You want to know what tough is, try being born in one place, leaving all familiar things as a young man, and learning to survive and support yourself in an alien world. Then move to another place (and language) and learn how to support yourself again. And then move to another place and another language and not just learn the local ropes all over again but become a giant in your chosen profession.
You don’t need to see one of his 76 films to understand the genius of Billy Wilder.
Wilder was one of those mid-century mittel-Europeans who knew how to survive and succeed. They walked across Russia, they walked out of Auschwitz, they walked away from trouble and if it ever found them again they knew what to do.
Wilder tells the story: “If you ever wake up in a strange hotel room with a strange woman at your side and she is dead, call Sam Spiegel. He will know what to do.”
If you want to know how to survive, ask a survivor. If you want to know how to succeed, figure it out. The story could be the opening scene from a film noir, but in Wilder’s life and in Spiegel’s it is just a dramatization of the danger and uncertainty that lurked around every corner of it until they hit Hollywood. In a tight spot? Buddy, the Gestapo aren’t even on the train yet. The thing is, figure it out: be smart, resourceful and work like hell. In other words, be “creative”.
Immigrants have a great advantage over the rest of us. They are continually called on to reinvent themselves, to figure it out. While most of us have them given to us from birth, they have to write their own parts. That’s why they are often so good at it and do so well. That’s not a Mexican gardener in front of your house, that’s someone inventing himself.
He’s in good company.
Endre Friedmann left Budapest aged 16. He went to Berlin, danced in clubs with women who needed a companion, learned to use a camera, went to Paris, fell in love with Gerda Taro, took his Leica to the Spanish Civil War, went the the Second World War, jumped into bullet-slashed water in Normandy with the first allied troops, entered Paris with General LeClerc, partied with Hemingway, made love to Ingrid Bergman, founded Magnum with Cartier-Bresson, went to China, went to Russia with Steinbeck, went to Utah, worked in New York, became an American, went to IndoChina and before he died there, stepping on a land mine, Robert Capa reminded all photographers that if their pictures weren’t good enough they weren’t close enough.
Immigrants are the quintessential Americans. Or rather they have what we would like to think are American essentials. Risk-takers because they have nothing to lose, full of innovation and energy because that’s what’s in their bank, investors in the future because they have no past to return to. Entrepreneurs, they have the potential to reinvent themselves, and us.
And we are afraid of letting too many in.