Despite His Fate, He Found His Fortune
“Follow Old River Road, but be careful not to drive too far, or you end up on the cemetery! I warn you, they like to keep people there,” Curt Siodmak said on the phone. He spoke Anglo-Saxon words with the heavy accent of Dresden, where he was born in 1902, in another age, when Saxony was still a monarchy ruled by His Majesty King Friedrich August.
A few days later, I was driving down to Siodmak’s Old South Fork Ranch in Three Rivers in Northern California. I made the right turn, and it was like gliding into a Henri Matisse painting touched up by Norman Rockwell. A pastoral landscape with high old trees, their thick leaves softening a blistering sun, which shone above a serene gorge straddled by a narrow bridge.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Oct. 19, 1997 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 19, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
FROM THE PUBLISHER: Contrary to your Film Clip of Sept. 14, my memoirs, which I finished last year, though having been translated and published in German, have never been offered to any American publisher, since I own my own company, Three Rivers Press.
Three Rivers, Calif.
In front of a nearly hidden ranch house, an energetic elderly gentleman was waiting for me. He had a broad smile on his face, little hair on his head and an air of existential impatience about him. Behind him, a slim white-haired lady appeared and put her left arm lovingly around his hip.
“My greatest achievement in life is marrying this woman,” Siodmak said in introducing his wife, Henrietta, beaming as if they were newlyweds. “But living with an angel isn’t too easy either.”
That’s how I remember my first encounter with Siodmak, the legendary screenwriter of such ‘40s and ‘50s sci-fi classics as “The Wolf Man” and “I Walked With a Zombie,” as well as the writer of the seminal sci-fi novel “Donovan’s Brain.” That was 12 years ago; this past Aug. 10, Siodmak turned 95, and almost nothing seems to have changed. Henrietta, his companion for more than 70 years, is still his angel, and the Old South Fork Ranch with its sandy hills and breathtaking vistas is still his paradise on Earth.
In Siodmak’s office, however, the small room with the ancient computer and the bulky copier, you’ll see two framed letters on the wall. The first one, which has long hung there, was written in 1937 by Siodmak’s German publisher. It coolly states: “I herewith inform you that all copies of your book have been confiscated by the Geheime Staatspolizei [Gestapo], Yours truly . . .”
The second letter arrived in 1992. It is signed by the president of the Federal Republic of Germany and declares that Curt Siodmak has been awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz Erster Klasse, the German equivalent to the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“They gave that to me,” says Siodmak with a weary smile, “because they couldn’t catch and kill me back then [in the Nazi era].”
The sarcasm hides some satisfaction. Curt Siodmak’s autobiography, “Even a Man Who Is Pure in Heart,” for which he couldn’t find an American publisher (he finally self-published 400 copies a few years ago) has recently been published in Germany. The Berlin film museum Kinemathek has bought his personal archive. And next February’s Berlin Film Festival will honor him--together with his late brother, director Robert Siodmak (“The Spiral Staircase,” “The Killers”)--with a retrospective.
All that shows that Curt Siodmak has come full circle. It was in Berlin, the vibrant German capital of the Weimar years, where his remarkable career took off. There the young man from Dresden, with a doctorate in mathematics, second son of a Jewish fur merchant, found work as a reporter. His first scoop involved being hired as an extra by Fritz Lang for “Metropolis” and becoming the only journalist to get to see the closed set.
Then, in the late 1920s, he had the idea for “Menschen am Sonntag” (People on Sunday). His friend Billy Wilder expanded the basic idea into a loose shooting script. Siodmak financed a large part of the small budget of this semi-documentary, a masterwork of neo-realism before neo-realism was even invented; and Edgar Ulmer and brother Robert Siodmak directed.
The movie became an instant hit in Germany, and a few weeks later the Siodmaks and their collaborators had generous contracts with Erich Pommer, the legendary producer (“The Blue Angel”). Siodmak worked successfully on a dozen movie scripts. Even more important for him was that he got to write his first score of novels. One of them was “F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer,” a science-fiction novel that advanced the concept of modern aircraft carriers, Siodmak himself adapted the novel to film.
When the movie was released, however, the 30-year-old hotshot didn’t care anymore. His world was falling apart.
“I lived in Pfalzburger Strasse, close to Kurfurstendamm,” he remembers. “Night after night, I was lying there in the dark, helplessly listening to the shouting and ghastly songs of the Nazis marching by. I’ll never forget how they sang: ‘Wenn das Judenblut vom Messer spritzt . . .’ [When the Jewish blood will splash from our knives . . . ].”
“I will not stay here one day longer,” Henrietta finally told Curt. And his resolute wife, a descendant of an old aristocratic family from Switzerland, repeats this sentence now with an emphasis so strong, it’s as if only 60 days and not 60 years had passed.
So the Siodmaks escaped into exile. Their first stop was Paris. To write in a foreign language was difficult enough, but the linguistic problems were nothing compared to the bureaucratic hurdles they faced. Neither France nor Great Britain, where Henrietta gave birth to their son, Geoffrey, granted them permanent residency. Curt Siodmak had to shuttle between countries, a migrant author often working under assumed names. He wrote a few movies, and he wrote one last novel in German, “Die Macht im Dunklen” (The Power in the Dark), in which he foresaw the Nazis’ attack on Poland.
When the book was published, in 1937 in Switzerland, he was already on his way to Hollywood. “Henrietta pushed me,” he said. “She saw much clearer than I did that there was no future for us in Europe.”
Being by now a movie veteran, he needed only a year to make enough money to call for his wife and son. “You see, in Hollywood, at that time [because of the immigrant surge in the wake of Nazism in Europe], almost nobody knew English well. That’s why I could make a living until I had mastered the language.”
Siodmak, however, didn’t just make a living, as he modestly puts it. He wrote science-fiction and horror movies that have become cult classics: “The Wolf Man” (1941) with Lon Chaney and Claude Rains, Jacques Tourneur’s “I Walked With a Zombie” (1942) and “Son of Dracula” (1943), directed by his brother Robert.
Curt Siodmak’s screenwriting was singular. Like nobody else, he combined elements of Gothic tales with German Expressionism, the style of his generation. Many of his stories were centered on the concept of Harmatia, the Greek idea that humans have to endure the whims of the gods.
“We all have Harmatia in us,” he wrote in 1991 in his introduction to the publication of the script to “The Wolf Man.” “Life itself contains the curse of the Wolf Man: suffering without having been guilty.”
Sixty years ago, Siodmak could hardly foresee his future fame as “King of the B’s"--this month, the U.S. Postal Service will even release a Wolf Man stamp. But back then, he didn’t care much about it anyway. The moment he felt comfortable in his adopted language, he started to write his next book.
This novel was rejected over and over again. But finally, in 1942, Black Mask magazine accepted “Donovan’s Brain” for serialization, and Knopf published the book. The rest is, as they say, history: The science-fiction story of the first brain transplant was translated into a dozen languages, was adapted for radio by Orson Welles, and was filmed four times--not counting the many adaptations that only lifted the idea without buying the rights. More than 5 million copies of the novel have been printed.
With “Donovan’s Brain,” Siodmak did what only few writers in
the history of literature were able to do: He successfully switched languages. While the vast majority of emigre writers who had to leave Nazi Germany went on writing in German, he became an American author. Of his contemporaries, only Arthur Koestler, Frederick Kohner and Felix Jackson accomplished the same feat. Today, after so many short stories and novels --"Skyport,” “I, Gabriel,” “HauMemory,” among others--he has become an icon among science-fiction writers.
“The flow of his speculative ideas in ‘Donovan’s Brain’ is as exciting to follow as the flow of ideas in a novel by Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke,” Stephen King once wrote. “But none of these esteemed gentlemen has ever written a novel quite like ‘Donovan’s Brain’ . . . in fact, no one has.”
Maybe because there are very few who ever have transplanted their own brains so radically and successfully from one culture into another.
“When I came to America, my life started all over again,” Curt Siodmak said five years ago, on the evening of his 90th birthday. “That’s why I’m not old; I’m barely 55.”
On that occasion, the living room of the little ranch house was packed with friends and relatives, fellow survivors and grandchildren. Everywhere you could hear English with a hard foreign accent.
“Nothing’s 100% perfect,” Siodmak said when we stepped out onto the patio. “But this here. . . . " He waved toward the point where the dark silhouette of the mountains met with the sparkling of the heavens. “But this is as close to 100% as you can possibly get.”
Neither Hitler nor Harmatia did prevail; Curt Siodmak stood tall. In lieu of the fate that false gods had tried to force on him, he had found his luck twice, in Henrietta and in America.
“How often,” he said, “I look over these beautiful California hills and think: Heil Hitler. If it wasn’t for that son of a bitch, I wouldn’t be sitting here.”