October 24, 2018

Images of a Lost World

In 1936, Edward G. Ulmer, the expressionist wunderkind and aspiring filmmaker, chanced to meet the beautiful, young wife of a studio executive — boss Carl Laemmle’s nephew. Four months later, she left her husband and moved into the director’s room in a little hotel in Hollywood.

The message to Ulmer from Laemmle: You’ll never work in this town again.

That explains why Ulmer, who later earned a reputation as king of the B-movies, became an A-list Yiddish filmmaker. After getting the boot in Hollywood, he moved East, celebrated a traditional Jewish wedding with his new love, and broke into the burgeoning New York ethnic and Yiddish film biz. People who know Ulmer for his zero-budget thrillers, noirs and sci-fi films may be surprised to learn that, early in his career, he directed four classic Yiddish films, among the best in the genre, says Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan.

The director of “The Black Cat” and “Detour” also made the luminous, pastoral “Green Fields” (1937), one of the two top-grossing Yiddish movies of all time, says Susan Lerner, co-chair of Yiddishkayt L.A.

A rare screening of “Green Fields” and Ulmer’s Yiddish classic “The Light Ahead” (1939) will take place on Aug. 5 as part of a retrospective, “Strange Illusions: The Films of Edgar G. Ulmer,” at the American Cinematheque.

“Green Fields,” about a city scholar who returns to hearty Jewish peasant roots in the countryside, is a story that resonated with the director. Ulmer, an émigré who spoke with a heavy Viennese accent, identified with the story of a young man caught between two worlds, says his daughter, Arianne Ulmer Cipes of Sherman Oaks. Though Ulmer did not speak Yiddish, Cipes says, he got by on the set because of his fluent German.