Quiz question for the next party: What do films like “Dark Moments – In A View To Death”, “Dune – Der Wüstenplanet” or “I Just Want Peace” and the music video for Whitney Houston’s hit “I Will Always Love You” have in common? Even inveterate movie buffs probably won’t get the answer: They all come from the same director. At least… officially.

Alan Smithee is the name credited to all of these films – and dozens more. 138 films, short films, series episodes, etc. are attributed to him in the Internet Movie Database. A sought-after director, one would think, and a hard-working one at that. The problem: Alan Smithee doesn’t even exist. And when a film bears his name, something has usually gone terribly wrong.

Smithee is a pseudonym used whenever the actual director prefers not to have his name associated with the final product. There can be various reasons for this. Sometimes the film was edited too much, sometimes the director had to implement specifications that he himself actually rejected. Some want to remain anonymous for fear of inconvenience, others are simply dissatisfied with their own work after the fact and want to protect their reputation.

In 1969 a film was released under this name for the first time, it was the western “Frank Patch – Your Hours Are Numbered”. At that time, Robert Totten had to vacate the director’s chair in the middle of the production after a quarrel with his leading actor. Neither his successor, who completed the film, nor Totten himself wanted to be named as the director. The Director’s Guild of America (DGA), the US directors’ union, chose the pseudonym “Alan Smithee” – which initially confused the critics for a long time.

By now everyone who deals with film knows what the name means. But the exact circumstances of how the name was chosen raise questions in almost every specific case. There are some prominent cases. The most famous director who hid behind the pseudonym is probably David Lynch. He was so dissatisfied with the heavily changed TV version of his otherwise successful film “Dune – Der Wüstenplanet” that he wanted nothing more to do with it.

The use of the pseudonym in Hollywood is controlled by the DGA. Anyone who wants to attribute a film to Alan Smithee must first apply to the union. This will then be decided on promptly. The DGA is committed to the interests of the directors, historically it is to their credit that the names of the filmmakers are mentioned at all. Over time, directors have demanded more and more artistic liberties from producers—and when they’re not given them, they sometimes refuse to give their names in return.

An important condition for this: the directors are not allowed to speak publicly about the matter, nor are they allowed to publicly criticize the film. This failed for Tony Kaye, for example, who was not allowed to use the pseudonym in his 1998 film “American History X”. He had previously had a public mud fight with leading actor Edward Norton, who allegedly messed with his work too much.

It wasn’t until almost 30 years after Alan Smithee first appeared that the public learned of his true (non-)existence – fittingly through a film. Arthur Hiller’s film “Hell Hollywood” made fun of Hollywood practices: a director would like to use the pseudonym Alan Smithee, but unfortunately his name is Alan Smithee. With that, the secret was out, and in the USA the GDA only allowed its use in a few exceptional cases.

Nevertheless, the name appears again and again in the credits. Only recently also in Germany, with the drama “Barefoot through Australia”, which was broadcast by ARD at the beginning of the year. The film received positive reviews, but director Yasemin Samdereli preferred to remain anonymous. The reason given by the ARD subsidiary Degeto was “different ideas in post-production”.

Sources: International Movie Data Base / “Vice” / “The Ringer” / “No Film School” / “Frankfurter Rundschau”

See the photo gallery: On Instagram, Robin and Judith Lachhein slip into big roles. The German couple travels to film locations all over the world and reenacts famous scenes from films and series.