Billy Wilder (1906-2002) was an Austrian-American filmmaker and screenwriter, renowned for his filmic contributions to the classical Hollywood canon. Some of these include Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959). Within his Hollywood career, spanning 50 years, Wilder won 6 Oscars and received 21 Academy Award nominations.
“When I saw Berlin, I knew I wanted to stay there forever. How wrong can you be?”
Wilder was born in 1906 in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. He relocated to Berlin in 1927 where he met various films contacts at the Romanisches Café. As a Jew, Wilder knew his days in Berlin were numbered after Hitler became chancellor in 1933 and twenty-four hours after the Reichstag fire, he took the midnight train to Paris. Only a few days after Wilder’s departure, UFA studios carried out a ’purge’ of Jewish employees.
After a year he abandoned Europe for America to work at Columbia Pictures. Once Wilder’s visitor's permit expired, he travelled to Mexico to obtain an immigration visa. The US consul asked Wilder how he would support himself and he replied, “I write screenplays”. The consul responded, “Write some good ones!” and Wilder was granted permanent living status in the US. Wilder described his emigration to America as a matter of survival, claiming “it was a question of…surviving, or…winding up like most of my family in the ovens of Auschwitz.”
After acclimating to American culture, Wilder directed at least 34 films that constitute the classical Hollywood canon. Wilder and directors like Fritz Lang, Edgar Ulmer and Douglas Sirk formed a subgenre of ‘German Exile Cinema’ within classical Hollywood film. Themes of impersonation to survive forced displacement, subversive self-expression, dark humour, and ironic distance are explored within this genre. Exploring these themes helped Wilder navigate his identity as a refugee.
“I had the feeling I was not in the right country, and I didn’t know if there was a right country for me.”