In 1977, Billy Wilder was considered an old-fashioned director. After chaining several box office failures, Hollywood turned its back on him. For the shooting of his new movie, fedora (1978), the director sought financing outside the United States. He found her in Germany, the country from which she had to flee in 1933 because of her Jewish origin and where the Nazis murdered her mother, deported to the Auschwitz extermination camp.
“With this movie, I really can’t lose out,” the director commented with his legendary dryness. “If it is very successful, it will be my revenge against Hollywood. And if it is a failure, it will be my revenge for what happened in Auschwitz.”
The novel Mr Wilder and I It is articulated through these two thematic axes. On the one hand, it describes the twilight of Wilder’s career – who would only make one more film, the mediocre comedy Here a friend (1981)– and a way of making movies. We are in the midst of a generational change, when the “bearded panda” is making an appearance, as Wilder calls the fathers of the new Hollywood: Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola…
On the other hand, the novel evokes, through an ingenious retrospective scene written in the form of a film script, Wilder’s harrowing life journey since he escaped from Germany until, after the war, he is hired by the United States War Department to carry out mills of death (1945), a documentary about the concentration camps.
The director was looking for his mother among the corpses that appeared in the recordings that he had to watch
It is one of the most shocking episodes of the book: the story of how the director was looking for his mother among the corpses that appeared in the extremely raw recordings that he had to watch to make the documentary (below, a part of mills of death; we warn of the harshness of several passages).
the new hollywood
The novel is narrated in the first person by Calista Frangopoulou, a young Greek woman who acts as Wilder’s interpreter during the filming of fedora in Corfu. Through this imaginary character, the British director Jonathan Coe describes the way of working and the captivating personality of the great director, the complicity with his artistic partner, the no less talented screenwriter IAL Diamond, and the profound changes that were taking place in the industry. of the cinema during those years.
Some changes exemplified by the failure of fedora and the extraordinary success of Shark (1975), which prevented Wilder from shooting one of his most personal projects: the adaptation of Schindler’s List. A film that, ironies of fate, would end up being made by the “bearded” Steven Spielberg.
Mr Wilder and I
Barcelona: Anagrama, 2022. 280 pp. €19.90
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