I’m posting this on the 119th anniversary of the birth of Adolf Wohlbrück, which took place in Vienna on 19 November 1896. Although born in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it is accurate to describe him as a German actor, given that his father was German and he lived for over thirty years in Germany before his emigration in 1936. Despite obtaining British nationality in 1947, the focus of Walbrook’s postwar career shifted increasingly towards Europe: much of his work in the 1950s and 1960s lay with studios and theatres in France and Germany. Today I’m going to write about an often-overlooked film, L’Affaire Maurizius (1954), which provided him with one of his darkest and most unusual roles. Although the film is based on a 1924 novel by German-Jewish author Jakob Wassermann (1873-1934), its themes resonated powerfully with the situation in post-war Europe when many people wanted to leave the past behind.
Told partly in flashback, the film opens with young Etzel (Jacques Chabassol), the sixteen- year old son of prosecutor Wolf Andergast (the great Charles Vanel), stumbling across an episode from his father’s past that would maybe best have been left buried. Andergast has no interest in revisiting the past, for he built his career upon the successful conviction of Léonard Maurizius (Daniel Gélin) for the murder of his wife Elisabeth (above.)
After talking to Léonard’s elderly father, however, Etzel learns that the guilty verdict was secured on the strength of the witness testimony of Grégoire Waremme (AW.) Pierre Paul Maurizius tells Etzel that his son had been a close friend of Grégoire’s since 1934, and this betrayal of friendship made no sense. Many people suspected there was a cover-up, but neither Andergast nor the court were interested in the truth. All they wanted was a successful conviction. It seems that Andergast’s career was built on a lie, and an innocent man has been condemned to life imprisonment.
AW and Daniel Gélin during the filming of ‘L’Affaire Maurizius.’ The two men had worked together a few years earlier
in ‘La Ronde’ (Ophuls, 1950)
We are shown fragments of the past, learning about the complex three-way relationship between Maurizius and Elizabeth, a widow some years older than he, and her younger sister Anna (Eleonora Rossi Drago.) Events on the night of the murder are confused, but during the trial Waremme makes an impressive appearance in court. AW is, of course, a superb orator, as his monologues in Blimp and 49th Parallel demonstrate. Here he gives Waremme the voice of authority, speaking before the court with dignity, his face impassive. Waremme tells the court that he is an art critic, living in Bern but born in Vitebsk on 8 October 1900. This was of course just a few weeks before AW’s notional birthday – since the 1930s his year of birth was consistently given as 1900, suggesting that he was four years younger than he actually was.
My German poster for the movie
Meanwhile the idealistic young Etzel borrows money and sets out to discover the truth about the ‘the Maurizius affair.’ Waremme is now a professor of languages in Zurich, living in a boarding house – the Pension Bobike, 14 Augustinerstrasse. He has turned his back on the past, adopting the pseudonym of Professor Warshauer, and hiding his face beneath a beard and dark glasses. Etzel also adopts a new persona, finding an excuse to approach the professor by claiming to be a clerk named Edgar Mohl who needs English lessons before travelling to America. He wins the trust of Waremme, and discovers him to be a kind and gentle old man – further confusing the idea that he had given false witness out of some sinister motive.
Waremme is no fool, however, and his suspicions about Etzel’s identity are aroused when the young lad starts telling him about his desire to be a cowboy in America. Back in Bern, Wolf Andergast is shocked to hear that his son has set off in search of Waremme, and decides the time has come to make an unofficial prison visit to see Maurizius. Sooner or later, the truth must come out – but at what cost….?
It’s a bleak and pessimistic movie in many ways, and very different in tone from the film in which Duvivier had directed AW over two decades earlier, Die fünf verfluchten Gentlemen [the German language version of Les cinq gentlemen maudits] which was filmed in North Africa in the early summer of 1931. (See the photos with Camilla Horn here.) Apart from a few exterior shots in Bern, L’affaire Maurizius was filmed in a studios in Boulogne during the autumn and winter of 1953 – hence AW’s thick coats! As part of AW’s filmography it is often overlooked and underrated, undeservedly so in my opinion. Why not celebrate his birthday by wandering off the well-worn paths to explore Anton’s range and versatility as an actor?
AW as Prince Albert and Anna Neagle as Queen Victoria in ‘Victoria the Great’
Today I had my first glimpse of the cover of The British Monarchy on Screen, the forthcoming collection of conference papers that will include my own contribution, ‘Walbrook’s Royal Waltzes: Anton Walbrook as Prince Albert in Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938.)’
This was presented as a paper at The British Monarchy on Screen conference which took place at Senate House, University of London on 23 November 2012, and was accompanied by clips from the two films mentioned above, as well as from Walzerkrieg (1933) – in which AW stars as Johann Strauss – showing a waltz scene at the court of Queen Victoria. Below are some of the other images used to illustrate my paper:
The ISBN has been confirmed as 978-0-7190-9956-4 but it looks like the book won’t be published until February 2016. In addition to my paper, there are some fantastic contributions covering a range of topics, including Dr Steven Fielding on ‘The heart of a heartless political world: screening Victoria’ (which also discusses the two AW films), Professor Ian Christie on ‘A Very Wonderful Process’: Queen Victoria, photography and film at the fin de siècle’, Victoria Duckett on ‘Her Majesty moves: Sarah Bernhardt, Queen Elizabeth, and the development of motion pictures’ plus studies of more recent screen portrayals of monarchy such as The Queen (Frears, 2006), the Showtime cable TV series The Tudors (2007-2010) and The King’s Speech (Hooper, 2010.)
Most critics agreed that Neagle’s performance was eclipsed by that of her on-screen husband – an impression supported by much of the publicity material, including this post-war German programme.
An issue that arose several times during the conference was the way that the monarchy and film-makers use each other’s power for their own gain: royalty looks to prestige films to enhance public image, while cinema promotional materials (such as this advert) display lavish regalia suggesting the seal of royal approval.
Portrait of AW, from ‘Duett im Zwielicht’ theatre programme, 1966
AW died on 9 August 1967 at the home of his old friend Hansi Burg, where he was convalescing after a heart attack suffered on stage some four months earlier. Although the play, Noel Coward’s Duett im Zwielicht (Song at Twilight) was then running at the Kleine-Komödie in Munich, it had actually opened in December 1966 at the Renaissance-Theater in Berlin, so today I am posting a couple of photographs from the original theatre programme and some contemporary press cuttings.
This caricature shows the three lead actors – AW (Sir Noel Latymer, a famous writer nearing the end of his life), Heli Finkenzeller (Hilde Latymer, his wife) and Friedel Schuster (Carlotta Gray, a former lover.) The play was first produced in London in April 1966, with AW’s roles performed by Noel Coward himself, and Hilde and Carlotta played by Irene Worth and Lilli Palmer respectively. The play had been translated into German by Martin Dongen and was directed by Viktor de Kowa – who had co-starred with AW and Hansi Burg’s father, Eugen Burg, in Der Stolz der 3 Kompanie (Fred Sauer, 1932.)
The distinctive art deco frontage of the Renaissance Theater, a former club and cinema, it opened as a theatre in 1922.
Among the press-cuttings I have reviewing the opening night of Duett im Zwielicht at the Renaissance Theater is a favourable one by Dora Fehling in Der Telegraf , who was impressed by AW’s ability to elicit sympathy for Latymer’s unattractive character: a difficult task, she admitted, but on in which the actor succeeded. Heinz Ritter went further, describing AW’s distinguished appearance in his green smoking jacket, and praising his ability to soften Latymer’s abrasive nature with an air of Schnitzler-like resignation, making the character understandable to the audience and providing him with a poignant sense of tragedy. Ilse Urbach was less impressed by AW’s performance, however, finding too much of the grand old silent-film star about him. Perhaps she would have been kinder had she realised that this grand old man had only a few months left to live. May he rest in peace.
On my last visit to London I managed to locate the grave of the famous tenor Richard Tauber (1891-1948) and thought I should write a short post about his collaboration with AW. Despite his self-confessed musical range of ‘two and a half notes’ Anton’s career involved a considerable amount of musical performances, from operetta films through to concerts, stage musicals and even an appearance at Glyndebourne. In 1932 he co-starred with Tauber in Melodie der Liebe – also known as Right to Happiness.
Tauber was born in Linz to theatrical parents, and began performing professionally in his early twenties. After the end of World War One his career really took off, with a contract to the Vienna State Opera, the first of over 700 recordings, and hugely successful excursions into the popular genre of operetta. His first film appearances were during the silent era, but with the advent of sound there was clear potential for adapting his operetta performances for the screen.
Many of these films were, to be frank, of no great merit, having little other purpose was to provide a vehicle for Tauber’s singing. Despite his popularity, Die grosse Attraktion (Max Reichmann, 1931) failed badly at the box office,
leading to the collapse of the Richard Tauber Sound-Film Company. As would happen again during his career, he recouped the financial losses with a lucrative concert tour of Britain and America. When he returned to Germany in 1932, it was clear that a different approach would be necessary if he was going to be attempt another film.
Thankfully the script for Melodie der Liebe (Georg Jacoby, 1932) was much stronger than previous screenplays and provided cinema audiences with a decent story to follow between the musical sequences. Tauber played Richard Hoffman, an eminent singer who has lost his wife and is travelling in the company of his brother in law Bernhard (Szoke Szakall) and young daughter Gloria (Petra Unkel), prior to his departure for a tour in America. After a chance meeting in a pub, he falls for a young woman named Lilli (Alice Treff), unaware of her real intention: she is already engaged to Erwin Richter (AW), an ambitious conductor who sees Hoffmann as a means of furthering his own career. While this pair devise a plan to exploit Hoffman’s infatuation, and Lilli’s hard-up parents do their best to secure a match, the singer’s daughter has met charming young artist Escha (Lien Deyers), who sees right through Lilli’s pretence. Things come to a head as Hoffman prepares for his farewell performance of Tosca: will he find true love before he sails for New York in the morning?
Looking pensive: AW as Erwin Richter
One strength of the storyline is that it allowed Tauber to perform songs and arias that were integral to the plot, rather than being contrived interruptions of it. Audiences particularly enjoyed little Petra Unkel’s performance as Gloria, and Szakall’s antics as her hapless Uncle Bernhard. The film premiered in Berlin on 26 April 1932 and was well received, later being released in Britain and America as The Right to Happiness.
AW in a characteristic pose. Only one more film and his elegance would be perfected with the appearance of his trademark moustache
Very few could claim their right to happiness in Nazi Germany, however, and several of the film’s cast were forced to leave soon after the film was released. Deyers and Szakall both went to Hollywood, the latter finding fame in Casablanca. Tauber’s grandfather was Jewish but he was raised as a Catholic after his father converted. Nazi papers began attacking him nonetheless, drawing attention to his ancestry as well as criticising the amount of money he was making. He left Germany for his native Austria in 1933, later moving to Britain where he achieved some success with more films as well as concert and opera performances. In 1936 he married English actress Diana Napier (1905-82) and remained in Britain throughout the war, dying in London of cancer on 8 January 1948.
Tauber’s grave in Brompton cemetery
Ten years later the BBC Home Service presented an hour long programme, ‘The Richard Tauber Story’ to mark the anniversary of his death. The radio programme was broadcast at 8 pm on Wednesday 8 January 1958, narrated by Evelyn Laye (AW’s co-star in the 1954 musical Wedding in Paris) with contributions from Walbrook, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Percy Kahn, Jane Baxter and Tauber’s widow Diana Napier.
There are two things I haven’t done for a while – 1) posted here and 2) watched Lola Montes (Ophuls, 1955.) Both are long overdue, and so today – the first day of another month – I thought I’d post a couple of film stills from my collection. Both are black and white, which does no justice to the lush cinematography and gorgeous Eastmancolor of the film – as well as being Ophuls’ final film, Lola Montes was his only venture into colour, and we’ll never know what wonders he might have achieved had it been otherwise.
AW as King Ludwig I of Bavaria in ‘Lola Montes’
AW plays Ludwig I (1786-1868), King of Bavaria from 1825 until he was dethroned by the revolution 1848. The king’s downfall was partly due to his public relationship with Lola Montez (1821-61), a former dancer and courtesan who wielded influence over Ludwig ever since they met in Munich in 1846. Born in Ireland, her early life saw her flitting around between Liverpool, London, Montrose, Calcutta and Paris, and by the time she met Ludwig she had been married, separated, had an affair with Franz Liszt (other alleged lovers included Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers) and performed on stage under the pseudonym of ‘Lola Montez, the Spanish Dancer.’ Her risqué ‘Spider Dance’ would later become notorious.
Lola (Martine Carole) and the KIng
After the fall of Ludwig, Lola had to flee Bavaria, spending time in Switzerland and England before emigrating to America where she took part in public lectures and performances about her past. It is probably this period of her life that suggested the bold concept of Ophuls’ film – to present Lola’s life as a circus performance. As a historical event this is pure fiction, but it provides scope for playing with ideas about public life as a visual spectacle, with the sins of a celebrity forming the centre of (quite literally) a media circus.
Such a circular visual device obviously recalls La Ronde (Ophuls, 1950) where again there is a central narrator around whom the story revolves: however, the Ringmaster (Peter Ustinov), is a much darker and more cynical character than AW’s master-of-ceremonies in La Ronde. There is a cruelty about the Ringmaster’s exploitation of the woman, who is forced to answer questions about her past life in exchange for money. Her life in the circus ring is in sharp contrast to her former life with Ludwig, probably the happiest period of her life. In my next post on Lola Montes I hope to write more about AW’s performance and include some colour pictures from the film.