Anatole Litvak (1902-1974)

Anatole Litvak
Anatole Litvak

Anatole Litvak was a talented Russian-born filmmaker who directed, and produced sophisticated films in a wide variety of genres in Russia, Germany, England, France and the United States. He achieved international fame with the classic movies 'Mayerling' in 1936 and 'The Snake Pit' in 1948.

He was experienced in all aspects of stagecraft, and was fluent in four languages (Russian, German, French and English). He was twice nominated for the Best Director Oscar for 'The Snake Pit' in 1948 and for 'Decision Before Dawn' in 1951. He was extremely active during WWII and ended the war a full colonel in the US army and received special awards from the governments of France, Britain, Russia and the United States.


He was born on May 10, 1902, in Kiev, which is now in Ukraine but which was then part of Russia. His family were Jewish. He was drawn to the stage as a very young man and in 1915, aged just thirteen, he began working as a stagehand in a theater in St Petersburg whilst taking acting lessons at the state drama school.

After the Russian Revolution all theaters and stage schools were nationalised and Litvak made the decision to join the growing Soviet film industry. He worked for several years at the Nordkino Studios in Leningrad, first as set designer and then as assistant director on a number of silent movies.

In 1925 he directed his first film, 'Tatiana', but the same year he left the over-politicised Soviet film system and moved to Berlin, where he worked as assistant director on several Silents such as 'Napoleon' in 1927. He directed the early sound features 'Dolly Macht Karriere' in 1931, 'Nie Wieder Liebe' in 1932, and 'Das Lied Einer Nacht' the following year but then moved to England to escape the growing Nazi threat.

In England he directed 'Sleeping Car' in 1933 and then moved to France where he directed 'L'équipage' in 1935 and 'Mayerling' in 1936, starring Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux. 'Mayerling' was a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic and marked a turning point in Litvak's career. Its international success brought him invitations from Hollywood, and in 1937 he signed a 4 year contract with Warner Bros.


He very soon became one of Hollywood's top directors. His first Hollywood movie was 'The Woman Between' in 1937, which starred his future wife Miriam Hopkins. Later the same year he made 'Tovarich', a comedy about the financially ruined Russian aristocracy starring Claudette Colbert. He also worked with other major Warner Bros female stars, directing Bette Davis in 'The Sisters' in 1938 and 'All This and Heaven Too' in 1940.

He worked with most of the top names in Hollywood from the start. In 1938 'The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse' starred Edward G Robinson, Claire Trevor and Humphrey Bogart . He made another comedy in 1939, 'Confessions of a Nazi Spy' starring Edward G. Robinson in which he inserted actual newsreel footage from U.S. Nazi rallies to give the movie realism, so much so that the movie was banned in Germany, Italy and Spain. Litvak directed 'Castle on the Hudson' in 1940, a John Garfield prison movie, and 'City for Conquest' also in 1940, a boxing picture starring James Cagney.

World War II

Litvak had a busy and highly successful war. He had become a naturalised American citizen and at the outset of WWII he volunteered with the US army, teaming with director Frank Capra to make a number of 'Why We Fight' shorts including 'Prelude to War' in 1942, 'The Nazis Strike' the following year, and 'Battle of China' in 1944.

Without Capra he directed 'The Battle of Russia' in 1943 and was sent to Russia shortly after the film's release in order to hold a private screening for the Russian General Staff. The film, which depicted the heroism of the Russian people, was subsequently shown in cinemas throughout Russia.

Because of his linguistic ability he played a significant role as the head of the army's photographic division, supervising the filming of the D-Day Normandy landings and filming aerial warfare with the U.S. Eighth Air Force. For his volunteer wartime efforts, he ended the war as a full colonel, receiving special awards from the governments of France, Britain, and the United States.

Post War Career

Following the war he resumed his career with a couple of outstanding film noir women's pictures, with Barbara Stanwyck as a menaced invalid in 'Sorry, Wrong Number' in 1948 and Olivia de Havilland in the Oscar nominated 'The Snake Pit' in 1948, one of the first movies to depict and discuss the problems of mental illness.

After the 1950s, Litvak worked less frequently. 'Decision Before Dawn' in 1951 was Oscar nominated and he then had a four year break before returning to Europe to film. In Paris he directed 'Anastasia' in 1956, with Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner. It was Ingrid Bergman's first U.S. film for seven years after she had scandalised the American public with her affair with director Roberto Rossellini. After Litvak insisted on Bergman for the role, she won an Oscar for Best Actress for her part. Litvak's 'Goodbye Again' in 1961, again starring Ingrid Bergman, received a nomination for the Palme d'Or and after two more relatively uninspiring European movies, he retired from film making.


Litvak married twice. His first marriage in 1937 was to actress Miriam Hopkins and was notable for the start of a famous feud between Hopkins and Bette Davis due to a supposed affair between Davis and Litvak. The marriage ended in 1939 after just two years. His second wife was model and costume designer, Sophie Steur in 1955. The marriage ended with Litvak's death. Anatole Litvak died on December 15, 1974 in hospital in Paris.

Anatole Litvak Academy Awards

No Wins:

Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Director ... The Snake Pit (1948)
Best Director ... Decision Before Dawn (1951)

Anatole Litvak Filmography

Dolly macht Karriere
Nie wieder Liebe!
The Song of Night
Tell Me Tonight
La chanson d'une nuit
Sleeping Car
Cette vieille canaille
Flight Into Darkness (L'équipage)
The Woman Between
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse
The Sisters
Confessions of a Nazi Spy
Years Without Days
All This, and Heaven Too
City for Conquest
Out of the Fog
Blues in the Night
This Above All
Prelude to War (Documentary) (uncredited)
The Nazis Strike (Documentary short) (uncredited)
Divide and Conquer (Documentary) (uncredited)
The Battle of Russia (Documentary) (uncredited)
The Battle of China (Documentary) (uncredited)
War Comes to America (Documentary) (uncredited)
The Long Night
Sorry, Wrong Number
The Snake Pit