Elisabeth von England (Elizabeth of England) was published in 1930, and was the work of Theodor Tagger (1891-1958), better known under his pseudonym of Ferdinand Bruckner. He legally changed his name to Bruckner after the war, so I’ll continue to refer to him in this way. Broadly speaking, his life paralleled that of A.W’s, with his early life spent between Vienna and Berlin, followed by an interest in music and poetry that drew him into the theatrical world. He founded the Berlin Renaissance Theatre in 1922, took over the Kurfürstendamm Theatre in 1927, published Krankheit der Jugend (The Pains of Youth, 1929), Die Verbrecher, (The Criminals, 1929) and Elisabeth von England before migrating to Paris after the Nazis came to power in 1933. In Paris he wrote Die Rassen (The Races), the first anti-Nazi play to be written by an exile. It had its premiere at the Schauspielhaus in Zurich in 1934. He migrated to America the same year as A.W., publishing another historical play – Napoleon der Erste in 1937 – and joining the German-American Writers Association, the fellow members of which included Thomas Mann and Oskar Graf. During the war he worked for Paramount Studios and did not return to Germany until 1953 when he translated Miller’s Death of a Salesman for a production. He worked as an advisor to the Schiller Theater in Berlin until his death there in December 1958.
Bruckner wrote Elisabeth von England while working as a theatre director and did not reveal his authorship until its success had been proved. The play draws on Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex: a tragic history (1928), focussing on the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. It is a wordy piece, heavy on psychoanalysis (Freud wrote to Strachey on Christmas Day 1928 offering a detailed treatment) in its portrayal of the complex psychology of the ageing queen in her relationships with three men: her father Henry VIII, the much younger and attractive Essex, and the religious zealot of Philip of Spain, to whom she is also attracted.
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, (1596) by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
Essex had been part of the royal court since the late 1580s and was a favourite of the queen. Aware of this, he tended to her sympathy for granted, pushing his luck several times with occasions of insolence and disobedience. Other factions at court resented his behaviour, and a disastrous attempt at rebellion in February 1601 led to the Earl’s arrest and beheading on Tower Hill a few days later.
Using a device made popular in Berlin by Edwin Piscator since the 1920s – the Simultanbühne or split stage – Bruckner’s The Criminals was set in a tenement house which was cut away so that the audience could watch action taking place simultaneously in different parts of the building. This time, the split stage was used in the final scene of each Act to show the respective situations in the English and Spanish courts as they responded to events. By asking the audience to compare the behaviour of the two courts, the play was also inviting comparisons to be made with contemporary events in the real world. England’s pragmatism and dislike for war was contrasted with Spanish warmongering and sense of destiny.
Cover of the November 1930 programme
Very similar parallels were drawn in A.E.W. Mason’s novel Fire Over England (1936) which was adapted for the screen in 1937 with Flora Robson as Elizabeth (in my opinion, the best screen portrayal of the monarch) and Raymond Massey as Philip II. The film in fact was originally planned as an adaptation of Bruckner’s play, but this was changed due to production problems: Alexander Korda passed the job of directing onto Erich Pommer – it was eventually directed by William K Howard – and the Bruckner version was abandoned in favour of an adaption of Mason’s novel. Clear parallels were made between England’s past and present – Spain and Germany, the Inquisition and the Gestapo, Philip II and Hitler. Both Britain and Germany produced a large number of historical films during this period, projecting current tensions onto past events, and using these thrilling costume dramas to influence popular perceptions of national identity and international relations.
An 18th century engraving of Essex by Jacobus Houbraken, reproduced inside the programme.
There are elements of this in AW’s performance as Prince Albert in Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938), and I discuss this in my forthcoming conference paper ‘Walbrook’s Royal Waltzes’ which is due for publication later this year in The British Monarchy on Screen (Manchester University Press.) The paper also looks at AW’s earlier stage performances in Schiller’s Maria Stuart.
Returning to Bruckner’s play, its mix of historical drama and gripping psychology proved popular. Elisabeth von England opened in November 1930 and ran for 122 performances. The cast looked liked this:
There are many familiar names here. AW and Gustaf Gründgens worked together many times and their friendship survived the war years. Max Gülstorff had a minor role in Ich war Jack Mortimer (1935) playing the father of AW’s girlfriend. It is interesting to note that Agnes Straub (Elizabeth) and Werner Krauss (Philip II) had both appeared in Der Graf von Essex (1922), a silent film version of the Earl’s relationship with the queen, adapted from a much earlier 18th century account.
The Kammerspiele from the outside. Adjacent to the Deutsches Theater, it was acquired by Max Reinhardt in 1906 in his second season as director.
Although this photograph was taken after the refurbishment in 1937, it gives a good sense of the auditorium’s modest size.
Elisabeth von England was staged in the Kammerspiele, next door to the Deutsches Theater. The auditorium here was less than half the size, seating around 230 people, and was used for contemporary plays that required a more intimate setting, leaving the main theatre for large-scale classical productions. AW had only moved to Berlin from Dresden a few months earlier and the success of the play ushered in a new chapter in his career. Even greater things lay ahead.
During some charity shop browsing a couple of days ago I came across two old records of film music, both of which offered different recordings of Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, the theme from Anton’s film Dangerous Moonlight (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1941.)
‘Music from the Film’ (1963) played by the London Variety Theatre Orchestra
The solo piano playing is by Joyce Hatto (1928-2006), and unlike her later CD releases, is definitely genuine!
‘Big Concerto Movie Themes’ (1972) played by Geoff Love and His Orchestra
Geoff Love (1917-91) was responsible for a number of popular vinyl collections of classical film music in the 1960s and 70s, and as a child I actually owned his two preceding albums: Big Western Movie Themes (1969) and Big War Movie Themes (1971.) The solo pianist for the ‘Warsaw Concerto’ here was Robert Docker (1918-92), who was a fellow soldier with Love in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps.
Radetzky in the Ruins: detail from the record sleeve
After listening to both records several times, I must confess that I remain undecided as to which version I prefer. The original performance that we hear in Dangerous Moonlight while watching Anton at the piano – was of course played by Louis Kentner (1905-87), a Hungarian emigre who was later the brother-in-law of Yehudi Menuhin. Although I have always loved the music in the film, I find its appeal somewhat diminished once isolated from Stefan and Carole’s story.
The Warsaw Concerto was composed specially for the film by Richard Addinsell (1904-77), who had also written the music for Anton’s previous film Gaslight(1940.) After the release of Dangerous Moonlight the concerto became one of the most popular and familiar pieces of music in Britain – a phenomenon that caught the film-makers on the hop: underestimating public interest, they had not bothered either to release it on gramophone record or have sheet music printed. This oversight was hastily corrected, and the record sold millions of copies.
The Warsaw Concerto plays for less than ten minutes and therefore fitted perfectly onto two sides of a 78 rpm disc
The orchestration was arranged by Roy Douglas, with Kentner and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Muir Matheson, whose distinguished career was closely linked with the British film industry. In relation to Anton’s films, he was musical director for Victoria the Great (1937), The Rat (1937), Sixty Glorious Years (1938), Gaslight (1940), Dangerous Moonlight (1941), 49th Parallel (1941) and I Accuse (1958.) He also conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra for their Columbia recording of The Red Shoes.
There were of course numerous subsequent vinyl releases of the music, recorded by different performers – including in America where the film had been given the more dramatic title of Suicide Squadron:
Probably the worst likeness of Anton Walbrook to appear on any film poster
Others who recorded the Warsaw Concerto included George Greeley, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra, David Haines and the Paris Theatre Orchestra, Ron Goodwin, The Carpenters and Richard Clayderman.
I think it’s unlikely that I’ll start collecting recordings of the Warsaw Concerto, but I was pleased to add these two records to my Walbrook collection, taking their place on a shelf along with other vinyl and shellac items.
As today marks the 118th anniversary of the birth of Anton Walbrook, it seems appropriate to include a few pictures of his family and ancestors.
Wilhelm August Wohlbrück (1795-1848)
Wilhelm August was an actor and director who worked in theatres around Germany including Danzig, Königsberg and Lübeck, but he also wrote texts for operatic and musical performances, and is best known these days for the libretto Der Vampyr (1827.) This was written for the composer Heinrich Marschner, whose third wife was Wilhelm’s sister Marianne (1804-54), a soprano singer.The two men collaborated on a number of operas, including Die Templer und Die Jüdinbased on Scott’s Ivanhoe. He had two daughters and ten sons, one of whom was….
Adolf Alexander Andreas Michael Wohlbrück (1826-97)
Adolf was born in either Magdeburg or Flansburg and worked as an actor and entertainer. He married Betty Lewien (died 1869), from Kiel. Among their children was…
Adolf Ferdinand Bernhard Hermann Wohlbrück (1864-1940)
This second Adolf – the name comes from the Old High German Athalwolf, a composition of athal, or adal, meaning noble, and wolf – was born in Hamburg on either the 2nd or 3rd May 1864 and baptised in the city’s St Paul’s Church on 2nd July. After the death of his mother, he was adopted by a musician. Two years later a circus came to town and the sight of the entourage, with its tents and bands and animals, proved irresistible to the seven-year old who ran off to join them. By the early 1890s he was a much-loved and well-known clown with the Schumann circus. Another clown recalled his style:
‘He was very clever and his jokes were often astonishingly subtle; seconds passed before the public saw the point. When the laughter finally broke out he made a little despairing gesture, as though to say “At last!”’
This subtlety, and skill in conveying feeling through minute gestures, would be inherited by his son…
Hansi as Helga Christmann in ‘Das Mädchen vom Moorhof’ (1935), directed by Douglas Sirk and released a few months after ‘Zigeunerbaron.’
It is rather remarkable to think that we lost Hansi only a few months ago: she died on 23 February this year, just days before her 100th birthday. Born Johanna Knoteck in Vienna on 2 March 1914, like Ullrich and Wessely in my last blog post, she studied at the Vienna Academy of Music and the Performing Arts. Her great aunt Katharina Schratt was a well-known actress in Vienna, although her fame was due to her intimate relationship with Emperor Francis Joseph I rather than her stagework.After making her stage debut in Marienbad, Knotek appeared in provincial theatres around Austria before going before the cameras for Schloß Hubertus (1934)in which she played the daughter of a Bavarian count. The film was a typical ‘Heimatfilm’ – a genre of family drama set in homely, rural locations, usually the mountains. Despite her abilities as an actress, Knotek was cast in similar roles throughout her career and thus denied the opportunity to really distinguish herself.
Hansi and AW in ‘Zigeunerbaron’ – her third film
The part of Saffi is typical of these roles – that of a sweet-natured and simple girl, who relies on traditional values to see her through a series of mild tribulations. Based on Strauss’s operetta, Zigeunerbaron is a lively story full of singing gypsies and exuberant dancing, along with the usual comic twists involving disguises and mistaken identities.
Hansi played gypsy girl Saffi, who falls in love with Sandor Barinkay (AW) after he defends her from arrogant farmer Zsupan, but then becomes worried that Barinkay is more attracted to Zsupan’s beautiful daughter Arsena (Gina Falckenburg – below)
AW and Hansi Knotek on their way to Dalmatia, in the former Yugoslavia, where much of Zigeunerbaron was filmed.
Like AW, Hansi Knoteck continued to work in the theatre while pursuing a screen career. Karl Hartl directed her in other films following Zigeunerbaron, including the popular Der Mann, der Sherlock Holmes war (1937) in which two conmen – played by Hans Albers and Heinz Rühmann – impersonate Holmes and Watson, leading them into a real-life crime mystery as well as romance with two English sisters, Jane (Knoteck) and Mary Berry (Marieluise Claudius.)
In 1940 she married Victor Staal, with whom she had co-starred in eight films, and they remained together until his death in 1982. She made several films during the 1950s before her final screen appearance in Der Jäger von Fall (1974) – like her first film, Schloß Hubertus, and no less than five of her other ‘Heimat’ movies, this was adapted from a novel by Ludwig Ganghofer, Given her long association with these ‘mountain and home’ films – with titles such as Winter in the Woods, Forest Fever, Silence of the Forest, The Laughing Mountain and In the Shadow of the Mountains – it was fitting that she spent her final years in a retirement home in Eggstätt, a thickly-forested area of lakes at the foot of the Chiemgau Alps on the border between Bavaria and Austria. It was here that she died seven months ago. Hansi is buried in the Nordfriedhof (North Cemetery) in Munich.
Gina Falkenberg (1907-96)
Starred with AW in Die Zigeunerbaron (1935)
After AW returned to acting at the end of World War One, he spent four years working at the Schauspielhaus in Munich before switching to the Kammerspiele, a smaller theatre in the north Munich district of Schwabing. Since 1917 this theatre had been under the direction of Otto Falckenberg (1873-1947), a former journalist and writer. Gina was his daughter, and she had been born Anna Regina Falkenberg on 12 September 1907 in Emmering, to the west of Munich. Her mother, Wanda Kick, was Otto’s first wife.
Falckenberg had a major impact on Munich’s theatre life, earning a reputation as one of the country’s leading exponents of Expressionism. He built up a talented ensemble that included AW, Elisabeth Bergner and Heinz Rühmann. In addition to several important Shakespearean productions – including King Lear, with AW as Edmund – Falckenberg was responsible for the first staged play of Bertolt Brecht, Drums in the Night (1922) and also promoting the work of other modern writers such as August Strindberg and Frank Wedekind, in whose Spring Awakening Gina appeared following her stage debut at the Kammerspiele in 1927.
Although AW left Munich for Dresden in 1927, Gina was in her late teens when he began working for her father and it seems likely that they were acquainted. Otto Falckenburg had by this time remarried, not once but twice. In 1920 he married his second wife, actress Sybille Binder (1895-1962), but the marriage only lasted a couple of years. She moved to England in 1938 and was given supporting roles in British films, including that of Fascist agent Erna in AW’s The Man from Morocco (1945) plus another favourite of mine, Blanche Fury (1948.) Falckenburg married his third wife, Gerda Mädler, in 1924.
Gina Falckenburg followed AW to Berlin, where she began appearing on stage in 1930. She played Manuela in Christa Winsloe’s play Gestern und Heute, about the relationship between a pupil and her teacher in a Prussian girls’ school. When it was adapted for film in 1931 with the more sensational title of Mädchen in Uniform, director Leontine Sagan – another Reinhardt protege – wanted Gina to play the part of Manuela on screen as she had on stage, but was persuaded to cast Hertha Thiele instead. The teacher was played by Dorothea Wieck, the focus of AW’s desire in Der Student von Prag fouryears later.
Gina made her screen debut the following year, playing a prostitute in Razzia in St Pauli (1932), set in Hamburg’s red light district. By 1933 she was playing an American gangster moll – Mabel Wellington – in Der Page vom Dalmasse-Hotel, progressing to a senator’s daughter in Der Herr Senator. Die fliegende Ahnfrau (1934.) Although the part of a pig farmer’s daughter in Zigeunerbaron might appear to be a retrograde step, Arsena Zsupan cuts an elegant, almost aristocratic figure.
AW and the two Arsenas. A French language version of Zigeunerbaron was filmed simultaneously with the German one, with AW taking the lead in both films. As Falckenburg (left) spoke insufficient French, the part of Arsena in ‘Le baron tzigane’ was played by Daniela Parola (right)
Despite her initial fury at Sandor’s behaviour, Arsena soon finds herself attracted to the charismatic ‘gypsy baron’, and after she learns his real identity both she and her father realise the potential value of a marriage match…
Although Arsena can be haughty and vindictive, her character – who wears an array of fashionable costumes, jumps on horseback over pub tables, has a cat fight with Saffi and wields a whip almost as well as she fires a rifle – had more colour and liveliness than some of the other parts Falckenburg was given in the 1930s.
She married Italian film director Giulio del Torre in 1939 and moved to Italy, where she had a modest career on both stage and screen. Uniquely among AW’s leading ladies, she also found succes as a novelist and screenwriter, beginning shortly after Zigeunerbaron with Das unendliche Abenteuer (Berlin: Ullstein, 1937) and following this up with another dozen novels, plus screenplays and short stories. She died in Lucca on 12 February 1996.
During my last visit to Vienna I spent some time in a second hand shop near the Sigmund Freud Museum, and while browsing there came across a set of the collected works of Gottfried Keller. It was a lovely little set of small octavo volumes, in decorated green cloth bindings, and I was sorely tempted when I saw that the story ‘Regine’ was included. After some internal arguments, however, I had to put the books back – I was flying with hand luggage only and my bag was already bursting with books. As consolation, I found a copy of Alfred Ibach’s biography of Paula Wessely – Die Wessely: skizze ihres Werdens (1943), which I picked up for only 1 Euro. I will write about Wessely below, but first I am going to turn to the two actresses who co-starred with AW in Regine: Luise Ullrich and Olga Tschechowa.
Luise Ullrich (1910-85)
Starred with AW in Regine (1935)
The film Regine is based upon a novella written by Swiss-German author Gottfried Keller, and published in his story-cycle Das Sinngedicht (The Epigram) in 1881. The movie is more sentimental than the novella and makes a number of changes, but the story of an eminent engineer who falls in love with a lowly maid is essentially the same.Luise Ullrich had a fresh-faced innocent beauty that made her ideally suited for the role of Regine. Born in Vienna on 31 October 1911 to a count and major in the Austro-Hungarian army, she studied at the Academy of Music and Performing arts in Vienna before making her stage debut in the city in 1926. After some five years she moved to Berlin, where she was spotted on stage at the Lessing Theater by actor-director Luis Trenker, who cast her opposite himself in the film Der Rebell (1932) about a Tyrolean hero fighting Napoleon’s forces. Her real breakthrough came the following year, however, when she appeared opposite Olga Tschechowa in Liebelei (1933), directed by Max Ophuls.
In this film, based on a story by Arthur Schnitzler, she played the part of Mizzi who, with her friend Christine (Magda Schneider), makes the acquaintance of two cavalry officers Lobheimer (Wolfgang Liebeneiner) and Kaiser (Willi Eichberger, whom AW encouraged to go to Hollywood where he changed his name to Carl Esmond.) They meet at a concert in Vienna when the mischievous Mizzi drops her opera glasses from the balcony onto the officers below. While Mizzi pairs off with Kaiser, Lobheimer falls for Christine, having already decided to break off his affair with Baroness Eggerdorff (Tschechowa.) Unfortunately, Baron Eggersdorff (Gustaf Grundgens) has discovered his wife’s adultery, and events take a tragic turn….
The film displays some beautiful cinematography by Franz Planer, who would make similar use of his talents filming AW and Tschechowa in Maskerade. Both films are brilliant evocations of the mythical ‘old Vienna’ to which Ophuls returned with La Ronde (1950), again adapted from a Schnitzler play but this timewith AW centre-stage. Liebelei shares some similarities with Maskerade, such as the lush background of Viennese music plus the themes of aristocratic adultery and the etiquette of dishonour. Its success brought Ullrich further lead roles, including that of Regine.
Regine tells the story of Frank, an engineer returning to his native Germany for the first time in ten years after working in America. On the ship home he meets actress Floris Bell (Olga Tschechowa), whose advances he rejects. As Frank has no family, he goes to stay at his uncle’s house in southern Germany (there are wonderful location shots filmed in Bavaria and the Rhineland), where he falls in love with – and marries – his uncle’s housemaid, the humble Regine.
Regine’s social awkwardness creates some scenes that are alternately comical and touching. Inevitably, there is tension and difficulties, and a misunderstanding – caused in part by Floris – leads Frank to suspect Regine of seeing another man while he is away. Distraught, Regine tries to take her own life…but in a film like this, matters are – of course – resolved happily.
Regine was released in Germany a few weeks before Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will – a fact that demonstrates the diversity of films available to cinema goers under the Nazis. Furthermore, it was Regine, rather than any overt propaganda, which Germany submitted as its entry to the Venice Film Festival that year. Clearly, it was held in high regard.
Gazing at a photo of AW – doubtless a popular activity for young women in the 1930s
Ullrich remained in Germany during the war, receiving great acclaim for her portrayal of a heroic German mother in Annelie: Die Geschichte eines Lebens (1941.) The film follows a woman named Annelie from her birth in 1871 (the year of German reunification) through to her 70th birthday, during which she accepts the loss of her husband in World War One and possibly her three sons (in World War Two) for the good of the Fatherland. Written by Nazi Party member Thea von Harbou, the screenplay fitted in well with the Nazi cult of motherhood which was then at its peak, and Ullrich’s fine performance won her the Volpi Cup for best actress at the 1941 Venice Film Festival. The following year she married Count Wulf Dietrich zu Castell, whom she had met in South America. Now a mature woman, she continued to play character roles after the war ended and – like AW – appeared in several TV movies during the 1960s. She was honoured in 1979 for her lifetime contribution to German film and died in Munich on 21 January 1985, aged 74.
Olga Tschechowa (1897-1980)
Starred with AW in Maskerade (1934) and Regine (1935)
The actress was born Olga Knipper in 1897 in what is now Armenia. Tschechowa is the tortuous German version of Chekhova (Russian Чехова), and was the name she took after her marriage in 1915 to Michael Chekhov, nephew of the playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov. She was already related to the great writer, as he was married to her aunt, also named Olga Knipper.
She separated from Michael Chekhov just after the Russian Revolution, appearing in three silent films before leaving Russia and travelling to Vienna with her second husband, an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army. She arrived in Berlin in 1920 and found that the Chekhov name opened doors for her. After obtaining an introduction to UFA executive Erich Pommer, she was given a leading role in F W Murnau’s Schloß Vogelöd (1921.)
This silent who-dunnit is set in a castle where a group of aristocratic guests await the arrival of Baroness Safferstätt (Tschechowa, above). In the meantime, an uninvited and unwelcome guest arrives – Count Oetsch (Lotar Mehnert), whom everyone believes murdered the baroness’s first husband, his brother Peter (Paul Hartmann). Tension rises after the baroness arrives with her second husband (Paul Bildt), accusations are made, and the pious friar Father Faramünd mysteriously disappears from a locked room….
Although the film is a pale shadow of Murnau’s later work, Tschechowa gives a mesmerising performance as the Baroness, and further work quickly came her way. She made around forty silent films before migrating to talkies with Die Drei von der Tankstelle (1930), a hugely popular musical comedy that inspired several imitations, including Drei von der Stempelstelle (1932) starring AW. The success of the film encouraged Tschechowa to sail to Hollywood later that year. Although she partied with Garbo, Fairbanks, Lloyd and Chaplin, her Hollywood career was short-lived as American audiences found her Russo-German accent too thick. She returned to Germany and continued making films.
Early publicity pictures of the actress suggest a natural, sensual beauty that was much less apparent in her performances by the late 1930s.
Nor was she averse to a little bit of risque suggestiveness
In both Maskerade and Regine she plays one of the ‘grande dame’ characters at which she excelled, almost to the point of getting typecast. From Schloß Vogelöd onwards she was asked to play ladies of status and power, blending cold beauty with a certain hauteur and a hard edge that (to me) lessens her attractiveness. Willi Forst, the director of Maskerade, directed her in some of her best films such as Burgtheater (1936) and Bel Ami (1939.)
A scene from ‘Maskerade’
Love triangle: with AW in ‘Maskerade’, next to a painting of Leopoldine Dur (Paula Wessely) on the easel
She moved in high circles during the 1930s and two years after Maskerade was awarded the status of Staatsschauspielerin.However, at the same time as this ‘State Actress of the Third Reich’ was wining and dining with Goebbels and Hitler, she was passing information about them to Soviet officials. Although there is no doubt that she was working as a Russian agent during the war, there is no indication that she contributed much of value. The Russians appreciated having a contact who enjoyed access to the private company of Hitler and Goebbels; there were also plans for her brother Lev Knipper to assassinate the Führer if she could get him close enough. After the war Tschechowa was rewarded for her work with financial support and an apartment in the Russian sector of Berlin.
Olga and Lev were very fortunate to survive throughout this period, but her ability to flit effortlessly between regimes – Tsarist, Bolshevik, Nazi and Stalinist – suggests that her allegiance remained primarily to herself rather than to the world around her. Tschechowa’s clandestine activities and unreliable memoirs make it hard to gain any real sense of her personality. She moved to Munich in 1950, launched a range of cosmetics and gradually retired from acting, although her daughter Ada (1916-66) and grand-daughter Vera (1940-) both became successful actresses and Olga herself made something of a comeback in the 1970s. She died in Munich on 9 March 1980, sipping champagne and murmuring ‘Life is beautiful.’
Paula Wessely (1907-2000) Starred with AW in Maskerade(1934.)
Paula Wessely’s early life and career followed a similar path to that of Luise Ullrich. Born in Vienna, she studied at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts before taking to the stage at the Volkstheater and Max Reinhardt Seminar. Although she came from slightly humbler origins – her father was a butcher – she overtook Ullrich in popularity and went on to become probably the best loved actress in Austria. Part of this success was due to her insistence on getting lead roles from the earliest part of her career. Demanding parts such as that of Rose in Rose Bernd, Gretchen in Faust andJoan of Arc in Shaw’s Saint Joan made people sit up and take note of her name, and so it was only natural that in her first film – Maskerade – she was given the star role. (She had been considered for the part of Christi in Liebelei but lost out to Magda Schneider – otherwise I could have had a photograph showing all three actresses together.)
Like so many of AW’s comedies of this period, Maskerade revolves around a misunderstanding over identities. The painter Heideneck (AW) has a reputation as a womaniser but has broken off with his former lover Anita Keller (Tschechowa) now that she is engaged to music director Paul Harrandt (Walter Janssen). Her fiance’s brother, surgeon Dr Carl Harrandt (Peter Petersen), is married to Gerda (Hilde von Stolz), who slips away from the carnival celebrations to be painted wearing only a mask and a chinchilla muff that she has borrowed from Anita.
Artist and sitter: AW and Hilde von Stolz
A mix-up results in the picture being sent to the printers and its appearance in the next day’s newspaper threatens a scandal when the distinctive muff indicates the nude sitter was Anita. Dr Harrandt insists that his brother confront Heideneck, who invents a name – Fraulein Dur – only for Harrandt to consult the Vienna directory and locate a young secretary named Leopoldine Dur (Wessely). This lowly, but morally upright young woman is unwittingly drawn into the confusion, and matters get more complicated when Heideneck finds himself falling in love with her. Set in Vienna in 1905, the film is a nostalgic evocation of the pre-war city, filled with splendid ballroom scenes, lively music and a sumptuous atmosphere of pleasure. However, as the saying goes, ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,’ and the jealous Anita decides to get her revenge…
In both films Tschechowa really plays the same role – that of the glamorous but decadent ‘grande dame’ who is rejected in favour of a plainer and humbler woman of greater virtue. Leopoldine’s character may have looked plain by comparison with Anita’s vampish elegance, but Wessely had a natural loveliness about her, as well as being a superbly talented actress.
The year after Maskerade‘s release she married fellow actor Attila Hörbiger, whose older brother Paul had co-starred with AW in Walzerkrieg (1933.) They had three daughters – Elisabeth, Christiane and Maresa, all of whom became actresses. Wessely had another reason to celebrate in 1935, as she was awarded the Volpi Cup for best actress at the Venice Film Festival, in recognition for her performance as Valerie Gärtner in Episode, which was written by Masquerade’s screenwriter Walter Reisch. When the Nazis tried to force Reisch out of work because he was Jewish, Wessely and her husband fought his case – much to the irritation of Goebbels, who complained in his diary about the actress having ‘too many Jewish friendships.’ Reisch eventually left Austria, working in London before emigrating to Hollywood where he wrote the original screenplay for the 1944 MGM remake of AW’s Gaslight (1940.) Both Wessely and Hörbiger remained in Austria during the war, regrettably appearing – alongside Peter Petersen from Maskerade – in the unpleasant propaganda film Heimkehr (Homecoming, 1941), which attempted to justify the German invasion of Poland and maltreatment of the Polish people. After the war, Wessely’s participation in the film caused her to be blacklisted by the Allies, but she emerged from this shadow and continued acting on both stage and screen for another forty years.