BEFORE EVER setting foot in the United States, Billy Wilder imagined a place of kitsch and wonder. And before he was a filmmaker, he was writing newspaper dispatches in Vienna and Berlin, now anthologized in Billy Wilder on Assignment.
Wilder wrote about a United States where people drink soda that tastes of “burned tires,” where optimism alone can be a career, and music is revolutionary. There’s little musing on European politics or his existence as a Jew in Weimar Germany, no foreboding of rising fascism; just style, fashion, and an ever-present dream of a not-quite-real United States.
Despite the efforts of the collection’s editor, Noah Isenberg, On Assignment is not a cohesive volume. Attempts to draw connections between Wilder’s writing and his later filmmaking — through a series of brief film reviews and pieces from film sets — are not convincing. And his decision to cut pieces deemed “inaccessible to an Anglo-American audience” reduces the book’s historical interest, leaving little detail about Weimar Germany or Austria a decade before the Anschluss. But in Wilder’s prose, Isenberg and translator Shelley Frisch have found some salvation.
There’s a pitter-patter in Wilder’s writing, as if, in a fit of brilliant indolence, he hasn’t had time to transform his staccato notes into an actual story. Of his job as a dancer for hire, Wilder writes: “In the ballroom. Packed. Cigarette haze. Perfume and brilliantine. Preened ladies from twenty to fifty. Bald heads. Mamas with prepubescent daughters. Young men with garish neckties and brightly colored spats. Whole families.” He thinks the matches of his youth smelled different when struck — better, he tells us. They “whooshed gently across the striking surface, and light blazed up,” then “silently, eerily, the blue spirits’ flame arose. Its fragrance blended with the last trace of the dying match.” Wilder revels in turns of phrase, in bits of wit and irreverence. His passion for words compensates for the occasionally implausible narratives he concocts, the just-a-bit-too-perfect quotes from the important people he happens to meet.
He claims to have fleeced Basil Zaharoff by carrying an empty violin case and pretending to be a virtuoso, begging for money to travel to his next performance after a gambling trip to Monte Carlo. He advocates for teaching lying in schools. He writes of travel and leisure and disappointing sons. He visits Columbus’s childhood home, where an “inscription is on the marble slab mounted over two windows where, about 480 years ago, Christopher Columbus’s diapers were hung out to dry.” He interviews the English dancing troupe called the Tiller Girls, asking one question to each of the 16 — queries like “Do you consider Geneva pointless?” Answer: “Definitely. Politics ruins your character, and I want to hold onto mine.”
Perhaps Wilder agreed with the young dancer. Though his essays and profiles are wide-ranging, they are almost never political. Many seem to exist outside of any temporality, equally fit for 1870 or 1930. Still, it is odd to publish the works of a man whose family died at Płaszów, at Belzec, and in the ghettos, and to have him allude not once to his Judaism, not once to the rising antisemitism and fascism of interwar Germany. Perhaps Wilder made this choice for his own safety. Perhaps politics just bored him. He was more entranced by style, particularly that of the wealthy.
Wilder was especially obsessed with clothes. He wrote lovingly of the suits of the then–prince of Wales (later Edward VIII, the abdicated king who fell in with Hitler), paying almost no attention to his politics or his womanizing. A feature about an anonymous German politician (probably Gustav Stresemann) never mentions politics but zeros in on the minister’s “bull neck,” his secretary’s “too exaggeratedly elegant” clothing, and Wilder’s own “flimsy outfit.” When he interviews a professional witch (“I really and truly did talk with her,” he notes, perhaps protesting a bit too much), he ruminates not on her supposed client list, but rather her dress: “Her clothing was definitely from a top-notch boutique.” Politics, history, and world affairs are reduced to punchlines. His is the work of an aesthete.
Perhaps the focus on style — on the wealthy and their fortunes and good chance — is what drew Wilder so inexorably to the United States. He knows it as a land of faults and failures, yet he seems to love the strange country he’s concocted. There’s an ironic profile in which a Ukrainian actor tells Wilder that “American kitsch has killed off the German art film.” Yet Wilder embraces the kitschy and popular and closes the feature by primarily profiling the Ukrainian’s wife, who has decamped from screen to stage: “The many thousands of people who were able to admire her brilliant art will shrink down to hundreds. And that, I think, is a misfortune.”
In another story, published by a Berlin paper in July 1927, Wilder imagines the life of a bald New York City man hired by a marmalade tycoon to sit and smile and do nothing else; the tycoon must “have an optimist around […] a fat guy who is always laughing.” Whether it’s a cynical view of the United States or a romantic one is hard to say. To Wilder, Americans make careers of optimism; smiling faces can build fortunes, and the insanity of trusting in smiles can lose them just as fast. The actor Adolphe Menjou, in Wilder’s telling, is catapulted into stardom when a filmmaker happens to see him walking down the street. Wilder seems to wonder, could that have happened in Berlin or Vienna?
But Wilder is nonetheless a skeptic. He sneers at a bookstore in Texas (again imagined), in which a man is locked in and forced to buy 50 books, having forgotten his machine gun at home. In one of his brief film reviews, Wilder scoffs at American cultural militarism: “The navy, the army, the air force, and now also the police, everything that represents state power over the public and embodies it, is held up high in American films of late.”
Despite Wilder’s residue of continental taste — and the crudeness his interviewees find in the United States — he is more American than not. He seems to fall a little in love with the bandleader Paul Whiteman and concludes an adulatory review of his Berlin concert: “For jazz? Against jazz? The most modern music of all? Kitsch? Art? Necessity! An essential regeneration of Europe’s calcified blood.”
There are three things On Assignment could have been: it might have been a work of primarily biographical interest, both by and about Wilder as his career in film was still in its infancy. This is what Isenberg seems to have intended, writing that Wilder’s American films are “an outgrowth of his stint as a reporter in interwar Vienna and Weimar Berlin.” The case is strained, however. The stories on film are frequently the weakest in the collection, and the best of these are often not really about film at all; instead, they are profiles, Wilder’s most compelling form.
The book also could have been — as its subtitle, “Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna,” seems to suggest — a portrait of cities caught between two cataclysms. But Wilder favors people, bits and pieces of their lives and styles, rather than any sociology particular to Berlin or Vienna.
And it might have been a study in journalism, a slice of that epoch of feature writing in which quotes were half-invented, and stories aimed for the feeling of accuracy rather than actual accuracy. This is where Isenberg has most succeeded as an editor, perhaps unintentionally. Wilder’s reporting raises questions of plausibility, and he usually appears woefully underprepared for his interviews. When profiling one famous actress, he skips her performance and, arriving at her dressing room, asks not just basic questions about whether she has ever acted on stage before but in fact what play she had performed minutes earlier. Such moments aid in the portrait of Wilder as a somewhat unscrupulous chronicler of the odd, the interesting, and his own life: a journalist of his time.
In one profile toward the book’s end, Wilder muses on the life of Erich von Stroheim, the noted auteur. Though unimpressed with von Stroheim’s work (he panned Greed, the 1924 masterpiece seen as a silent cinema classic), he cannot have missed their likeness. Both were born in the dual monarchy during the last decades before its collapse. Both made their names as directors and writers in Hollywood, albeit with divergent styles. But von Stroheim’s career collapsed before Wilder even left Europe, and, Wilder reports, “People who come from Hollywood report that Stroheim wants to go home, but he lacks the courage: how will he be received in Germany?” During these years, Wilder was still building his imagined United States, not yet putting it to film. That would take Hitler’s rise, which pushed the Jewish director to flee first to Paris, where he would make his directorial debut, and then to the country where he would find fame. In On Assignment, Wilder pursues the kitsch, the art, and the necessity of the United States that von Stroheim wants to leave behind.