Vienna, the Cinématographe, and the birth of Anton Walbrook

Anton Walbrook was born in Vienna – as Adolf Anton Wilhelm Wohlbruck – on this day in 1896, less than eight months after the arrival of the Cinématographe.

The Lumière Brothers, Auguste and Louis, had unveiled their Cinématographe – a lightweight device combining camera, printer and projector – to the public in Paris in December 1895 but were now touring their new invention around 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.

Vienna was still buzzing with excitement over this new form of entertainment when young Adolf Wohlbrück was born, 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.

Reinhold Völkel, ‘Café Griensteidl’, painted in the year of Wohlbrück’s birth

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.

Adolf Ferdinand Bernhard Hermann Wohlbrück (1864-1940), a much-loved and well-known clown with the Schumann circus.

The future actor’s father Adolf Wohlbrück had married – at the age of 32 – Gisela Rosa Cohn, a 17-year-old girl from a respectable Viennese family. Born on 21 July 1879 in Vienna, she was the daughter of Wilhelm and Antonia Kohn. Her father – a merchant – had recently died, and it seems her parents had hoped for a better match: having a clown for a son-in-law was rather a disappointment. Nonetheless, Gisela fell pregnant almost immediately and their first child, Adolf Anton Wilhelm Wohlbrück, was born at their home at Jörgerstraße 32, in northwest Vienna, on Thursday 19 November 1896. He was baptised exactly a month later by Fr. Emil Janetzky, the parish priest of Hernals, with religion marked as ‘Catholic’ in the final column (below.)

Baptismal certificate

Although it is frequently stated that Wohlbrück’s mother was Jewish – and the Kohn name clearly indicates Jewish ancestry – her family seem to have embraced Catholicism with ardour: Theodor Kohn (1845–1915), the Catholic archbishop of Olmütz, in Austro-Hungarian Moravia, was a close relative. As I recently discussed in another blogpost elsewhere, the actor’s sense of Jewish identity was more complex and nuanced than is generally stated.

Archbishop Theodor Kohn (1893–1904)

Barely a year later, his sister Antonie Marie was born on 13 November 1897 – in Stuttgart, due to the itinerant nature of circus life. Gisela’s mother was unhappy with the prospect of her grandchildren spending their young lives on the road with a caravan of circus performers, and insisted that they remain in Vienna. In consequence, the siblings were raised largely by their grandmother Antonia, who lived in the same street. Over the next few years, his Viennese childhood would involve both the spectacular performances of the circus and the more serious atmosphere of his monastic education at the ‘Lazarenkloster’, run by the Christian Brothers in Schopenhauerstraße – twin strands of performance and discipline that he would pull together in his acting career. The latter only began, however, when the family moved to Berlin in 1904 and another chapter in his life began…

Adolf and his younger sister Antoinette Marie Wohlbrück in Berlin 1904

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’!

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.