Anatole Litvak

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Anatole Litvak
Litvak, Anatole.jpg
Born Mikhail Anatol Litwak
(1902-05-21)May 21, 1902
Kiev, Russian Empire
Died December 15, 1974(1974-12-15) (aged 72)
Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, Île-de-France, France
Years active 1930-1970
Spouse(s) Miriam Hopkins (1937-1939) (divorced)
Sophie Steur (?-1974) (his death)

Anatole Litvak (Russian: Анато́ль Литва́к; May 21, 1902 – December 15, 1974) was a Ukrainian-born filmmaker who wrote, directed, and produced films in various countries and languages. He was best known as the Academy Award nominated director of The Battle of Russia (1943) and The Snake Pit (1948).

Early years[edit]

Born Mikhail Anatol Litvak in Kiev, Kiev Governorate, Russian Empire, Litvak grew up in a Lithuanian Jewish family.[1][2] As a teenager, he worked at a theater in St. Petersburg and took acting lessons at the state drama school. Litvak worked with Leningrad's Nordkino Studios where he was assistant director for nine silent films. For political and ideological reasons, he fled Russia for Berlin, Germany in 1925.[3]

Director in Europe[edit]

In Germany, Litvak made his first few films at the beginning of the 1930s before the rise of the Nazis. He later fled to France prior to the Nazi invasions of World War II.

According to film historian Ronald Bowers, Litvak became skilled in using location shooting and realistic documentary effects as early as the 1930s. He also became known in the industry for emphasizing sound effects over dialogue in sound films as well as using camera tracking shots and pans.[3] As a result of having made Paris his home after fleeing Germany, the city would later become his favored locale for shooting films; thirteen of his thirty-seven films were set in Paris, including 1936's Mayerling. Of all the assistants who worked under Litvak in France, Max Ophüls would later become a recognized director.

Mayerling is credited with establishing Litvak's international reputation as a director, and the film was widely praised by critics [1] Some reviewers called it "one of the most compelling love stories the cinema has produced," and "a romantic tragedy of the highest order." American writer Lincoln Kirstein claimed the film had become "a kind of standard for the romantic film in an historical setting." In describing Litvak's cinematography style in the film, critic Jack Edmund Nolan writes that it is "replete with the camera trackings, pans and swoops which later became the trademark of Max Ophuls."[1]

Hollywood and World War II[edit]

The worldwide success of Mayerling brought Litvak invitations from Hollywood, including being offered a four-year contract by Warner Brothers. Accepting the contract, Litvak became one of Hollywood's leading directors by the late 1930s.[4] He directed such films as Tovarich, a comedy celebrating "outmoded values of the ruined Russian aristocracy."[4] Also with Warner studios, he directed Confessions of a Nazi Spy, a 1939 film starring Edward G. Robinson as an FBI agent who breaks up a Nazi spy ring. Among the techniques he used in the film to achieve realism was the inclusion of actual newsreel footage from U.S. Nazi rallies. In 1940, he directed City for Conquest starring James Cagney and supporting actor Elia Kazan, in one of his few film roles before becoming a leading director. That same year, his film All This and Heaven Too was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture.[3]

Litvak, having by then become an American citizen,[1] enlisted in the United States Army at the beginning World War II, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He joined with fellow director Frank Capra to make the Why We Fight war training film series, most of which also included actual newsreel footage. Films they co-directed for the series included Prelude to War (1942), The Nazis Strike (1943), and Battle of China (1944). Capra was in charge of production and direction for all the films.[5]

Litvak co-produced and solo directed The Battle of Russia, Operation Titanic (both 1943), and War Comes to America (1945).[5] The films were scripted by Anthony Veiller and narrated by Walter Huston, with music by Dimitri Tiomkin, another Russian-born émigré to Hollywood.[1] Prelude to War won the Oscar for Best Documentary of 1942. Because of Litvak's ability to speak Russian, German, and French, he subsequently supervised the filming of the D-Day Normandy landings.[4] Litvak also filmed aerial warfare with the U.S. Eighth Air Force. For Litvak's joining the army to help him produce the film series, Capra called him one of the "Hollywood knights" who came to America's "rescue," and without whose help "no one could have made the Why We Fight films."[6] Ending the war as a full colonel, he received special awards from the governments of Britain, the United States, and France (including the Légion d'Honneur and the Croix de Guerre).[1]

Post-war films[edit]

At the end of the war, Litvak returned to filmmaking and was nominated in 1948 for a Best Director Oscar for The Snake Pit (1948), starring Olivia de Havilland. The film was also nominated for Best Actress, Best Screenplay and Best Musical Score. To prepare for her role as a mental hospital patient, she and Litvak spent months observing actual patients at mental hospitals. Litvak had purchased the pre-publication rights to the story which is based on a fictionalized autobiography.[5] Also in 1948, Litvak directed Barbara Stanwyck in her role in the noir thriller, Sorry, Wrong Number.

In 1951, his film, Decision Before Dawn was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. After the mid-1950s, Litvak began filming in Europe. Among his productions there were the Paris-filmed Anastasia in 1956 starring Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner and Helen Hayes. The film was Bergman's first U.S. film after a seven-year absence from Hollywood, and was based on a fictitious mystery surrounding the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Bergman won an Oscar for Best Actress for her part, and film critic Michael Barson calls it Litvak's best film of the 1950s.[5] At the 1961 Cannes Film Festival, Litvak's Goodbye Again (also starring Ingrid Bergman) was nominated for the Palme d'Or. Before he retired, Litvak did two more films: The Night of the Generals, a movie about three Nazi Generals suspect of murder featuring an all star cast including Peter O'Toole and Donald Pleasence and filmed in France and Poland, and The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun, a thriller starring Samantha Eggar and Oliver Reed.

Personal life[edit]

In 1937, Litvak became the third husband of American actress Miriam Hopkins; their short-lived marriage ended in divorce in 1939. His second marriage was in 1955 to the model Sophie Steur. They remained married until his death.[7]

Anatole Litvak died in 1974 in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.

For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Litvak has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6633 Hollywood Blvd.



  1. ^ a b c d e f Wakeman, John (ed.) World Film Directors: 1890 – 1945, H. W. Wilson Co. (1987) pp. 677–683
  2. ^ Heinze, Andrew R. Jews and the American Soul: Human Nature in the Twentieth Century, Princeton Univ. Press (2004) p. 198
  3. ^ a b c Bowers, Ronald; Hillstrom, Laurie Collier, ed. International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Directors (3rd ed.) St. James Press, 1997 pp. 613–615
  4. ^ a b c Robinson, Harlow. Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood's Russians: biography of an image, Northeastern University Press (2007) pp. 27, 116
  5. ^ a b c d Barson, Michael. The Illustrated Who's Who of Hollywood Directors, Noonday Press – HarperCollins (1995) pp. 272–273
  6. ^ Capra, Frank. The Name Above the Title, Macmillan (1971) pp. 340, 350–351
  7. ^ "Anatole Litvak, Famed Movie Director, Dies", The Bridgeport Post, Paris, 16 December 1974. Retrieved on 7 October 2014.


  • Michelangelo Capua, Anatole Litvak: His Life and His Films, McFarland & Co., Jefferson, N.C. 2015.

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