Given the wealth of eyewitness accounts, we have a clear idea of what living in the Weimar Republic was like. At one end of the literary spectrum, there are the jaded forensics of Joseph Roth; at the other, the musings of its privileged Pollyanna, Stefan Zweig. But when another witness steps forward, with eyes and ears as finely tuned as Billy Wilder’s, there is surely room enough on the shelf for his observations.
Noah Isenberg, a Texas-based professor of cinema, has cherry-picked from two German-language collections of Wilder’s journalism of the 1920s and early 1930s. The first incorporates material that the future director and screenwriter produced while he was in Vienna in the first half of the 1920s. The other consists of reportage, features and criticism written by Wilder in Berlin after he moved there in 1926. Combining the two, this new volume takes in the most significant staging posts of Wilder’s early career, before he ‘paced his way across the Atlantic’.
To start, however, there was Wilder’s childhood in Galicia, where Samuel, born in 1906, became Billie (a nickname chosen by his Americophile mother). Wilder came of age just as the Habsburg monarchy was collapsing and he and his family followed a well-trodden path across the Austro-Hungarian Empire to its capital.