“Through his ability to improvise his own scenarios and engage others in their perambulations, Haas successfully negotiates the threat of circumstance that ensnared Pavel and, most always, wills out.”
The first thing you need to know about Czech émigré film director Hugo Haas is that he had a brother.
Older than Hugo by two years, Pavel Haas, like his sibling, was born in Brno, Moravia (now the Czech Republic), in 1899. The son of a shoe store owner, he was never successful enough in his lifetime as a symphonic composer to leave his daytime occupation, though several of his works continue to be performed and recorded by contemporary ensembles, including the quartet that bears his name. Whatever career he might have had was cut short and his fate sealed by the Third Reich’s incursion into his country, resulting in his internment at the Terezin camp in 1941 and eventual murder by the Nazis in 1944. Before his deportation, however, he divorced his wife, Sofia, whose falsified Russian documents made her out to be a Christian, thus saving her and their young daughter Olga from a similar end.
Hugo, a popular director and star of Czech theater and film and therefore a more visible target than his brother, had by this time already fled the country, under drunken SS gunfire. He and wife Marie Bibikoff — “Bibi” — daughter of the Czar’s ambassador to Switzerland, escaped to France in 1939 short days after the birth of their son, Ivan, whom they had to leave with Sofia for protection as he was too sickly to travel. Eventually the couple found their way to New York, via Portugal, where Hugo narrated shortwave radio reports to the Czech underground; then to Chicago’s Czech quarter, where he gained work in the theater. He had his first Hollywood role in the 1944 Jacques Tourneur war film Days of Glory, which also featured Bibi in a supporting part.
That same year Pavel appeared on film too, taking a bow after a performance of his Study for Strings by members of the camp orchestra at Terezin. Der Führer Schenkt den Jüden eine Stadt (Hitler Gives the Jews a Town) was a propaganda feature depicting the newly remodeled city as an artist’s colony rather than a death camp where the boys’ father Zigmund would be killed that year, and a way-station to Auschwitz for Pavel. He died in the latter camp that October. Two years later, his widow reunited the Haases with Ivan, now nearly eight years old, in Hollywood, where he was to remain until his death from diabetes in 1979. Sofia passed away in 1982; Olga, ex-wife of novelist Milan Kundera, survives at the time of this writing.
After continuing in character parts in high-profile studio pictures, Hugo quit acting in others’ productions in 1950 to begin writing, producing, and directing his own series of low-budget melodramas, often starring himself and filmed at the old Chaplin studios he eventually purchased. Working various changes on the story lines of The Blue Angel and Of Human Bondage, many of these undervalued (when not downright ridiculed) efforts involved Haas’s schlumpy middle-aged character’s involvement with a lower-class blonde who brings him to the brink of ruin, a scenario he may finally have played out in real life, to some degree. And though he seldom talked about his personal loss to friends or associates, its shadow permeates all the films he made here before his retirement and return to a hero’s welcome in Europe in 1960; none, possibly, more than his 1952 feature, Strange Fascination.
Concerning a celebrated Eastern-European concert pianist brought to the U.S. by a wealthy widow, the film documents his subsequent attraction to a nightclub dancer who invites herself to move in to the apartment his smitten patron has put him up in. As their fortunes dwindle after their marriage, he mangles his hand in a printing press in hopes of receiving an insurance settlement, and winds up a vagrant when that scheme falls through. In the end he is reunited with his patron while playing a one-handed boogie-woogie in a Salvation Army hall to a crowd of jeering bums. The pianist Haas plays is named Paul, the Anglicization of Pavel, and the dancer is played by Cleo Moore, the ingénue he had taken up with in plain view of his wife, the woman responsible for his own European exodus.
The two strains inherent in Haas’s recurring scenario — the self-destructive allure of the blonde and Haas’s masquerade as, essentially, his own brother — intersect in the field of guilt. The primary motive in many a Haas, it’s the result, in The Girl on the Bridge (1951), of a passion-killing to protect the honor of his character’s wife. Edge of Hell (1956) foxes its audience with a did-he-or-didn’t-he allusion to a past strangling by a similarly fallen artist as Fascination‘s Paul Marvan, while Bait (1954) refers to another comrade’s earlier death under questionable circumstances. It’s the engine behind Hold Back Tomorrow’s (1955) skid-row psychodrama as well, where a sympathetic serial killer’s murderous career that began with a double-dealing former partner — named Paul — is redeemed, counter to formula, by a blonde’s love. Hit and Run (1957) turns on the murder of Haas’s filling-station owner, Gus, by his adulterous wife’s lover, and the return from prison of Gus’s brother — who turns out in the end to be Gus himself, masquerading in order to avenge his brother’s death. Night of the Quarter Moon (1959) concerns its hero’s Korean War capitulation under interrogation, and similar betrayal of his mixed-race wife back home due to the manipulations of his mother — and brother. Given its prevalence in the rest of his work, one has to wonder whether this guilt isn’t also the motive behind his other heroes’ unexplained infatuations with the gutter blondes they’re so fatefully drawn to.
The particular guilt we’re talking about is survivor guilt, an affliction plaguing many escapees of tragedies like Haas’s. Instead of feeling they’ve evaded a cruel injustice, such survivors often wonder why they’ve been spared when others — frequently loved ones — were not. A sense of unworthiness and even shame or self-abasement sets in to fill the void in reason. When difficult moral and ethical choices are involved, such as stealing food to feed oneself or one’s family, or, in Hugo’s case, leaving his father, brother, and newborn son behind so he and his wife could flee, the sensation is amplified. Fearing there may have been something they could have done to alter the course of events, some survivors feel culpable for their lost ones — sometimes even for the acts of those responsible for their deaths — and spend the rest of their lives waiting for punishment to come. They might even romanticize or idealize those less fortunate, or, conversely, demonize them in order to impose a sense of justice wanting in life.
Of course, the greater half of survivor guilt, if such a thing applies (and there’s considerable debate today on its relevance to the Holocaust), is survival itself — remaining to tell the tale. In a segment of Edward R. Murrow’s This I Believe radio program, Haas once noted his own “drive to go on, even in situations of hopelessness and despair,” and his appreciation for “the fundamental goodness of people.” (Compare this to directors of similar experience such as Billy Wilder — grudging, sardonic — or Edgar G. Ulmer — grim, defeatist.) That unconquerable attitude smooths over the tensions in all his narratives — between adversity and promise, greed and generosity, isolation and community, ignorance and sophistication, exploitation and altruism, and, ultimately, betrayal and forgiveness. It’s likely this balancing act, as well as his films’ rooting in the folk tales and traditions of his native land (as his brother incorporated regional motifs into his compositions), that throws many viewers off even as it contributes to the richness and humanity that makes Haas’s work significant.
This desire to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable drives much of Strange Fascination. Though there’s an implicit criticism in Haas’s contrast between his European concert audience and the Salvation Army denizen who heckles him to “play something gay, ya bum” — a request reprised by a similar character in Edge of Hell — he seems sincere when averring that “an audience is an audience.” There’s a similar commentary on the glitzy Times Square cityscape of the opening compared to the lush, natural Salzburg vista his one-handed performance dissolves across a few minutes later, though this again is more a matter of taste than judgmentalism. All tensions are resolved, finally, in the depiction of Margo, the dancer. Her character is afforded a dignity unusual in this type of film, as seen in a later confrontation with her romantic rival, where the two women speak in frank and even terms about Paul and Margo’s attraction to him. When Marvan evaluates his own situation as his life and career are on the skids, he holds back, too, from the kind of self-pity that mars an Ulmer, admitting instead to a tendency toward the lower echelons of his own nature.
So what would account for this Fascination, then, and what would an artist gain by spending the better part of a year of his life writing, producing, directing, and acting it out? To what, we ask, is he giving life in doing so? Perhaps by playing a version of his own brother (the star pupil of composer Leoš Janáček, as Paul is dubbed the “greatest exponent of Chopin in Europe”) and bringing him to America, Haas could breathe new life into him and offer him an escape he couldn’t find in reality. (Intriguingly, the identification extended to life, when Hugo spontaneously acquired Pavel’s asthma on learning of his gassing at Auschwitz.) By doing so in film after film, he could explore the many options Pavel was denied and examine the relationship that was as well as the one that could have been from a variety of perspectives. Though these impersonations range from the poignant to the grotesque — in Hit and Run the “brother” is a spokesperson for the lead’s own cowardice and failure, as he is again in Quarter Moon — they are, at least, a means to carry on a dialogue with that which was stolen from him in order to lead them both to a qualified redemption.
Fascination is structured as a nocturne, the musical form its soundtrack theme is based on; Chopin, of whom Jakob Gimpel, the film’s composer, was a noted interpreter, was a master. The framework’s traditional A–B–A pattern begins, like Fascination, with a melancholy bel canto statement (Marvan’s opening in the alley) that moves to a dramatic digression (the film-long flashback to his Viennese origins and American decline) before resolving in a restatement of the opening (Marvan back in the alley) serving to cool the anxiety of the middle section (the concluding hopeful return of the benefactress). Gimpel’s soundtrack composition begins and ends with one hand, as does Haas’s character.
This self-depiction of Haas as a king in exile is a trope common to several of his films. Hell (retitled by distributor Universal-International from its original Tender Hearts) opens similarly to Fascination, with Hugo’s lowlife Valentine (meaning “worthy”) reading the stock indexes as though a player himself; his character, a former circus performer in his Euro homeland who lost everything to the strongman, runs his own skid-row fiefdom thanks to the talents of his acrobatic dog, Flip. (The story is a gloss on Umberto D; a dog was in fact instrumental in saving Hugo and Bibi’s lives when the submarine that was to take them to London wouldn’t permit her beloved Scottie on board, forcing her and her husband to pass on the transport they minutes later watched get blown out of the water by the Luftwaffe.) There are similar self-portraits in almost every other of his independent productions, whose reflection on his own position with a coterie of fellow expats and domestic talents on the Chaplin lot is brought home in his final work, Paradise Alley (1962; filmed 1959), where he plays a once-noted filmmaker who takes to directing the lives of his hard-luck neighbors.
Two prominent motifs repeated here appear in other Haases and play off each other in interesting ways. The Zolaesque train that plunges Paul across country — its tracks an echo of the ship’s wake seen on his transport to America and a visual parallel to his piano keyboard — is an extension of the tank-stop outpost lorded over by his Pickup character, “Hunky” Horak. (It’d be difficult to make too much of those initials.) Moore’s heroine in One Girl’s Confession buries a stash of cash at the end of another set of tracks, in a degraded version of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; in The Other Woman, Haas’s director character uses a loop of train footage in his alibi for a homicide. Girl on the Bridge‘s forward-driving river functions as a similar image running through the film, as through its protagonists’ lives.
Contrasting these are Fascination‘s dancing scenes and allusions. There are dancers in the ballroom where Marvan and the widow, Diana Fowler, become friends; Paul and Margo encounter each other in the hotel bar where she rhumbas with her partner, Carlo; it’s dancing, finally, that tears the couple apart when she’s offered a position in Carlo’s new stage act and Paul unravels in a fit of jealousy. Similar performers show up in other Haases (in Born to Be Loved, they’re chorines), oftentimes couples: Moore and John Agar are made to dance by Bait‘s manipulative gold miner Marko and are brought back for similar purpose in Tomorrow; Bridge‘s title “girl” is a former dancer, while Hit and Run‘s widower makes the mistake of romancing a showgirl who, like Margo, leaves her itinerant life to be with him.
In its fixed course and locomotive force, the railroad is a traditional symbol of fate and the thrust of human desire; Haas uses it as a fugue here, propelling the film along its own inevitable path. (Its connection to the trains that took the European Jews to their destiny could not have been lost on him.) These trains resolve in the gears of the printing press Marvan shoves his hand into, mangling himself and destroying his career. Dancing, on the other hand, in its lack of destination and seemingly carefree, intuitive character, is an expression of personal identity and free will; certainly, that’s how Margo sees it. When Paul’s fortunes are at their nadir, she takes a modeling job — going from fluid movement and collaboration to static subjectivity, like the trains-into-presses; only a call from Carlo to dance again liberates her from the vacuum of life with Marvan. Though Haas never puts himself in such a position in any of his U.S. films, one can’t help but think of John Belushi’s “Schiller’s Reel” skit, in which the comedian asserts that the reason he’s escaped the imaginary fates of his colleagues is his self-estimation as just such “a dancer.” Through his ability to improvise his own scenarios and engage others in their perambulations, Haas successfully negotiates the threat of circumstance that ensnared Pavel and, most always, wills out.
The Jewish persecution comes up explicitly only once in Haas, as the force that destroyed the first family of Bridge‘s male lead, but it’s implicit in several other of his more heated plotlines and perspectives. There’s a memorable shot in Fascination, courtesy of cinematographer Paul Ivano, who filmed most Haases as well as Queen Kelly for Stroheim and The Shanghai Gesture for Sternberg, when Paul retreats to a mission theater hall; as he glances over his shoulder with a haunted expression, a cross looms significantly behind him. The symbol recurs in other of his films to various effect, as an image of both oppression and redemption. It prefigures a moment in Sidney Salkow’s 1964 Last Man on Earth, itself rife with fascist and Third Reich portent, when its title figure finds himself at risk at night in a world overrun with ghouls and passes by a graveyard, whose population of white crosses, like the undead themselves, casts the alienation and solitude of the character into relief. Typically for Haas, however, this mission does prove a place of salvation, first as it’s here he’s transported in memory to his Viennese home, finally in the end when his benefactress (a character split between genders in three other Haas films) reappears to offer him redemption.
If he’s conscious at all of the fact that he’s remaking his brother’s life, the degradation Hugo puts him through must be for a reason. As with many such survivors, it’s Haas’s taking on his brother’s suffering (the way he had adopted his asthma) out of duty to the dead, to experience and understand his journey as well as give shape to his own amorphous feelings and fears, as his Paradise character enables the working-out of his fellow slum-dwellers’ tensions by giving them narrative form. Fascination, like the other films, functions as a passion play for Pavel, whose fictional tribulations are necessary to his character’s deliverance — a deliverance Haas went on to complete in Edge when having his performer-character ascend to heaven.
Before he can accomplish this, however, there’s something he needs to lay to rest in his own life-drama.
In a bit of dialog early in the film, Paul talks of an ex-wife, who serves no other function to the storyline than to provide incentive for him to want to leave his homeland, an imaginary Europe apparently untroubled by recent history. According to him, her position as a fellow pianist brought on a rivalry the marriage couldn’t support. It could as well be Hugo speaking of Pavel. Given Paul’s ignorance of Diana’s infatuation with him, and its inherent message that he was capable of the highest artistic realization, and his attraction to lowly Margo instead (a character wholly contained within the interior, psychological structure of the flashback; the name is a conflation of Paul’s last and Haas’s first names), we can guess which side of the contest Paul falls on, or believes he does. His jealousy of Margo proves an irrational clinging to a mistaken premise not unlike survivor guilt — which “strange fascination,” he admits, proves his undoing.
Contrary to Hollywood wisdom, most films aren’t about character development but self-revelation. So when Paul fails to collect on his insurance, it’s not the last ironic blow from an inimical universe, per noir formula of the time, but the removal of his last buffer against a realization of himself as a bum, which epiphany ends his film-long reverie and sends him back to the mission hall. As self-portrait of a survivor, it serves the need to prove himself unworthy of the good fortune that had found him and offers a punishment for same. His outing as a fraud comes courtesy of a witness to his self-mutilation at the publisher’s, which figure Haas identifies with a sweeping camera movement suggestive of the location of the center of a labyrinth — here, the dispassionate face of judgment Paul can no longer deny.
It’s the moment at which Haas, too, as actor, writer, and director, moves out of the dream back to life, bringing with it one final revelation: He is not his brother after all. Meaning both that he does not have his genius but also that he is not so doomed; he still has a couple of grace notes left in him. By playing them in the end and giving those who’ve gathered in the hall what they are asking for, he invokes his own grace, realized by the appearance in the doorway of the estranged Diana. At this the screen fills with the tightest closeup in all of Haas: Haas himself, humbled and relieved. The reflection of deliverance in his features edges out all other information on the screen, the awareness of himself as somehow blessed the last word on both the brothers’ travails.
There’s more to Haas and his film than psychodrama alone, however. The warmth he feels for his characters in all his productions, however schmaltzy they may be, is unquestionable. As for many male artists, this is reflected in his women characters, especially. After Beverly Michaels’ role as femme fatale in his first film, her character undergoes a rapid transition into a figure of sympathy in his second, Bridge. It’s clear he doesn’t hold her responsible for his character’s misfortunes there, and by Night of the Quarter Moon his sympathies are fully with the scapegoated quadroon heroine, as they were with schizophrenic Lizzie (1957), who’s driven to adopt other personalities after a trauma in her youth: a portrait of the artist as a young woman.
Haas’s late encounter between Margo and Diana seems, in many ways, the centerpiece of the movie. It’s the most fully developed sequence not involving his character, occurring in Margo’s new digs while Paul is being interviewed elsewhere by insurance adjusters. While the latter figures question Marvan, Diane asks Margo, who has refused her offer of financial help, about her motive in pursuing him — was it money? fame? advancement? — and there’s the sense that these dual inquiries are really about a third thing: the film’s own reason for being. Diana concludes that it was simple ambition that led Margo to marry him, a desire to rise to his level, whose failure is foreshadowed in the scene where Margo first impresses herself upon him: she goes to his apartment, but finds the elevator does not reach his floor. But as their talk turns to Diana becoming his caregiver again, the music swells to a crescendo, as if this were the moment the film were leading to all along: the recognition of herself as the avatar to which Paul is truly devoted.
For, for all his losses, misadventures, and defeats, the one constant that remained throughout Haas’s life, as inevitable as those trains, was Bibi. The couple’s introduction after one of his theatrical performances was the basis for Diana’s post-concert meeting with Marvan, here; the two women carry other associations, as well, in their shared motivation of Hugo/Paul’s travel to America, Diana’s mordant self-characterization as his nurse — which role Bibi plays in the film, as she did in real life at a Jewish hospital in penance for what her fellow Christians had done during the war — and in their muted tolerance of both Cleo Moore and the dancer she portrays. (In her regal comportment and short, upswept hairdo, Diana also bears a resemblance to the standard-bearer of the Columbia studios that distributed this, as Haas’s first, film; in further tribute, Marvan’s American tour kicks off in Columbus, Ohio.) Though they divorced amicably in 1952, that didn’t stop Bibi from continuing to intercede in his life, including orchestrating his return to the homeland he would again have to leave out of paranoia and fear of the new Communist regime. They remained the closest of friends until his death in Vienna in 1968 from the asthma he had inherited from Pavel, the last legacy of his relationship with the real One That Got Away, Hugo’s recognition as the major artist he could have been — the dignified filmmaker he was.
Note: This article wouldn’t have been possible without the involvement of Haas’s friend and associate throughout his filmmaking years in Hollywood, Ms. Jan Lowell, and his niece, Olga Haasova.