Jonathan Coe

Billy Wilder — the making of a great film director

Wilder’s original career was as a journalist in Berlin, and he would later draw on his experiences for many of his finest films, Noah Isenberg reveals

Billy Wilder. Credit: Alamy

Before Billy Wilder became the celebrated director of films such as Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment he was a busy jobbing screenwriter at UFA Studios in Berlin in the early 1930s, writing or co-writing the scenarios to more than 20 movies. And before that, he was a journalist. Starting in Vienna in the mid-1920s, where his earliest assignments included setting the crossword puzzle (a charming example is included in this volume), he quickly moved on to Berlin and became a prolific writer of occasional pieces for papers such as Der Querschnitt and the Berliner Börsen Courier. Selections of these articles have been published before but are long out of print, and were never translated into English. Now, thankfully, Professor Isenberg of the University of Texas has put this frustrating situation to rights with a lively anthology, translated by Shelley Frisch into a brisk, punchy English which feels as though it must be an accurate reflection of the young Wilder’s original tone.

Briskness in fact might be said to be the keynote of Wilder’s journalism. There is nothing deep or reflective about most of these pieces, which give the (by no means disagreeable) impression of having been dashed off over a coffee in the Romanisches Café, and which were doubtless meant to be consumed in the same way. An inveterate self-mythologiser, Wilder once boasted of having interviewed Freud, Schnitzler and Richard Strauss all in the same morning during his Berlin days. But there is little evidence that this actually happened, and most of the little pen-portraits here are not of celebrities but ordinary citizens who happened to have caught the curious reporter’s eye, owing to some quirk in their personality, appearance or métier: thus we get an interview with a modern-day witch, the sketch of a human chameleon called Erwin who keeps getting mistaken for other people and the portrait of a ‘typical English gentleman’, written in lieu of the interview with the Prince of Wales Wilder has been unable to obtain.

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