‘Mr Wilder and I’: When Billy Wilder looked for his mother in ‘Schindler’s List’ | Culture

In 1977, on the heavenly island of Corfu, film director Billy Wilder and his team, led by his colleague Iz Diamond, began filming fedora, his last great film. If she doesn’t remember her as much as Apartment or twilight of the gods it is because in a certain sense it has the condition of a piece from another era. At a time when cinemas were filled with young people, and Shark became the highest-grossing film in Hollywood history, Wilder insisted on adapting a nouvelle by horror writer Tom Tryon about an abusive maternal relationship, which is also the story of a daughter who impersonates her mother to save her. Nobody understood why he had become obsessed with the story and why he didn’t want there to be even a hint of comedy in it. That the production was German was not the result of chance either.

The writer Jonathan Coe in Barcelona.
The writer Jonathan Coe in Barcelona.Carlos Ribas

It was true that Hollywood and the studio system for which he had worked so profitably and at the same time so brilliantly – Wilder had been at the top for 25 years – did not want to know anything about that story, much less the format: a classic cinema that was dying without remedy. But it is also true that the director needed to tell that story in homage to his mother, who died in Auschwitz and whom he tirelessly searched for in the innumerable videos of concentration camps that he watched to prepare mills of death, the documentary he directed for the United States War Department. Such was his desire to see her again, that he couldn’t help looking for her even in Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg, even though I knew that everything you saw there were actors.

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“Her guilt and all her pain over the loss of her mother is somehow in fedora”, considers the British writer Jonathan Coe (Birmingham, 61 years old), who draws a deep portrait of the director of Apartment in his novel Mr Wilder and I, recently published in Spanish by Anagrama. Coe had previously inventoried another life in essay form, that of fellow novelist—experimental and cursed—BS Johnson, but he felt that he had not done it justice. That non-fiction masks the truth under the vicissitudes, and that if one day he recounted the life of an artist he would do it from the novel, in order to focus on “the truth” of what that person had felt. In this new book, it is enough for him to stop at the filming of fedora to capture not just the person Wilder was at that exact moment, but everyone he was throughout his life.

Michael York and Martha Keller in 'Fedora'.
Michael York and Martha Keller in ‘Fedora’.

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And it matters little that it was not at a press conference but to a couple of journalists when Wilder —born Samuel Wilder in Poland, in 1906, and died in 2002— said that if fedora If it turned out to be a success, she would be getting revenge on Hollywood for not having bet on her, and if she was a failure, she would be getting revenge on Germany for what they had done in Auschwitz. “It’s funny how in America and Britain he’s only remembered for five or six movies and not taken seriously as an artist with a story,” says Coe, who has been obsessed with fedora ever since he first saw her in a Birmingham cinema as a teenager. “It was the day of its premiere and there were four of us in the room. I realized that she was attending the end of an era”, she exposes.

Director Billy Wilder, who died in Los Angeles in 2002, in a file image.
Director Billy Wilder, who died in Los Angeles in 2002, in a file image.

Focusing entirely on Wilder’s relationship with Europe, Coe expands the artist’s self and reflects, convinced of the “inevitability of Brexit” despite his complete disagreement with it, on what it means to “be European” and “what we can learn from our personal history and our common history”. “The fact that 90% of what is tweeted today about Billy Wilder comes from Spain says a lot about where the rest is with respect to that specific story and a way of making and understanding cinema,” says the writer. He believes that we live in “a confusing moment, in which everything changes all the time”, in which it cannot be avoided that even fiction goes back in search of real references that give it a measure of the world.

It is no coincidence, Coe considers, that there are novelists taking refuge in great figures of the past. “We look for stories focused on very specific moments and very clear themes because the present has stopped serving us,” says the author, who points to the cases of Maggie O’Farrell with Hamnet o Rodrigo Fresán and his recent Melville as examples of a trend that seems to be expanding, although it has always existed. In fact, in his case, it was reading Ravel, by Jean Echenoz, the one that prompted him to move away from non-fiction to tell the story of how Billy Wilder began to move away forever from what he had been until then, feeling that the time had come to do so, liberated, in a certain sense , from the pressure of any kind of success. Because yes, the film was a flop and he took revenge on Germany, which he had taken from his mother, and from his entire family.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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