What's left

One of the most tangible and living remnants of the heyday of exile-era German L.A. is Villa Aurora, the Pacific Palisades mansion once owned by Feuchtwanger and his wife, Marta.

The villa is an 18,000-square-foot Mediterranean with Moorish-style tile, four bedrooms, a garden and more than 10,000 books. Its director, the Munich-born Imogen von Tannenberg, calls it "a lived-in museum" designed to pay homage to the Feuchtwangers and the exile community that gathered there during World War II.

But even here, the German-ness of this villa once inhabited by German intellectuals has its own contradictions. "We're perceived as this outpost of foreign culture," says Von Tannenberg, standing on a balcony that looks out over the Pacific and today smells heavily of nearby eucalyptus trees. "But we're an American nonprofit."

In addition to series of events, many of them with a German theme, the place hosts artists from around the world in a variety of disciplines. In cooperation with the Human Rights Watch, the villa also hosts a writer in exile every year. "So this house is still a place of refuge."

Composer Arnold Schoenberg, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein and Aldous Huxley came to the villa while the Feuchtwangers lived there. Brecht spent time there too, but hated what he saw as the lack of culture and infrastructure on the Westside. Lion Feuchtwanger tried to expose him to the local beauty, but he wasn't interested, Von Tannenberg says. "He said, 'Don't show me that! Show me where the poor are! Show me where the struggle is!' "

Another site is the L.A. branch of the Goethe-Institut, which is dedicated to spreading knowledge of the German language and culture. The institute hosts events around the Southland and at its Wilshire Avenue base. Two recent activities, one aimed at bringing schoolchildren to Wagner's opera, the other a chamber concert, were connected to the Ring Festival.

Fraying bonds

Not all Germans in Los Angeles, even those of an intellectual bent, spend their time attending Wagner operas, watching F.W. Murnau's silent films or haunting bookstore shelves for Heinrich Heine poetry in the original German. Much of the current German community has come here to work in Hollywood and is more closely allied to American cinema than the homeland's own classics.

"I think quite a few Germans are somewhat discontent about their 'German-ness,' " says Sven Kirsten, the Silver Lake-based pop culture chronicler and author of "The Book of Tiki." His countrymen here rarely seek out reminders of the Old World, he says.

"I moved to California to change myself, and I did. It's just like moving away from your parents, but when you go back to visit, all the old buttons are pushed. The German mind always is at work, always over-interpreting situations, always judging others and oneself in relation to others, very self-conscious," he said.

For Americans, German culture has had a hard time of it for different reasons, says Schnauber, whose play about Wagner and Mendelssohn, "Richard and Felix," was performed during the festival. German literature had a strong following in the States until World War I. "There was a big propaganda offensive, started by President Wilson, against Germans. … German culture, in this country, except for music, has never really recovered."

The spirit of German humanism lived on in the émigrés Schnauber knew when he came here in the '60s.

"As a culture, it was destroyed by the Nazis," he says. "But it lived on in Los Angeles — until it passed away. It's important in general to have an ethic of tolerance, which we see in Lessing's play 'Nathan the Wise' or in Goethe's 'Faust.' It's something not bound to a certain time but has value for all societies and all periods."

Timberg blogs on culture at http://www.TheMisreadCity.com.