In Memoriam: Producer Artur Brauner, Golden Globe Winner, 1918-2019

by Yoram Kahana July 30, 2019
Producer Artur Brauner, Golden Globe winner

sean gallup/getty images

Legendary German-Jewish producer Artur Brauner, whose Europa, Europa (1990, directed by Agnieszka Holland ) won a Best Foreign Film Golden Globe, passed away at age 100. The prolific, independent and successful producer had a simple two-track strategy: produce popular, lowbrow fare, which he called 'tra-la-la movies'  to finance what he deeply and personally cared about: movies about recent, horrific history.

On the one hand, Brauner produced a stream of box office hits, dramas, light comedies or TV series like the Western franchise, Winnetou or the wilderness adventure Alaska Kid. He famously exploited the zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s, when loosening puritan standards allowed producers to make softcore erotic movies to cater to popular demand and make money in legitimate venues.

Brauner sometimes also wrote the story or the script, for horror movies mixed with softcore erotic comedies, aimed at the adult market. Yet he did quite often hire established talent for his productions or tied them to artistic or historical themes. The titles often told all: Love in Rome (1960) was his first. Seduction by the Sea (1964) starred Elke Sommer, the Golden Globe winner of the Most Promising Newcomer award for her role in The Prize, opposite Paul Newman, six times a Globe winner. For Fanny Hill (1964) Brauner recruited American schlockmeister Russ Meyer, and he had the Italian Dario Argento direct Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). Other memorable titles included Sex Olympics (1972) or Lesbian Vampyres (1971). All that gave Brauner the independence and financial security to produce the other, serious movies that were close to his heart, mostly about German history, politics, the horrors of the Nazi regime, and above all the Holocaust, which were his personal history and experience.

Born Abraham Brauner on Aug. 1, 1918, in Lodz, Poland, he credited his love of movies with saving his life: He told how he was stopped by a German soldier when he was fleeing occupied Poland. Recalling a scene from a western he'd seen as a youth, where Gary Cooper, stopped by bandits on a river’s edge, rammed his head into a bandit's stomach and pushed him into the water. Brauner attacked the soldier, butting him as Cooper had done, and flinging him into the river, gun and all. "I pulled up my trousers and ran until I couldn't see him anymore," Brauner said. He escaped into the woods, where he spent the war years. Some 50 of his relatives perished in the concentration camps. After the war, his surviving parents and siblings emigrated to Israel, but Brauner went to West Berlin, and set up his Central Cinema Company (CCC),  on the site of a former munitions factory. In a few years, it would become Germany's top producing studio.

In a 2016 interview, Brauner said that seeing the SS murder a young Jewish boy near the end of the war made him determined to fulfill his childhood dream of making films. "My intention was to produce a film about the innocent victims and the elimination of an entire people," he said.  In the next 62 years Brauner would produce an astounding collection of 316 titles, often a dozen or more a year (19 in 1961 alone). They ranged from adventure to comedy, drama, crime, mystery- every genre and all subjects. But the closest to his heart were stories that dealt with various aspects of German contemporary history: the war, the Nazi regime, and the horror of the Holocaust - some two dozen movies, starting with his very third production, Morituri (1948), about escape from a German concentration camp. Others include The Garden of the Finzi Continis (1970), directed by four-time Golden Globe winner Vittorio De Sica. Set in 1930s Italy, it is about an aristocratic Jewish family caught in the rising Fascist tide.  It won top prizes in Berlin (Golden Bear), Rome (Donatello) and Hollywood - an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

The White Rose (1982) tells the story of the anti-Nazi resistance group inside Germany. Agnieszka Holland's Oscar-nominated Angry Harvest (1985), set in German-occupied Poland, is about a rich Polish farmer sheltering a Jewish woman from the Nazis. Her drama Europa Europa (1990), about a boy in Nazi Germany who hides his Jewish identity as he joins the Hitler Youth was also Oscar-nominated and won a Globe. Babij Jar (2003) told the story of the Nazi massacre of some 34,000 Jews, including several of Brauner's relatives, in a ravine near Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, during two days in 1941. One of his last films was The Last Train (2006), the story of the final journey of a group of prisoners in a rail car bound for Auschwitz in 1945.

Brauner had a lifelong involvement with the supercriminal character Doctor Mabuse, which had been popular in the 1920s. Brauner recruited the legendary Fritz Lang, director of the first Doctor Mabuse film (1922) for the 1960 reboot, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.  Some half dozen Mabuse films dotted Brauner's long career, and it is only fitting that the very last film he produced, just a year ago, was a satirical compilation based on CCC's rich Mabusian archives: The 1000 Glotzbobbel of Dr. Mabuse (2018).

Brauner received Germany's National Medal of Honor and the German Film Academy's lifetime achievement award. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem has, since 2009, regularly screened 21 of Brauner's productions that deal in one way or another with the Shoah. Brauner, who lived for the movies and for the remembrance of the past, called the screenings “the crowning achievement of my life's work.”

“He died with a smile on his lips,” said his niece Sharon Brauner  “He had a beautiful life.”