Lion Feuchtwanger

Active - 1934 - 1990  |   Genres - Drama, Historical Film

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Playwright and novelist Lion Feuchtwanger (sometimes credited as Leon Feuchtwanger) was one of the most influential authors in the German-speaking world during the early/middle 20th century, and several of his works have been adapted to film and television. Born into a German-Jewish family in Munich in 1884, he studied literature and philosophy at universities in Munich and Berlin. He served in the German Army during the First World War, an experience that radicalized his political sensibilities, as was reflected in his subsequent work. He became a theater critic, as well as a major figure in journalism, and later began collaborating with author Bertolt Brecht at the outset of the latter's career.

Feuchtwanger published his first successful novel, Jud Süss (aka, Jew Suss), in 1925. The book, published in English under the title Power, was based on the life of Joseph Suess Oppenheimer, a Jewish inhabitant of Wurtenburg who rose to prominence in the 18th century, despite the impediment created by his faith. Feuchtwanger's literary renown was matched by his political activism. He was an early opponent of the Nazi Party, and predicted its subsequent violent history; he was, thus, an early target for persecution under Hitler's regime and never returned to Germany following the latter's achieving the chancellorship in 1933. Instead, he took up residence in France and, the following year, the first film adaptation of Jew Suss was released, under that title, in England. Directed by Lothar Mendes and starring Conrad Veidt, Benita Hume, and Frank Vosper, this was a legitimate and respected adaptation of the book. Ironically, at the very same time in Germany, Feuchtwanger's books were targeted for burning by anti-Semitic, government- and Nazi Party-sponsored mobs. Feuchtwanger and his wife were caught up in the collapse of France in 1940, and both were in serious jeopardy of capture by the Nazis. He had been designated an "enemy of the state" very early and was subject to arrest. They managed to escape internment and almost certain imprisonment in a concentration camp with help from sympathetic friends and allies, and made it to Portugal and, eventually, to the United States, where they were granted asylum and took up residence in Los Angeles.

Feuchtwanger was a leading literary figure among the German-Jewish refugees living in Southern California and a natural center-of-gravity for the exiled intellectual community that took root there. But he was also among the oldest of the exiles and among the least comfortable with life outside of the Germany (or the Europe) that he'd known. Like many of the authors who were transplanted there, he never found a way to mesh his talents with the film industry in California; his wife was much more active within the exile community and his liason to the world. Meanwhile, in Germany, under the urging of the Hitler government and propaganda chief Josef Goebbels, filmmaker Veit Harlan directed a notoriously anti-Semitic film adaptation of Jew Suss. This total corruption of Feuchtwanger's story became one of the most widely seen historical dramas to be released in Germany during the Nazi era and was hailed as a huge success by Goebbels and SS chief Heinrich Himmler (who issued an order that all SS and police officers see the movie); but it eventually blighted the careers of everyone associated with it. In the years after the war, Feuchtwanger ceased writing, and he was later criticized in some quarters for his apparent willingness to overlook the crimes against humanity committed by Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union. There was not to be another adaptation of Feuchtwanger's work into film or television until 1965, seven years after his death. In more recent years, his novels Goya and Success (aka, Erfolg), have been brought to the screen. Ironically, in 2009, the Nazi-era adaptation of Jew Suss -- long-suppressed by the postwar German government -- was brought back to international attention by director Felix Moeller in his documentary Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss. Oddly enough, nowhere in that account were Feuchtwanger or his underlying novel, or the ironic fact that Hitler's government had fostered (albeit in corrupt form) a film based on the work of a banned Jewish novelist, ever mentioned.