Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal ArtsNomina
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ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Anatol Litvak from Kyiv – Hollywood director of the first anti-Nazi film

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Anatol Litvak from Kyiv – Hollywood director of the first anti-Nazi film
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It is not Saint at all, as it is sometimes mistakenly thought – not a Holy, but Holly. Hollywood is a forest of trees, which in America are called Holly, and we call them winterberry or holm. Until recently, there had been nothing there except for the forest and fields – in 1853 this area had a single clay adobe hut in it.

At the end of the 19th century, a new suburb of Los Angeles began to grow here. But a truly explosive growth started in this area already at the beginning of the twentieth century, when a film studio was founded at this location – first by the Centaur Film Company, which decided to shoot Westerns there, and then by many others.

It is believed that the culprit behind the growth of Hollywood was none other than Thomas Alva Edison: owning a number of patents for filming methods, he wanted to make people pay him for each film. And the producers decided to shoot closer to Mexico, so that if something happens, they could quickly hit the road to leave the country…

Now Hollywood is one of the districts of huge Los Angeles and the producer of a very significant and more prominent part of the movies of the entire world. And, of course, the location just bristles with tourists, hoping to meet a movie star on the street or become movie stars themselves.




In 1953, President of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce Stewart proposed the establishment of the Walk of Fame as “a means of supporting the public fame of artists whose names are known and loved all over the world.”

It was opened in 1960 and now has more than 2,500 stars dedicated to outstanding personalities. The extremely popular movie Pretty Woman can mislead you about the purpose of this alley – and be sure it is visited by more than 10 million tourists a year! It’s not just film actors who receive stars – any entertainer can be awarded.

Not only people are distinguished here: there is a star of Mickey Mouse, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Winnie the Pooh, Shrek, and even The Simpsons. In addition to people of art, the stars were also given to outstanding inventors working in the industry – for example, the Lumière brothers, Thomas Edison, and George Eastman.

Today we will talk about one and only of these stars – either near 6633 on Hollywood Boulevard, or 6635 – different sources mention it differently. It says “Anatol Litvak”. The surname is familiar – isn’t it a fellow countryman? Yes, that’s right – a Kyivan in Hollywood!




Anatoly Mikhaylovich Litvak was born in May 1902 (sources cannot agree on the exact date either – May 5 or 10) in Kyiv. His father was a high-level bank employee, and in his boyhood days the child did not have any material problems and was also able to get a normal education.

He got his higher education in St. Petersburg, where his parents moved. In 1916 he entered the Faculty of Philosophy of the St. Petersburg Imperial University, which he successfully graduated in 1921, when the University had already ceased to be imperial.

The revolution destroyed a lot of things, including the well-being of his family – few bank employees were not hurt by it. His father died soon; his mother could not forge her own path in a new life, and the young man was quite desperate for the money and looked for any job for a long time.

His interest in the theater, which he showed from an early age, came to succor – even at the age of 14 he worked as a backstage crew member. Later he played in small performances and went to Moscow to study with such wonderful directors as Vsevolod Meyerhold and Yevgeny Vakhtangov.




But, like a number of other theater workers (Eisenstein, for example), he was carried away by a new, theater-related art – the cinema. He began working at the St. Petersburg film studio Sevzapkino (from which Lenfilm later grew) and wrote the script for The Youngest Pioneer, which was later filmed.

Then he moved to Nordkino studio, established with Danish capital. There he made his debut as a director – first with a film about children Tatiana, and then with a Heart and Dollars comedy about the petty bourgeoisie of the NEP (New Economic Policy) times. Later he calls them “disgraceful”, but then he obviously did not think so…

For a young man, such a career could be considered quick and successful. Litvak was noticed and started to be recommended and propelled. Eventually, in 1925, he got a tempting offer – to go on a business trip abroad, study a new cinema technique there, and then return home and introduce it.

Litvak accepted this offer with pleasure and went to Germany. He decided to stay there, not even thinking of returning from this business trip. None of his biographies explains why he did this – in any case, they do not deal with this issue. Probably because it is quite obvious.




Having arrived in Germany, Litvak did not fall through the cracks. In the same 1925 he became the editor of the famous film by Georg Pabst Joyless Street. It was in it that Greta Garbo got the first big role, and the young Marlene Dietrich appeared in one of the episodes.

Litvak worked as an assistant director on a number of productions at the then largest German film studio UFA. He was sent to Paris as assistant director for Abel Gance and his film Napoleon, and there he also acted in the film Secrets of the Orient with Vertinsky.

In 1930, UFA entrusted him with an independent production – the musical Dolly Gets Ahead with the 20-year-old actress Dolly Haas in the lead role. A New York Times critic complained that “the singing sounds devilish and it is impossible to hear the conversation,” but the film became a box office hit.

Litvak’s career in UFA was not that long: even before Hitler’s victory in the elections, he moved to France, which proved that he not only knew how to make a good movie, but also understood something in politics and knew how to foresee the consequences of events. Moreover, there was enough work for him there.




The first directorial work of Litvak in France, who by that time took the more familiar French name Anatole, was the crime film Lilac Heart. It became one of the first films of two great actors – Jean Gabin and Fernandel, and was quite successful.

Several more movies followed, but of particular note was Mayerling, made in 1936 – a film about the tragic death of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Rudolph and his mistress Baroness Marie Vetsera, whose role was brilliantly played by Danielle Darrieux.

The film was a great success, got a nomination for the main prize of the Venice Film Festival, and most importantly – induced to pay attention to Litvak even in Hollywood. American reviewer John Wakeman called Mayerling “a romantic tragedy of the highest standard” – and people listened to it.

In addition, the famous Asta Nielsen played a role in the invitation of Litvak to Hollywood, giving him good recommendations (by the way, she was married to Ukrainian Gregori Chmara for a long time). It seems that they knew each other since the days of the St. Petersburg studio Nordkino with Danish capital.




During a trip to the USA on the Normandy liner, it happened that the Hollywood star Miriam Hopkins was returning to America with the same sailing. Litvak was immediately into her – and so much that he offered the heart and hand to her, to which she responded with mockery and a harsh refusal.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Anatol Litvak from Kyiv – Hollywood director of the first anti-Nazi film
Miriam Hopkins. Source: listal.com

Who could have guessed that in just a couple of months Anatole Litvak would be appointed the director of The Woman I Love, in which Miriam Hopkins headed the cast? During filming, he repeated his offer – and this time he secured her consent.

It seems that the film ethics invented by Ilf and Petrov, the main thing in which was that the director was forbidden to romance with actresses, is not observed in real life: there are quite many examples of that. However, it was a typical Hollywood marriage – it lasted only two years and ended in divorce.

But Anatole Litvak did not start to film worse from all this emotional upheaval – rather the opposite. Having made three films in one and a half years – Tovarich, Sisters, and The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, he successfully proceeded to the fourth one, completed in 1939. It is worth a separate mentioning.




His next movie, with the sufficiently revealing title Confessions of a Nazi Spy, touched off a storm. Hitler’s diplomats found out about the filming and made great efforts to ensure that this picture did not appear on the screen at all.

As soon as the shooting began, the Consul General of Germany in Los Angeles warned that the Third Reich would ban not only the picture, but also all movies with the participation of actors who would be filmed in it. The director and Warner Brothers were bombarded with threatening letters.

A number of actors either refused to act or took pseudonyms. Nevertheless, on May 6, 1939, the premiere took place, and immediately the German ambassador told the US State Department that film exhibition would greatly damage relations between the two countries. However, this has not canceled the screening of the film.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Anatol Litvak from Kyiv – Hollywood director of the first anti-Nazi film
Poster of Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Source: wikipedia.org

The day after the premiere, supporters of the Fuhrer burned down one of the cinemas where the film was shown. In Germany, a supposedly angry spectator killed a representative of the Warner Brothers studio, and two film distributors in Poland were soon subjected to demonstrational execution by a firing squad.

Not only in Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain (this was understandable as it was), but also in a number of European countries – Switzerland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden – the film was banned so as not to irritate an aggressive neighbor. By the way, vainly – it did not help them.

The movie is easy to find, and I snatched an opportunity to watch it. Like any stirring campaign, it is not the sharpest knife in the drawer in terms of plot subtleties and devices, but it was filmed very professionally. It is not worth forgetting its plot – Miguel de Unamuno correctly said that “He who does not remember the past is condemned to relive it for the second time”.


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On December 11, 1941, the United States finally entered the war with Germany. Having become an American citizen by that time, Litvak joined the army. There they preferred to use him by his occupation, engaging in the Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series.

It was a massive project designed to convince Americans, many of whom were pretty hyped up for the isolationism, that Roosevelt’s decision to enter the war was right. The series included seven movies, and Litvak took an active part in the filming of six of them.

He personally directed the filming of one movie from the project called Battle of Russia and completed this work on a high professional level – to the extent that he had troubles associated with it during McCarthyism. The music for this film was written by Dimitri Tiomkin.

In 1943 he flew to Moscow to show this film at the General Staff. After the screening, he spoke and told in pure Russian how the film was shot. He answered honestly the question “How do you know Russian?”, and no more questions were asked – hell with this emigrant, anything can happen…




After the success of this project, the military gave him a new assignment – to be responsible for filming the landing in Normandy. It was decided to review the materials he had taken in the presence of one of the most famous US generals, General Patton. Litvak was agitated – the latter was known as a draconic spectator.

After the screening, it was clear how infuriated Patton was – he ran out of the hall extremely angry. Litvak was worried, but he shouldn’t have been: Patton just noticed a lot of mistakes made by the military. Patton told his staff to watch the film to a man and be ashamed of their mistakes.

For this work, the US Government awarded Litvak the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star combat medals. And that’s not all: the French awarded him the Military Cross and the Legion of Honor, and the British made him an honorary officer of the Order of the British Empire.

Winston Churchill, being no stranger to art himself (after all, he was the Nobel laureate in literature) ordered to show all films of the Why We Fight series in all British cinemas. So many people saw this war exactly through the eyes of Anatole Litvak.




After the war, he continued his career as a director, both in the United States and in Europe, where he eventually moved. Before that, he shot a smashing hit in the USA – The Snake Pit, which even caused changes in the US legislation on psychiatry – its scene was laid at a mental hospital.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Anatol Litvak from Kyiv – Hollywood director of the first anti-Nazi film
Poster of The Snake Pit. Source: db.rutab.net

His film Anastasia was successful all over the world (except for the USSR, of course), telling about the daughter of Nicholas II who allegedly escaped from being executed by the firing squad. The great actress Ingrid Bergman starred there and received an Oscar for this role. Litvak was somehow unlucky with this prize: he was nominated for it for a number of times, but still failed to receive it.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Anatol Litvak from Kyiv – Hollywood director of the first anti-Nazi film
Poster of Anastasia. Source: wikipedia.org

In 1967, he filmed a retro-detective The Night of the Generals in England – about the fate of the Nazi military after the end of the war. The movie starred such famous actors as Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, and Philippe Noiret. The film was a success and got a good puff.

His last film was an elegant and vivid film adaptation of the Sébastien Japrisot’s detective, also translated here – The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun. It was roughly his thirtieth movie – not to mention the five films he made as a producer.




Back in 1955, he entered into a second marriage with the French model Sophie Steur – a natural blonde noticeably taller than him, endowed with a sense of humor, although sometimes too scathingly sarcastic. The marriage was successful, brought him peace, and lasted until the end of his days.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Anatol Litvak from Kyiv – Hollywood director of the first anti-Nazi film
Sophie Steur-Litvak. Source: ukrinform.ua

He had a two-level apartment (the so-called “duplex”) in Paris and a house in Saint-Tropez. In a Parisian duplex, he kept his collection of paintings by contemporary artists and took in his friends, treating them to his favorite Olivier salad, made by himself, which he had known since Kyiv.

In the fall of 1975, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and on December 15, 1976, he died in a private clinic in the suburbs of Paris. People could bid farewell to him in the crematorium of the famous Parisian cemetery Père Lachaise to the funeral Russian music, selected by his beloved wife Sophie.

The urn with the ashes was installed in the columbarium of the cemetery for a short period of time, and then, according to the wishes of Litvak, Sophie scattered his ashes in an unknown place. Only his works remained – and they should not be forgotten. Including by us – he is our fellow countryman after all, and a quite respected one.

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