Reading 20th-century German cultural history through cinema, Rick McCormick finds that all roads lead to the Weimar Republic.
Rick McCormick's first winter coat was, improbably, a gift from a gangster, in the 1950s. "I was a little baby sitting on the counter of my Italian grandfather's tailor shop in Cicero, a suburb west of Chicago that had been controlled by mobsters like the infamous Al Capone," says McCormick. "My grandfather wasn't a gangster, but a lot of Capone's gangsters brought their suits there.
"The story is that this gangster came in--Johnny O'Brian, whose real name was Johnny Aiuppa, who went on to become a big Chicago crime boss. He saw this baby, threw a $20 bill down on the counter and said, 'Buy the kid a coat.' Anyway, that's what I was told."
If the story plays like a movie scene, that's only fitting. McCormick, a GSD professor, has rarely been far from a screening room for two decades. In a sense, he's kept stories like these--and the real-life stories of his immigrant mother--playing in the background while he analyzes the work of great German and Austrian filmmakers in Hollywood such as Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, and Ernst Lubitsch.
For McCormick, German film--whether made on German soil or in exile--is an important vehicle for understanding German cultural history across the 20th century. Much of his research probes the connections between the cinema and politics of Weimar-era Berlin (1918-33) and the émigré-made films of classic Hollywood (1930s-40s)--from the film noir classics of Siodmak to the stylish comedies of Lubitsch to the varied films of Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and some 60 others). Other major interests are the films of postwar Germany, especially by 1960s-70s New German Cinema masters such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog; and work by German feminist filmmakers, from the 1970s pioneers Helke Sander and Margarethe von Trotta to the 1990s "lesbian screwball comedy" screenwriter Fatima El-Tayeb (Alles wird gut ["Everything Will Be Fine"]).
McCormick describes his work as "reading films in terms of how they connect to other social, political, literary, and philosophical discourses in Germany." The readings, in one way or another, almost invariably lead back to the culture and politics of the Weimar Republic, which represents a sort of idealized political and cultural home that was destroyed by fascism.
"It was this very bright moment in German history before the darkest moment--the first democracy in Germany, with a flowering of arts and culture and politics that was an incubator for a lot of what came afterward," says McCormick. "Weimar also is a modernist mecca that anticipates the 1960s and seventies in America and Germany, and that anticipates postmodernism in many ways. It's also where much of what interests me comes together--modernism, feminism, politics, film, exile, cultural hybridity--it's all there."
McCormick concedes his scholarship "has a personal anchor." He grew up steeped in the stories of his first-generation immigrant mother, who came to big-city America in 1931 from a rural Italian village "where her family had chickens in the yard and grew their own vegetables.
"That's the movie I would make if I could--my mother's immigrant story," says McCormick, describing how his mother, then a girl, started out from her small Tuscan village by horse and carriage and then-- a train ride and two ship voyages later--arrived in New York, through Ellis Island. "Then finally she ended up in a tailor shop on the West Side of Chicago, where she met her father for the first time--he had left his pregnant wife in 1923 to come to Chicago to make money.
"We don't think of Italy and Germany or Ireland as being very different cultures from America, but they were then," observes McCormick. "Even with my fourth-generation Irish-American father, you felt it. And with my first-generation mother, the sense of cultural hybridity was great. I would hear her going in and out of Italian with her cousins and aunts--she was foreign in many ways."
The issue of "cultural hybridity" goes to the core of McCormick's study of German émigré filmmakers, which aims squarely at the intersection of culture and politics with cinema. "I'm not just looking at the stylistic tricks and techniques Wilder or Lubitsch might have brought with them from Weimar cinema," he emphasizes. "I'm also looking at their attitudes towards politics and social criticism."
Many scholars have weighed the influence of émigrés on American cinema and culture, or "studied these filmmakers as German exiles," McCormick says. His focus is different. "They really have to be understood as between cultures. What you see in their films is that they're embracing and critiquing America at the same time. I'm interested in both how it was they made very successful Hollywood movies, and in how their work reflects their German roots."
From theater to film
McCormick came to film--and to German-- by way of the stage. He majored in theater at Southern Illinois University after first abandoning political science. "I thought I would go into law and politics," recalls McCormick, "but it was the countercultural 1970s, and I had a sort of epiphany--politics seemed corrupt and hopeless, the arts were my salvation."
In high school, he'd acted in productions such as Arsenic and Old Lace; now he tackled the staples of European and American theater. "I was nearly bald before I was 20, and I tended to get cast in stuffy bourgeois roles or else crazy or nerdy types--I was the henpecked nerdy husband in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, and the out-of-control guy in Edward Albee's The Zoo Story." As a budding director, he chose plays, such as Strindberg's The Stronger, that seemed to foreshadow his later interests in German culture and in feminism.
German, however, "was an afterthought," says McCormick. Good at languages, he'd kept up his high school German in college (having chosen German over Spanish and French "because it seemed the most macho choice for an egghead"). On the brink of graduation, anxious about going out into the world with few credentials "besides having been in a Ken Kesey play in summer stock," he was thrown an unexpected lifeline by his German professor--the chance to spend a year at the University of Hamburg.
The year proved pivotal. While studying German language and literature, he formed a theater group in his dorm, staging and playing the lead in Brecht's Der Spitzel (The Spy). He relished it all enough to earn a second B.A. in German and to enter graduate school
in the states to study German drama.
But there was a problem: "I was interested in German drama as performance, not drama as text," says McCormick, who had enrolled at Berkeley for his grad work. "If you're lucky, maybe a troupe in San Francisco will put on a German play, but in translation, and not too often. So where did that leave me as a scholar?"
Fresh in his mind was the "transfixing experience" of seeing Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God just before grad school. It was the heyday of the New German Cinema (NGC)--loosely structured films of varying styles concerned with issues of history and politics from racism and feminism to U.S. imperialism and Germany's Nazi past.
When other films by NGC mavericks began showing in the Bay Area, "they were a revelation," says McCormick. "I was struck at how much the films of Fassbinder, for example, were indebted to Brecht."
After he took a NGC course from Anton Kaes, an expert on German cinema, McCormick was entirely won over from theater to film. "In part, it was a way to stay focused on performance," he concedes. "Obviously, cinema is not just filmed performance, but performance is a major component." Video was becoming more accessible, "so we could replay scenes, do sequence analysis in the classroom. You could essentially page back and forth in a film, doing close readings of passages much as you would do with a literary text."
But most important was that McCormick had "fallen head over heels in love with German film, especially with Kaes's approach--film as cultural history." As a teaching assistant in Kaes's course on Weimar film, McCormick marveled at 1920s silents that were "as innovative, as beautiful, and as radical as anything being done by the film renegades of the 1970s."
Cinema and politics
McCormick went on to write a dissertation on 1970s German literature and film in the aftermath of the student movement in Germany. The long list of cinema-meets-politics projects he has tackled since then includes the first-ever anthology on gender and German cinema, which he coedited; an acclaimed book on gender and sexuality in Weimar modernity; and articles on such topics as sex and spectacle in a 1925 film by E. A. Dupont, memory and gender issues posed by West German film of the 1950s, and themes of rape and war in the work of feminist director Helke Sander.
Closest to his heart now is his work on émigré filmmakers, the subject of one of two current book projects (the other is on German feminist directors from the 1970s to the 1990s). In the work of cultural hybrids like Wilder and Lubitsch, "you can see sophisticated and provocative ideas that really are a direct continuity with Weimar," McCormick says.
Known for romantic comedies such as the 1932 Trouble in Paradise or the 1939 Greta Garbo vehicle Ninotchka, Lubitsch (McCormick's favorite director) "got away with sophisticated sexual comedy even after the Hays [movie morality] code became strictly enforced in 1934. He knew how to deal with American puritanism. One thing he would do is set his movies in Europe--Americans would accept that it would be risqué, even though he was clearly critiquing American marital relations."
Wilder set out expressly to make "commercially popular films in all genres," McCormick says. "These were highly successful Hollywood movies--American movies. Yet there's a sexual emancipatory openness in Wilder's films, a fascination with sexual pluralism, and a social critique that is continuing a critical tradition that starts in Weimar. Wilder remains anchored in that Berlin of the 1920s and early thirties that he fell in love with."
Although Wilder "can easily be read as a misogynist," says McCormick "he also has some very honest and real women characters. But the thing you get in Wilder that I think is most emancipatory is his attack on sentimentality-- his unwillingness to take at face value hypocritical American ideals involving traditional notions of family or romance."
One example, he says, is Some Like It Hot (the 1959 farce about musicians crossdressing to elude hoodlums, with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis). "Wilder here is deconstructing and undermining popular cultural ideas about heterosexual romance," McCormick explains. "The ending is this very funny scene in which the Lemmon character rips off his wig to prove to a lovestruck Joe E. Brown that he's a man. To which Brown replies--one of the greatest final lines of a movie ever--"Well, nobody's perfect."
Students in his classes "get the sexual humor and the critique, and they're amazed that a film like this existed in 1959," adds McCormick.
The émigré directors "love America in many ways, not least because it gave them refuge. But they critique it, too. With America's postwar communist witch hunt, many felt that what they ran away from had caught up with them."
Adds McCormick: "I believe that if they were still making film, they'd be critiquing parallels between the reactionary elements that undermined Weimar and things going on in the U.S. today. For example, they might see a cynical willingness among politicians to exploit homophobia and xenophobia today that is reminiscent of German politicians and anti-Semitism."
Devotion to undergraduates
McCormick has had less time for research since assuming the directorship of CLA's Honors Program in 2001. "I'm as passionate about undergraduate education as I am about émigré filmmakers--I'm very student centered," says McCormick, who was GSD's undergraduate studies director for most of the 1990s.
Honors, he says, "offers wonderful opportunities to students--small classes, a supportive community--not unlike GSD, actually." And, he adds, "It serves a populist function. It attempts to give high-ability students some of the same opportunities at a public university that they would have at a private one."
Of all his roles, the one he finds "most invigorating" is that of teacher. He teaches a graduate seminar on Wilder and Lang, and a course called Fleeing Hitler: German and Austrian Filmmakers Between Europe and Hollywood.
"I hope my classes help students become more sensitive to how films are made, to all the things you can do with film ideologically and otherwise," he says.
"Our society is increasingly dominated by electronic visual culture. I want students to be more than just gourmet consumers of it. If they learn to read film, they can learn to be critical readers of culture more generally."
Richard W. McCormick
Focus: Film studies, 20th-century German literature and culture, feminism, gender studies.
Education: Ph.D., U of California, Berkeley (German literature and film).
Recent Publications: German Essays on the Cinema (ed. with GSD grad student Alison Guether-Pal, Continuum, 2004); Gender and Sexuality in Weimar Modernity: Film, Literature, and "New Objectivity" (Palgrave/St. Martins, 2001).
Family: Spouse, Joan Clarkson, a social worker at an adoption agency; daughters Isabel, 15, and Susana, 13; dog, Inca, a 5-year-old yellow Lab/Golden Retriever mix; cats Sunflower, a classic tabby, and Violet, a calico with lots of black.
Home: A 1907 two-story Tudor in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis.
Playtime: Running (six marathons in the last six years--"I started as part of a midlife crisis thing; it was better than buying a sports car or changing partners"); bicycling; swimming in Minneapolis lakes. Also, cooking ("Italian food is my specialty; I make a very good pesto and a good marinara sauce and a great chicken picatta").
Favorite films: "I can give you very formative films. One is Cabaret, as you can imagine. Another is The Ruling Class. Anything by Wilder or Lubitsch, or by Buñuel, Fellini, or Fassbinder; or Ottinger or Sander. I'm watching movies constantly--it's hard to know where the fun begins and the work stops. One favorite of the last few years is The Cradle Will Rock--it has revolutionary artists, émigré socialists, filmmakers, feminists, everything I like. Also, Frida.
Two thumbs down: "I can get something out of any movie. I'm not much for action films, though. I'm more melodramas, comedies--frankly, 'chick flicks,' to use a popular but ridiculous term.