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:

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’!

Anton Artefact #8

Letter from Walbrook to a young fan, October 1943


This is a letter written by AW to a young fan, Miss Beatrice Claire, in response to the script of a play she had sent him. It was written from the Aldwych Theatre on 6 October 1943, where AW had been playing the role of Kurt Müller in Lilian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine since the previous April.  It would run until December 1943, although the role was taken over by Ferdy Mayne. The title of the play suggested by Miss Claire is unknown, but Walbrook thanked her for the kind thought, adding: ‘It is a fine play but does not interest me as an actor – or shall I say as a [?] Viennese?’

Although I have many signed items in my collection, and numerous copies of AW’s letters from the 1920s through to the 1960s, this is the only original handwritten letter that I possess and one that I treasure.

For previous posts in the series of ‘Anton Artefacts’, see here and here. More should follow very soon!

Paper Trails, Masks and Mirrors – the archival quest for Anton Walbrook

The first ‘archival encounter’ discussed in my paper: the ephemera I was asked to catalogue in 2009 that fired my interest in Walbrook.

As most readers of this blog will know, for over a decade I have been working on a biography of the émigré actor Adolf Wohlbrück /Anton Walbrook (1896-1967), but this weekend provided a wonderful opportunity to talk about this work as part of the Stardom and the Archive conference held at the University of Exeter, 8-9 February 2020. The conference was organised as part of the Reframing Vivien Leigh research project – I have written about the relationship between Walbrook and Leigh elsewhere on these pages – and its aims are summarised here:

Conventional critical discourse focuses overwhelmingly on the findings of archival research rather than the process with scholarship telling ‘a story about what you found, but not about how you found it.’ (Kaplan 1990: 103) The Stardom and the Archive symposium seeks to challenge this convention by centralising archival process and curatorial histories in researching stardom.

The conference has seen film scholars from all over the UK and beyond, including Australia and Turkey, come together to discuss diverse aspects of archival research, curatorial practice and fan collecting in relation to stardom. The range and quality of the papers so far has been fantastic, with an imaginative scope that includes gravesites and multi-media artefacts as well as the more traditional paper-based archives.

It was a great delight, as ever, to talk about Walbrook in the presence of such distinguished and appreciative company. My presentation was entitled Paper Trails, Masks and Mirrors: the archival quest for an elusive biographical subject and discussed the different phases of archival engagement involved in writing my biography, including the challenges of dealing with gaps in the archive, the complex relationship between Walbrook’s onscreen persona, his life as a private individual and the archival record of both his life and career. It was also an opportunity to discuss the creation of my own Walbrook collection – an archive of my research as much as a fan collection – and share some of its treasures.

My collection includes original letters, postcards, film posters, vinyl, glass slides, lobby cards, cinema magazines, theatre programmes from the 1920s to the 1960s, copies of documentation from state archives and theatre museums, photographs, film stills, presscutting files and 16mm film reels, as well as some of the original costumes worn by Walbrook in his films, and I raised the issue of how the agenda of the collector relates to that of the biographer or researcher.

This offered a chance to revist the exhibition Anton Walbrook: Star and Enigma, which I curated at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum back in 2013. Anyone wishing to know more about this should watch the excellent short film made by Olivia Luder and available to watch here. As another aspect of archival engagement, I also discussed the brilliant artwork by Matt Horan (Matt Mclaren), which he created by painting scenes from Walbrook’s films, cutting out the images and then reassembling them in 3-D scenarios which were then photographed and turned into prints. My paper ended with a call for more collaborations like these, in which scholars, archivists, curators, artists and fans can learn from one another through sharing their different passions and fields of expertise.

Now it’s time to return for Day Two of the conference, which will close with the launch of the new Reframing Vivien Leigh exhibition!

Janus: looking forward, looking back

AW was born in Vienna on this day 123 years ago. It is my sincere hope that by the time this anniversary comes around again next year, his biography Anton Walbrook: a life of masks and mirrors – will have been published. As this decade-long project nears its end, there is a sense of impending closure: there will come a point when the draft chapters and back-up files can be discarded, when the envelopes stuffed full of handwritten notes can be sealed up and sent for recycling, and the computer files of drafts, plans and synopses can safely be deleted. Perhaps this is why I have chosen to illustrate this post with the latest photograph of AW that I have in my collection. This was taken in 1967, during the production of A Song at Twilight, and therefore just a few weeks or months before his death.

Nonetheless, the appearance of the biography should not mean the end of my blogging about AW, his life and films – quite the reverse in fact: few biographers would consider their work to be the final word on their subject, and I see A LIfe of Masks and Mirrors as the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one. There will no doubt be feedback, amendments, revisions and corrections, and hopefully the publication of the biography will encourage others to start talking about, and looking into, those areas in AW’s story that need to be further explored. A new phase of my Walbrook research will start, so this year marks a beginning as well as an end, a time for looking forward as much as looking back.

As part of this process of retrospective reflection, I will be giving a talk at the University of Exeter next February entitled Paper trails, masks and mirrors: the archival quest for an elusive biographical subject – Anton Walbrook which will look at the role played by archives in my research: from the first archival encounter that started me off on AW’s trail, through the time spent searching through various archives while writing the biography, to the cumulative creation of my own personal archive of AW papers and memorabilia. This talk will be part of the Stardom on the Archive symposium, being held to mark the end of the 20-month Reframing Vivien Leigh project that has been exploring how how the legacies of Vivien Leigh are archived and curated by different archival institutions. Readers of this blog may remember that AW and Leigh met on many occasions, both at theatrical events and at the actor’s home in Hampstead. Those familiar with Leigh will know that she was more widely known for her screen roles but really saw herself primarily as a stage actress. One of the topics I look at in the biography is the relationship between AW’s stage and screen work, tracing his approach to acting back to his childhood and the significance of his theatrical ancestry – and of course the importance of Vienna, where he was born on 19 November 1896: and not 1900, which was the year erroneously circulated by the media for much of his career – although that’s a story for another day….