The Austro-German Connection: Italy’s Transnational Films and the UK

By Carla Mereu Keating

As we continue to compile our filmographies to map regional, national, international and transnational nodes and networks of film production, several lesser-known cases of collaboration among the four countries of the project have emerged. This blog post shares ongoing research on the history of Italian film studios in the years following the domestic conversion to sound. In particular, it looks at attempts to establish a new commercial route for Italian films in the UK in the 1930s and at the role that Berlin, Vienna and London-based filmmakers played in this transnational film exchange.  

With the diffusion of synchronised sound, audiences’ language diversity posed a threat to the international circulation of films. In the early years of the transition, creative solutions were designed at the stages of production, post-production and distribution to overcome the language barrier. Content localization practices such as dubbing and subtitling, for example, were introduced with different degrees of success in Britain, France, Germany and Italy. In the UK, for example, as discussed by Carol O’Sullivan (2019: 271), the introduction of subtitles caught up later in comparison with other non-English speaking European markets, partly because of the plentiful supply of English-language films coming from Hollywood. As I have considered elsewhere, in the 1930s a number of European films also reached the UK in a dubbed version, eliciting mixed critical reviews. 

Song of the Sun was among the first (Italian) films shown on British screens dubbed. This romantic musical comedy was dubbed into English from the Italo-German dual language version La canzone del sole/Das Lied der Sonne (Neufeld, 1933), produced by the Berlin-based Italian company Itala Film. Alongside opera singer Giacomo Lauri Volpi appearing as himself, the leading actors in both versions, German Liliane Dietz and Italian Vittorio De Sica, were directed by Austrian director Max Neufeld in Berlin, at the Johannisthal studios, and in Italy, on location. In the German Das Lied der Sonne, the only version that I was able to access, De Sica constantly switches from a broken, heavily-accented German to his native Italian, adding even more flavour to the long, postcard sequences filmed in Verona, Venice, Rome, Naples and Capri.  

Dietz and De Sica in La canzone del soleCinema Illustrazione, 18 October 1933.

The opera theme and the picturesque Italian-ness on screen may have been a selling point for the English and German-speaking markets, but in Italy La canzone del sole was received in hardly complimentary terms by some film critics of the time: the film was ‘a lyrical-touristic pot-pourri’ commented Margadonna (Illustrazione Italiana 12 November 1933, cited in Chiti and Lancia 2005: 60); critic Enrico Roma also labelled it ‘a funfair of Italian voices and songs to suit the Germans, who lack their own [repertoire]’, and was reproachful of Dietz’s ‘mangled Italian pronunciation’ (Cinema Illustrazione, 15 November 1933: 12). 

Other types of localization of film content were attempted at the level of production and required more extensive financial investments than dubbing or subtitling. Paramount’s transatlantic move to the Joinville studios outside of Paris (Ďurovičová 1992) and Ufa’s longer-lasting multilingual project at Babelsberg in Berlin (Wahl 2016) are the most illustrative examples of the wide-scale studio-based efforts required in the early years of the transition to produce multiple-language versions (MLVs). At the beginning of the 1930s, neither the UK nor Italy committed to a large production of MLVs. The Italian film industry, in particular, fell behind in the race to equip for sound, Italy being the last country in the STUDIOTEC group to build soundstages and to have the spatial capacity to accommodate the requirements of multilingual production. 

If we look at the filmographic data provisionally collected for the 1930s, among the MLVs released in Italy between 1930 and 1934 only 12 were produced in Italian studios, mostly at Cines, the first facility to be equipped for sound. Strictly speaking, Italy’s MLVs were examples of dual language rather than multiple versioning, in the sense that production rarely involved more than two languages at a time (usually in Italian and French, or in Italian and German). During this four-year period, only one example, La canzone dell’amore (Righelli 1930), Italy’s first sound feature to be released, was also filmed in both French (La dernière berceuse) and German (Liebeslied) at Cines with a partially different cast and direction. In later years, the number of Italian studio facilities able to host MLVs increased, but the dual-language model remained the preferred one, with French or German being the second working language. When collecting and comparing the data at our disposal, however, we observed some curious examples of production in English, and from the late 1930s onwards, in Spanish.

The Divine Spark (Casta Diva, Gallone 1935), a romantic drama inspired by the life of Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini, is probably the most renowned example of an English-language film produced in Italy in the mid-1930s. Exploiting the opera theme in time for Bellini’s centenary commemorations, the English and the Italian-language versions, both directed by director Carmine Gallone, were shot at Cines between the end of 1934 and spring 1935 (Bono 2004: 87). Produced by the film company Alleanza Cinematografica Italiana (ACI), both versions cast Hungarian Operetta star Marta Eggerth (as Maddalena Fumaroli) who sang and acted with her own voice accompanied in the Italian version by the unknown Sandro Palmieri and in the English version by the American Philipps Holmes (as Bellini). 

Eggerth and Palmieri in Casta Diva, Cinema Illustrazione, 6 March 1935.

Not only does Casta Diva hold the distinction of being one of the few Italian films produced during these years to have an English-language counterpart, but it is also of particular interest because of the ‘Austro-German connection’. As argued by Bono (2004: 53), the idea for Casta Diva ‘filiated’ from the Austro-German opera film Leise flehen meine Lieder (Forst 1933) based on the life of Franz Schubert and produced by Cine-Allianz (later in Italy as ACI) at the Sievering film studios in Vienna. Leise flehen meine Lieder was also adapted into English in Vienna as Unfinished Symphony (Asquith 1934). Polyglot Eggerth starred again in both versions. Austrian producer Arnold Pressburger and screenwriter Walter Reisch, Czech cinematographer Franz Planer, art director Werner Schlichting and music director Willy Schmidt-Gentner (both German but working in Vienna) were involved in this dual version project. The presence of émigré filmmakers in Vienna during these years is not surprising, considering that between 1933 and 1938, when Austria was annexed, the capital had become a temporary refuge for many Jewish filmmakers forced out of Germany (Loacker 2019). The Cine-Allianz team, including production partner Gregor Rabinovitch, a Russian émigré, later worked on the production of The Divine Spark in Italy in collaboration with British Gaumont. Awarded the Mussolini Cup for best Italian film at the Venice Film Festival in 1935, the Italian-language Casta Diva was instead handled by an Italian technical crew (including Massimo Terzano, Fernando Tropea, and Enrico Verdozzi).

Another lesser-known film made in Italy in English in the second half of the 1930s points at further developments in the transnational dynamics observed above. This production was Thirteen Men and a Gun (Zampi 1938), the English-language version of Tredici uomini e un cannone (Forzano 1936), a Great-War Russian espionage thriller. Departing from the romantic Operettenfilm formula (more popular in Germany than in Italy) and featuring an all-male cast, this project aimed to attract a different segment of the market. The English version went into production in December 1937, a year after the Italian version was released, but both films were shot in Tuscany at the Pisorno studios. According to the Motion Picture Herald, ‘more than 40 British actors, cameramen and technicians’ travelled to Italy to collaborate on this production (5 February 1938: 25). A German-language version Dreizehn Mann und eine Kanone (Meyer 1938), was also filmed in 1938, but in Munich, at the Geiselgasteig studios, according to German sources.

Painting the wooden cannon prop (right), Cinema Illustrazione, 26 August 1936: 8.

These late 1930s MLVs interest us because they signal the development of a new film network between Italy and the UK thanks to the initiative of Italian-born editor, director and producer Mario Zampi working in London with Warner and Paramount and co-founder of the film company Two Cities Film. As some trade press reports indicate, Thirteen Men and a Gun was the first of a ‘consummated deal’ between Zampi and film director, playwright and Pisorno studios’ owner Giovacchino Forzano which envisioned a total of seven English-language features to be produced in Italy (The Film Daily, 31 December 1937: 12). It is still unclear how the partnership between Zampi and Forzano formed in the very first place, but the fact that there was a German-language version of Tredici uomini in production at the same time, and that Zampi was acquainted with the British director Anthony Asquith, who had worked with Cine-Allianz in Vienna a few years before, and with whom Zampi would go on to produce several films, point at an expanding trans-European network which originated from the earlier opera films.  

The making of the other six English-language films in Italy, however, never went ahead because of the outbreak of World War Two. After Italy’s declaration of war on Britain in June 1940, Zampi, being a foreign national from a country with which Britain was at war, was considered an ‘enemy alien’. Alongside some 4,000 resident Italians, he was arrested and interned in a UK holding camp while one of his Two Cities films, the anti-Nazi thriller Freedom Radio (Asquith 1941), was in production at Sound City, Shepperton Studios. Having survived the sinking of the Arandora Star, a ship headed to deportation camps in Canada, after the war Zampi continued to produce ‘quintessentially English’ films in London with the Rank Organisation. His figure will interest us further because of his later involvement in the promotion and circulation of Italian cinema in the UK in the 1950s and early 1960s. 

The lesser known film collaborations overviewed here illustrate the importance of a comparative, transnational approach when researching the history of European studios. They suggest a prolific migration of ideas and labour within the European film industry landscape of the 1930s, displaying creative attempts at producing and circulating films across national territories and application of foreign language and intercultural skills to the industry. The case studies also allow us to reflect on the tensions that exist between the place-based nature of film production and issues of lingua/culture-centrism, hinting at the dynamic transcultural experience of making films across studios and nations at a time of insurgent political and ethnic nationalism.  

References

Anon. ‘Seven English Features to Be Produced in Italy’. The Film Daily, 31 December 1937, 12.

Bono, Francesco. 2004. Casta Diva & Co. Percorsi Nel Cinema Italiano Fra Le Due Guerre. Viterbo: Sette Città.

Ďurovičová, Nataša. 1992. ‘Translating America: The Hollywood Multilinguals 1929-1933’. In Sound Theory, Sound Practice, 138–53. Routledge.

Loacker, Armin. 2019. Unerwünschtes Kino. Deutschsprachige Emigrantenfilme 1934-1937. Vienna: Filmarchiv Austria.

O’Sullivan, Carol. 2019. ‘“A Splendid Innovation, These English Titles!” The Invention of Subtitling in the USA and the UK’. In The Translation of Films 1900-1950, 267–90. British Academy, Oxford University Press.

Ravotto, Joseph. ‘Foreign Investments Aid Italian Studios’. Motion Picture Herald, 5 February 1938, 25.

Ridenti, Lucio. ‘A Tirrenia Con Due Sergenti, Tredici Uomini e Un Cannone’. Cinema Illustrazione, 26 August 1936, 5–8.

Wahl, Chris. 2016. Multiple Language Versions Made in Babelsberg: Ufa’s International Strategy, 1929-1939. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

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