Film producer and agent between Hollywood and Germany
German-born Elli Silman was an influential and well-connected dramatic advisor and film agent who was particularly involved in forging transatlantic networks in the postwar film industry. She used her return to Europe from exile as a stepping stone into transnational work, drawing on her contacts on both sides of the Atlantic to promote the international careers of primarily German actresses and actors.
Born September 1, 1898 in Berlin as Elly Silbermann, Silman began her career as a secretary for the German film production company Universum Film AG (UFA) in the 1920s. By the end of the Weimar Republic she had risen to become a production assistant and dramatic advisor to well-known figures including the director Alfred Zeisler and the producer Erich Pommer, even occasionally managing a production herself (e.g. “Keinen Tag ohne dich” (1933)).
Like many of her colleagues, including Zeisler and Pommer, the Jewish Elli Silman left Germany in 1933. Her route into exile took her first to Amsterdam and then on to Paris in 1937. During those years of European exile, she worked as an assistant producer and assistant to George Marton’s literary agency. The contacts she made there proved extremely useful when, in 1939, she left Europe for New York and then Hollywood. There she found employment with Marton’s Playmarket Agency in 1940 before opening her own agency for writers and actors in 1943/1944. By then, she had changed her name to Elli Silman and had become a U.S. citizen.
In 1944, Silman joined the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). Her affiliation with the military facilitated her return to Germany in 1945, where she began work for the Office of Military Government (OMGUS) Berlin, and more specifically with the Information Control Division (ICD)’s Intelligence Section Film Theatre and Music. Her job there included the area of censorship, through which German films and other productions were officially reviewed. Silman was by no means the only returnee in the military government’s film branch. Offering their U.S. employers a unique set of skills, returnees possessed knowledge of the relevant languages and often had first-hand experience in cultural production on both sides of the Atlantic. Silman’s colleagues in the division with a German or European background included Billy Wilder (though only for a short time), Henry Alter, Michael Josselson, Robert Joseph, Peter van Eyck and, most notably, Erich Pommer. From the spring of 1946, Pommer was Chief Film Production Control Officer, and was effectively in charge of the reorganization and reconstruction of the entire Western German film industry.
It was in collaboration with Pommer that Silman started her activities as a talent scout and film agent in postwar West Germany. Both of them seem to have seen their work with the military government as but a temporary interlude in their careers. Under Pommer’s leadership, the focus of his branch office was on sorting out the immediate postwar chaos in the German film industry and putting it in line with the U.S. policies of denazification and decartelization, whilst at the same time getting German film production back on its feet quickly. This course of action was not undisputed, especially among American film studios, as Germany was not only supposed to be reeducated but also looked to be a major market for American productions. American authorities considered films particularly well-suited for establishing Western cultural influence in postwar Germany. German filmmakers, on the other hand, predominantly viewed returnees with skepticism or even resentment because of their dual role as former refugees and now as part of the foreign occupying authorities. In this highly difficult political, economic, and personal context, Pommer and his colleagues were busy exploring their own professional prospects. Taking into consideration their experiences of flight and exile, as well as the complex postwar situation, it made sense to position oneself as flexible and international so as to have more than one leg to stand on and to gain an advantage over domestic competitors.
Surviving correspondence between Silman and acquaintances and business contacts both in Germany and abroad does not highlight any of the personal difficulties she must have experienced in returning, apart from administrative complications. On the contrary, Silman’s plans bore all the hallmarks of industriousness, acting in a matter-of-fact and purely forward-oriented way. Not casting a very political figure may have been part of her formula for success at this time, which is more than can be said for Pommer, who continually struggled with the political ramifications of his activities in Germany.
From 1948 onwards Silman worked as an agent in Berlin and Munich, using her excellent Hollywood contacts to set herself apart from other German agents. She founded and co-owned the agency Alexander-Silman together with Ilse Alexander. According to her contemporaries, her Berlin office soon became a hub for a variety of people from both the German and the American film business. Her unique position and expertise made her the agent of choice for a number of returning exiles such as director Max Nosseck and actresses Lilli Palmer and Johanna Hofer. It also allowed her to function as an advisor for Hollywood filmmakers with an interest in the German market. Again, her experience in the United States and as a fellow émigré seems to have added to her competence and perceived trustworthiness. Unlike many of her German competitors who focused on the national German film market, her business was strongly orientated towards international productions in Europe and particularly in the United States. Among her Hollywood connections, Silman’s collaboration with the renowned film agent Paul Kohner, who had left Germany in the 1920s and was to become the first point of contact for many émigrés escaping from Nazi Germany, stands out as being particularly close and very helpful for Silman’s career. Having worked together during Silman’s time in American exile, they formalized their link with a sub-agent’s contract for Silman with Kohner’s agency once the former began the postwar transatlantic stage of her career. For a few years, anyone Kohner sent to Germany was looked after by Silman and vice versa. Apart from a short period at Lyon’s Agency in Hollywood in 1949, Silman spent most of her time in Germany or travelling across Europe and the Atlantic with offices in Berlin, Munich, and New York to look after her primarily European clients.
It was through the efforts and transatlantic contacts of Elli Silman that a considerable number of young German artists in an otherwise quite national market found employment abroad, especially in Hollywood. One of the first to benefit from Silman and Pommer’s efforts in this respect was the actress Hildegarde Neff (German: Hildegard Knef). Later examples include the actresses Senta Berger, Liselotte Pulver, and Marianne Koch and the actors and directors Helmut Käutner and Bernhard Wicky. In the newly forming and highly dynamic network of the international film business, Silman’s agency in Germany thus represented an interface for both returning and outbound artists.
Her case illustrates the challenges returnees faced as well as the strategies they used to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Being a very active and hardworking person, Silman did not get lost between identities but embraced the unique skill set that her exile and return provided her in order to forge a transnational career. She eventually retired to the United States and died in November 1982 in Beverly Hills, California.
Paul Kohner and Paul Kohner Agency Papers, Deutsche Kinemathek Archiv.