Billy Wilder on Assignment

Billy Wilder on Assignment –

Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna

Edited by Noah Isenberg/Translated by Shelley Frisch

Princeton University Press – £20.00

I make my living honestly, honestly and with difficulty, because I dance honestly and conscientiously. No wishes, no desires, no thoughts, no opinions, no heart, no brain. All that matters here are my legs, which belong to this treadmill and on which they have to stomp, in rhythm, tirelessly, endlessly one-two, one-two, one-two.

I dance with young and old; with the very short and those who are two heads taller than I; with the pretty and the less attractive; with the very slender and those who drink teas designed to slim them down; with ladies who send the waiter to get me and savour the tango with eyes closed in rapture; with wives, with fashion plates sporting black-rimmed monocles, and whose escorts, themselves utterly unable to dance, hire me; with painfully inept out-of-towners who think an excursion to Berlin would be pointless without five o’clock tea: with splendid women from abroad who divide their stay in Berlin between hotel rooms, halls, and ballrooms; with ladies who are there every day and no one knows where they’re from and where they’re going; with a thousand kinds.

(‘Waiter, A Dancer Please’)

Who would have thought that the most majestic of director’s, Billy Wilder – he responsible for the inexorably entertaining Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard – was a dancer for hire in a posh hotel in Berlin during his early years as a journalist. That’s right, a journalist (too) with the still renowned Berliner Zeitung.

Clearly someone with a telling eye for detail, the Polish born Wilder was already armed with a vivid vindication of words – which came replete with a penchant for (the humorous and) the observational – at a very young age: ‘’’’I say to myself: I’m a fool,’’ he writes in a moment of intense self-awareness. ‘’Sleepless nights, misgivings, doubts? The revolving door has thrust me into despair, that’s for sure. Outside it is winter, friends from the Romanisches Cafe, all with colds, are debating sympathy and poverty, and just like me, yesterday, have no idea where to spend the night. I, however, am a dancer. The big wide world will wrap its arms around me’’ (Editor’s Introduction).

Let it be said that Billy Wilder on Assignment – Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna, is an altogether wonderful read.

In fact it reads as if a fine, literary, malt-whiskey.

Its 195 pages (excluding Index) traverse the many aspects of Billy Wilder as a whole: from aforementioned dancer to a writer of astute profiles when it came to other writers, performers and political figures, from deft screenwriter to one of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors. As Christian Rogowski of Amherst College has since written: ‘’Billy Wilder on Assignment offers a selection of charming prose pieces from the early years of the legendary movie director and screenwriter. These brilliant vignettes present a unique window into the fascinating and turbulent culture of Weimar-era Berlin, written by one of its wittiest observers. A pleasure to read.’’

This book is indeed a pleasure to read, especially the uncanny, nigh philosophical foresight to wholly recognise institutionalised lying – something which is so horribly rampant and hideously hip amid many of today’s powers that be.

At the vanguard of which smirks the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson: ‘’I don’t want to come right out and insist that, starting this very day, schools teach the art of lying, by which I mean using postures and facial expressions, gestures and inflections of the voice to convey the opposite of truth with sweeping powers of persuasion and achieve smashing success. I don’t mean to demand it explicitly in the framework of pushing the latest educational reform, for I, too, am ensnared in a curiously outdated set of ideas, and I appreciate and honour the so-called truth. But I can easily imagine that in two or three decades lies will be regarded an an indispensable and hence utterly unobjectionable implement in our daily lives, and their correct and appropriate use could be learned systematically by employing the scientific method (‘The Art of Little Ruses’).

Uncanny or what?

David Marx

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