The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler's Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood
“Rifkind’s The Sun and Her Stars is a thoroughly researched and dimensional biography of this fearless humanitarian in a perilous time.”
Salka Viertel is an all but forgotten figure from Hollywood’s golden era, often portrayed as little more than a screenplay consultant to Greta Garbo. Now, biographer Donna Rifkind engrossing biography of Salka The Sun and Her Stars reveals that she was much more than a professional confidant of MGM’s biggest international star.
Viertel was a classical stage actress in her own right for 20 years in Germany during the Weimar era. With her director husband Berthold, the couple established Die Truppe, a successful avant-garde theater in Germany, but disbanded as the economy collapsed, and Nazis began their attacks on all free artistic expression. They saw the writing on the wall and decided to temporarily move to the US to work in films.
They planned to bring their young children over when they established their careers in L.A. The studio hired Salka as a Garbo as a dialogue writer and literary consultant; Berthold first worked as a director for Fox Studios.
They settled in Santa Monica in a large home that became a beacon of hope, a safe house, for Jewish refugees. The Viertels welcomed European colleagues who were being banned from working in the performing arts for being Jewish. Indeed, as war approach barely getting out alive as the Nazi holocaust against Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, intellectuals and artist engulfed Europe.
Salka spoke five languages was indeed a specialist in translating and adapting screenplays of classic literature. She also appeared on screen in the German version of Garbo’s debut in her first full sound film of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, directed by Jacques Feyder which Garbo herself preferred to her the English version, also released in 1930, directed by Clarence Brown, Viertel playing the old prostitute role of Marthy (who Marie Dressler played in English version).
Meanwhile, Salka advocated for exiled artists such as legendary German expressionist filmmaker F. W. Murnau and Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, who were being disrespected by the industry that acknowledged them as cinematic masters. They were also the targets as gay men and communists, and the targets of industry anti-Semitism. Salka advocated for them with studio heads, including David Selznick. Viertel also negotiated work and had the respect of MGM’s genius producer Irving Thalberg.
Berthold was back in Germany ready to direct a film when the book burnings started, and Jews were barred from working in the film industry. Hitler’s brownshirts thugs were beating up people in the streets, and Viertel fled with a group of artists and writers including the Thomas Mann and Kurt Weill, who was also working on the film he was directing.
Rifkind notes that in 2017 when she was writing this section of the book, she was shocked by the live news coverage in the streets of Charlottesville, VA, carrying torches and shouting anti-Semitic racist slogans “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.” There are many such parallels drawn in the book of that time and ours.
Salka increased her activist work on behalf of exiles, funding relatives to escape Europe, and even more friends of friends fleeing Nazi persecution and trying to make their way in the US. The immigration procedures were daunting, for one, war refugees had to have someone sponsor them financially if they couldn’t prove they could be self-sufficient.
Vertiel was denied a passport when Berthold was dying, the US government’s revenge on her for helping exiles who were under “suspicion” even though there was nothing in the Viertel’s extensive FBI files that implicated them in any criminal matter. Their crime was that they were artists and intellectuals.
The Viertels had a successful open marriage almost from the beginning, even though they eventually divorced, they remained a loving and committed couple. They were devoted to raising a close family and brought their young sons to the US, who grew up as typical California boys, loving the sun and surf, and successful on their academic and own career paths. They all served in the US military during WWII.
After the war, Salka did eventually return to Europe, now essentially exiled from her adopted country. She soldiered on with dignity and artistic drive, writing her memoir and having it published, though it was largely ignored until after her death. Rifkind’s The Sun and Her Stars is a thoroughly researched and dimensional biography of this fearless humanitarian in a perilous time.