A Birthday and a Biography

AW was born on this day in 1896 and this will be the last time I celebrate the anniversary of his birth before the publication of my biography, Anton Walbrook. A Life of Masks and Mirrors, which should be available in a few weeks time.

As many of you know, my original aim had been to have the biography published in the summer of 2017 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his death. For various reasons, however, that was not to be. Although I regret this in some regards, it was probably a good thing because my research uncovered so much more over the last three years. In fact, even since submitting the manuscript and doing final proof checks on the printer’s drafts, I’m still coming up with new nuggets of information or further thoughts about AW’s life and work.

At some point, though, one needs to draw a line under a project and get it out there, otherwise it will never see the light of day. It is too tempting to keep revising, improving, correcting, expanding, pushing an evolving work-in-progress towards an ever-receding horizon, and then find yourself at the end of life with a crumpled, dog-eared manuscript that no one will know what to do with when you’re gone. A Life of Masks and Mirrors will never be the definitive word on Walbrook/Wohlbrück, but it represents the fruits of over a decade of work as it now stands; any amendments, corrections or additions will need to wait for a second edition.

To mark today’s anniversary, I thought I would share a sneak preview of the opening pages of the biography, heralding AW’s birth in the city of Vienna:

“In March 1896 the Lumière Brothers, Auguste and Louis, brought their new invention to Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Cinématographe – a lightweight device combining camera, printer and projector – had been unveiled to the public in Paris a few months earlier and was now touring the world. The Vienna screenings opened on 27 March 1896 and followed the same pattern as in Paris, with a private show at the city’s k. k. Graphische Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt [Graphic Research Institute] followed by public demonstrations at Kärtner Straße 45 in the city centre. These screenings ran throughout the day from 10 in the morning until 8 at night and, for a fee of fifty kreuzer, visitors could watch a selection of short documentary films accompanied by live piano music. To make the shows more attractive to Viennese citizens, the Lumière agents Alexander Promio and Alexander Werschinger filmed a series of sequences around the capital in early April: shots of St Stephan’s Cathedral, the huge Ferris wheel in the Prater (which would feature in The Third Man five decades later) and scenes of crowds strolling through the Stadtpark. A special screening of these was arranged for the Emperor Franz Joseph in the Hofburg on 18 April 1896. Werschinger recalled the scene:

We had a small room on the second floor of the Burg, as the palace is known, which we were able to try out two days in advance. The entire presentation was to be limited to five minutes, as it was feared that the flickering pictures could damage His Majesty’s eyes. It was also very difficult to explain to the attendant that the demonstration had to be carried out in the dark. He said that this was not possible because court protocol demanded that two candles should always be lit in the presence of His Majesty. Everyone was amazed that after he had seen the pictures, the Emperor demanded very animatedly that they be shown again twice.

The cinema had arrived in Vienna.

Seven months later, in the same city, Adolf Anton Wilhelm Wohlbrück
was born.

Vienna was still buzzing with excitement over this new form of entertainment, but nobody at the time could foresee that ‘moving pictures’ would provide a career for the newborn child. Nor could they have foreseen that within twenty years the Emperor’s candles would be extinguished and his Empire dismembered. For the time being, Vienna was on the rise.

Karl Lueger’s Christian Social Party had recently wrestled power from the Liberals and with Lueger as Mayor, Vienna began its transformation into a city of elegant gardens and parks. Artists, writers, musicians and other intellectuals met to discuss their views over coffee in Café Griensteidl, Café Central, or Café Museum. Prominent among these was a group known as Jung Wien [Young Vienna], whose members included the playwrights Arthur Schnitzler – then writing his controversial Reigen – and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Egon Schiele was about to spearhead the Wiener Secession art movement, ‘Waltz King’ Johann Strauss the Younger – composer of the Blue Danube waltz, Die Fledermaus and Der Zigeunerbaron [The Gypsy Baron] – lived in Igelgasse, Freud had just coined the term ‘psychoanalysis’, Gustav Mahler had recently been appointed Director of the State Opera House, and cinema was the newest addition to the arts in which the
Wohlbrück family had been involved for centuries….”

The chapter then goes on to discuss AW’s ancestry and family background, his childhood in Vienna and Berlin, and the beginning of his acting career at the Deutsches Theater. Those who want to read more will have to wait for the book to come out, but in the meantime, here’s some of that wonderful footage of Vienna, here showing the busy pedestrian crossing on Ringstraße opposite the magnificent State Opera House, then known as the Wien Hofoper:

Carte-de-visite of the week #17. Pascal Sébah (1823–1886)

Portrait of an unknown lady, by Pascal Sebah

Most of the cartes-des-visites featured so far have been either British or European, so this week I thought I’d rove further afield and include an image from the Middle East. This portrait was taken by Pascal Sébah (1823–1886), who was born in Constantinople (now Istanbul of course) to a Syrian Catholic father and an Armenian mother.

He opened his first photographic studio in the city in 1857, with premises on Postacılar Street in the European side of Constantinople, separated from the old city by the Golden Horn. Now known as Beyoğlu, the district was then called ‘Péra’ by western visitors and residents, from the Greek Πέρα, meaning ‘beyond’. From the outset, Sebah’s studio aimed to attract tourists and westerners, exploiting their fascination with the exoticism of ‘the Orient.’  His studio actually bore the name El Chark (from the Arabic الشرق meaning ‘the east’ or ‘the Orient’), which can be seen printed on the back of this carte-de-visite. (The Arabic characters are written in a decorative style which may be hard to decipher to the untrained eye

After three years he opened a new studio in a more upmarket location at 439 Grande Rue de Pera, which he ran with the assistance of a young French photographer named Antoine Laroche. Business fared well, and in 1873 Sebah opened another studio in Cairo. He not only made panoramic views of both cities and picturesque views of ancient ruins in Egypt, but also travelled to Greece to take photographs of popular sites there. The absence of any reference to Cairo on the back of the carte-de-visite – unlike the one below – suggests that this portrait was taken before 1873. Who the old lady was – a resident of Constantinople or a visitor – remains unknown.

In both Cairo and Constantinople, Sebah catered largely for western tourists, taking their portraits as well as producing images that aligned with their expectations of an oriental region of ancient mystery and exotic beauty. One of the most popular subjects for visitors was the depiction of locals in traditional Ottoman costume.

His experience in this type of image led to a collaborative project with the artist and antiquary Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910), founder of the Istanbul Archaeological Museums. Together they produced Les Costumes Populaires de la Turquie en 1873, [Popular Costumes in Turkey in 1873], a 370-page album that combined illustrations with detailed commentary by Victor Marie de Launay , and was submitted to the 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna. The album included Sebah’s portraits of Kurds, Turkish women, Bedouin from Aleppo, and Armenian Orthodox clergy.

Bey had studied painting in Paris under the artists Gustave Boulanger and Jean-Léon Gérôme, both of whom were known for their Orientalist treatments of Middle Eastern subjects. Sebah also kept in close contact with developments in French art and photography, submitting his work to exhibitions in Paris, winning medals there and becoming a member of the Société Française de Photographie. Examples of these were printed on the back of his cartes-de-visites, as seen below:

He was also involved in events closer to home, and was commissioned by Sultan Abdülhamid II to produce a photographic records of the changes then taking place in the Ottoman Empire.  The Sultan’s reign was a troubled one that saw rapid modernization and progress in education, alongside brutal repression of reformists and liberals, censorship of the press, war with Russia (1877-78), Armenian massacres (1894-86) and the gradual decline and collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Some of these photographs appeared in the French magazine Le Monde illustré.

Pascal Sebah suffered a stroke and died on 25 June 1886. He was buried in the Feriköy Latin Cemetery in Istanbul.

Following his death his business was managed by his brother Cosmi and then later by his son Jean Pascal Sébah (1872-1947), who joined the firm in 1888 at the age of sixteen. Jean went into partnership with another French photographer, Policarpe Joallier, and in 1890 their business was honoured with the title of ‘Photographers to the Sultan.’ Abdülhamid II commissioned thousands of photographs from Sebah & Joaillier and the firm enjoyed a distinguished reputation well into the 20th century. Jean Pascal Sébah died on 6 June 1947, at the age of 75.

For more on Sebah, see

Engin Özendes, From Sébah & Joallier to Foto Sabah: Orientalism in Photography (Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Publications, 1999)

Bahattin Öztuncay, The photographers of Constantinople: Pioneer studios and artists from nineteenth-century Istanbul (Istanbul: Koç Kültür Sanat Tanıtım, 2003)

Carte-de-visite of the week #16

This week’s carte-de-visite continues the religious theme, in that the subject of the photograph – a young boy, apparently named Alfred – is shown carrying a prayer book and a Rosary, suggesting that this was taken on the occasion of his First Holy Communion. In one of Baroness Orczy’s ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’ novels, Sir Percy Strikes Back (1927), she describes the young lad Amédé wearing for his First Communion ‘an exquisite cloth coat with brass buttons, a silk waistcoat, buckled shoes and a white ribbon sash on his left arm.’ The significance of the large white pole held in his right hand is unclear to me, however. It looks rather like a narwhal tusk, although perhaps it could have been a processional pole for a banner – but why show the pole and not the banner? Perhaps a reader can help?

The Catholic population on Jersey increased rapidly following the French revolution as thousands of Catholic clergy and emigres fled to the island in the wake of persecution. Further secular legislation in 1880 forced another wave of members of religious orders to leave France, and in October of that year two priests from the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate were among those who came to Jersey. Over the next few years they raised funds to build a church for the Catholics of St Helier, and St Thomas was opened in October 1887, possibly not long after this photograph was taken. Despite the large influx of French emigres, St Helier was a predominantly English-speaking town, and certainly the name ‘Alfred’ suggests that the boy was of English rather than French background.

The photographer, Ernest Baudoux (1828-1897), was  a French emigre, although he had been running a photographic studio in St Helier since 1869. He was joined by his son, also named Ernest, in 1885, so the inscription ‘E. Baudoux & Son’ on the reverse of the card dates this image to somewhere between 1885 and 1887, when Baudoux sold his business to an English photographer named John Stroud. The latest known negative number listed on the excellent historical website relating to the Channel Islands, ‘The Island Wiki’  (https://www.theislandwiki.org/index.php/Ernest_Baudoux) is 36532, whereas this cdv is numbered 37548 – suggesting that this must be one of the very last photographs taken by Baudoux before winding up business.

The front of the card proudly states that the photograph was taken using the chromotype process, and was ‘printed in carbon.’  There were various versions of this process, patented by Joseph Swan and others, and practitioners needed to pay for a license in order to do so. Although it was therefore more expensive, the results were worth it, as the use of carbon instead of silver gave the chromotype a deeper, richer purplish colour and a hard, glossy, metallic finish. Unlike the sepia toning produced by silver, the carbon prints did not become yellow and faded with age, which explains the sharp tones of this image. For more details, see Audrey Linkman’s article ‘The stigma of instability’ in Photographica World 91 (Winter 1999/2000).

 

WOHLBRÜCK – WALBROOK at the Deutsches Historisches Museum

The cover of ‘Wohlbrück & Walbrook. Schauspieler, Gentleman, Emigrant.’
(Vienna: SYNEMA-Publikationen, 2020), the new 120-page book of essays edited by Frederik Lang, Brigitte Mayr & Michael Omasta that was published to accompany the retrospective season in Berlin

 

You know what they say about waiting for ages for a bus, only for two or three to arrive at once? Well, it looks like 2020 has turned out to be a bumper year for fans of AW, and for a year that has already provided enough misery and chaos to last a lifetime, it’s good to know that it will be marked down in the annals for at least something positive.

The manuscript of my biography was already with the publishers and had just about completed its review process when the news was announced that the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin would be holding a major retrospective season dedicated to AW, screening 26 films at the Zeughauskino – seven more than were shown at the Österreichisches Filmmuseum in Vienna in 2014. The selection include rarely-screened early films such as Wüstenrausch (Von Bolvary, 1923), Salto Mortale (Dupont, 1931) and Die fünf verfluchten Gentlemen (Duvivier, 1932) as well as the documentary Der Schatten des Studenten (Ulrich, 1989).

If the timing of this major event was remarkable – given its coincidence with the publication of my biography, which has been over a decade in the making – it was also tragic, given its coincidence with the global covid-19 pandemic. UK travel restrictions and other factors meant that it was impossible to travel to Berlin to attend any of the screenings, and a number of other AW fans and film scholars told me of their disappointment that they would also have to miss out. It must have been a blow for the organisers too, as social distancing requirements meant that audience numbers had to be restricted. One might wonder if it could have been postponed, but there is much uncertainty about if, when, and how our routines will be returning to ‘normal’, and whether or not there will be further spikes of the virus over the winter months or in the near future. There is no guarantee that holding the screenings in a few months time would ensure it was clear from pandemic restrictions, and I think the organisers were right to go ahead and do what they could.

Certainly the German press seems to have regarded the season as a huge success, and there have been enthusiastic reviews in major newspapers such as Die Welt and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Many of these articles have included extensive discussions about AW’s life and work, often referring to him as der schönste Mann des deutschen Films [‘the most beautiful man in German film’], which was the title of a 1997 exhibition held at the Schwules Museum in Berlin (January to March) and the Düsseldorf Film Museum (June to August), and which has since become an oft-quoted moniker for the actor himself.

This additional publicity and media buzz focused on AW should be an advantage when it comes to the publication of my biography, which is now in the final production process – paginated proofs should be ready for me to check in early/mid September. I can’t share details of the cover yet, but it’s going to look fantastic, and the editor believes ‘it’s going to make a gorgeous volume’ – quite appropriate, given that it’s dedicated to ‘the most beautiful man in German film’!

Carte-de-visite of the week #15

This week’s carte-de-visite is actually a cabinet card, the larger format version (typically ​4 14 by ​6 12 inches) which gradually displaced the smaller cards during the 1870s and 1880s. Over the following decade or so, the popularity of both forms declined as Kodak and others made amateur photography more accessible, thus reducing the reliance on studio portraiture.

This portrait follows on naturally from the previous carte-de-visite image of Canon Vavasour, as it also depicts a scene from Catholic religious life. The back of the card is blank and there is no information to provide any details about the location or the date. A few observations can be made nonetheless.

The portrait shows a young nun sitting with – presumably – her parents, and it is therefore likely that this was taken on one of two special days – either her admission to the novitiate, or the occasion of her simple profession.  There are various stages in religious life, the length and name of which varies between the different religious orders and congregations, but the normal sequence runs along the lines of:

  1. Postulancy (from the Latin postulare, to ask or seek.) Lasts a few months, in which the postulant lives in the community and learns the basics of religious life. This period not only gives them the opportunity to decide if they feel a genuine commitment to such a life, but it also lets the community observe them and decide if they are suitable. When the period of postulancy ends, the community vote on whether or not the postulant should stay, if that is what they wish.
  2. Novitiate. This period usually lasts a year, sometimes too. In female communities, entrance to the novitiate is usually marked by the ‘taking of the veil’ and often a change of name, i.e. the adoption of a religious name, usually that of a saint.
  3. Simple or temporary vows (obedience, poverty and chastity) – this period may last three years or so, sometimes more. Nuns in simple vows are sometimes called ‘juniors.’
  4. Solemn vows. These are lifelong and irrevocable.

The nun in the portrait is wearing a Carmelite habit and the white veil indicates that she is either a novice or in temporary vows. Those in solemn vows wore black veils. There is no difference, I think, between the habits worn by Carmelite novices and those in simple vows, which makes it hard to determine what the occasion was. In the 19th century Carmelites were strictly cloistered and contact with family was extremely rare. When visits were allowed, these would take place in the parlour with conversation conducted through a wooden grille. The fact that this nun is sitting with her family underscores the special nature of the event.

The backdrop is clearly artificial, and at the bottom of the photograph it can be seen that they are actually seated outside, on grass. They were likely photographed in the convent garden, although whether or not the family were actually allowed inside the enclosure is hard to judge.

One interesting feature of this image, however, is that none of the sitters are looking at the camera. This might have been deliberate – an attempt by the photographer to make the scene look natural, as if they were captured in conversation rather than staring fixedly at the lens – or it may have been accidental, the sitters being momentarily distracted by a chance remark just before the shutter clicked.

With regard to the location, there is something about the parents’ dress that suggests they are European, perhaps French. The man appears to be wearing a military jacket, with heavy horizontal braiding reminiscent of the uniform of a hussar. The significance of the white (?) sash and the pinned badge are unclear, so any comments on this would be most welcome.

 

Close-up of the uniform