Coming to America — to escape Hitler and make movies

If you’ve never heard of Ernst Lubitsch or Peter Lorre or Billy Wilder — or didn’t know these movie greats were Jewish — PBS has a perfectly innocuous way for you to kill a couple hours.

Well-researched but only marginally involving, “Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood” revisits the familiar period in world and movie history when some 800 Jewish film artists fled Europe and attempted to continue or forge their careers in America.

A notch or two above perfunctory but a long way from inspired, the two-hour documentary distills a richly emotional saga of escape and assimilation, ambition and frustration, creativity and material success into a superficial assemblage of bland narration, archival footage and classic film clips.

The show airs at 9:30 p.m. Jan. 1 on KQED channel 9.

As far back as the mid-1920s, when the German director Lubitsch and the Hungarian Michael Curtiz (curiously given short shrift here) came to America, Hollywood welcomed new talent from Europe. The pace of Jewish immigration picked up, of course, after Hitler came to power in 1933.

The typical refugee path ran from Berlin to Paris (where some filmmakers found steady work until the war began) to London, New York and, ultimately, Hollywood. Illustrations and routine shots of trains and ships are used to convey the experience.

Some of the Jews who emigrated were leading lights of the German cinema, including actor Lorre and director Joe May. Others, like writer and aspiring director Henry Koster and cameraman Fred Zinneman, were just starting out.

Were Jewish artists who fled unusually cognizant of the Nazis’ plans, or simply fortunate enough to have cash in pocket and contacts in America? “Cinema’s Exiles” doesn’t explore that question. However, the film business was one of the first that the Nazis purged of Jews, depriving people of their livelihood and sending a chilling signal.

Once in America, the refugees had to deal with learning a new language and customs, and adapting to the American studio system. We can scarcely imagine the shock of trading the cultured high life of Berlin for Hollywood’s pool society.

Unfortunately, like so much else in this film, the picture we get is a sketchy overview drawn from numerous experiences. We never dip into any one person’s life long enough to feel an emotional connection.

Rather than do that, the filmmakers included chunks of Curtiz’s “Casablanca” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka” and “To Be Or Not to Be,” Zinneman’s “High Noon,” Wilder’s “Double Indemnity,” Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat,” and others.

The clips are utilized to draw parallels between the artists’ experiences and politics — in the 1938 “Robin Hood” sequence, Errol Flynn rallies his allies in the forest to fight a dictatorial king — with varying effectiveness. Mostly they feel like a calculated attempt to raise the film’s entertainment value, and a concession to non-Jewish viewers tuning in for Hollywood history rather than real-life drama.

Those viewers in particular will appreciate that “Cinema’s Exiles” continues beyond the war years and the Holocaust (which claimed family and friends of practically every Jewish refugee in Hollywood).

Nonetheless, anyone with more than a passing knowledge of classic American cinema will be frustrated by the documentary’s shallowness. The bigger disappointment is that a remarkable episode in Jewish history is rendered so prosaically.

“Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood” airs at 9:30 p.m. Jan. 1 on KQED channel 9.