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!

‘The last of the romantics’?

Over fifty years have elapsed since the death of Anton Walbrook, which took place on this day in 1967, and sometimes it feels like I have been researching and writing his biography for almost half that period. This project is nearing its end, which has often given me cause to reflect upon what it means to complete a lifetime’s work – or more specifically, the nature of the legacy left by AW in his career.

What initially intrigued me about his life was the relationship between the different eras of his life – the prominent stardom of his film and stage career in Germany (which is still under-appreciated in Britain), his contributions to British stage and screen as a wartime exile, and his latter years finding work in a world that had been dramatically changed in terms of the cultural and political landscape, social expectations and technical media. His acting career spanned several different ‘worlds’ – cultural, geographical, chronological – and the decision to migrate between these was not always a free one. Like many great performers, AW was forced to adapt to successively changing circumstances and the creative choices he made reflect this – in such instances, it is not always clear how much is innovation and how much is reaction. Was his acting career moulded by his environment, or can it be argued that he played an overlooked role in the transition between the performance styles of one generation of British actors and the next?

After his death, one British newspaper hailed Walbrook as ‘one of the last of the romantics’ and there is no doubt that he represented the end of a noble tradition that stretched back to the previous century. Notices continued to be placed in newspapers for many years after his death, on either his birthday or the anniversary of his passing, with variations of the same message: ‘His bright and unique talent gave ever-recalled pleasure… Fond and treasured memories of him and his bright talents undimmed’ and expressing ‘much gratitude and happiness for his brilliant work on stage and screen.’ I can do no better today than to echo those sentiments.

It was fifty years ago today…

AW in 1961

…that AW died at the home of his old friend, actress Hansi Burg, in Garatshausen, Bavaria, where he had been convalescing from a heart attack he had suffered on stage at the Kleine-Komödie in Munich at the end of March. I have written about this in more detail on previous anniversaries (see here and here.)

It had been my intention to mark this year’s special anniversary with the publication of my biography of the actor, but for various reasons this has not been possible. Hopefully it won’t be too long before the text is complete – watch this space for further news!

The website has been undergoing some behind-the-scenes transformations which have prevented me from uploading any new material in recent weeks, and again, I hope normal service will be resumed very soon. Thank you for continuing to visit the blog.