Ernst Toller

Active - 1940  |   Genres - Drama, War

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As a contributor to cinema, Ernst Toller wrote a German version of one major American movie of the early sound era. He had a brief stay at MGM in the mid-'30s, though his primary contribution took the form of a single film, Pastor Hall, one of the first great anti-Nazi features. Ironically, the writer never lived to see the film.

Toller was born in 1893 to a wealthy Jewish family in Samotschin, in the Prussian province of Posen (now part of Poland). Strange as it might seem in light of his future status as an enemy of the Reich, as a boy, he was a loyal German who attended a military-oriented boarding school and was thoroughly indoctrinated into Prussian notions of militarism. Though he was a poor student, he showed an aptitude for writing, and several of his articles were published locally while he was still in school. Toller patriotically enlisted in the German army with the outbreak of war in 1914, serving with an artillery unit and seeing action as an observer and in the trenches all the way to Verdun. In the early days, he wrote traditional patriotic poetry. It was his experiences during the war, however, that later made him question the reasons for the conflict and the loss of life it entailed. He eventually suffered a nearly complete physical and mental breakdown that got him discharged as medically unfit for army service. He later attended the University of Heidelberg, where his teachers included renowned sociologist Max Weber. Toller also began composing more poetry, and much of what he wrote was highly political in nature. During this same period, he became involved in socialist politics and political pacifism, and joined the anti-war Cultural and Political League of the German Youth. He was expelled from his college and this freed him to join the trade union movement in Munich, where he was one of the key organizers of a strike of 8000 munitions workers, resulting in his arrest. After a short time in a military jail, he returned to the army and was committed to a mental hospital, where he was diagnosed as unfit. Once again, he returned to civilian life.

In the political upheavals of 1918, in which the German monarchy was deposed and a republic organized under Friedrich Ebert, Toller emerged as one of the more articulate lower-level activists, but when the smoke settled and the army had ended the revolution, he was charged with high treason. With help from Thomas Mann and Max Weber, he managed to avoid a death sentence, receiving five years instead. It was during this time in prison that he began writing plays, including Transformation, The Machine Wreckers, and Man and the Masses, which were smuggled out of jail and out of Germany -- the latter eventually getting produced in New York by the Theatre Guild. By the time he was released in 1924, Toller found himself one of the best-known young playwrights in the country, and with an international following. His work during the next eight years included Hoopla, Such Is Life, Once a Bourgeois, Always a Bourgeois, Draw the Fires, Miracle in America, and The Blind Goddess. He became a peace-activist, signing on as a member of the League for Human Rights, which made him a target for various rightist forces both in Germany and elsewhere. He was even detained at Ellis Island in 1929, when he arrived on a visit to the U.S. at the invitation of the Theatre Guild and the International Labor Alliance. Still, he was able to find work with MGM, where he wrote the German-language version of its 1930 prison drama The Big House, and he later sold a story to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in England. When Hitler came to power, Toller was personally denounced by Josef Goebbels, and his work was banned on the same list that included Marx, Freud, Brecht, and Mann. He was fortunate to be traveling outside of Germany when Storm Troopers arrested most of his league's members.

Although left penniless and all-but-stateless, this seemed to free Toller to do more writing and organizing. In London beginning in late 1933, he also wrote his autobiography, I Was a German. Most of his activity was taken up with traveling and lecturing to any audiences that would hear him talk about the danger posed by Nazi Germany. During this period, he also married the actress Lili Christiane Grautoff, a popular young ingénue and protégée of Max Reinhardt who became persona non grata in Germany when she refused to appear in a Nazi Horst Wessel play. Toller toured America in late 1936, and reportedly was offered a contract with MGM in its story department. Upon discovering that the studio wasn't interested in him writing screenplays on topical subjects, however, Toller gave up on any hope of writing for Hollywood. In an interview during that tour, he criticized the American film industry for its reliance of the banal and maudlin. He remained involved in the fighting from afar, however, raising money to help the anti-Franco forces in the Spanish Civil War. Toller's final major work was Pastor Hall, based on the life of Martin Niemoller, the German religious leader who had been imprisoned in a concentration camp for his anti-Nazi writings and statements. The play was finished in 1938 and published in an English translation by Stephen Spender in March 1939. By that time, Toller -- who had earlier experienced bouts of what we would, today, define as depression -- began to deteriorate mentally. The German invasion of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, caused him to despair of the British or French ever taking action in time to stop Hitler's advance. Despite his exile, Toller still had contacts inside Germany with whatever Hitler opponents existed among surviving liberals, leftists, monarchists, the professional military, civil service, and intellectuals, and he may well have learned of the rumblings of the planned invasion of Poland that began the month after Czechoslovakia was secured. He did, in fact, learn that his brother and sister had both been arrested and sent to concentration camps.

On May 22, 1939, Toller hung himself in his hotel room at the Mayflower in New York. Just a few weeks after his death, John Boulting and Roy Boulting proposed filming Pastor Hall, and presented it to the British Board of Censors, whose members rejected it in July, saying that it would be "inexpedient" at the time to make a movie so obviously propagandistic and anti-Nazi while England was pursuing a peaceful accord with the Germans. The invasion of Poland and the declaration of war that followed removed any such impediments, however, and, in January 1940, Boulting's Pastor Hall, starring Wilfred Lawson, Sir Seymour Hicks, and Marius Goring, went into production. Upon its release later that year, it was well received critically as a breath of fresh air, in addition to being the first British movie to address Germany's internal strife. The film lost money on its domestic release, coming a little too late (amid the frantic days of the so-called "Phoney War" and then the Battle of France and the withdrawal from Dunkirk) to catch the public's mood. In America, however, where United Artists distributed the film, it was given a major publicity campaign and got a massive amount of exposure as the earliest major feature out of Europe to offer an inside look at Germany from the standpoint of a writer who knew the story firsthand. The movie proved to be an important propaganda document in an era in which most Americans were still deciding whether the country could or should choose a side in the European war. Toller was in the ground more than a year when Pastor Hall was finally released, and never could have known that anything would come of his play, but he had done the job he set out to do.