L.A.'s German accent
At one time, Los Angeles was Weimar on the Pacific: Numerous German-speaking émigrés put their stamp on the city to which they’d fled.
What with directors such as Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch, writers such as Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, and assorted film composers and actors — many of whom gathered to express their love of German high culture and their hatred of fascism — it seemed at times that the Southland’s intellectual life was conducted in German.
Despite the stereotype of the German as introverted and painfully cerebral, the scene was lively: Lavish Westside homes as well as parks, gyms and beer gardens were filled with exiles who’d come to California because their ethnicity or politics had provoked threats or loss of citizenship.
Today, things are different. “There are several areas where many German people live,” says Christina Baitzel, who moved to the U.S. a decade ago and now works for Los Angeles Opera. “But I don’t think they really connect to each other.”
The German presence in L.A. — the exiles in paradise and the more disparate contemporary scene — has a renewed resonance these days, as the city’s cultural organizations observe the Ring Festival LA (www.ringfestivalla.com/), which accompanies the opera’s rollout of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.
Los Angeles has a few German institutions and some people who follow the nation’s music and letters. But it’s not a community, says Cornelius Schnauber, a retired USC professor who is an eminent chronicler of German-language culture.
“In general, the Germans have never been a people who want to stick together when in foreign countries,” he says. “It’s different from Russian people or Asian people. In general, they’re more assimilated: It was true before the exile period and true after the exile period.”
The Southland’s German roots can still be hard to find. On the surface, the Austrian impact may be easier to spot in 21st century L.A., whether the modern architecture of Neutra and Schindler, the post-Cold War politics of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger or the cuisine of Wolfgang Puck.
Despite a visibility that doesn’t compare to, say, Russians — whose voices are easy to overhear at classical concerts and operas — Germans have made their mark on Los Angeles and continue to do so today.
Back story: 1930s and ‘40s
Historian Kevin Starr calls the influx of 200,000 German and Austrian refugees — about 10,000 of whom settled around L.A. — “the most complete migration of artists and intellectuals in European history.”
His book “The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s,” chronicles some of their highs and lows, as they brought a culture of intellectualism, verbal wit, sexual freedom, Freudian theory and in some cases heavy drug and alcohol use to a city still essentially Midwestern Protestant. In 1930s and ‘40s L.A., a figure like Marlene Dietrich was considered a serious exotic.
These were the days when émigrés gathered at actress and screenwriter Salka Viertel’s house in Santa Monica, or writer Lion Feuchtwanger’s Spanish-revival mansion in the Palisades, or Lubitsch’s witty, German-only soirees. Some, such as Mann, who wrote “Doctor Faustus” and other novels while here, thrived, while others — his son Klaus Mann, a writer who committed suicide in 1949 — did not fare as well.
Still others, such as the austere, puritanical Brecht — “stop paying the water bills,” he wrote in his journals, “and everything stops blooming” — did not take to the Southland’s natural setting: More sensual figures, such as Thomas Mann and Feuchtwanger, who responded to the ocean, the climate and the foliage, tended to do better. (For all of Brecht’s grousing, his years in L.A. saw the completion of some of his most important plays, and " Galileo” opened at the Coronet Theatre in 1947.)
This chapter of cultural history has been well-chronicled. Less well-told is the social life of the ordinary German who moved to the Southland by choice. That’s the subject of an online map and self-guided tour put together by the Los Angeles Conservancy as part of the Ring Festival.
“We were looking for a way to broaden it, to augment the story of the exiles,” says Adam Rubin, who handles the conservancy’s youth outreach. “I doubt Bertolt Brecht had much to do with the people who were going picnicking in the park.”
Along with the exile haunts, the conservancy’s map includes such places as an athletic club on Washington Boulevard that offered a German restaurant and beer garden, and La Crescenta’s Hindenburg Park, run by the German- American League.
The park, with its statue of the Prussian-German soldier and politician who appointed Hitler chancellor, was the scene of easy-going picnics as well as less innocent gatherings led by the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization dedicated to polishing Hitler’s image in the U.S. and rolling back the New Deal.
Of course, as with anything from prewar L.A., a lot of the map’s landmarks are no longer standing. The statue in Hindenburg Park, for instance, was removed and the park taken over by the county; it is now Crescenta Valley Park. In 1956, it became the site of the first Oktoberfest in America.
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.
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 https://www.TheMisreadCity.com.
The complete guide to home viewing
Get Screen Gab for weekly recommendations, analysis, interviews and irreverent discussion of the TV and streaming movies everyone’s talking about.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.