Not So Quiet On The Western Front: Remembering The Activism of Universal Pictures’ Carl Laemmle

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Netflix recently started streaming a new German-made production of “All Quiet On the Western Front,” based on Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 Anti-War novel. This is the third filmed production, with a 1979 TV version adapted by Delbert Mann, and the original Academy Award winning 1930 version. It is worth recalling the impact of the original and the way in which it galvanized the humanitarian efforts of Carl Laemmle.

Laemmle, the German-born Jewish immigrant who was one of the founders of Universal Studios retained great affection for his homeland, returning on several occasions, and creating a division of Universal to make and distribute films in Germany. To Laemmle, the First World War, in which the United States was pitched against Germany was a tragedy for all. Laemmle, like many of his European contemporaries, believed that War itself was the great evil and very much wanted to use the power of film to make this point by producing a powerful version of “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Laemmle was progressive on many fronts. He was among those who sued Thomas Edison successfully to bust Edison’s monopoly on motion pictures. He was among the first to buy large acreage in the valley to create a studio and was among the first to create a studio tour.

As attested to in a 2017 LA Times Op Ed by Kathleen Sharp, Laemmle’s studio was among the first to hire women as directors as well as for above and below the line positions, making what came to be known as “Universal Women,” a safe place for women to work. As Sharp noted, “During the heyday of Universal’s silent era, there were 30 female directors and 45 busy female screenwriters on the studio payroll, arguably the most in history.”

Beyond that, Laemmle’s Universal also signed the openly gay British director James Whelan to a five year contract during which time Whelan directed “Frankenstein.” And Universal produced the 1934 Douglas Sirk “Imitation of Life’ which dealt with issues of race, glass and gender.

In 1930, the film opened to great acclaim in the United States. Variety called it “The greatest war film ever made.” In Germany, however, it opened at first to muted response. However, at the second night showing at Berlin’s movie palace, the Mozart (Mozarthaal), the front row of the balcony was filled with agitators, led by one Joseph Goebbels, looking to disrupt the screening — Goebbels and his fellow Nazi party members stood, shouted “Out Jews,” set off stink bombs and released white mice into the audience, sending the theater patrons running out into the street. Among the patrons that night, according to a recent article in The Hollywood Reporter by Thomas Doherty, was Leni Riefenstahl, who would go on to make propaganda films for Goebbels and Hitler.

Within a few short years, the Nazis would be in power, with Hitler as their leader, and Goebbels as his Propaganda Minister.

Laemmle could not believe what had happened to his beloved Germany. In 1929, one a visit to Germany, Laemmle had befriended Hermann Einstein, a German Hebrew School teacher. By 1937, Laemmle had not only helped get Einstein out of Germany but also invited him to stay with him. Einstein would live with Laemmle for 18 months presiding as cantor over Laemmle family Jewish holiday celebrations and tutoring his children.

Laemmle became an activist trying to help as many Jews as possible. According to one report, Laemmle recused more than 300 Jews from Germany. When the St. Louis ship was trying to gain entry to the US, Laemmle cabled President Roosevelt in vain trying to get the passengers into the US. Hermann Einstein’s son, Sandy, wrote that Laemmle “is the closest thing to Oskar Schindler that Hollywood has to offer.”

Today, at a time when antisemitism is again on the rise, and issues of diversity, class, gender and sexual orientation remain flashpoints in the U.S., it is important to remember that Carl Laemmle made a difference by the films his studio made, the people he hired, the workplace he created, and the lives he saved.

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