmit this style through the production. The play always came first, not the director." In this eclecticism, Preminger followed Reinhardt. In interviews, Preminger was in the habit of denying that he had a style, insisting that each subject proposes its own terms: "I want to do every single film the way I feel at that moment."
For Preminger, reflecting in 1973 on the older director, "Reinhardt's way of directing was a kind of very happy, Renaissance way of directing. He loved to show the actor what to do." Above all, in Preminger's view, Reinhardt "was truly an actor's director. He was most effective when he liked an actor, and perhaps only when he liked him ... If he felt the slightest resistance in the actor, he let him go his own way. He told him a few things, of course. But if he felt that the actor really wanted to be directed by him, then his imagination, the variety of advice, the way he worked the actor in the scene and for the scene, was just fantastic. I don't think any director ever had that gift. Maybe it was because he was an actor originally." Asked whether he had learned from Reinhardt, Preminger answered, "I adored him and I admired him. I did not really learn detail from him. That is to say, I did not imitate him, but nobody who watched him direct and became a director could escape his influence."
Preminger and Reinhardt shared certain traits: a taste for disappearing behind, or becoming immersed within, the work at hand; an equally pronounced taste for grandeur of scale and duration. Both were praised for their ability with crowd scenes. If Preminger's films bear traces of Reinhardt's style and techniques, they are most likely to be found in Preminger's deliberately theatrical films, such as The Man with the Golden Arm and Porgy and Bess, or in certain scenes of The Cardinal. It should also be said that Preminger belonged to the cinematic tradition of Murnau, who also worked under Reinhardt and who became, in the 1920s, the primary exponent of a kind of filmmaking in which the reality of bodies in space, transformed by the camera lens, takes on a double existence, both physical and spiritual, and in which tension and meaning are directly embodied in the interplay of physical forces and resistances. Such cinema has its origins, partly, in the realist/illusionist theater of Reinhardt, and it survives in the realism of Preminger. Alexander Bakshy wrote that in a Reinhardt performance, "the effect of unity is ... based not so much on an illusion of reality of the play enacted, as, if I may say so, on an illusion of 'reality of onlooking.'" This striking formulation illuminates the dynamic of participation that the Murnau tradition would explore, and it hints at the special kind of distanciation that would be Preminger's distinctive contribution to this tradition.
In 1925 Preminger left Reinhardt to perform in Prague, Zurich, and Aussig, Czechoslovakia. In Prague, where his father was still infamous for his prosecution of Czechoslovakia's heroes, he appeared at the Neues Deutsches Landestheater under the stage name of Otto Pretori. It was during this period that Preminger began to lose his hair. His father, too, had gone bald early in life, "but that was no consolation for an aspiring leading man." Otto learned to live with the affliction and later to pride himself on it. "Bald men, haven't you noticed, are much nicer," he told New York journalist Eileen Creelman in 1943. "Of course. They must be. They have no vanity. They never look in the mirror at themselves. Baldness takes away their conceit. That makes them more attractive." Baldness dashed Preminger's hopes of becoming a romantic leading man, although he continued acting. In late 1925 and early 1926 he worked at the Stadttheater in Aussig, acting in several plays and making what was apparently his professional directorial debut with Franz Grillparzer's nineteenth-century comedy Weh dem, der lugt (Woe to Him Who Lies), which premiered on December 23, 1925. The Aussiger Tagblatt thought the production of Weh dem, der lugt "unified, fresh ... and full of life."
In 1926 and early 1927 Preminger acted at the Zurich Schauspielhaus, and in 1927 he returned to Vienna, where he entered into a partnership with the German actor Rolf Jahn, who had raised enough capital to buy and renovate the former Modernes Theater. December 20 saw the inaugural production of the new theater, renamed Die Komödie. According to Preminger, the opening night was a disaster. (The play was Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.) In March 1928 Preminger and Die Komödie had greater success with Der letzte Schleier, a courtroom drama by G. W. Wheatley that held the stage for 132 performances. Preminger split up with Jahn in June 1929 after a number of clashes between the two partners, including a dispute about the potential of Marlene Dietrich, whom Preminger wanted to hire only to be overruled by Jahn. Ingo Preminger summed up the experience of Die Komödie: "There was nothing in that theater that was interesting."
In October 1929 Preminger and actor Jakob Feldhammer became codirectors of another new theater, the Neues Wiener Schauspielhaus (formerly the Volksoper). Its inaugural performance, Preminger's production of Frank Wedekind's König Nicolo, took place on November 5; and three days later, Preminger's production of Siegfried Geyer's Die Sachertorte opened to much acclaim. According to W. E. Yates, the theater "offered a programme of light comedy and contemporary drama." In February 1930 Preminger scored a coup by importing German actor Oskar Homolka to star under his direction in a play based on Josef von Sternberg's film Underworld. Later that year, Preminger broke up with Feldhammer, citing "various internal conflicts, mostly of an artistic nature."
Excerpted from The World and its Double by Chris Fujiwara. Copyright © 2008 Chris Fujiwara. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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