Anton Walbrook

A Life of Masks and Mirrors

by James Downs (Author)
Monographs XII, 438 Pages
Series: Exile Studies

Table Of Content

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Figure 1. Postcard showing Wohlbrück in the role of
Armand in Die Kameliendame, Munich, 1920.

Figure 2. Wohlbrück in a production of Hofmannsthal’s
Der Tor und der Tod at the Dresden
Schauspielhaus, 1929. Photograph by Ursula Richter.

Figure 3. Wohlbrück in circus costume for the role of
Robby in Salto Mortale (Dupont, 1931).

Figure 4. Wohlbrück with his Scots terrier Bobby,
probably on the balcony of his Berlin
apartment. Photograph by Lotte Jacobi (ca.
1933). University of New Hampshire. Used with

Figure 5. Wohlbrück at home. Photograph by Lotte
Jacobi (ca. 1933). University of New Hampshire.
Used with permission.

Figure 6. Promotional film still showing Wohlbrück and
Müller in a scene from Die englische Heirat.
Reproduced courtesy of Bill Douglas Cinema
Museum, EXEBDC 55482.

Figure 7. Wohlbrück’s completed questionnaire 1933.
Bundesarchiv, Wohlbrück file.

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Figure 8. Promotional material for the Spanish release of
The Courier of the Tsar.

Figure 9. Letter from Wohlbrück to Hans Weidemann, 9
November 1935. Bundesarchiv, Wohlbrück file.

Figure 10. The two Antons. Photograph by Angus
McBean. © Harvard Theatre Collection,
Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Figure 11.  Walbrook with Diana Wynyard and Rex
Harrison in a promotional image for Design
for Living.
Photograph by Angus McBean. ©
Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library,
Harvard University.

Figure 12. Walbrook and Wynyard shredding Gaslight
script. Author’s collection.

Figure 13. Walbrook, Shearer, Powell and Pressburger with
Jacques Fath in France, 1947. Courtesy of the
photographic archive of Joel Finler.

Figure 14. Walbrook and Massine in a promotional still for
The Red Shoes. Courtesy of the photographic
archive of Joel Finler.

Figure 15. Return to Germany – Walbrook arriving at
Hamburg airport, 1949.

Figure 16. Die Ratte poster (1950).

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Figure 17. Walbrook on stage with Antje Weisgerber in the
Düsseldorf production of Venus im Licht (1951).

Figure 18. A caricature by Gilbert Sommerlad of Walbrook
with Billie Worth in Call Me Madam (1952).
© Gilbert Sommerlad/Victoria and Albert
Museum, London.

Figure 19. Der Fall Maurizius filming (Bern, autumn 1953).

Figure 20. Walbrook with Michael Powell during filming
of Oh … Rosalinda!! (1955).

Figure 21. As the Duke of Altair in Venus im Licht (TV
movie, 1960).

Figure 22. Walbrook as Waldo Lydecker in a scene from
the television movie Laura (1962).

Figure 23. Promotional adverts for Spanish-language
screenings of Walbrook’s films, 1950s.

Figure 24. Walbrook’s grave in St John’s Churchyard,
Hampstead. Photograph by author.

Figure 25. Walbrook as Theo in a scene from The Life and
Death of Colonel Blimp.
Artwork © Dashiell Silva.

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Introduction and Acknowledgements

It is impossible to pinpoint with certainty when I first heard the name of Anton Walbrook or watched one of his films. I remember watching Gaslight on television in my teens alongside my father, who was concerned that I might find the villainous performance upsetting. Once I discovered the wonders of Powell and Pressburger, I grew more familiar with Walbrook’s screen roles, but amidst the dazzling of array of talent in the work of the Archers he was but one of many outstanding players and my awareness of him remained shadowy until one particular day when I was working in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at Exeter University.

I had begun volunteering at the museum, which was then known as the Bill Douglas Centre for Cinema and Popular Culture, in early 2009 and spent much of my time cataloguing donations from the museum’s co-founder Peter Jewell. Most of these were single items, but one morning I was confronted with a small collection of film memorabilia that had obviously been put together by someone who had been a fan of Walbrook in the 1930s, when he was a star of German cinema and went by the name of Adolf Wohlbrück. It consisted of assorted ephemera – cigarette cards, postcards, cinema programmes, film magazines and booklets, as well as a copy of a small pamphlet entitled Das Buch von Adolf Wohlbrück. If I had come across these items individually, or in the form of an online list or series of catalogue entries, they might still have made little impact, but laying them all out on the table in front of me made a profound impression.

Although I had been aware that he was, like many of the Powell and Pressburger regulars, an émigré from Nazi Germany, it was only when I saw ←1 | 2→this material that I realised he had been a major film star who was featuring on the front covers of German magazines and was significant enough to merit his own little monograph. I was at once curious: how did this part of his life relate to his later work in Britain? What must it have been like to leave a glittering career behind in one country and start afresh elsewhere, especially when one’s homeland and adopted country were at war with one another? There was a story here that I really needed to discover.

However, when I began trying to find out a little more about Walbrook’s life it soon became apparent that not only was there no published biography available, but acquiring the material for writing one was going to be a challenge. Although he had been the subject of a few book chapters, these had only concentrated on specific aspects of his career and did little to bridge the gap between the British and continental phases of his life. There were no collections of personal papers or diaries held in accessible archives, and the surviving correspondence – mainly of a professional nature – was scattered in fragments in different collections around the world. As I began tracking down as many of his films as I could to watch I also started to collect whatever I could find about him. As Peter Jewell, Bill Douglas and other collectors are aware, collecting is an addictive process that is impossible to stop once begun. For years I had been an inveterate collector of old books and ephemera, especially in relation to film, photography and visual culture, seeking out artefacts such as cartes des visites, glass negatives, magic lanterns and slides, 8mm projectors, old cameras, film reels and postcards. I actually discovered that I already had one or two Walbrook portraits in my collection, but began actively seeking out whatever else I could find. Some of this was acquired from well-known online auction sites but other items were successfully discovered from scouring through the boxes at postcard fairs and local antique shops, contacting antiquarian booksellers in Germany and placing adverts in different papers and periodicals seeking information from anyone who might have known Walbrook. Over the last ten years I have built up a fairly substantial collection, much of which has provided the raw material for this biography. These include cigarette cards, signed postcards, theatre programmes, cinema magazines – in German, French, English and other languages – from the 1930s to the present day, posters, ←2 | 3→lobby cards, film stills, promotional ephemera, vinyl records, 16mm film reels, scrapbooks, press cuttings, original letters, Walbrook’s film costumes and a small library of secondary literature covering the background to his life and career. Many of the cuttings are undated fragments, which explains why it has not always been possible to cite page numbers in the biography.

These materials have been augmented by those held in archives, libraries and museums both in the UK and abroad; and I must acknowledge the help I have received during my research from the staff of these institutions, as well as many other people who have assisted me in diverse ways. First of all, I must thank Dr Phil Wickham, the curator of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, and Dr Helen Hanson, Associate Professor in Film History at Exeter University, whose friendship, knowledge and encouragement over the years have been a major force in writing this biography. I would also like to acknowledge the support over the years of Lisa Stead, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Exeter, other colleagues including Eddie Falvey, Tom Fallows, Chris Grosvenor and Amelia Seely, Harald Nødtvedt for his translation of passages from the biography of Ferdinand Finne, Pauline McGonagle, Graham Howes and Karen Lynne, for the many friends and contacts who have shared with me their knowledge, memories and material relating to Walbrook’s life and career, including Astrid Bauer, Martine Dabkowski, Karen Margrethe Halstrøm and Mary Maxwell, Raphäel Neal, Paul Mazey, Beatrice Tiger, Inga Joseph, Daniel F. Brandl-Beck, Andreas Pretzel, Professor Alan Williams, Joel Finler, Dr Rosemarie Killius, Professors Ian Christie, Mandy Merck and Michael Williams, and for the numerous librarians, archivists and museum curators who have helped me access their collections and often provided assistance beyond the call of duty, including Sonja Wienen and Sigrid Arnold of the Düsseldorf Theatermuseum, Claudia Mayerhofer of the Vienna Theatermuseum, Babette Angelaeas and Kim Heydeck of the Deutsches Theatermuseum in Munich, Gerrit Thies of the Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin, Dr Karl Holubar, Nancy Mason of the University of New Hampshire, Storm Patterson and staff of the British Film Institute Reuben Library and Special Collections, Dashiell Silva, Thelma Schoonmacher, the representatives of the literary estates of Graham Greene, Michael Powell and Michael ←3 | 4→Redgrave for permission to quote from their writings, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for permission to quote from material in the Royal Archives, to Dr Louise Styles for proofreading and to Christine Shuttleworth for compiling the index. Finally, to my editors at Peter Lang, Laurel Plapp and Andrea Hammel, whose support and solicitude has been of great help during the final stages of writing this book.

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Circuses, Cloisters and Barbed Wire
Early Years, 1896–1919

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.1

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:

The cinema had arrived in Vienna.

Seven months later, in the same city, Adolf Anton Wilhelm Wohlbrück was born.3 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.4

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The infant’s great-great-great-grandfather Johann Christoph Wohlbrück was born in Halberstadt in 1733. A simple craftsman, he nonetheless prospered to the extent that he was able to buy a house in Berlin on Leipzigerstraße.5 His son Johann Gottfried Wohlbrück (1770–1822) had a large family by his wife Marianne, including Gustav Friedrich Wohlbrück (1793–1849), an actor in Weimar whose daughter Ida Schuselka Brüning (1817–1903) was a famous actress and singer. Three of Ida’s daughters became actresses, while her granddaughter Olga Wohlbrück (1867–1933) was not only Germany’s first female film director – with Ein Mädchen zu Verschenken [A Girl as a Gift, 1913] – but also pursued a prolific career as an actress, novelist, screenwriter and theatre director.

Another of Johann Gottfried Wohlbrück’s sons was Wilhelm August Wohlbrück (1795–1848), an actor, director and composer who worked in theatres around Germany including Danzig, Königsberg and Lübeck. He remains best-known for the libretto Der Vampyr (1827), written for his brother-in-law Heinrich Marschner: Wilhelm’s sister Marianne Wohlbrück was a soprano and Marschner’s third wife. The two men collaborated on a number of operas, including Die Templer und Die Jüdin, based on Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

Wilhelm Wohlbrück had two daughters and ten sons, including Adolf Alexander Andreas Michael Wohlbrück (1826–97), who was born in Flensburg (or possibly Magdeburg) and worked as an actor and entertainer. He was the first to bear the name ‘Adolf’, which comes from the Old High German Athalwolf, a composition of athal, or adal, meaning noble, and wolf. He married Betty Lewien from Kiel, and on 2 May 1864 she gave birth to a son in Hamburg: Adolf Ferdinand Bernhard Hermann Wohlbrück was baptised in St Paul’s Lutheran Church, Hamburg, on 2 July 1864.6 Following the death of Betty Wohlbrück in 1869, the young ←9 | 10→boy was adopted by a musician – possibly because his father’s itinerant lifestyle made a stable upbringing impossible. Two years later a circus came to town and the sight of the entourage, with its tents, bands and animals, proved irresistible to the 7-year-old, who ran off to join them.7 In the early 1890s, having persevered with circus life and honed his skills in the art of clowning, Adolf transferred to the circus of Albert Schumann (1858–1939).

Born in Vienna, Albert Schumann began riding on horseback in the ring with his father – the equestrian Gotthold Schumann (1825–1908) – at the age of 3, but later set up his own circus company with premises in Malmö (1885), Copenhagen (1887), Vienna (1890), Berlin (1892) and Frankfurt (1893).8 Schumann originally established his circus in Vienna in the winter of 1890–1, setting up a wooden building in front of the Mariahilfer line – the old city boundary, within which higher taxes were levied – but the following year had a more permanent site constructed on Märzstraße.9 During his time working here with the Schumann circus, Adolf grew up to become a much-loved and well-known celebrity performer. Another clown, Adrian Wettach – better known as ‘Grock’ – recalled Adolf’s act: ‘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!” ’10 This subtlety, and skill in conveying feeling through minute gestures, would be inherited by his son.

At the age of 32, Adolf married 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.11 Her father – a ←10 | 11→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.12 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.13

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.14 In consequence, the siblings were raised largely by their grandmother Antonia, who lived in the same street. Later in life the actor revealed that his father had been a gambler who lost much of what he ←11 | 12→earned, which may also have explained some of his maternal grandmother’s disapproval.15

This did not, however, mean that young ‘Dolfi’ was unfamiliar with the circus. Later in life he recalled magical memories of watching his father perform – telling jokes with his characteristic deadpan expression – of seeing the famous equestrian James Fillis riding his horses around the ring, watching the dressage rider Baptista Schreiber and of a wonderfully wise elephant. Music appealed to him from an early age, and he would often wander into the circus tents to listen to performers practising on the guitar or concertina, where he would ask to try out the instruments.16 Despite his later insistence that he never seriously considered following his father into such work, he had to confess that ‘the circus ring was a kind of paradise for me.’17 What child could feel otherwise? Like most children, however, he was encouraged to conform to the more serious demands of education, and was duly enrolled at a monastic school about ten minutes’ walk from their home – the ‘Lazarenkloster’, run by the Christian Brothers in Schopenhauerstraße.18 The religious brothers made a deep impression upon him, and at one time he felt drawn to the priesthood. After all, the pulpit and the stage share much in common.

When Dolfi was seven the family moved to Berlin where he would remain for the next eleven years, although they returned regularly to stay with their grandmother in Vienna. The Wohlbrücks occupied two furnished rooms on Schumannstraße, and although living conditions were simple, the location was ideal from his father’s point of view as it lay only ←12 | 13→a hundred yards away from the circus.19 As a regular fixture at the Zirkus Schumann, he earned a monthly salary of 1500 Deutschmarks, although much of this was often squandered. On 6 October 1904 Dolfi and his sister were photographed together on their first day at school, and for the next eleven years he studied at the Friedrich Realgymnasium at 27 Albrechtstraße, on the corner with Schumannstraße. The Gymnasium system in Germany offered an education aimed at academically gifted students, strongly weighted towards the humanities. More importantly for his future career, however, the Deutsches Theater was situated just a few yards down Schumannstraße. Frau Wohlbrück became friends with the wife of Ernst Stern, set designer and art director at the theatre, and through these connections Dolfi became increasingly familiar with the theatrical world on his doorstep.

Meanwhile at school he obtained the Zeugnis der allgemeinen Hochschulreife or leaving certificate, known as the Abitur, which enabled him to enter university and was a sign that he was a student of some calibre. He particularly loved studying literature and the classics, and in addition to attempting to write a novel at the age of 14, he enjoyed reading out long passages to groups of schoolfriends, especially girls in his sister’s class. According to his sister Toni, at the age of 14 he fell in love with one of her classmates, Lotte Neumann, who was almost the same age and shared his interest in acting.20 Lotte later revealed that she had received her first kiss from Dolfi, who waited outside his school at the end of the day for the girls from the nearby Wagnerschule – attended by Toni and Lotte – to come out, when he might treat them to nougat bars bought for ten pfennigs from the Varsovie sweet shop on the corner of Karlstraße. Inspired by the ←13 | 14→proximity of the Deutsches Theater, the two girls got together with Dolfi to perform a play theatre at his house, using tablecloths and lamps provided by Frau Wohlbrück. Lotte began playing comic parts on the Berlin stage while still at school, singing from the age of 13 at the Komische Oper and the Komödienhaus, before making her first screen appearance in one of Max Mack’s silent films in 1912.21

Despite obtaining his Abitur, Dolfi left school at fifteen and chose instead to enter a drama school that had recently been opened at the Deutsches Theater by its director, Max Reinhardt (1873–1943). His acting talent was recognised quickly, for acceptance at the school was followed almost immediately by Reinhardt’s offer of a five-year contract at the same theatre. It has sometimes been claimed that he also received drama training in Vienna, although there seems to be little documentary evidence for this.22

It must be emphasised that young Wohlbrück was at this time entirely ignorant of the long ancestral tradition linking him to the stage. His father had lost his parents so early in life that such knowledge was never passed on. There is no record of when he first attended a theatre performance, but his later recollections of being a devoted admirer of Lotte Neumann suggest that he began theatre-going when still at school. The theatres where Lotte ←14 | 15→performed – the Komisch Oper and the Komödienhaus – were but two among Berlin’s large number of theatres, cabarets and music halls: others included the Schillertheater in Bismarckstraße, the Schauspielhaus on Gendarmenmarkt (reopened as the Preußisches Staatstheater after the war), the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm and the Lessing Theatre by the banks of the Spree. Variety shows could be enjoyed at the Admiralspalast, the Wintergarten or some of the many small cabaret clubs and venues throughout the city. Berlin’s theatrical establishments had developed out of the massive economic growth and industrial expansion that had taken place over the last four decades. The city’s theatre audiences were affluent and middle-class, comprised largely of bankers, managers, engineers and businessmen, whose predictable ‘bourgeois’ tastes and morality dictated the nature of the productions that were staged.23 By the time Dolfi began his drama training, however, things were beginning to change, thanks in no small part to the activities of his new employer and mentor, Max Reinhardt. Lotte Eisner has called Reinhardt ‘a sort of “Kaiser” of the Berlin theatre’ and he exercised a magisterial force upon the development of the theatre for over thirty years.24

Max Reinhardt and Berlin’s Theatre World

Born in Baden bei Wien, just south of Vienna, Reinhardt had started acting in his late teens with roles in Vienna and Salzburg. Following the appointment of Otto Brahms as director of the Deutsches Theater in 1894, Reinhardt was invited to Berlin, joining the company around the same time as Albert Bassermann, Emmanuel Reicher and others.25 By ←15 | 16→the early 1900s Reinhardt was managing a number of small theatres and experimental cabarets in addition to his work at the Deutsches Theater, where he replaced Brahms in 1904.26 Reinhardt gradually pushed the theatre away from the naturalism promoted by Brahms, introducing a more abstract visual style in both stage design and acting techniques. Although Reinhardt rejected Brahm’s distinction between modern plays, in which the actors delivered their lines naturally, and Shakespeare and the classics, which were formally declaimed in a rhetorical style, it should be emphasised that Reinhardt varied his approach depending on what he saw as the individual character of each production: he drew on an eclectic range of styles and would draw on realism, symbolism or expressionism as he saw fit. In addition to this creative versatility and willingness to experiment, he surrounded himself with many of the great talents of the age. He hired artists such as Edward Gordon Craig, Edvard Munch and Ernst Stern to redesign the stage sets, employed Carl Zuckmayer and Bertolt Brecht as dramaturges and Hugo von Hofmannsthal as literary advisor. Although Brahms had begun to introduce more modern plays onto the Berlin stage, including the work of Henrik Ibsen and Gerhart Hauptmann, it was Reinhardt who introduced plays by the likes of August Strindberg and Frank Wedekind, along with bold translations of George Bernard Shaws’s Candida and Oscar Wilde’s Salome. While the standard classical fare continued, a growing amount of space was being made for more experimental works that dealt with radical politics, sexual (im)morality, biting social satire and new theatrical techniques.

This artistic audacity was matched by shrewd business acumen: in December 1905 Reinhardt bought out the Deutsches Theater from its ←16 | 17→owner Adolphe L’Arronge, and less than a year later acquired also the empty dance-hall next door in which he opened the smaller Kammerspiele (for ‘chamber plays’), providing a more intimate setting in which plays could be performed in a minimalistic naturalist style. It was here that he brought Wedekind to the Berlin stage with a production of his controversial first play, Frühlings Erwachen [Spring Awakening], which opened in November 1906 with a cast that included Alexander Moissi, Camilla Eibenschütz and Wedekind himself. While Reinhardt often encouraged a strongly expressionistic style of acting that emphasised personal feeling and movement, some of his productions were directed on a colossal scale, involving huge crowd scenes. The cast was divided into two groups: a carefully choreographed chorus, who communicated with large sweeping unison gestures and realistic movements, and individual actors, who had to develop powerful charisma and personality in order to stand out before the chorus.

In order to support this new approach, Reinhardt needed to provide intense training for his actors. He had applied to set up a drama school straight after his appointment, and having gained permission he acquired the adjacent ‘Palais Wesendonck’. This large building had several halls which could be used as classroom as well as a large hall with a stage. Sixty students entered in September 1905, with the number reduced to twenty the following year. The students were offered training in voice projection by Professor Emil Mann (who taught diction at the University of Berlin), the famous orator Alexander Strakosch and Viennese actor and voice coach Heinrich Laube. The drama tutors were all experienced actors: Eduard von Winterstein – who later went into films and appeared in Regine (1935) with Wohlbrück – taught acting along with Reinhardt’s close friend from Salzburg, Bertold Held, and a successful Berlin actress named Gertrud Eysoldt. Wohlbrück received his personal training from actress Lucie Höflich (1883–1956), who had made her stage debut at the age of 16 and was hired by Reinhardt in 1903 after attracting critical acclaim for her performances in Nürnberg and Vienna.27

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Entry to the school was only obtained after an audition and interview, and with an annual fee of 600 Deutschmarks it was not cheap. Students enrolled in a two-year programme, each year having two terms – September to December, and February to April. In the first year the students learned stage diction, rhythmic movement, improvisation and fencing. (The latter skill he would later show off in films such as Der Student von Prag and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp). In the second year they were taught role study and ensemble playing, by which time they were considered competent enough to appear on stage at evening performances that were opened to the public. Although this provided valuable experience, the practice was also open to abuse, with drama students simply acting as unpaid extras for Deutsches Theater productions.

The school was directed for its first two years by Efraim Frisch, but it entered a difficult period after Paul Legband took over in 1907: with student numbers dwindling, the school moved out of the Palais Wesendonck and into the Kammerspiele the year before Wohlbrück entered. When Bertold Held took over as director in 1914, the annual student intake was barely half a dozen. Classes were offered in the afternoons at the Kammerspiele rehearsal stage and at the Palais Wesendonck, with rehearsals for Deutsches Theater productions in the mornings. There was one evening of public performances a month – an important event for aspiring actors, as it was also attended by Berlin reviewers who were keen to identify rising talent.

Although Held had a tendency to be pompous and arrogant, he was deeply devoted to Reinhardt and shared his master’s belief that acting was unveiling, not disguise: the aim of the school was to develop the actors’ inborn qualities. To this end, he encouraged his pupils to look inside themselves, to learn who they really were before trying to imitate others. Wohlbrück and his fellow students were told to practice speaking loudly and gesturing boldly while walking alone in the city or the woods, rather than waiting till they got on stage.

Reinhardt’s intense interest in such methods was unusual for the time. As a director he was remarkably sympathetic to actors, willing to listen to their suggestions and adapt his ideas accordingly. But he demanded much in return. He only accepted students who were absolutely committed to life in the theatre and were willing to devote all their spare time and energy to its art:

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This passage resonates strongly with the views of Boris Lermontov, as portrayed by Wohlbrück thirty years later. For the time being, however, acting was a much humbler experience. He made his debut on 30 January 1915 at the Deutsches Theater playing a very small part in Ferdinand Raimund’s play, Der Alpenkönig und der Menschenfeind [The Alpine King and the misanthrope]. Subsequent roles included one of the travelling men in Faust and the part of Dion in Shakespeare’s Das Wintermärchen [The Winter’s Tale], both in April 1915, and then the following month the parts of Gawan’s brother Agravaine in the Arthurian mystery play Gawan and that of Valentin in Shakespeare’s Was ihr Wollt [Twelfth Night].29

Reinhardt was interested in films and began making his own in 1910 with Sumurûn, basically a filmed performance of Friedrich Freksa’s oriental pantomime that saw Eduard von Winterstein in his first screen role. Although he only made a handful of films, Reinhardt’s influence on early German cinema was immense. Actors with whom Wohlbrück had worked in Reinhardt’s theatre company – such as Ernst Lubitsch, Albert Bassermann, Alexander Moissi, Paul Wegener, Theodor Loos, Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss and Emil Jannings – went on to become the leading stars of German silent cinema. Reinhardt’s masterful use of chiaroscuro lighting and dramatic set designs (often the work of Paul Leni) influenced the techniques developed to great effect by directors Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau.

Given Reinhardt’s interest in film, it was no surprise that Wohlbrück would try the medium, and in 1915 he made his screen debut as a circus director in Marionetten [Marionettes] directed by Richard Löwenbein. In this short fantasy film a puppeteer falls asleep and dreams that three of his puppets – Pulcinello (played by Ernst Matray, another of Reinhardt’s ←19 | 20→protégés who had appeared in Sumurûn), Pierrot (Oskar Fodor) and Pierrette (Katta Sterna) – come to life. The film follows their struggles to survive in the real world.30 Löwenbein was born in Vienna two years before Wohlbrück and at the age of 19 moved to Berlin where he worked closely with Matray as both a screenwriter and art director. He remains a somewhat shadowy figure – and if Kurt Weill’s opinion is to be trusted, this obscurity is understandable. In 1930 Weill wrote to Lotte Lenya: ‘this director Löwenbein with whom [Carola] La Neher works is supposed to be an impossible guy, who up to now has turned out only shit.’31 Marionetten received its premiere at Berlin’s Marmorhaus on 27 August 1915 but does not appear to have survived, and in later interviews Wohlbrück ensured it was forgotten by claiming that he made his film debut some years later.32

Military Service

By 1915 other events demanded more attention. As in Great Britain and France, the outbreak of the First World War had been greeted with widespread enthusiasm. German troops headed for the front bearing banners that read ‘See you in Paris.’ The general expectation was that the fighting ←20 | 21→would not last long. But by the time Marionetten was released in Germany on 27 August 1915, soldiers on the western front were growing familiar with the realities of trench warfare, seas of mud, chlorine gas and thousands of miles of barbed wire. At home, unrest grew as civilians began to feel the burden of food rationing and financial problems.

Four days after the film’s release, on 1 September 1915, Reinhardt’s production of Schiller’s Die Räuber [The Robbers] opened in Berlin at the Volksbühne on Bülowplatz. This powerful melodramatic tale concerns an old man, Moor, and his two sons – the wild, rebellious Karl – who becomes the leader of a robber band – and the younger Franz, a cold manipulative character who wants his brother’s inheritance. While the two brothers were played by Paul Hartmann and Paul Wegener respectively, Wohlbrück played Razmann, one of the robbers, alongside Ernst Lubitsch and Emil Jannings. All five actors had illustrious careers ahead. On 27 October he performed for the first time with Hermine Körner, playing the role of a page alongside her Queen Elizabeth in a production of Schiller’s Maria Stuart at the Theater an der Weidendammer Brücke.33 Although the actress was twice his age, they were to form an intimate friendship and she would remain a key influence throughout his life.

He was still only eighteen and under a five-year contract to Reinhardt, but under the prevailing spirit of the time he enlisted in the army, joining the Kaiser Alexander Garde Grenadier Regiment 1 on 30 October 1915.34 The German army was now fighting a war on two fronts, against the Russian in the east and the British and French in the west. Wohlbrück was commissioned as a lieutenant, spending his first few months marching round the regiment’s parade ground on Schönhauser Allee in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg, or training at their new barracks on Prinz Friedrich Karl Straße.35

The regiment was with the 3rd Guard Brigade, 2nd division, and took part in various battles in France and Belgium during the first two years of the war, as well as fighting at Gorlice on the eastern front in 1915. It was ←21 | 22→to the western front that Wohlbrück was sent first. He was with the regiment during one of the bloodiest battles of the Somme, when the French tried to capture German positions along the Chemin des Dames ridge in April 1917, known as the Second Battle of the Aisne. Over a quarter of a million French troops died in the offensive, but despite inflicting around 160,000 German casualties, the campaign failed to achieve its objective.

Wohlbrück’s regiment was then moved to the eastern front to support efforts to capture Riga from the Russians. Taking advantage of the collapse of discipline and morale caused by the instability of Kerensky’s provisional government, German forces surged forwards and attacked the Latvian capital at the beginning of September 1917. The Russians fled, and Wohlbrück was among the troops who entered the city on 3 September. While looking around the city theatre he found a portrait of his great-grandfather, who had died of cholera here in 1848.36 His unit then returned to the western front to take up a front-line position near Malmaison, defending the Chemin des Dames ridge. Following a massive artillery bombardment that included gas shells, the French launched an attack on the early morning of 23 October 1917. The German defence collapsed and Wohlbrück was among the thousands of soldiers captured that day. He was taken to a prison camp at Auch in southwest France and was to spend the rest of the war behind barbed wire. When picturing Wohlbrück as a prisoner it is almost impossible to avoid visualising the image of him as Theo Schultzmar-Kletzschendorff in the film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, but unlike his fictitious counterpart, the young actor found another way to spend his incarceration.

In order to while away his captivity, Wohlbrück organised a drama group – the Aucher Gefangenschaftstheater [Auch Captivity Theatre] – which gave performances and poetry recitals to fellow inmates of the prisoner-of-war camp. Given the circumstances, the repertoire was remarkably ambitious and demanding, with productions including Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke [The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke], August Strindberg’s ←22 | 23→play Der Vater [The Father], Karl Schönherr’s Der Weibsteufel [The Devil Woman] and Georg Büchner’s satirical comedy Leonce und Lena, which was performed with Wohlbrück reading the text while a fellow soldier operated puppets.37 The prison theatre had to improvise and make use of whatever texts and props they could find, and of course – in the absence of any women – all female parts had to be played by the soldiers. Most of the time there were ways round this, but when one play required Wohlbrück to tell one of his fellow prisoners ‘I want a child by you’, he decided this crossed a line, and omitted the entire scene.

While Wohlbrück and his fellow prisoners were thus engaged, larger developments were taking place back in Germany. In a move to boost domestic propaganda, the German high command consolidated official press and film activities by founding UFA (Universum Film-Aktien Gesellschaft). General Ludendorff signed a memorandum on 3 July 1917 calling for a united film industry. By the end of the year UFA had company status, funded by the Deutsche Bank and large industrial companies. The company integrated a large number of firms within the film industry, including studios, cinema chains and other assets. The end of the war had little effect on this giant corporation, which provided the basis for the vibrant and prosperous film industry of the Weimar era, within which Wohlbrück would later establish a glittering career. Its unified structure would also allow for a smooth transition into an engine of Nazi propaganda. But this all lay ahead.

While Wohlbrück was imprisoned in Auch, the ‘Great War’ had continued to be fought on battle fronts from the desert plains of Palestine to the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, but on 11 November 1918 the armistice was finally signed at Compiegne, one week before Wohlbrück’s twenty-second birthday. The repatriation of POWs was a gradual process, however, and it would be several months before he returned home.38

←23 | 24→

1 Following a number of private screenings during 1895, the Lumières held their first public screening at the Grand Café on the Boulevard de Capucines, on 28 December 1895. After this, they took the Cinématographe on tour around the world, travelling throughout Europe as well as to India and the Americas.

2 See Walter Fritz, Im Kino erlebe ich die Welt. 100 Jahre Kino und Film in Österreich (Vienna: Christian Brandstätter, 1997) and Ernst Kieninger and Doris Rauschgatt, Die Mobilisierung des Blicks. Eine Ausstellung zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte des Kinos (Vienna: PVS Verleger, 1995).

3 A reader of the Austrian magazine Mein Film enquired about the precise location in Vienna of the actor’s birthplace and childhood home, but was told that this information was ‘not known.’ Mein Film, No. 542 (15 May 1936), p. 23.

4 On Vienna during this period, see Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (London: Cassell, 1943), Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979) and Allan S. Janik and Stephen Edelston Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973).

5 Filmwelt, No. 19 (12 May 1935), p. 18.

6 Details of his grandfather’s baptism were given by the actor in a questionnaire he was required to complete for the Nazi Reichsfilmschaft in 1933, and given the understandable wish to conceal his mother’s Jewish ancestry, it is possible that not all the statements made on the form are reliable.

7 Interview with Sylvia Terry-Smith, ‘I am S-ee-k to Death of Albert,’ Picturegoer Magazine (27 April 1940), p. 10.

8 The Schumanns were something of a circus dynasty, as Albert’s nephews Willy, Ernst and Oscar Schumann began performing in Scandinavia with their grandfather Gotthold in the 1880s, and their own sons maintained control of various circuses in Denmark and Sweden throughout the twentieth century.

9 This building was replaced by another one in the same spot in 1903/4. See Berthold Lang, ‘Circus Albert Schumann’ in Circus gestern, heute [the journal of the Vienna Circus Museum] No. 3 (1982), pp. 18–20.

10 Adrian Wettach, Grock, King of Clowns (London: Methuen, 1957), p. 81.

11 Antonia’s parents were, according to the questionnaire completed by Walbrook in 1934, Anton Philip Teufel and Elisabeth Bastonek.

12 Baptismal register for the parish of Hernals, 1896, Vol. II, folio 739, entry 2271, 19 December 1896.

13 Wohlbrück described Archbishop Kohn as his ‘maternal uncle’ in ‘Erinnerungen an Wien’ [‘Memories of Vienna], Mein Film, No. 428 (9 March 1934), p. 3. Michael L. Miller provides further details about the archbishop’s family in ‘The Rise and Fall of Archbishop Kohn: Czechs, Germans, and Jews in Turn-of-the-Century Moravia,’ Slavic Review, 65/3 (Autumn 2006), p. 452: his Jewish grandparents Jacob and Rosalia had converted to Catholicism in 1826, along with the bishop’s father Joseph, then two years old. Joseph, who grew up to marry a Catholic girl named Veronika Hanáčeková and settle in Bresnitz, where Theodor was born. Contemporary accounts claim that several of Jacob’s brothers also converted to Catholicism at the same time, one of whom might possibly have been the actor’s grandfather.

14 The question of national identity was an issue in Wohlbrück’s life more than once, and disagreement is sometimes expressed about whether he was Austrian or German. By the conventions of the time, although born in Vienna with an Austrian mother, he would have been considered German, as this was the nationality of his father and the setting for most of his education.

15 Interview in the Danish newspaper Ekstrabladet (25 February 1948).

16 Jean Maitland, ‘Laugh, Clown, Laugh!’ Film Pictorial (24 December 1938), p. 16.

17 Filmwelt, No. 19 (12 May 1935), p. 16.

18 It is sometimes claimed that the actor was educated by the Augustinian Canons of Klosterneuburg, following information by Donald Roy in his entry on Anton Walbrook for the Oxford DNB. He was, however, unable to identify his source for me when I contacted him (personal communication, 22 May 2014) and the archivist at Klosterneuburg, Karl Holubar, could also find no supporting evidence of this in the school records (personal communication, 6 September 2012). The Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, also known as the ‘Christian Brothers,’ was founded in the early 18th century by a French priest named St Jean Baptiste de La Salle. The congregation arrived in Vienna in 1857.

19 The street name was unrelated to the circus, but was a reference to the property entrepreneur Johann Friedrich Ferdinand Schumann (1780–1835) who acquired the land in 1820.

20 Following the first instalment of the four-part biography of Wohlbrück that was published in Filmwelt in May and June 1935, in which he mentioned that Lotte Neumann had been his ‘Filmschwarm’ when he was a young man – Filmwelt, No. 19 (12 May 1935), p. 17 – Lotte wrote a letter to him that was published in the magazine, full of charming memories of their childhood. Filmwelt, No. 23 (9 June 1935), p. 11. More details of Lotte’s role in the actor’s youth were provided by Antonie in an interview with Mein Film, No. 479 (1 March 1935), pp. 4–5.

21 Charlotte Neumann (1896/98–1977), whose real name was Charlotte Bergmann, attended the Royal Luisenschule in Berlin, then the Wagnersche-Klinkhardsche Höhere Mädchenschule. Her first film was Launen des Schicksals [Whims of Destiny], directed by Max Mack in 1912. In her published letter to Wohlbrück in 1935, she stated that she was two years younger than him and that she was fourteen when she made her first film (in 1912), which would indicate that she was born in 1898 rather than the commonly cited year of 1896. As Wohlbrück’s own career demonstrated, however, actors are known to have misled the public as to their age.

22 This is stated in the entries on Wohlbrück in Kay Weniger ‘Es wird im Leben dir mehr genommen als gegeben …’ Lexikon der aus Deutschland und Österreich emigrierten Filmschaffenden 1933 bis 1945: Eine Gesamtübersicht (Hamburg: Acabus Verlag, 2011), p. 661 and Wilhelm Kosch (ed.), Deutsches Theater Lexikon (December 2008, Lieferung 34/35), with Weniger adding that he received tuition from Karl Ebhardt. Given that Wohlbrück regularly returned to Vienna and spent much time there with his grandmother, it is quite possible that he received some drama lessons while he was there, although no formal records of this appear to survive and it is possible that confusion has arisen between Reinhardt’s drama school in Berlin and the famous Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna.

23 On this, see William Grange, Comedy in the Weimar Republic: A Chronicle of Incongruous Laughter (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), pp. 11–5.

24 Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen. Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt (London: Thames & Hudson, 1969), p. 47.

25 The Deutsches Theater had been built in 1850 but its international significance really began when Adolf L’Arronge founded the theatre company in 1883.

26 For a brief period between Brahms and Reinhardt the role of director was filled by Paul Lindau. Other theatres managed by Reinhardt included the Kleines Theater [Little Theatre) which he opened in a converted cabaret venue on Unter den Linden in August 1902, and the Neues Theater [New Theatre], formerly the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, which opened in February 1903 and was the venue for Reinhardt’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in January 1905. The cabaret show ‘Schall und Rauch’ [Sound and Smoke] was founded in 1901 but under Reinhardt developed into a straightforward drama theatre, although a revived ‘Schall und Rauch’ cabaret was installed in a cellar under Reinhardt’s Grosses Schauspielhaus.

27 Other actors trained by her included Lilli Palmer, Marianne Hoppe, Otto and Eberhard Mellies, Inge Meysel and Annemarie Wendl.

28 Max Reinhardt, Schriften (Berlin: Hugo Fetting, 1974), p. 65.

29 Kay Weniger, ‘Es wird im Leben dir mehr genommen als gegeben …’ (2011), pp. 661–3. According to a programme dated 2 May 1915, he also played the part of an unnamed dinner companion in a production of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann by the Verband der freien Volksbühnen at the Deutsche Theater.

30 Ernst Lubitsch, another of Reinhardt’s players, made a much more successful film of Sumurûn ten years later.

31 Kurt Weill, Speak Low (When You Speak Love): The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1996), p. 60. Carola La Neher starred in Löwenbein’s 1930 film Tenderness. Löwenbein died in Auschwitz in September 1943 – Weniger (2011), pp. 322–3.

32 For example, in his interview with Max Breen, ‘Acting is in His Blood’ (Picturegoer Weekly, 25 September 1937), p. 17 he claimed that Salto Mortale (1931) was ‘My very first film.’ This was repeated in ‘The Life Story of Anton Walbrook,’ Picture Show Magazine (14 January 1956), p. 12. It has been suggested that the ‘Adolf Wohlbrück’ playing the circus director may actually have been the actor’s father, the clown, although this would clash with his oft-repeated statement that his father declined all invitations to perform on stage or screen. Although it may seem unlikely that a 19-year-old would be cast in the role of a circus director, this objection is less valid given that the film is a fantasy about puppets coming to life.

33 Das Programm von Heute (1935), p. 4.

34 Named after the Russian Czar Alexander I, who had been an ally when the regiment was founded in 1814.

35 Now Geschwister-Scholl-Straße, between Friedrichstraße station and Museum Island.

36 Unsere Film Lieblinge in Wort und Bild: Adolf Wohlbrück, Briggite Helm, Lien Deyers (1934), p. 4. This was the third in a series of eight supplements to the film magazine Das Programm von Heute.

37 Das Büch von Adolf Wohlbrück (Berlin: Hermann Wendt, 1935), p. 14.

38 Wohlbrück’s competence as a soldier is not something that has been studied, but it is interesting to note that – twenty years after he left the army – his former commanding officer Major Arnold von Gaedecke contacted the Reichsfilmkammer asking to be put in touch. By the time he wrote his letter on 4 July 1939, however, Wohlbrück had settled in England and made his allegiance clear. Bundesarchiv, Wohlbrück file 62–3.

←24 | 25→

‘I suppose one doesn’t count as a human being
without a uniform.’
Stage, Silence and Sound, 1920–1932

The Germany to which Wohlbrück was returning was in the process of transformation. Even before the resignation of the Chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the country had begun to descend into social turmoil and revolution. The day after the armistice, Ludwig III of Wittelsbach, king of Bavaria, abandoned his throne in 1918, ending 700 years of Wittelsbach rule. Bavaria was declared a separate socialist republic, workers’ councils were established in Berlin, the Imperial Navy mutinied in Kiel and members of both left- and right-wing factions began arming themselves and preparing to fight for control. Self-declared ‘Soviet republics’ were formed and then violently removed by Freikorps volunteer militia groups. Between November 1918 and August 1919, the new democratic republic struggled to establish itself amidst widespread hunger, unemployment, assassinations, massacres, regional revolts and riots.1

While these conditions were devastating for most businesses and industries, they presented favourable opportunities for the film industry, which passed from state control into the private sector. As soaring inflation, ←25 | 26→a devalued Deutschmark and economic instability had removed any incentive to save money or think about long-term investments, there was some appeal in spending money on making inexpensive films. The market was further liberated by the abolition of state censorship, which took place just days after the Kaiser’s abdication in November 1918. A new daily paper for cinemagoers, the Film-Kurier was launched in 1919, during which year 420 films were made. By the end of the following year, output had increased to 510 films. A growing number of these were produced by UFA, which continued to expand by absorbing smaller independent companies that were unable to survive the economic turmoil. Directors such as Fritz Lang, E. A. Dupont, Ernst Lubitsch, F. W. Murnau and Richard Oswald were raising the standards of German filmmaking to such an extent that Hollywood began to feel threatened.

Munich 1919–1926

Wohlbrück’s acting career had been interrupted by the war but he had no intention of being deflected off course and wasted little time in returning to the theatre as soon as it was feasible after demobilisation. When he got there, he was still wearing his field-grey army uniform.2 In Germany, all employers – including theatre directors – were obliged to offer work to those who had been employed with them before the war, and Wohlbrück of course still had a valid contract with the Deutsches Theater. Not long after he returned there, however, he was invited to an audition in Munich where the director, Hermine Körner, recognised him from drama school. She asked him to stay in Munich and join her ensemble at the city’s Schauspielhaus.3 Although he was generally cast in supporting roles, these ←26 | 27→were often significant parts and his performance was enough to attract the attention of theatre critics.4 One such role was that of Alwa Schön – Lulu’s friend and lover – in a production of Wedekind’s Die Büchse der Pandora [Pandora’s Box] which opened on 20 June 1919.5 The part of Lulu was played by Tilly Wedekind, widow of the playwright who had died the previous year.6 Tilly also took the role of Mary, Queen of Scots in the company’s 1923 production of Schiller’s Maria Stuart, with Wohlbrück as Mortimer, the nephew of the royal captive’s custodian. This fictitious character had been created by Schiller, but played an important part in the play, supporting the queen and trying to obtain her release. When his plot to spring her from prison is discovered, Mortimer commits suicide and Queen Elizabeth (Körner) resolves to sign Mary’s death warrant.7

The influence of Hermine Körner on Wohlbrück’s career and style can hardly be overstated. After appearing on the stages of Vienna, Düsseldorf and Dresden, she had been invited by Reinhardt to join his Berlin theatre company in 1915 when Wohlbrück was a newly signed young drama ←27 | 28→student. Eighteen years older than he, Körner nonetheless developed a close personal friendship with young Wohlbrück that would continue until her death in 1960.8 Thirty years later, while performing in Call Me Madam in London, he still kept a silhouette of Hermine pinned to his dressing room wall. With regard to portraying romantic feeling, he told a reporter: ‘She taught me what a lift of the eyebrow or a turn of the wrist could mean on stage. It is not just a question of kissing.’9

He had ample opportunity to learn from her. Plays in which they worked together at Munich between 1920 and 1921 included George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, with Körner as the eponymous clergyman’s wife who is attracted to young poet Eugene Marchbanks (Wohlbrück), Wilhelm Schmidtbonn’s Der Passion at the Munich Künstler-Theater in June 1920 – in which he played Saint John – Strindberg’s Königin Christine – with Wohlbrück as privy councillor Klas Tott in the royal court of Körner’s Queen – and Robert Prechtl’s Die Nacht der Jenny Lind with Körner as the Swedish singer, and Wohlbrück playing her pupil and lover, Theodor.10 His real breakout role came in September 1920 when they appeared together in Alexander Dumas’ Die Kameliendame [The Lady of the Camellias], with Körner as the consumptive courtesan Marguerite and Wohlbrück as her lover Armand – a performance which was singled out for comment by the Munich critic Eduard Scharrer Santen in his review for the Allgemeine Zeitung, praising Wohlbrück’s sympathetic portrayal while noting that his acting skills were still in need of development.11

←28 | 29→

Having taken cheap lodgings in Akademiestraße, Wohlbrück would walk each day along to the Schauspielhaus for rehearsals. If there were none, he would stay at home and play piano for three or four hours on a Bechstein piano.12 He was not earning much – one wonders how he ←29 | 30→acquired the piano – and relied for sustenance on the homely cooking of his landlady, Frau Nehreshammer.

He returned to Berlin at least once, as his appearance was noted at the Deutsches Theater in an April 1920 production of Paul Kornfeld’s expressionistic mystery play Himmel und Hölle [Heaven and Hell].13 Directed by Ludwig Berger – with whom he would work on a film some years later – the cast included Werner Krauss and Agnes Straub, and the play marked a very respectable return to the Berlin stage.14 For the time being, however, he preferred to stay in Munich and it is not hard to see why. The winter of 1919–20 had been bitterly cold in Berlin and the continuing Allied blockade had led to widespread hunger, exacerbated by the outbreak of an influenza pandemic. The glory days of Reinhardt’s theatrical empire were fading; shows no longer sold out and the streets around the theatre were often the scenes of armed fighting between Berlin’s rival political factions, which had now been joined by disaffected military veterans.15 Increasingly, Reinhardt’s interest drifted away from Berlin and back to his native Austria, where in 1920 he co-founded the Salzburg Festival with Richard Strauss and his former dramaturge at the Deutsches Theater, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The classical theatrical traditions were being challenged by new playwrights such as Wedekind, Brecht and Strindberg, and audience’s interests and sympathies had changed.

A new generation of theatre directors and producers were also coming to the fore, and these were men whose lives had been shaped by their – often bitter – wartime experiences. In 1920 Erwin Piscator moved to Berlin ←30 | 31→from Königsberg and began a radical programme of political theatre at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz and the Volksbühne. His productions addressed the concerns of the working classes, and employed innovative techniques to convey social and political messages, such as film projection, mechanical devices, loudspeakers and flashing lights, as well as staging his plays in unusual venues such as pubs, trade union halls and working clubs. Among those he worked with were the artist George Grosz, Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and actors such as Oscar Homolka, Max Pallenberg and Helene Weigel. Meanwhile, at the Schauspielhaus am Gendarmenmarkt, the new director was a committed Social Democrat named Leopold Jessner. His first production in December 1919 was an Expressionist recasting of Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell with Albert Bassermann as Tell and Fritz Kortner as the tyrant Gessler, dressed up in military uniform dripping with medals: the anti-authoritarian and pacifist message could not have been clearer.16

Although Wohlbrück showed willingness to act in many of these innovative new productions, his heart lay with the great classics of German dramatic literature and it was with those works that he cherished ambitions to make his name. An opportunity arose when Alfred Bernau, director of the Deutsches Volkstheater in Vienna came to Munich and saw Wohlbrück perform in a minor role. Bernau was seeking a lead for a production of Schiller’s Don Carlos in Vienna and – impressed by Wohlbrück’s performance – approached the young actor and asked if he had ever played Don Carlos before. He had not, but realising this could be his great opening, boldly said ‘Yes’ to Bernau and told himself that fate would be on his side. To his delight, he was duly engaged by Bernau for the Volkstheater and found himself travelling by train from Munich to Vienna a few days later, at the theatre company’s expense. Ecstatic with joy, he sent a telegram to all his relatives in Vienna and hastily began reading Schiller’s play at his grandmother’s, fortifying himself with black coffee while learning his lines. When he presented himself at the Volkstheater he learned that he would be playing opposite Alexander Moissi as the Prince’s close friend, the Marquis ←31 | 32→of Posa. Being paired with Moissi – who had earned an international reputation for his sonorous voice and dramatic performances in Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Russia – was a somewhat intimidating step for a relative novice, and Wohlbrück confessed to feeling a little relieved when the rehearsal was cancelled due to Moissi being unwell. When this happened again and again over the next few days, however, he began feeling anxious that the opening night was drawing nearer and he had still not rehearsed. At the last minute, Moissi pulled out due to ill-health and the production was cancelled. While disappointed that he lost his opportunity of performing on stage in Vienna, Wohlbrück admitted that if it had gone ahead his inexperience would have been exposed and ‘he would have caused one of the greatest theatrical scandals that Vienna has ever seen.’17

If he thought returning to Munich would mean an absence of scandal, he was mistaken. During the winter of 1896–7, just after Wohlbrück’s birth, the Viennese playwright and novelist Artur Schnitzler wrote his short play Reigen. The play’s title has been translated in many ways – Hands Around, The Carousel, Circle of Love, The Ring, Roundabout – and it comprises a series of interlocking stories in which ten diverse characters from different social backgrounds are linked by a circle of sexual liaisons, each one sharing a partner with their predecessor and successor. It was printed in a private edition of 200 copies in 1900 and did not receive public exposure for another three years, when an excerpt was staged in Munich. Publication of the printed edition by Wiener Verlag provoked a hostile reaction, with performances banned throughout Germany. Schnitzler withdrew the play from public performance, but as it continued to be staged in countries such as Russia, Hungary and America, he reversed this decision after the end of the First World War, on the presumption that attitudes would be less censorious. Performances were staged in several cities across Austria and Germany, including Berlin and Hamburg (December 1920), Munich and Leipzig (January 1921) and Vienna (February 1921). Körner was taking a bold risk in staging the play in Munich, where the Bavarian traditions of conservative Catholicism remained strong. As opening night grew nearer, ←32 | 33→the cast – including Wohlbrück as ‘The Poet’ – wondered whether or not there would be trouble.

The play opened on 22 January 1921 and received a perceptive and favourable review from art critic Richard Braungart in the Münchener Zeitung, who praised the delicacy with which the eroticism of Schitzler’s narrative was presented, observing how the scenes were timed perfectly to avoid any sense of indecency, and permeated throughout with the disarming sense of humour that distinguished the Viennese from the Berliners.18 Others, however, did not agree, and the simmering hostility towards the play finally erupted during the evening performance on Saturday 7 February. During the third scene, a woman in the circle began shouting in protest, initiating what seemed to have been a planned disruption of the performance. Amidst loud cries of ‘Shame!’ and the piercing noise of whistles that had been brought into the theatre, rotten eggs and stink bombs were thrown around the auditorium, forcing the manager to drop the curtain and call the police to clear the house.19 On the next night Reigen was replaced with Ferenc Molnár’s play Fasching.

This protest was part of a much wider campaign that was largely driven by anti-Semitic activists who attacked the play as a work of Jewish decadence. In Vienna a week later a mob of several hundred protesters invaded the theatre during the fifth act and started a riot, to which the stagehands responded by turning water hoses on the crowd. Performances at Berlin’s Kleines Schauspielhaus were forced to close after disruption by protesters and the theatre company was prosecuted for obscenity in a week-long trial (5–12 November 1921).20 Although this ended with their acquittal, there was clearly little scope for future productions in such an atmosphere. The ←33 | 34→violent oppression of Schnitzler’s work was an indication of what lay ahead for Austria and Germany: the character witnesses called for the prosecution during the Berlin trial were almost all members of anti-Semitic organisations, and the entire process can be seen as a dress rehearsal for the mobilisation of the anti-democratic forces that were soon to be mobilised. After a few more performances that took place under heavy police protection, the curtain fell, and sixty years would pass before the play was staged again in Europe.

Wohlbrück’s other performances were generally less dramatic, although he continued to appear in productions by the new playwrights such as Carl Sternheim, a friend and collaborator with the likes of Max Reinhardt, Gottfried Benn and Frank Wedekind (whose daughter Pamela he would later marry). Sternheim’s satirical play Die Hose [The Trousers, or Underpants] caused scandal when first staged in 1911 due to its merciless mocking of bourgeois morality.21 In 1923 it was performed in Munich for the first time, with Wohlbrück playing the role of sentimental young poet Scarron. While pompous councillor Theobald Maske and his pretty wife Luise are watching the local prince in procession, Mrs Maske’s underwear falls to her ankles as she stretches out to get a better view. As the name Maske indicates, this is a play about hypocrisy: Luise’s husband is more concerned about the consequences for his dignity and career, while others who have witnessed the incident – including Scarron – get caught up in a vortex of desires and fantasies. For the play, Wohlbrück adopted a striking appearance, wearing thin wire spectacles above which his ever-abundant hair was dramatically swept back. Many photographs survive of his performances from this period in which the actor can be seen wearing a dazzling variety of extravagant costumes, make-up and accessories, and while there is no suggestion that he would ever rival Lon Chaney as ‘the man with a thousand faces’, his ability to transform his appearance in each new production was impressive.

Wohlbrück’s repertoire thus continued to be a blend of traditional and modern. In October 1924 he played in Shakespeare’s Die beiden Veronese ←34 | 35→[The Two Gentlemen of Verona] followed by Strindberg’s Karl XII, directed by Falckenberg. January 1925 saw him in Torquato Tasso, while in June he had roles in both Shakespeare’s Troilus und Cressida and Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist study of the cycle of life and death, Pelleas und Melisande.22 The rich diversity of these productions challenged Wohlbrück, honing his acting skills, broadening his experience and establishing his reputation before an ever-widening audience of theatregoers.

Stage and the Silent Screen

Despite his growing success on the stage, the appeal of the movies proved impossible to resist now that the revitalised German film industry was offering ample opportunities for new talent. The rapid growth of film production was, ironically, supported by the negative consequences of the war. Poor relations with the rest of Europe encouraged the rapid expansion of German film production, while a strictly enforced quota system limited the number of imported foreign films that could be shown in German cinemas. The international export of German films was in turn boosted by the devaluation of the Reichsmark, and – for a while at least – the German film industry looked like it was offering Hollywood some serious competition. During this period Wohlbrück could watch German actors such as Peter Lorre, Pola Negri, Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings rise to international stardom, and wonder perhaps if he himself might one day see his name in Hollywood lights.

In the meantime, of course, he had to make do with small roles in minor silent films, beginning with Karl Wüstenhagen’s Martin Luther: Der Kampf seines Lebens [Martin Luther: the Struggle of His Life] (1923). Sponsored by the Lutheran Church, it seems to have been made quickly following an initiative at the Lutheran World Convention held at Eisenach in August 1923. The screenplay was written by a Lutheran pastor, Walther Nithack-Stahn, ←35 | 36→and it was filmed at historical locations such as Wartburg Castle and the University of Erfurt. The film was premiered at a private press screening in Munich, followed later in the year by a public launch at the Wartburg, the castle above Eisenach where Luther spent several months between 1521 and 1522. Its reception was mixed, and the film failed to capture either the imagination of the public or the approval of theologians.23

The people of Munich had other matters to concern themselves with in November 1923. Hyperinflation had reached its peak, with prices doubling every day. By November 1923, a loaf of bread which had cost 250 marks in January 1923 was now priced at 200,000 million marks. The sheer volume of paper money needed to manage daily life became absurd as workers collected their wages in suitcases or wheelbarrows, while the dizzying speed of hyperinflation meant that someone could sell their house one week and be unable to buy a loaf of bread with the proceeds the week after. In the face of such a crisis, the authority of the Weimar Republic – never strong – was considerably weakened, providing an opportune moment for its opponents to make their move.

Adolf Hitler lived in Thierschstraße, about five minutes’ walk from the Schauspielhaus. He had settled in Munich after the war, and in 1919 joined the tiny and ineffectual Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (DAP) or German Workers Party. There were hundreds of political groups like this throughout Germany, but within months Hitler had transformed the DAP, vastly expanding its membership and renaming it the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP), or Nazi party for short. The swastika emblem was adopted in 1920 and crowds of brown-shirted ‘stormtroopers’ became a common sight in the streets of Munich, brawling with Socialists and Communists, disrupting political meetings and beating up opponents, often with fatal consequences. On the night of 8 November 1923, Hitler and other Nazi leaders attempted to stage a coup in Munich, aimed at deposing the government in Bavaria and then marching on Berlin. After taking control of an evening political meeting in the Bürgerbräukeller, a night of confusion followed, before Hitler led some 2,000 Nazis in a march towards ←36 | 37→the Bavarian Defence Ministry. They were stopped by armed troops in Odeonplatz, and after an exchange of gunfire sixteen lay dead in the street.

By now Wohlbrück had moved to an apartment at 98 Türkenstraße, a long street that intersects with Schellingstraße, the location of the Nazi party offices (No. 50) and cafes frequented by Hitler, such as the Osteria Bavaria and the Schelling-Salon. Odeonplatz, where the so-called Bierkeller-Putsch [Beer Hall Putsch] came to its bloody end, was only a few blocks away. Whether or not Wohlbrück witnessed the events at close hand is unknown, but he must have been well aware of the rise of the Nazi party and their sinister activities.

Meanwhile he found a part in another film, Wüstenrausch (1923), directed by Hungarian actor Geza von Bolvary, who had recently moved to Munich with his wife, actress Helene von Mattyasovszky, under contract to work as a director for the film company Emelka. Wüstenrausch [Desert Noise] is an exotic drama, set partly in Africa, in which Wohlbrück played Lord Burton, the wealthy son of a press baron. This was the first of several screen roles in which he would play an aristocratic Englishman, and his association with this character type was strengthened by his stage success playing similar roles in the works of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and others. He appears in Wüstenrausch at a ball held at the Turkish embassy, impeccably dressed in the white tie and tails that would become his trademark image. Lord Burton’s dancing and flirting with Liliane, the fiancée of Dr Carslake, leads to a confrontation between the two men and the threat of a duel: but what will happen once Liliane leaves for Africa with Carslake, to face the dangers of wild lions, treacherous Arabs and the heat of the Saharan sun? The female leads included the director’s wife as well as Dary Holm – one of the cast of Martin Luther – alongside Alfred Graening, Gustav von Vandory, Hermann Vallentin and other Munich-based actors. Firm evidence that Wohlbrück actually participated in either Marionetten or Martin Luther remains elusive, and Wüstenrausch is the earliest surviving film in which his appearance can be verified.24

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The way Saharan Africa is depicted in the film reveals the same level of orientalist fantasy that would recur in Wohlbrück’s later film, Die Funf Verfluchten Gentlemen [The Five Accursed Gentlemen, 1931], but audiences thrived on lurid thrills, and their hunger for sensational crime dramas was brilliantly met by the Stuart Webbs detective series, of which fifty films were made between 1914 and 1926.25 Many of these were written and produced by Ernst Reicher (1885–1936) – the actor who played the eponymous detective and founded the Stuart Webbs film company with Joe May (1880–1954) in the summer of 1914. Webbs was a Sherlock Holmes-like character, one of many English-named detectives popular with German cinemagoers at this time. Reicher played him as a chivalric figure, whose office was adorned with skulls and suits of armour. Wohlbrück appeared in at least one of the Stuart Webbs films, and possibly more: in Das Geheimnis von Schloß Elmshöh [The Secret of Elmshöh Castle] also known as Der Fluch der Bösen Tat (1925) he played the part of Axel, the son of a Countess.26 That same year saw Wohlbrück take a short holiday in Norway, a country to which he would return many years later. He was also in regular contact with his sister Toni, who was still living in Vienna where she had married a bank clerk named Neuberger.

In contrast to the relatively minor roles such as Axel that Wohlbrück was receiving in films, he had risen to become the leading light of the acting ensemble at the Munich Schauspielhaus. The truth was that, at this point, silent films held little appeal for him. It was not only that such work denied him the opportunity to use his rich, sonorous voice, but he also thrived on direct contact with a live audience. The situation would alter with the coming of ‘the talkies’ but until then he wished to concentrate chiefly upon live theatre. However, Hermine Körner had left Munich in 1925 for Dresden, where she took up the post of director at the Albert Theatre, and Wohlbrück now began working under the ←38 | 39→direction of Otto Falckenberg (1873–1947), then recognised as one of the country’s leading exponents of expressionism, at the Kammerspiele. The plays of Frank Wedekind and August Strindberg were regularly performed here, and in 1922 Falckenberg had produced the first staged play of Bertolt Brecht’s Trommeln in der Nacht [Drums in the Night], which is set against the events of the Spartacist revolt in November 1918 and focuses on the experiences of a soldier as he returns home to Berlin, having been reported missing in action and presumed dead since the start of the war. Such a scenario was also the basis for Ernest Toller’s play Hinkemann, which was first performed in Leipzig in September 1923 but created a scandal when it opened in Dresden the following January. The tragic tale of a wounded soldier who has been emasculated during the war and returns home to face poverty, political turmoil and rejection from his wife, was taken by some as a critique of the government. The significance of these plays underscores the trauma and anxiety that was felt about the postwar experience of those – like Wohlbrück – who had served during the war.

A similar sense of bitterness and despair also found expression in the work of the artists George Grosz – who had taken part in the Spartacist uprising – and Otto Dix. Paintings such as Grosz’s Grauer Tag [Grey Day] (1921) and Dix’s Prager Straße [Prague Street] (1920) or Dirne und Kriegsverletzter [Prostitute and Disabled War Veteran, also known as Two Victims of Capitalism] (1923) depict the mistreatment, neglect and marginalisation of disabled war veterans and the decayed, uncaring society in which they struggled to survive. It would be easy to allow Wohlbrück’s later fame and success to obscure the fact that acting is a difficult and highly unreliable means of earning a living, and although he was spared the physical wounds suffered by many of his fellow soldiers, the psychological effects of the war and imprisonment should not be underestimated. Throughout his career he had a reputation for being reserved and somewhat aloof because of the way he kept his distance from those around him, even colleagues and fellow actors. While this was occasionally mistaken for arrogance, the trait may in fact have been a form of defence mechanism, rooted in his wartime experience.

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Dresden 1926–1930

Towards the end of 1926 Wohlbrück made a bold move, and decided to leave Munich. Relations with Hermine Körner’s replacement had not been good, and he felt frustrated at the roles being offered to him. Initially he set his sights on Berlin, and in May 1926 wrote to Otto Zarek, the leading dramaturge for the theatrical empire of Heinz Saltenburg.27 Although not as prominent as Reinhardt or Barnowsky, Saltenburg was still a major player in the Berlin theatrical world, running a number of venues such as the Deutsches Künstlertheater, the Lessingtheater, the Lustspielhaus, the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm and the Theater am Kurfürstendamm. In his letter, dated 29 May 1926, he asked Zarek: ‘My salary here is, as you know, 1,200 marks. Can you please let me know how much Director Saltenburg can, and will, pay me?’ Zarek’s response was prompt but frank:

I appreciate that you have attained a comparatively high wage in Munich. However, if you come to Berlin where people do not know you, the salary here will be much smaller. We can support you, however, if we can reach an understanding on the artistic side of things. Please let me know, therefore, whether on your part you intend coming to Berlin.28

It was hardly the most encouraging offer. He would be trading a high salary and reputation for comparative anonymity and lower wages, plus the challenge of breaking into well-connected circles of established names. If the time was not yet right for a move to Berlin, why not follow Körner to Dresden? At least here he would be working with those who knew him and valued his talent. It was at this time perhaps the most beautiful city in Germany, known as ‘Florence on the Elbe’ because of its cultural and ←40 | 41→architectural treasures. Unlike Munich, which was seething with brown-shirted stormtroopers, Dresden was a stronghold for the SPD and one of the few major cities in Germany where the Nazis had been unable to secure much support – which may too have been a factor in his move.

For whatever reason, Körner must have been unable to offer Wohlbrück a position at the Albert-Theater, for he applied to join the company at the Schauspielhaus, then under the direction of Josef Gielen (1890–1968). After the audition he was mortified to receive notification that he had been rejected.29 Perhaps his long-running success in Munich had made him complacent, or there may have been some form of personal politics going on in the background. Undaunted, he approached the recently opened Komödienhaus in der Reitbahnstraße, a small 700-seat private theatre run by Fritz Fischer. Here he was welcomed, and Fischer’s confidence was vindicated shortly afterwards when Wohlbrück scored a resounding success in a run of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida. The director of the Schauspielhaus realised his error and wrote to Wohlbrück inviting him back. He accepted, and remained in Dresden for over three years.

Wohlbrück was now 30 years old and his father was in poor health, suffering from the effects of X-ray burns. Due to ignorance about their harmful effects, many patients were over-exposed to the rays and suffered horrendous burns and skin damage, even the loss of fingers. Adolphe’s old friend Grock had been working at the London Coliseum since 1922 but travelled around the continent during the summer of 1924 after clashing with the managing director Sir Oswald Stoll over pay. It had been twelve years since he was last in Berlin, but on 1 October the clown made his debut at the Berlin Scala. He went on a tour of the big towns of Germany and then on to Vienna, where he met Adolf.

[He] was in a bad way. He was suffering from X-ray burns just as I had, and I knew from experience what that meant. I had heard of a Paris specialist, Dr Stora, and wanted Adolphe to consult him. As I had various engagements booked, I arranged that we should meet in Basle, where I was appearing in the Kuchlin Theatre some weeks later. I gave Adolphe enough to keep him meanwhile and to pay his fare.

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While in Basle, Grock took Adolf to a specialist, who declared he had only two to three years to live. Grock did his best to look on the bright side – who better than a clown to do so? As it turned out, the doctor died less than a year later, while Adolphe would live until the age of 76.30

The significance of Dresden in Wohlbrück’s life is apparent from the Desert Island Discs programme recorded in 1958. Of the eight records he chose, no less than half of them related to musical performances he had experienced while living in Dresden. It was here in 1929 that he saw the young violinist Yehudi Menuhin – whom Wohlbrück described as ‘a plump, ugly little boy of thirteen’ – ‘playing Brahms’ ‘Violin Concerto in D major’. It was here too that his dislike of Bach was overturned by hearing the Busch Chamber Orchestra playing his ‘Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major’. His description of a rendition of Schubert’s Winterreise by the elderly singer Ludwig Wüllner reveals something of Wohlbrück’s understanding of the artistic soul.

He also saw Yvette Guilbert singing old religious songs. She no longer resembled the young woman featured on Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters: ‘She was an old plump woman – her famous black gloves were green, and her famous black frock was – I don’t know what any more’ but ‘in the corner of her mouth and the twinkle of her eyes, you could still see this incredible charm, which proves that if somebody has charm, age doesn’t make it diminish. Teeth go, hair go, figures go, but charm will remain forever.’31

The roles he played at the Schauspielhaus were many and varied, and a quick skim through some of the productions may be useful in giving some sense of the range and diversity of his performances. Paul Raynal’s Der Herr seines Herzen [The Master of his Heart] opened on 8 September 1927 with Wohlbrück playing Henry, a close friend of the naïve Simon (Felix Steinböck) and his rival for the affections of Aline (Alice Verden). Jenny Schaffer played Blanche.

In Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s short verse drama Der Tor und der Tod [The Fool and Death] he played the nobleman Claudio, who is visited by Death and confronted with his failures in love. A striking portrait of Wohlbrück in this role was taken by the Dresden photographer Ursula Richter:

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Other portraits were taken around this time by Genja Jonas (1895–1938) who had a studio at 6 Bürgerwiese and was probably the most highly sought-after portrait photographer in Dresden. Her sister Erna ran a bespoke tailoring shop and may also have had some contact with Wohlbrück, whose sartorial style was already drawing attention. According to Eleonore Kius, the actor at one point lived at the Jonas’ apartment, which had become a meeting place for the city’s artistic and intellectual circles.32 She was, ←43 | 44→however, not the only female photographer with theatrical connections. Ursula Richter specialised in dance and theatre portraits, and photographed Wohlbrück and his colleagues on many occasions, often providing the costumed portraits used in their theatre programmes. Well-dressed, photogenic and attractive to both men and women, it is little wonder that one of his fellow actors, Martin Hellberg, described him as a ‘Münchener bon-vivant’ upon first encountering him as a guest star at the Komödie late in 1927.33 He was soon at the centre of Dresden’s theatrical life.

January 1928 saw him play the part of Andre Moreuil in Paul Geraldy’s Ihr Mann: Lustspiel in drei Akten, with the part of Jacqueline played by Alice Verden. Later in the year he played the role of Peter Mack in Perlenkömödie, opposite Alice Verden again as Wera Seithoff, Paul Hoffman as Erwin Siethoff and Grethe Volckmar as Cora Petry. Other roles included that of Major von Clausewitz in Neidhart von Gneisenau (by Wolfgang Goetz) which opened on 19 June 1928, John Middleton in Somerset Maugham’s Finden Sie, dass Constance sich richtig verhält? [The Constant Wife], Schlächtergeselle Leguerche in Oktobertag which opened on 16 August 1928 and – also that year – the part of Robert Dedo in Gerhart Hauptmann’s play Die schwarze Maske [The Black Mask] opposite Friedrich Lindner as Silvanus Schuller. In May 1929 he played Camille Desmoulins, the close friend of the Revolutionary leader George Danton who joins him on the guillotine, in Georg Büchner’s play, Dantons Tod [Danton’s Death].34 In ←44 | 45→September 1929 he took the lead role of Jack Worthing in Oscar Wilde’s Ernst sein! [The Importance of Being Earnest], playing opposite Paul Hoffman as Algernon Moncrieff.35 News of his masterful performance as Viscount Goring in Wilde’s Ein idealer Gatte [An Ideal Husband] – opposite Jenny Schaffer as Lady Chiltern – had already reached the ears of theatre producers in Berlin.

The following month saw him appear in a production of Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor [The Merry Wives of Windsor], and in November he played one of the Bard’s most despised villains: Edmund, the dark and brooding bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear, who conspires to betray his father and anyone else who stands in his way. This run of Shakespearean roles continued throughout 1930: in June he appeared in the Schauspielhaus production of Ein Sommernachtsraum [A Midsummer Night’s Dream] as Demetrius, with Helena (Antonia Dietrich), Lysander (Felix Steinböck) and Hermia (Lotte Gruner). In Was ihr Wollt [Twelfth Night, or What You Will] he played Toby Belch’s comical friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek [in German, Junker Bleichenwang] alongside a cast that included Jenny Schaffer, Walther Kottenkamp and Luis Rainer. Genja Jonas took a striking photograph of Wohlbrück during this production, in wig and lipstick, applying make-up before a mirror in his dressing room. While the clownish appearance befits Aguecheek’s character, it must also have brought back memories of his father’s performances in the circus ring. Although he made a conscious decision to choose a different path, young Wohlbrück’s gymnastic prowess and gift for physical comedy suggest the break was not as radical as might be imagined. It was not all Shakespeare that year, however, as he also played the role of Walo von Bruhl in Wedekind’s Hidalla, which opened on 24 April 1930 with a cast that included Luis Rainer (Hidalla), Paul Hoffmann (Morosini) and Erich Ponto (Raspe).36

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The recurrence of the same cast members over and over again is a reminder that the Dresden Schauspielhaus operated along similar lines to the regional repertory theatre system in Britain, with a resident company working closely together over a period of time, sharing and swapping roles in a diverse range of constantly changing productions. It was a system that allowed young actors to gain experience quickly and acquire a wide set of skills. When Wohlbrück later moved to London he expressed his frustration with the different theatrical system there.37 Given his contentment in Dresden, it is possible that he might have stayed longer – Antonia Dietrich had arrived at the Schauspielhaus in 1919 and more or less remained with the company her entire career – but it was perhaps inevitable that he was pulled to the centre, unable to resist the lure of Berlin and the opportunities it presented for combining stage and film work. Wohlbrück’s departure would cause deep sadness for Hellberg and the other members of the Dresden ensemble, but it was preceded by a remarkable conversation recorded by Hellberg in his autobiography.38

Wohlbrück’s last production with the Dresden company was in Wir sind jung [We are Young] by Friedrich Lichtneker (1903–50), an author and playwright at the Volkstheater in Vienna. It concerned the so-called Feme Murders, the politically motivated killings that were carried out by paramilitary groups in the early 1920s.39 The Weimar Republic had been slow to prosecute those accused of such crimes, and by the late 1920s there was a campaign to declare an amnesty for anyone accused of Fememorde – a bill that was passed early in 1930. Lichtneker’s play therefore came at a time when these murders were much in public consciousness, and the play was able to address the issue of state-sponsored killing and terror in a way that made audiences think about contemporary Germany and the direction in which events were moving. During rehearsals for the play, Wohlbrück took Martin Hellberg aside and confided in him with some cautionary advice: to start studying foreign languages and prepare to get away from Germany. ←46 | 47→‘Do not you see how things are developing?’ he urged his friend. ‘I am half Jewish and I can see what this will mean in the future. You are a Communist with a Jewish wife.40 Learn languages and leave before they come for you.’

Hellberg’s anecdote is a remarkable one. If true, it suggests that Wohlbrück was well aware of the dangers posed by the rising tide of fascist anti-Semitism long before the Nazis came to power and was not only taking practical steps to emigrate but was sufficiently clear on the point to be advising others. Hellberg is emphatic on dating this conversation to 1930, during Berlin rehearsals for a production there of Wir sind jung by the Dresden company.41 This immediately begs the question – if Wohlbrück was so prescient in 1930, why then did it take him six years to leave? And if he was urging Hellberg to learn foreign languages in preparation for starting a new career elsewhere, how was it that he only knew a handful of words in English when he went to Hollywood in the autumn of 1936? Hellberg records that he was horrified at Wohlbrück’s words, even though he regarded his fears as being exaggerated. According to his account, Wohlbrück wanted to make some money in films and then wait for developments beyond the borders. Perhaps this was only prudent: his options for travel and setting up in another country would have been limited had he left too early, funded only by the relatively meagre earnings of a provincial actor. Yet by the time Hitler was appointed chancellor, Wohlbrück had appeared in several successful films as well as well-paid Berlin stage productions, and if he had followed through on his advice to Hellberg, one might have expected him to have joined the exodus of 1933. The array of reasonable explanations typically given by those who delayed their departure from Nazi Germany – that they did not at first take the Nazis seriously, believed their regime wouldn’t last, or were slow to realise the true nature of its evil ideology – could have no relevance for Wohlbrück’s decisions if Hellberg’s anecdote is accurate. Whatever the true nature of Wohlbrück’s long-term plans, it was to Berlin that he was now headed.

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The most difficult aspect of his move was of course the separation from Hermine Körner, although they would continue to keep in touch for the next thirty years. As a memento of their friendship she gave him a ring, which he wore for the rest of his life and regarded as something of a good luck charm as well as a personal bond between them. Photographs from both stage and screen performances invariably show him wearing one of either two rings on his little finger: one with a dark oval stone in its centre, the other a plain signet ring with a square bezel. In times of anxiety – and there were to be many in the years ahead – he would find comfort and inspiration in slowly turning the ring around his finger before making a decision. For the time being, however, he had little doubt about the next step. While his immediate objective was to find work on the city’s stages, he was already looking beyond to the real prize – Berlin’s film studios.

‘To Conquer Berlin is to Conquer the World’42

In 1930, when Wohlbrück arrived in Berlin, it was the third largest city in the world with a population well in excess of four million. Cosmopolitan by nature and well-connected to the rest of the world by air and rail links, Berlin was Europe’s centre of modernity and experimentation, a city of movement and new technology, symbolised by the radio tower erected in 1926. There were some thirty-six theatres – with a seating capacity of 43,000 – in addition to several hundred cinemas, almost 150 newspapers, nearly 400 magazines and 16,000 cafes, bars and dancehalls.43

At the heart of the city lay the grand boulevard of Unter den Linden, flanked by rows of lime trees and running east-west from the Imperial Palace, Cathedral, National Gallery, Opera and museums at the eastern end to the Brandenburg Gate, Pariser Platz and the Reichstag at its western tip. To the southwest lay the city’s other great boulevard, the Kurfürstendamm (or Ku’damm), stretching some three kilometres from Auguste-Viktoria-Platz ←48 | 49→to the residential area of Halensee, along which were scores of bars, cabarets, cinemas and restaurants. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church stood in the middle of Auguste-Viktoria-Platz, which was the focal point for half a dozen major thoroughfares and a rendezvous point for artists, writers, intellectuals and others. The Romanisches Café, across the road from the church, was frequented by the likes of Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Kerr, Billy Wilder, George Grosz, Emil Orlik and film critic Paul Marcus (‘PEM’). On the west side of the square stood the magnificent Ufa-Palast am Zoo, Germany’s largest cinema when it opened in 1925, along with the Gloria-Palast, the Capitol and the Marmorhaus. Running south-east from Auguste-Viktoria-Platz behind the café was the bustling thoroughfare of Tauentzienstraße, which extended for half a kilometre to the spacious Wittenbergplatz in the district of Schöneberg, the location for KaDaWe, Europe’s largest department store. From there, Kleiststraße led to Nollendorfplatz, on the south side of which stood the Theater am Nollendorfplatz, where director Erwin Piscator was then director. Working with the likes of Tilla Durieux, Bertolt Brecht, George Grosz, collage artist John Heartfield, Ernst Toller and Walter Mehring, Piscator made the venue the focal point for political and documentary theatre. The building was also used for the German premiere of All Quiet on the Western Front (Milestone, 1930), adapted from the anti-war novel by Erich Maria Remarque, on 5 December 1930. The screening on the following evening was disrupted by Nazi supporters who had bought a third of the tickets and caused chaos by letting off stink bombs and releasing white mice into the auditorium. These antics had been organised by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Gauleiter (district leader) of Berlin and Reichstag representative. In the recent national election on 14 September, the Nazi party had obtained over 18 per cent of the vote, a massive increase from the feeble 2.6 per cent they garnered in the previous elections in 1928. With 107 seats in the Reichstag, they were now the second most popular party in Germany, and just a few points behind the Social Democrats.

Yet despite these ominous developments, Berlin’s cultural life was exploding with innovative talent. Albert Einstein – who lived in Haberlandstraße – ran the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, and Otto Klemperer was musical director of the Kroll Opera House next to the Reichstag. Brecht’s Die Dreigroschenoper [The Threepenny Opera] was still ←49 | 50→running two years after its premiere at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, with music composed by Kurt Weill, performed by Lotte Lenya and orchestras conducted by Peter Kreuder and Theo Mackeben (both of whom would compose scores for films in which Wohlbrück starred). Two of the songs were written by Friedrich Holländer, who composed the music for Der blaue Engel [The Blue Angel], adapted from Heinrich Mann’s novel Professor Unrat and starring Marlene Dietrich, which had premiered at the Gloria Palaast in April. As a centre for filmmaking, Berlin was now second only to Hollywood, and 1930 saw the production of over 100 sound films in Germany, as well as seventy-five silents (fifteen of which were post-synched for sound). Dietrich received news from Holländer that she had been cast in the lead role in The Blue Angel while she was performing in the Silhouette, a smoke-filled Schöneberg nightclub on the corner of Geisbergstraße and Kulmbachstraße with a long, dark and narrow bar, which was one of many Berlin clubs where cross-dressing was openly permitted. Regulars there included Conrad Veidt and the notorious dancer Anita Berber, as well as Wohlbrück’s future co-star Hilde Hildebrand who then lived at Voßbergstraße in the southern end of the Schöneberg district. Wohlbrück found an apartment at Münchenerstraße 18, in the western part of Schöneberg known as the ‘Bavarian Quarter’. This was an affluent middle-class residential area, with leafy streets, green parks and attractive cafes. Since the beginning of the century it had been home to a large Jewish community, and a beautiful synagogue had opened on Münchenerstraße in 1910.44

Having settled in Berlin, Wohlbrück began working for the theatre company of Viktor Barnowsky, who had worked closely with Heinz Saltenburg and managed an impressive little theatrical empire with venues across the city. Many of the stage plays in which Wohlbrück appeared were modern comedies, but one of his first big roles came in the newly published historical drama Elisabeth von England, which was directed by Heinz Hilpert and staged in the Kammerspiele, the smaller auditorium ←50 | 51→next door to the Deutsches Theater. Elisabeth von England was the work of Theodor Tagger (1891–1958), better known under his pseudonym of Ferdinand Bruckner.45 He had spent his early life between Vienna and Berlin, developing an interest in music and poetry that drew him into the theatrical world. He founded the Berlin Renaissance-Theater in 1922, took over the Kurfürstendamm Theatre in 1927 and published plays such as Krankheit der Jugend [The Pains of Youth] and Die Verbrecher [The Criminals, 1929]. 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. 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 take 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.

The production used a split-stage to show simultaneous events in the English and Spanish courts. This Simultanbühne or split-stage device had been popular in Berlin since the 1920s, and had been used for Bruckner’s Die Verbrecher with a tenement house cut away so that the audience could watch action taking place simultaneously in different parts of the building. ←51 | 52→This time, the split-stage was used in the final scene of each Act to contrast 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.

The play’s blend of historical drama and gripping psychology proved popular, running for 122 performances following its opening in November 1930. The cast included Gustaf Gründgens as Sir Francis Bacon and Paul Kemp as Gresham, with the part of Lord Cecil played by veteran actor Max Gülstorff, who would later play alongside Wohlbrück in the film Ich war Jack Mortimer (1935). It is interesting to note that Agnes Straub (Queen 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 eighteenth-century account. This was Wohlbrück’s first time working with Gründgens and the start of a friendship that would continue for the next thirty years.

Wohlbrück followed this with two comedies in quick succession, beginning with the role of Julien Meraud in Die Schule der Liebe [The School of Love], a translated version of Tristan Bernard’s 1929 play Jules, Juliette et Julien: ou L’école du sentiment. Directed by Hans Deppe, this opened at the Kammerspiele on 23 December 1930. He remained at the same venue for Vicki Baums’ Pariser Platz 13, which opened on 22nd January 1931. The three-act play was directed by Gustaf Gründgens and set in a beauty salon run by the Helen Bross Institute (allegedly based on the Elizabeth Arden chain) – there are other branches in New York, Paris and London – and revolves around the various members of staff and customers who frequent the salon. Among these is a middle-aged socialite, Katja (Ida Wüst), a 35-year-old interior designer Alix Mathieu and her younger lover Pix, or Peter (Wohlbrück). Business runs smoothly at the salon until the arrival of Helen Bross (Lili Darvas) herself, who falls for Pix and finds herself torn between her image as a beautiful 42-year-old woman, whose skin is rendered flawless by her salon’s products, and that of a 24-year-old girl who might elope with Pix.

The play subverts gender roles, presenting Helen as the embodiment of the New Woman and Pix as a physically attractive but effeminate man, financially dependent upon his lover, who has renounced his ability to think ←52 | 53→and speak independently in order to be ‘kept’ like a pet in a gilded cage. Even the name ‘Pix’ has been given to him by Alix. He examines himself in the salon hand mirrors and starts manicuring his nails while talking to Helen. He has no profession, and his skills are limited to those associated with the New Woman – such as tennis and stenography. The play was slated by the influential critic Herbert Ihering. Baum left Germany the following year and her writings were proscribed by the Nazis in 1933.46

In March 1931 he appeared at the Komödienhaus in Eine königliche Familie, Victor Barnowsky’s production of the Broadway hit The Royal Family. Written by George Kaufmann and Edna Ferber, the play poked fun at the Barrymore family of actors, especially John and Ethel. It proved highly popular, and a film version, The Royal Family of Broadway (Cukor, 1930) had followed soon after its Broadway premiere.47 Wohlbrück played Tony Cavendish, who is clearly based on John Barrymore, brother of Ethel and Lionel. The rest of the cast included Adele Sandrock as Fanny Cavendish, Maria Fein as Julia Cavendish, Edith Edwards as Gwen, Eugen Burg (father of Hansi Burg) as Herbert Dean and Attila Hörbiger – younger brother of Paul – as Gilbert Marshall. The play was directed by a young man named Max Ophüls, who had recently arrived in Berlin to work at UFA after several successful years as creative director at the Burgtheater in Vienna. Although he was not yet thirty, Ophüls had over 200 plays to his credit and clearly knew what he was doing: the month-long run was a huge success and Wohlbrück’s dynamic performance – which involved a dramatic leap onto the stage – greatly enhanced his reputation, although the New York Times critic had mixed views. Wohlbrück, he wrote, was ‘a pleasing youth, but here his chief interest was concentrated on the gymnastic antics with which he embroidered his part. It is undoubtedly amusing to see a leading man do a handspring and then clamber up a wall, but it tends to detract a bit from the text.’48

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Success on the Big Screen

The year also saw Wohlbrück appear in his first major film role, playing the part of Robby in Ewald André Dupont’s Salto Mortale. In some regards this was largely a rehash of Dupont’s earlier silent success Variety (1925) which also featured trapeze artists working in a circus. The plot, for what it is, revolves around a married couple of trapeze artists and the dangerous jealousy that arises when the husband, Jimmy, is injured and has to swap places with Robby, who previously operated the levers controlling the trapezes. The woman over whom they fight was played by Ukrainian beauty Anna Sten.

←54 | 55→

There is obvious irony in Wohlbrück, the clown’s son who had turned his back on the circus to become a serious actor, finding himself cast back into the circus ring and following – quite literally – in his father’s footsteps. The dramatic scenes showing the circus performances were filmed in the Großes Schauspielhaus (Great Theater), a vast building that had been home to ‘Circus Renz’ and then the ‘Zirkus Schumann’ before Max Reinhardt took it over in 1919. This was where Grock, and Adolf Wohlbrück Sr., had performed their routines. Much of Salto Mortale was filmed at night time, as Wohlbrück was often busy during the day with rehearsals and work on Eine königliche Familie. For several weeks he had to keep up this punishing schedule on only a few hours’ sleep. It was worth it however, for the success of both the play and the film marked significant turning points in the development of his career, and certainly vindicated his move to Berlin.

Sound cinema was still relatively new and the traditions and techniques of the silent era would continue to permeate filmmaking for some time. The plot of Salto Mortale is so simple that it could, arguably, have been told just as effectively without dialogue, and the film is certainly full of the visual signifiers and non-verbal expressions of silent film. After a dazzling opening sequence that shows off the various circus acts, including dizzy camera angles that show dancers’ legs cartwheeling over the lens, there is a sudden cut to reveal Jim and Robby feeding caged lions somewhere beneath or behind the circus ring – a hint at the savage jealousy and secret anger of the wild beasts that was lurking beneath the spectacular façade of the performances. Much of the action takes place away from the ring, in smoke-filled bars and cabaret clubs, which the camera captures with a lively eye for detail, skimming over mirrored bar tops and dance floors, peering at Robby and Marina through the bottom of their glass, or giving a bird’s-eye view of the barman’s action of wiping away the beer froth from the tops of glasses using a large wooden spatula. There are lots of close-up shots – whether of beer taps and glasses or the faces of various secondary characters who appear to have stepped out of a painting by Otto Dix – and the use of other visual effects, a notable example of which can be found during the conversation between Jim and Marina after his accident, when the lighting casts a shadow of his crutch in stark silhouette behind them. During Wohlbrück’s film career he had the opportunity to ←55 | 56→wear a remarkable array of costumes, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and seemed able to achieve the same look of rakish elegance whether he was in a velvet smoking jacket, dungarees or a tuxedo, but Salto Mortale contains probably his most bizarre outfits, comprising a glittering skull cap, flowing cape and a black tunic with a skull on the chest. Throughout the film, his performance is striking in its physicality, from the boisterous slapstick and physical comedy of Jim and Robby as they vie for Marina’s attention, to the gymnastic displays that show off his muscular physique and the dexterous agility he had shown off on stage as Tony Cavendish. As a showcase for his star quality, it was an all-round success.

Salto Mortale was released in Germany on 14 August 1931, and having his name paired with Anna Sten was quite an accolade once she shot to stardom. It was released in America as Trapeze the following May with its (subtitled) premiere at the Little Carnegie Playhouse.49 Sten caught the eye of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn – also from eastern Europe – who was on the lookout for his own version of Greta Garbo. Anna was invited to Hollywood and received intensive, expensive mentoring from Goldwyn and his team – efforts that were gently mocked by Cole Porter in the song Anything Goes for the 1934 musical of the same name:

When Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction

instruct Anna Sten in diction,

then Anna shows,

Anything goes!

Sten was not a success, however, and after a few films – such as Nana (1934) – Goldwyn released her from her contract. Wohlbrück’s reputation on the other hand, continued to grow, consolidated by a series of film successes in 1931 – but the dominance of the big Hollywood studios run by men such as Goldwyn – MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers and RKO – continued to overshadow the film industries in Europe. One ←56 | 57→way of counter-acting the American hegemony was to develop a pan-European film industry, which in practice meant a programme of collaborations between French and German studios. Men who had fought one another in WWI, now united against a common foe: Hollywood. And so it was that in 1931, Wilhelm Thiele – the director of Die Drei von der Tankstelle (1930), one of the ten most popular films of the previous year, went to Paris to direct Le Bal. Luis Trenker directed Berge in Flammen in the Dolomites for Marcel Vandal, who – with Charles Delac – had set up a production company called ‘Film d’Art’.50 Wohlbrück’s next film would be made in both French and German, and directed by another member of this company, Julien Duvivier.

Duvivier was born a few weeks before Wohlbrück and died a few months after him, by which time he had risen to become a revered figure in French cinema, having started making films in 1919. Based on André Reuze’s 1913 novel, Les cinq gentlemen maudits had been adapted for the silent screen in 1920. Wohlbrück plays the part of Alexander Petersen, a Hamburg millionaire who lands in Tangier with two apparently wealthy Englishmen, Midlock (Allan Durant) and Strawber (Jack Trevor). On the ship, Petersen has made the acquaintance of the charming Camilla (Camilla Horn) and gets invited to the farm of her uncle Marouvelle (Hans Sternberg). The Englishmen are joined by their friends, pilot Lawson (Georges Peclet) and racing driver Woodland (Marc Dantzer).

During a visit to the pilgrimage site of Moulay Driss, one of the men attempts to remove the veil from a young woman, provoking the wrath of the blind beggar who accompanies her. The old man turns out to be a sorcerer, and he places the party under a curse, proclaiming that they will die within the next lunar cycle, and even predicting the order in which they will perish. Initially dismissive, the westerners’ mood soon changes after ←57 | 58→violent accidents start to claim the lives of the men in the order foreseen by the old man ….

In the end, it is revealed that the curse was faked: the blind beggar is not blind, the veiled woman is a blonde European and Strawber has engineered the deaths in a ruse to get Petersen’s money. The Moroccan setting – with its suggested atmosphere of exotic magic, evil and Islamic darkness – has been an illusion under which western greed can operate.51 There is a subtle anti-English sentiment to the film, present in both the French and German versions. Weaknesses in the plot are balanced by the cinematography, which makes excellent use of the dramatic light and exotic Moroccan locations, which included Fes, Moulay Driss and the Roman ruins of Volubilis. Duvivier and his thirty-strong party arrived in Morocco at the end of April 1931, and were joined by Wohlbrück and the other German actors a few weeks later. They returned to Europe in July and several months were spent editing the two different versions, with the German-language film released as Die Funf Verfluchten Gentlemen [The Five Accursed Gentlemen].52

Towards the end of October 1931 Wohlbrück had a role in Ferenc Molnar’s play Jemand [Someone] at the Komödie, starring alongside Albert Bassermann and the playwright’s wife, Lili Darvas, under the direction of Gustaf Gründgens. While he was performing in Jemand, filming had already begun on Wohlbrück’s next film, Fred Sauer’s military comedy Der Stolz der dritten Kompanie [The Pride of Company Three.] The film was shot between 26 October and 17 November 1931 and follows the exploits of a mischievous but good-hearted soldier, Gustav Diestelbeck (Heinz Rühmann).

Both Diestelbeck and his bête noire, the bullying drill sergeant Krause, are competing for the affections of local innkeeper’s daughter Emma ←58 | 59→(Christl Mardayn). In order to thwart a meeting between Emma and Krause, Diestelbeck sets off a false alarm at the barracks, but a real alarm is sounded immediately after and he is regarded as a hero for having raised the company so promptly. Meanwhile, Prinz Willibald (Wohlbrück) is travelling by train to inspect the troops for their jubilee, but has to transfer to a coach due to the slowness of the train and ends up meeting Diestelbeck as well as bar singer Vera (Trude Berliner) – girlfriend of Lieutenant Gernsbach (Viktor de Kowa) – who doubts that he is really the prince. The comedy revolves around similar confusions of mistaken identity and coincidences, with a play-within-the-film and clever visual effects such as the switch between the model soldiers in a toy shop window and the main characters. Diestelbeck plays the part of an Uhlan lieutenant in the amateur theatre play staged inside the barracks, but when he wears this stage uniform to the local inn he is mistaken for an officer by Prinz Willibald, who enlists his help in a delicate romantic matter …

This type of joke was common in the films of Heinz Rühmann, who was typically cast as the ‘little man’.53 Eugen Burg, who had appeared on stage with Wohlbrück in The Royal Family, played Minister von Schwarzenbecher. There are some echoes of Carl Zuckmayer’s satirical play Der Hauptmann von Köpenick [The Captain of Köpenick] in the way the film lampooned the military and the ease with which authorities yield to the symbol of a military uniform, and it was probably little coincidence that The Pride of Company Three was quickly made just as a film adaptation of Zuckmayer’s play was released in the cinemas.54 Der Hauptmann von Köpenick was based on a real incident in 1906 when a down-at-heel former convict named Wilhelm Voigt – having acquired a second-hand army uniform – succeeded in masquerading as a Prussian army officer, ordering soldiers that he met to fall ←59 | 60→under his command, and then taking control of the town hall in Köpenick (on the east of Berlin) where he confiscated almost 4,000 Deutschmarks from the municipal treasury. Although he was caught and given a jail sentence, Voigt’s escapade caused widespread amusement and he became something of a folk hero: bowing to popular feeling, the Kaiser granted him a full pardon and the ‘Captain of Köpenick’ attained near-celebrity status on his release from prison. Zuckmayer’s play followed historical events closely, making good use of the different Berlin locations and dialects that featured in the story, but in ridiculing the ways in which military uniforms can be misused and abused, it was easy to interpret the play as a sideways swipe at the Nazis – which is exactly what Zuckmayer intended.55 The play had received its premiere on 5 March 1931 at the Deutsches Theater, directed by Heinz Hilpert with Werner Krauss in the title role and Wohlbrück joining the very large cast – the play contained over seventy separate characters.

Der Stolz der 3. Kompanie was released in January 1932 and proved hugely popular with audiences, thanks in part to its strong cast and witty dialogue. The following month Wohlbrück was back on the stage, starring alongside Maria Bard and Käthe Haack in Jewel Robbery at the Hebbel-Theater in Stresemannstraße. This crime caper had been transferred from New York, where it had opened at the Bloch Theater on 13 January, adapted by Bertram Block from the original Hungarian play Ekszerrablás a Váci-utcában of Lazlo Fodor. The play features a suave jewel thief whose debonair charm seduces a bored aristocrat, and in some ways prefigures the role of The Rat that Wohlbrück would play a few years later. In an aptly sartorial phrase, the New York Times’ Berlin correspondent observed that ‘Adolf Wohlbrück fits gracefully into all the bandit’s clothes – it is an evening that twinkles and glitters.’56

That same month saw the release of Drei von der Stempelstelle [Three from the Unemployment Line] an attempt by director Eugen Thiele to capitalise on the success of Die Drei von der Tankstelle (1930), directed by his elder brother Wilhelm, which was one of the ten most popular films of the ←60 | 61→time.57 The second film lacked some of the gaiety of the original, however, and its concern with unemployment and homelessness reveal the sombre undercurrents that were running through the Weimar Republic as it neared its end. Two unemployed friends, Fritz and Arthur, take in an exhausted homeless man named Max Binder – played by Wohlbrück – who has collapsed in front of them. They lodge with a laundrywoman, whose pretty daughter Else they are both wooing. Things get more complicated as Max and Else start growing closer, Else loses her job after rejecting the advances of her boss, who then has Max arrested.

Although the film did not even approach the success of Wilhelm Thiele’s film, the title was sufficiently well-known for the Communist newspaper Die rote Fahne to steal. During this time, the editors ran a series of articles with titles from contemporary films – such as Drei von der Stempelstelle – in which they contrasted cinematic fiction with reality.58 Economic conditions in Germany in February 1932 were dire, as unemployment peaked at around six million – some 25 per cent of the working population.59

Given the social and political anxieties of the time, it was unsurprising that Wohlbrück’s next two films that year provided some musical escapism for German audiences. Melodie der Liebe (Jacoby, 1932) was a vehicle for opera singer Richard Tauber, an Austrian born tenor whose warm, lyrical voice had brought him international fame as both a concert performer and gramophone artiste. This was Tauber’s fifth film and – as the main focus was always going to be on Tauber’s singing – there was only the simplest of romantic storylines to follow: poverty stricken parents – played by Karl Etlinger and Ida Wüst – try to encourage a match between their daughter ←61 | 62→Lilli (Alice Treff) and opera singer Hoffmann (Tauber), only for their machinations to be uncovered by Escha (played by Dutch actress Lien Deyers). While Tauber’s singing remained the chief attraction for cinemagoers, the slow pace and sluggish storyline meant that Melodie der Liebe was inferior to previous films such as Das lockende Ziel [End of the Rainbow, 1930], and even Wohlbrück’s performance as the Kapellmeister does little to improve matters, although some enjoyment may be had from watching tiny Petra Unkel as Hoffmann’s daughter Gloria, and the comic antics of Hoffmann’s brother-in-law manager, Bernhard (Szöke Szakall).

Musicals were remarkably popular in the Weimar Republic, and Wohlbrück’s next film continued in a similar vein, even if the singing style was rather different. Instead of Tauber’s operatic tenor, Karel Lamač’s lively musical comedy Baby (released 23 December 1932) featured an a capella close harmony female group from Vienna called ‘The Singing Babies.’ These girls provide music for the film as well as having a place in the plot. Two French girls, Baby and Susette, travel to England where they are supposed to be going to a boarding school. More interested in variety shows, they end up getting mistaken for showgirls and are pursued by two English aristocrats, Lord Cecil (Wohlbrück) and Lord James (Willy Stetner). The girls enjoy the pretence, Baby joins The Singing Babies and after various escapades and disguises, the film ends with a double marriage. Baby was played by Lamač’s wife Anny Ondra, another smouldering beauty from eastern Europe. During the film she dresses in men’s clothing, which – along with the singing, slapstick and physical comedy – would recur in a subsequent film, Viktor und Viktoria. Wohlbrück even gets to show off his juggling skills.

Many years later, after he had moved to Britain, Wohlbrück commented on the contrast between the abundance of comic roles in which he was cast on the continent and the serious roles with which he was associated by British audiences and critics: ‘All they wanted me to do was make them cry.’60 Although he enjoyed some success with light-hearted stage roles and musicals, the spirit and playfulness of Baby and these other films is almost ←62 | 63→entirely absent from his screen work after he left Germany, and it is impossible not to see this as a great loss, both for Wohlbrück and for cinemagoers. Although the language barrier was undoubtedly a factor, there was also the deep-rooted and persistent stereotype about humourless Germans to overcome.61 Émigré directors Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder may have excelled in writing and directing comedies in Hollywood, but very few émigré actors found comic roles of comparable status, partly because they were rarely given the opportunity. Given Wohlbrück’s mastery of physical comedy, his command of subtle facial expressions and meticulous delivery of dialogue, he surely had just as much potential to make English-speaking audiences laugh as he did to make them cry. His versatility did not, however, extend to singing, as his next production would reveal.

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* Prince Willibald, Der Stolz der 3. Kompanie.

1 For a vivid (if slightly hyperbolic) introduction to the era, see Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968) and Walter Laqueur, Weimar: A Cultural History (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1974). Contemporary documents can be found in Anton Kaes, Martin Jay and Edward Dimendberg (eds), The Weimar Republic Sourcebook (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

2 Kurt Loup, Die Wohlbrücks: Eine deutsche Theaterfamilie (Düsseldorf: Claasen, 1975), p. 264.

3 Hans Wagner, 200 Jahre Münchner Theaterchronik: 1750–1950 (Munich: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Robert Lerche, 1965), p. 120 lists Wohlbrück as part of the ensemble on 19 April 1919, although the Jahrbuch does not mention his name among the official ‘court actors’ of the Schauspielhaus. The Art Nouveau building on Maximilianstraße had opened in 1901. Curt Riess claims that the audition was for Kameliendame but there is no record in Franz Michael Bilstein, Hermine Körner (1878–1960). Eine Schauspielerin im Wandel der Stilepochen (Berlin: Freie Universität, 1970) of Körner producing this in 1919 before the Wohlbrück-Körner production in September 1920.

4 Wohlbrück was mentioned in a review by Richard Elsinger in the Münchener Neuesten Nachrichten (30 May 1919).

5 Amy Smith, Hermine Körner (Berlin: Kranich-Verlag, 1970), p. 102. Wagner (1965) states that the role of Alwa was played by Wilhelm Dieterle when the play opened and gives the date of the premiere as 18 June 1919.

6 Tilly Newes (1886–1970) married Frank Wedekind in 1906, a year after they met. They had two daughters, Pamela (1906–86) and Kadidja (1911–94) who worked at the Deutsches Theater in the early 1930s. Most of the family members enjoyed complicated romantic lives. Tilly had an affair with Hans Albers, while Pamela married Charles Regnier and became a close friend of Wohlbrück, who their children knew as ‘Uncle Tony.’

7 Franz Michael Bilstein, Hermine Körner (1878–1960). Eine Schauspielerin im Wandel der Stilepochen (Berlin: Freie Universität, 1970), n. 402, p. 205.

8 Anatol Regnier, Du auf deinem höchsten Dach. Tilly Wedekind und ihre Töchter. Eine Familienbiografie (2005), p. 172 and Amy Smith, Hermine Körner (Berlin: Kranich, 1970).

9 Daily Express (13 August 1952), p. 3.

10 The play opened in August 1921, although the photograph of Wohlbrück and Körner together in the production reproduced on p. 129 of Amy Smith, Hermine Körner (Berlin: Kranich-Verlag, 1970) gives the year as 1922.

11 ‘Der Armand des Herrn Wohlbrück zeigte sympathische äussere und innere Qualität, aber erst in der Entwicklung.’ Allgemeine Zeitung (5 September 1920). All translations are my own unless otherwise noted. Quoted in Bilstein (1970), n. 545, p. 217.

12 The Bechstein would be shipped over to America when he emigrated in 1936 and then sailed back across the Atlantic when he moved to England, where it remained with him in Hampstead for the rest of his life.

13 See Wilhelm Haumann, Paul Kornfeld: Leben, Werk, Wirkung (Königshausen & Neumann, 1996), pp. 293ff., Theodor Adorno, ‘Himmel und Hölle,’ in Neue Blätter für Kunst und Literatur 4 (1921/2) and Horst Schroeder’s review ‘Berliner Theater’ in NZZ No. 741 (4 May 1920) which singled out the performance of the three actresses – Lina Lossen, Agnes Straub and Auguste Pünkösdy.

14 Berger directed Wohlbrück in Walzerkrieg (1933) and preceded the actor to England, arriving there in 1935 and working with Alexander Korda and Michael Powell, although he returned to Europe before the war and managed to survive in hiding using fake papers. He included a chapter on Wohlbrück in his book Theatermenschen: so sah ich sie (Velber bei Hannover: Friedrich Verlag, 1962).

15 Gusti Adler, ‘… aber vergessen Sie nicht die chinesischen Nachtigallen.’ Erinnerungen an Max Reinhardt (Munich: Langen Müller, 1980), p. 87.

16 See Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (1968), pp. 110–2. The Schauspielhaus am Gendarmenmakt was now owned by the Prussian state and renamed the Preußisches Staatstheater.

17 Adolf Wohlbrück, ‘Frechheit siegt’ [‘Freedom Reigns’], Film-und Mode-Revue (1 September 1953).

18 Münchener Zeitung (24 January 1921).

19 The disturbance was reported in both the Münchener Neusten Nachrichten and the Neuen Freie Presse on the same night, with more dramatic coverage in the Neue Wiener Tagblatt the following morning. See Gerd K. Schneider, Die Rezeption von Arthur Schnitzlers Reigen, 1897–1994: Text, Aufführungen, Verfilmungen Pressespiegel und andere zeitgenössische Kommentare (Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 1995), pp. 228–31 and Amy Smith, Hermine Körner (1970), p. 106.

20 The scope, nature and extent of these protests can be traced through the papers held in Exeter University’s Schnitzler Press Cutting Archive, EUL MS 214/II/21, especially Boxes 17 and 18.

21 Max Reinhardt’s production in Berlin opened in February 1911 but was forced to incorporate various changes following a visit from police chief Traugott von Jagow, including a change of title to Der Riese [The Ogre].

22 Wolfgang Petzet, Theater. Die Münchner Kammerspiele, 1911–1972 (Munich: Verlag Kurt Desch, 1973), p. 591.

23 Esther Wipfler, Martin Luther in Motion Pictures: History of a Metamorphosis (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), pp. 83–91.

24 It is therefore described as his ‘debut’ screen performance in Sylvia Wolf, Ulrich Kurowski and Eberhard Hauff (eds), Das Münchner Film- und Kinobuch. Die Biographie der Filmstadt München (Ebersberg: Ed. Achteinhalb Just, 1988), p. 64.

25 On the orientalism of Wüstenrausch, see the write-up in Die Filmwoche, No. 17 (23 April 1924).

26 The alternative title Der Fluch der bösen Tat [The Curse of the Evil Deed] is taken from Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy: ‘That’s the curse of the evil deed that, propagating still, evil must bear.’ – The Piccolomini, V, 1 / Octavio Piccolomini.

27 Zarek (1898–1958) – who was both Jewish and homosexual – left Nazi Germany in 1933, spending five years in Hungary before settling in England where he worked for the British Intelligence and the BBC.

28 The letter from Wohlbrück to Zarek, 29 May 1926, and the reply from Zarek to Wohlbrück, 31 May 1926, are both held in the manuscript collection of the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.

29 Filmwelt, No. 20 (19 May1935), p. 18.

30 Adrian Wettach, Grock, King of Clowns (1957), pp. 150–1.

31 Transcript of his interview with Roy Plomley for Desert Island Discs, 1958.

32 Eleonore Kius, Heureka: auch eine Odyssee (Norderstedt: Books on Demand GmbH, 2006), p. 62. See also Alexander Atanassow, Genja Jonas. Eine Dresdner Lichtbildnerin (Dresden: Kunstblatt-Verlag, 2013) which contains several portraits of Wohlbrück.

33 Martin Hellberg, Die bunte Lüge (Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1977), p. 201.

34 Although the play – Büchner’s first – was written in 1835, it was not published until 1902. It became one of the great classics of the Weimar era, with over ninety separate productions between 1919 and 1933, in the wake of its three-year run at Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater (1916–9). It was also the basis for two silent films, Danton (Buchovetski, 1921) that See Marc Silbermann, ‘Imagining History: Weimar Images of the French Revolution,’ in Bruce Murray and Christopher Wickham (eds), Framing the Past: The Historiography of German Cinema and Television (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992), pp. 98–120, and Wolfram Viehweg, Georg Büchners Dantons Tod auf dem deutschen Theater (Munich: Laokoon, 1964), pp. 370, 375. He had played the same role in Munich in January 1922.

35 Rainer Kohlmayer, Oscar Wilde in Deutschland und Österreich: Untersuchungen zur Rezeption der Komödien und zur Theorie der Bühnenübersetzung (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1996), p. 206.

36 Günter Seehaus, Frank Wedekind und das Theater, 1898–1959 (1964), p. 107, which also notes that Wohlbrück had appeared in Hidalla in Munich in 1919.

37 Interview with Sylvia Terry-Smith, (1940), p. 11.

38 Martin Hellberg, Die bunte Lüge (Berlin: Herschenverlag, 1977), p. 235.

39 For some background to these events see A. D. Brenner, ‘Feme Murder: Paramilitary “Self-Justice” in Weimar Germany,’ in B. B. Campbell and A. D. Brenner (eds), Death Squads in Global Perspective (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), pp. 57–83.

40 Hellberg had married Berta Gurewitsch in 1926. She emigrated to Palestine with their son in 1935.

41 The play was also produced by the Dresden Residenztheater on 23 November 1929, according to Richard Elsner, Das Deutsche Drama in Geschichte und Gegenwart, vol. 2 (Berlin: Verlag der deutschen Nationalbühne, 1930), p. 288.

42 Carl Zuckmayer, A Part of Myself (London: Secker & Warburg, 1970), p. 217.

43 Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard. The Life and Times of Billy Wilder (New York: Hyperion Press, 1998), pp. 33, 67.

44 Although documents in the Bundesarchiv from 1933 give the actor’s address as Münchenerstraße, the annual editions of Universal Filmlexikon for 1932 and 1933 place him at Johanna-Stegen-Straße 12. This is much further south, in the Steglitz district of Berlin, but may have been a secretarial address provided for correspondence.

45 After the Nazis came to power in 1933 Bruckner moved to Paris where 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 Wohlbrück, publishing another historical play – Napoleon der Erste – in 1937, and joining the German-American Writers Association along with 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.

46 Lynda J. King, ‘The Image of Fame: Vicki Baum in Weimar Germany,’ The German Quarterly, 58/3 (Summer 1985), pp. 375–93.

47 See the review headed ‘George S. Kaufmann u. Edna Ferber, Eine königliche Familie (Komödienhaus, 28.02.31)’ in ‘Berliner Brief,’ Neue Zürcher Zeitung, No. 441 (10 March 1931).

48 C. Hooper Trask, ‘A pair of Broadway hits fare badly in Berlin,’ New York Times (12 April 1931), p. 1. Ophüls directed Wohlbrück later in the year in a production of Paul Osborne’s play Ich weiß etwas, was du nicht weißt [The Vinegar Tree] at the Theater in der Stresemannstraße which opened on 9 October 1931.

49 In Britain the film was later distributed under the more titillating title of The Circus of Sin, although critic Lionel Collier found the dubbed American accents ‘out of tune with the German atmosphere’ Picturegoer (3 June 1933), p. 106 – which raises an interesting question about how attuned British cinemagoers were to the idea of ‘German atmosphere.’

50 On MLV’s and French-German collaboration, see Alastair Phillips, City of Darkness, City of Light: Émigré Filmmakers in Paris, 1929–1939 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004), pp. 32–3; Higson and Maltby, ‘Film Europe’ and ‘Film America’: Cinema, Commerce and Cultural Exchange, 1920–1939 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) and Ursula Hardt, From Caligari to California. Erich Pommer’s Life in the International Film Wars (Oxford: Berghahn, 1996).

51 See Charles O’Brien, ‘The “Cinéma Colonial” of 1930s France. Film Narration as Spatial Practice,’ in Matthew Bernstein and Gaylyn Studlar (eds), Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997), pp. 214–9 and David H. Slavin, Colonial Cinema and Imperial France, 1919–1939 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), pp. 106–12.

52 The French-language film received its premiere in Paris on 14 March 1932 with the German version being released ten days later.

53 Stephen Lowry, ‘Heinz Rühmann: the archetypal German’ in Tim Bergfelder (ed.), The German Cinema Book (London: BFI, 2002).

54 Directed by Richard Oswald, Der Hauptmann von Köpenick was released on 22 December 1931 and starred Max Adalbert as Wilhelm Voigt, with other cast members including Paul Wagner, Max Gülstorff, Käthe Haack and Fritz Odemar. Inevitably, Heinz Rühmann played the title role in the 1956 film directed by Helmut Käutner.

55 Zuckmayer, A Part of Myself (1970), p. 312.

56 C. Hooper Trask, ‘Overtones and Box Office in Berlin,’ New York Times (21 February 1932), p. 2.

57 Drei von der Tankstelle follows the story of three young well-to-do men who suddenly find themselves bankrupt and respond by opening a petrol station. All goes well until Lilian comes on the scene and all three of the friends fall for her. When she chooses Willy, the friendship is challenged.

58 Bruce Murray, Film and the German Left in the Weimar Republic. From Caligari to Kuhle Wampe (University of Texas Press, 1990), p. 192.

59 Nicholas H. Dimsdale, Nicholas Horsewood and Arthur van Riel, Unemployment and Real Wages in Weimar Germany (University of Oxford, Discussion Papers in Economic and Social History), No. 56 (2004), p. 46.

60 Interview with R. Quilter Vincent, ‘For Mr. Walbrook It’s All in the Stars’ Film Review, 5/4 (October 1955), p. 5.

61 For discussion of British attitudes towards German culture during this period, see Colin Storer, Britain and the Weimar Republic: The History of a Cultural Relationship (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010) and Ariela Halkin, The Enemy Reviewed: German Popular Literature through British Eyes between the Two World Wars (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995).

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‘You underestimate the lion.’
Stardom and Society, 1933–1934

Thanks to Max Reinhardt’s connections, Wohlbrück was signed up near the end of 1932 to sing in a new production of Leo Fall’s celebrated operetta Die geschiedene Frau [The Divorced Woman]. This was to be conducted by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who had been working on the score since the autumn of 1932, with the help of Fall’s widow. The idea of reviving the operetta had been put to Korngold by Miksa Preger, the director of Vienna’s Carltheater as well as the theatre in Berlin’s Nollendorfplatz where it was due to open on 1 February 1933.

Wohlbrück’s co-stars included Lucie Mannheim, Harold von Oppenheim, Norwegian soprano Maria Rajdl and Ludwig Stössel, a fellow Austrian and protégé of Max Reinhardt. The production was to be Korngold’s most challenging work; photos of rehearsals show him looking tired and strained.1 According to Wohlbrück, his singing skills were partly to blame.

As rehearsals went on in preparation for the opening night, dark clouds were gathering outside the theatre as Germany’s fourteen-year attempt at democracy drew to a close. Against a background of conspiratorial intrigue, ←65 | 66→back room deals and threats of military coups, the devious Chancellor, General Schleicher, was forced to resign his office on Saturday 28 January. At noon on Monday, President Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor. The Nazification of Germany had begun.

News of Hitler’s appointment came two days before the opening night and threw the whole production into jeopardy. It only went ahead after tenor Harold von Oppenheim asked his father, a wealthy Cologne banker, to lend 30,000 marks. For the time being, the show would go on.

Parliament dissolved at the beginning of February. The theatre’s manager, Heinz Saltenburg, had to repay the Oppenheim loan from the box office returns, which meant that both the conductor and the cast lost their salaries. As the production struggled on, the situation in Germany grew darker. The Socialist and Communist parties were suppressed, as was freedom of the press. The day after the burning of the Reichstag on 27 February, a decree was issued that suspended civil liberties and thousands of opponents of the Nazi regime were rounded up and jailed. In such an atmosphere, it was evident that an expensive production featuring so many Jewish talents was doomed. The curtain came down for the last time on 3 March. It was Korngold’s last appearance as conductor in Germany, and – along with other Jewish cast members such as Stossel and Mannheim – he would shortly leave the country.2

Although the Nazi party failed to win a majority in March, an enabling act granted plenary powers to Hitler’s cabinet, which included Josef Goebbels as Minister of Propaganda with responsibility for the film industry. On 7 April, the first two anti-Jewish laws were promulgated, barring Jews from legal practice and public service. The month ended with the exclusion of Jewish students from German schools and it was not long before the film industry was affected. On 28 March 1933 Goebbels had gathered all the non-Jewish film producers together in the Kaiserhof Hotel to outline the ‘right direction’ for future German films. His speech was reported in full in the Film-Kurier, whose Jewish editor, Alfred Weiner, fled to the United States shortly after.3 The following day an emergency board meeting ←66 | 67→was held at UFA. A report of the meeting was drawn up, and headed On the Continued Employment of Jewish Staff Members and Employees.

With respect to the question of the continued employment of Jewish staff members and employees at UFA, which the national revolution in Germany has thrust to the fore, the executive board resolves in principle that whenever possible, Jewish workers and employees are to be released from their contracts. It further resolves that steps be undertaken immediately to cancel the contracts of the individual persons in question. Each member of the board should decide as to which staff members and employees in his area of responsibility are to be dismissed immediately and which are to be released from UFA in a gradual dismissal process. Cases of hardship are to be treated with consideration. The payout of wages after notice has been given is to be discussed with Herr Klitzsch.

In addition to these general principles, some more specific issues were determined: ‘It has been decided that the contract for [Erich] Pommer should be dissolved, as under the current conditions, it will be impossible to make any of his films. His film Walzerkrieg will be made, the script is ready. The film Ljubas Zobel will be abandoned.’4

Pommer was replaced by Günther Stapenhorst and quickly crossed the border into France, where he remained working for some time before emigrating to America.5 The task of directing Walzerkrieg [War of the Waltzes] was entrusted to Ludwig Berger, with whom Wohlbrück had worked in the theatre fifteen years previously.6 Filming took place between 6 June and early August 1933 at UFA’s Babelsberg studios, which allowed Wohlbrück time to appear as French airman Lucien Vidal at Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in a production of a new play, Am Himmel Europas [In the Skies of Europe], with Trude Moos and Eduard Wesener. This was an anti-war play that encouraged Franco-German reconciliation, written ←67 | 68→by Norwegian playwright Per Schwenzen and Josef B. Malina, and directed by Hugo Werner-Kahle. Following rehearsals in May the play had its premiere on 1 June, but the pacifist message did not go down well with the Nazis and it was soon closed down.7

One interesting development that came from the play was that Wohlbrück’s skill in speaking French during the performance attracted the notice of French filmmakers, which suggested a different career path might be opening up for him. Despite the moderate success of his early films, Wohlbrück was still not entirely comfortable with what he was doing, and sensed that these doubts were also shared by the film producers. All that was about to change with Walzerkrieg, however, as was an important facial feature: photographs from the production of Am Himmel Europas show the actor clean-shaven and it was during the filming of Walzerkrieg that he acquired the moustache with which he will forever be associated. Having refused Stapenhorst’s request to grow a moustache for the part of Johann Strauss, Wohlbrück was given a stick-on one to wear instead. As he got used to it during filming, and realised that it altered his facial shape and made him more photogenic, he decided to grow a natural moustache himself.8 It was soon an integral part of his public image and star persona – a ‘badge’ as one journalist later termed it, and a distinctive feature that set him apart from other leading men in Germany.9 He was conscious of his appearance, and revealed in an interview that he used hair lotion and eau de cologne.10 The resemblance to Errol Flynn or Clark Gable was perhaps not unintentional, as the film studios were keen to produce their own rivals ←68 | 69→for Hollywood’s greatest stars.11 Although many promotional photographs and postcards would present Wohlbrück in heroic poses or in extravagant costumes, photographers such as Lotte Jacobi regularly captured him in more domestic settings that emphasised his scholarly and musical interests, showing him at home surrounded by books, gramophone records and musical instruments. Another constant theme was his love for animals, and several postcards were issued showing him with cows, horses and of course his three beloved dogs: white poodle Anton, who had been given to him as a gift, Fridolin and Bobby, a black Scottish terrier who appeared with him in Der Stolz der 3. Kompanie.

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Wohlbrück’s growing fame meant that his name was publicised throughout Germany, and at some point (either in the late 1920s or early 1930s) media coverage caught the attention of Paul Wohlbrück, a retired civil servant who lived in Eberwalde just outside Berlin. He was actually a great-great uncle of the actor, descended from one of the numerous siblings of Wohlbrück ancestors, and decided to get in touch. Over the years Paul Wohlbrück had been doing some family history research and had traced the family pedigree back for over 250 years. Through his contact with Paul Wohlbrück, and the donation of his book Einige Nachrichten und Erzählungen von der Familie Wohlbrück, zusammengestellt von Paul Wohlbrück [Some News and Stories from the Family Wohlbrück, Compiled by Paul Wohlbrück], the actor learned for the first time about the theatrical dynasty to which he and his father belonged.12

Walzerkrieg [War of the Waltzes]

Despite the rampant militarism and the increasing grip of the Nazi regime on the cultural and social life of the country, the cabarets played on and the film studios continued to produce escapist musicals and historical romances that were remote from contemporary events. Walzerkrieg took an actual historical event – the visit to England in 1837 of Johann Strauss the Elder – and spun around it a comic tale of romantic rivalry, mistaken identities and international stereotypes. Following the orders of Queen Victoria (played by a young Hanna Waag), musical director Sir Robert Philip (Theo Lingen) travels to Vienna to seek out the best waltz orchestra and composer, and bring them back to play at the royal court. Assisted by ←70 | 71→a former Viennese dancing star named Ilonka, he sees Joseph Lanner’s orchestra perform and is impressed by their musical skill, especially that of the first violinist, Johann Strauss (Wohlbrück). Personal rivalries and other complications are tearing the orchestra apart, however, and matters are further complicated by percussionist Gustl (Willy Fritsch) being in love with Lanner’s daughter Kati (Renate Müller). When Sir Philip first arrives, he sees the performance descend into mayhem with beer tankards flying, which he naively presumes is part of the dance. Animosity grows between Strauss and Sir Robert after the orchestra reaches England, but the various disputes are all resolved in a wild courtroom scene where Strauss and Lanner sit down together to compose the celebrated Radetzky March.

Walzerkrieg received its premiere at the Ufa-Palast am Zoo on 4 October 1933 and Wohlbrück’s performance received enthusiastic reviews from critics in movie papers such as Licht-Bild-Bühne and Film-Kurier, as well as the Nazi organ Völkischer Beobachter – which deliberately omitted Berger’s name from its review.13 His name was also removed from the credits, as were those of its Jewish screenwriters Robert Liebmann and Hans Müller. On the same day as the premiere, a law came into force prohibiting Jews from holding the office of newspaper editors.

The Reichskulturkammer [Reich Culture Chamber] was established in September 1933 and by this time the anti-Semitic legislation passed by the Nazis had begun to have a considerable effect upon the film industry, as hundreds of Jews had left the country during the summer. Many had moved to France, while others had sailed for Britain or America. Eminent emigrés included Max Reinhardt, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Peter Lorre, Wilhelm Thiele, Hedy Lamarr, film composer Max Steiner, Karl Freund, Joseph von Sternberg, Edgar Ulmer, Otto Preminger and Emeric Pressburger, conductors Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter and writers such as Thomas ←71 | 72→Mann and Erich Maria Remarque. The film industry alone suffered the loss of over one thousand talented personnel. Perhaps it was in the production of comedy that this loss was felt the most; after 1933, German comedy lost its lightness of touch.

The question will always remain as to why large numbers of those involved in the arts and academia saw at once where Nazi Germany was heading and took prompt action, while many others – who were intelligent and perceptive in other regards – appear to have remained blind to the signs until it was too late. Many of the poorer classes may have recognised the approaching danger but lacked either the finances or the family connections abroad that made emigration feasible. There were others who believed the Nazi party too extreme to last, and expected a conservative coup would remove them before long. For them, the presence of Hindenburg provided reassurance. Moreover, many educated Jews found it hard to believe that Germany, which was regarded by many as possibly the most cultured and most civilised country in Europe, could really allow anti-Semitism to become a serious threat to their community. While savage pogroms had forced thousands of Jews to flee their homes in eastern Europe, and the French had made their anti-Semitism clear during the Dreyfus case, Germany had offered a welcome haven to Jewish immigrants, whose contributions over the centuries to the fields of art, literature and science suggested that relations between the Jewish and Gentile populations of the country would continue to be of mutual benefit. Wohlbrück expressed intense hostility towards Nazism soon after reaching England, and there is nothing to suggest these feelings were new. Yet for the time being he chose to remain.

Fear of Love: Comedy, Romance and Sexual Ideology under the New Regime

He had only a few weeks’ rest after the end of filming Walzerkrieg before he started on his next production, Keine Angst vor Liebe [Have No Fear ←72 | 73→of Love], which starred Theo Lingen from Walzerkrieg, as well as Hilde Hildebrand with whom he would star in another five films. The plot revolves around one of the love triangles that feature in so many of his films and plays. Two secretaries, Kaete (Liane Haid) and Trude (Jessie Vihrog), share lodgings with a private detective named Teddy (Lingen). Kaete works for a piano manufacturer Helmut Höfert (Wohlbrück) but has nothing to do and feels bored. Meanwhile, Trude is overworked and underappreciated by her boss, and they decide to swap jobs. Complications begin after Kaete gets acquainted with a man who is clandestinely seeing a married woman, whose husband has hired Teddy to investigate. A happy solution is discovered in the end.

This rather undistinguished film was made memorable only by the song ‘Hab keine Angst von Liebe’, with music written by Franz Grothe and lyrics by Willy Dehmel, which was sung by Liane Haid, a trained singer and one of UFA’s rising stars at the time. She had recently appeared alongside the clown Grock – and a cast that also included Paul Hörbiger and the comedian Kurt Lilien – in the film Grock (Boese, 1931), a blend of fictionalised drama and semi-documentary which includes some wonderful footage of the clown’s performances. Max Reinhardt had tried several times to get Wohlbrück’s father to appear on the stage but he always declined, saying he had no wish to learn lines. Wohlbrück Sr. was still friendly with his fellow clown and spent many holidays at his villa in Italy. Grock was less pleased to learn that Hitler also claimed to be a great admirer, and frequently came to watch his performances. A few weeks after the premiere of Keine Angst vor Liebe – which took place on 12 December 1933 – the Führer attended Grock’s show at the Deutsches Theater in Munich and booked into the Regina Palace Hotel where the clown was also staying. Grock recorded his unease at seeing the hotel bar seething with brown uniforms and Nazi party regalia.14

Sights such as these brought home the fact that the Nazi party was now an ever-present facet of everyday life in Germany and Wohlbrück’s final film of the year, Viktor und Viktoria, marked a fitting end to the era of libertarianism that had flourished under the Weimar Republic. Filmed ←73 | 74→between 16 September and 15 December 1933, this sly and witty comedy of cross-dressing and gender inversion may seem prim by modern standards – Blake Edwards’ 1982 remake Victor/Victoria was able to be much more explicit – but its understated Lubitschian humour is part of its charm. Although the film is sometimes held up as being subversive for its time, its ending serves to reinforce – rather than undermine – the solidly heteronormative tenets of the Third Reich that had for a while seemed to count for so little during the Weimar era. It is a transitional film that hovers on the cusp of two worlds.15

Lurid and salacious details have perhaps given a distorted view of Weimar Germany as a place of decadence and debauchery and it is worth considering that this image owes much to exaggerations propagated by the far-right as part of a scare-mongering conservative backlash against the perceived immorality of liberal culture. Evidence for this was promulgated by publications such as Kinder der Nacht. Bilder aus dem Verbrecherleben [Children of the Night. Pictures from a Life of Crime], a collaboration between police commissioner Ernst Engelbrecht and journalist Leo Heller that came out in 1926. The graphic descriptions of prostitution, opium dens and cocaine trafficking found in the chapter ‘Nachtgestalten der Großstadt’ [Night Figures of the City’] were widely cited as proof that illicit activities were openly practiced in Weimar Berlin.16 While there is no denying the truth of this – the playwright Carl Zuckmayer describes how he got involved in peddling cocaine on the streets soon after arriving in the city – it should also be recognised that wild nights of exotic excess in clubs and cabarets were only accessible to a small proportion of the city’s populace, many of whom struggled on a daily basis to find enough food to eat and keep a roof over their heads.

Concerns about promiscuity and homosexuality took on a new dimension after 1933 as the Nazis developed an ideological programme of policies regarding procreation, gender roles and racial purity. Under the Weimar Republic birth rates had fallen from 36 to 14.7 births per thousand ←74 | 75→inhabitants, reflecting the emergence of the sort of emancipated ‘new woman’ that was often played by Renate Müller on screen: a woman with an independent mind, pursuing employment in traditionally masculine jobs such as the car mechanic in Die englische Heirat (1934), and who was confident about smoking in public, wearing men’s clothes or having her hair cut short.17 In order to fulfil the Nazi goal of building up a healthy Aryan population, it was necessary to curtail such freedoms and champion heterosexual procreation as the norm. Men were to be defined by their strength, virility and Nordic physique, as well as the willingness to sacrifice themselves in battle for the sake of their Volk. The ideal for women, on the other hand, was to be realised in the domestic spheres of Kinder-Küche-Kirche [children, kitchen, church] and financial incentives as well as honorary awards were offered to those who removed themselves from the workplace and devoted their energies instead to child-bearing.18 Within this ideological framework, homosexuality was seen as not only deviant but also unpatriotic, and – unsurprisingly – efforts were made to associate it with Jewishness.19 For anyone who was both Jewish and homosexual, the situation had become highly dangerous.

Although it is still occasionally claimed that there is no solid evidence for Wohlbrück’s homosexuality, it was explicitly discussed in public by Michael Powell, Daniel Gélin and others who knew him, has been detailed at length by Ferdinand Finne’s biographer and is clearly referred to in coded euphemisms by journalists and other commentators.

The age at which Wohlbrück recognised or disclosed the nature of his sexuality remains unknown, and it would be both tedious and pointless to try pinning such matters down from this distance in time. Lotte Neumann’s references to adolescent kisses and an anecdote about a love rivalry between Wohlbrück and Oskar Kokoschka over a girl in Munich need not be questioned; attempts to analyse these in the light of later ←75 | 76→behaviour, or to retrospectively impose rigid categories or definitions, are unlikely to prove helpful. Certainly, by the time Wohlbrück had settled in Berlin, the nature of his sexual preferences was no secret among theatrical circles. When the young actor Harry Pauly – a friend of Viktor de Kowa, Luise Ulrich, Harry Piel and others – began performing at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz and other venues, he was warned about ‘dem bekannten schwulen Schauspieler W.’ [‘the well-known gay actor W[ohlbrück].’]20 Pauly later reported that Wohlbrück expressed an affection for him but did not make any attempt to touch or harass him.21 Christopher Isherwood lived in Nollendorfstraße from 1930 to 1933 and his collection of stories – loosely grouped together as the ‘Berlin novels’ offer a vivid picture of Schöneberg’s gay bars, night clubs and pick-up venues that were frequented by Isherwood and W. H. Auden. How much contact Wohlbrück had with such places will probably never be known, but he did go to the Kleist-Kasino in 1932 with fellow Viennese actor Willy Trenk Trebitsch – famed for his performance as ‘Mack the Knife’ in Brecht’s Die Dreigroschenoper [The Threepenny Opera] – where he met a young man identified only as ‘Hans K.’ At the end of the evening Hans accompanied Wohlbrück back to his apartment at Münchenerstraße 18, where he was paid twenty Deutschmarks to spend the night.22 It seems unlikely that this was a one-off occurrence.

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Viktor und Viktoria

Such liaisons are gaily skirted round in the bright, breezy and well-crafted narrative of Viktor und Viktoria. Female impersonator Viktor Hempel (Hermann Thimig) is unable to perform due to a bad cold and asks his young friend Susanne Lohr (Renate Müller) to take his place. Her cabaret act proves a great success and she is signed up by a visiting agent. As part of a successful tour of Europe they arrive in London where she is introduced to a group of aristocratic friends: Sir Douglas Sheffield, the object of his desire – Lady Elinor – and ladies’ man Robert (Wohlbrück), with whom Elinor enjoys flirting. All three of them, in their different ways, ←77 | 78→are fascinated by the performer. When they first meet, Elinor remarks to ‘Viktor’ that ‘London’s most famous connoisseur of women [Robert] has fallen head over heels in love with you’, and while it is true that Robert later learns Susanne’s secret when he overhears her talking to Hempel, there is some degree of ambiguity about its relevance. Robert’s attraction to Susanne seems unaffected by whether or not she is in the role of Viktor or Viktoria, suggesting that he is not only bisexual but perfectly comfortable with switching between the two. Wohlbrück’s performance is subtle and sophisticated, full of elusive glances and minute changes of expression that indicate the shifting ambiguities of identity and identification.

From the very start of the film, when we see Susanne in a dressing room alongside other actors donning fake signifiers of masculinity – such as moustaches and tuxedos – a point is being made about the arbitrary nature of gender performance. With an element of sadistic mischief, Robert takes her around London and obliges her to take part in a series of ostensibly ‘masculine’ activities: smoking cigars and pipes, drinking whisky in the Savoy, descending into a seedy tavern where they flirt with prostitutes and get caught up in a brawl, even visiting a barber shop where they sit side by side for a wet shave with a razor. These performative aspects of male gender create an intriguing contrast with Viktor’s obvious eyeliner and Wildean carnation.

For German cinemagoers the sight of a woman wearing a tuxedo was nothing new – Marlene Dietrich had donned top hat and tails three years earlier in Monaco (1930) and the cross-dressing tradition actually stretched back much earlier. Asta Nielsen had worn men’s clothing in early German silent films such as Jugend und Tollheit (1913), Das Liebes ABC (1916) and Hamlet (1920), in which she played a woman disguised as a man. Other examples include Wohlbrück’s future co-star Elisabeth Bergner in Donna Juana (1928), Ossi Oswalda in Ich mochte kein Mann sein (1919) and Dolly Haas in Liebeskommando (1932) where she plays a girl who cross-dresses in military academy for three years. An earlier UFA film Der Furst von Pappenheim (Eichberg, 1927) contains a cross-dressing sequence with Curt Bois and Mona Maris that was – under the Nazis – selected to illustrate the unnatural decadence of Jewish sexuality in Fritz Hippler’s propaganda film Der ewige Jude (1940). The penchant for monocles and tuxedos that proved ←78 | 79→so popular with Berlin’s lesbian community in the 1920s and 1930s had been initiated by dancer Anita Berber. She was also in the cast of Richard Oswald’s 1919 film on homosexuality, Anders als die Andern [Different from all the Rest] along with Reinhold Schünzel, Conrad Veidt and sexologist Dr Magnus Hirschfeld, director of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft and co-author of the screenplay. Hirschfeld had been campaigning for gay and transgender rights since the late nineteenth century when his petition to overturn the notorious Paragraph 175 gathered over 5,000 signatories, including Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Albert Einstein, Hermann Hesse, Rainer Maria Rilke and Stefan Zweig. At the end of Viktor und Viktoria, Susanne changes back into a feminine dress and appears to enter into a ‘conventional’ heterosexual relationship with Robert, but this does not necessarily mean that the previous playful ambiguities about gender and sexuality are being invalidated. The numerous but subtle subversive swipes directed at the Nazi regime indicate that the film’s sympathies lie with the progressive, liberal mores that had flourished during the Weimar Republic, and it can be interpreted as a plea for tolerance and open-mindedness.23

The film begins in the world of Weimar cabaret that was soon to be extinguished by the Nazi regime. Public dancing by same-sex couples had already been prohibited by Berlin’s chief of police in October 1932 and in February 1933 Hermann Göring ordered the closure of numerous Berlin cabarets and venues known to Wohlbrück such as the Kleist-Kasino. The once popular Eldorado club was shut and the building became the local headquarters of Berlin’s brown-shirted stormtroopers, the Sturmabteilung or SA. At the end of the film, plain-clothes policemen emerge from the crowd to accuse Viktor of being a man dressed as a woman, and it is impossible not to see this as a political comment on the increasing surveillance of German society undertaken by the Gestapo, and their subsequent embarrassment upon inspecting Susanne as poking fun at the regime. There are occasional other hints of this attitude, such as Viktor’s comment about success being dependent not on talent but on being on good terms with those in power. It received its premiere on 23 December 1933 at the ←79 | 80→Gloria-Palast, with general release across Germany the following week, and rapidly became the most popular film of the year.24

A French-language version had been filmed simultaneously as Georges et Georgette, with Wohlbrück reprising the same role but the parts played by Renate Müller and Hermann Thimig taken by Meg Lemmonier and Julien Carette respectively.25 This was the first of four multiple-language productions made during the 1930s in which Wohlbrück’s ability to speak French enabled him to star in more than one version.

Wohlbrück followed this success with another lively comedy, Die vertauschte Braut [The Exchanged Bride], in which Anny Ondra played the dual roles of feisty American heiress Virginia Vanderloo and her double, poor street vendor Dolly. When Virginia is given a fortnight’s prison sentence for flying a plane over New York – a crazy mishap that takes place after an argument with her pilot fiancé Charles (Wohlbrück) – Dolly agrees to take her place in jail in return for $500 that will enable her to fulfil her dream of setting up a beauty salon. Unaware of the exchange, Charles goes to visit his fiancée in prison and finds his love rekindled by her unexpected gentleness and warmth. The same question arises as in Viktor und Viktoria – what choices will the man have to make when the swap is revealed? The film climaxes in a farcical but delightfully choreographed scene in which Virginia skates with snowmen in an ice ballet.

Return to Vienna: Maskerade (1934)

Light comedies such as Baby and Die vertauschte Braut – which received its premiere on 17 April 1934 – were popular with German-speaking audiences who were arguably in greater need of amusement and distraction during this time, but they made little impact beyond the borders of ←80 | 81→Austria and Germany. When Wohlbrück left Europe to make films for English-language audiences, those who recognised his face likely knew it from the glittering Viennese comedy Maskerade. His name was so closely associated with the film that it comes as rather a shock to realise that he was not the first choice. In February 1934, Willi Forst and screenwriter Walter Reisch got together in the Viennese Hotel Krantz-Ambassador to create a film vehicle for Paula Wessely. The male lead was intended for Rudolf Forster, but when he declined the part, a UFA executive put forward Wohlbrück’s name as a replacement. Filming began in Vienna at the Rosenhügel studios of Sascha Film in February 1934.26

Set in Vienna in 1905, the film opens at a magnificent masked ball where we are introduced to the aristocratic artist Ferdinand von Heideneck (Wohlbrück), a suave and debonair seducer of women and a lion of Viennese society. Later that night he paints a portrait of surgeon’s wife Gerda Harrandt (Hilde von Stolz), for which she poses wearing only her carnival mask and a muff belonging to Heideneck’s lover Anita Keller (Olga Tschechowa). Due to a blunder by Heideneck’s assistant, the painting is published in the press, scandal erupts and Anita’s fiancé Paul – who is also Gerda’s brother-in-law – recognises the muff. Facing awkward questions, Heideneck claims that the model was actually a girl called Leopoldine Dur – a name he invents on the spur of the moment, prompted by a few letters visible on a music manuscript. His story is threatened with exposure when a real-life Leopoldine Dur (Paula Wessely) turns up at another ball attended by both Heideneck and the Harrandts. To get her out the way, the artist whisks Leopoldine away to a nearby theatre. Hoping his charms will win her over, he finds instead that Leopoldine may be a lower-class Viennese girl but she is morally upright and resistant to his flirting.

Contrary to expectations, it is Heideneck who falls under the power of Leopoldine, and even his art changes – his paintings of her resemble ‘images of saints’ according to his maid, rather than the erotic portraits he had previously painted of adulterous wives such as Gerda. The two fall in love, but when Anita learns that Heideneck has another woman, she ←81 | 82→becomes enraged with jealousy and shoots him, before dropping her pistol and fleeing the scene. To avoid further scandal, Leopoldine calls a private doctor – Gerda’s husband Carl – who saves the artist’s life but recognises Anita’s gun. He later returns this to her at the Vienna Opera House, while sitting in a box between Anita and Gerda, as they listen to Paul Harrandt conducting the orchestra below. The knowing glances, the pretence and ironic role-play in this scene recall elements of Viktor und Viktoria with its ambiguous playfulness over who knows what, and whether or not it matters. Meanwhile, Leopoldine is nursing Heideneck, who is lying motionless in bed. She pours out her anger and frustration at the man whose duplicity and selfishness has caused so much chaos: ‘You still are not getting what you deserve. I should have left you out there, lying in the snow … you men are so mean and rotten, so …’ At which point Heideneck softly murmurs from under the sheet, ‘Keep on scolding, Poldi, just keep on scolding …’ and the film ends with her holding his hand to her cheek.

The Berlin premiere of Maskerade took place on 21 August 1934 where it proved enormously popular, creating lengthy queues outside the cinemas. In Vienna, turmoil following the assassination of Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss by Nazi agents meant the premiere was delayed until September. This was not the only way that the film was affected by the Nazis: the Jewish screenwriter Walter Reisch saw his name removed from the onscreen credits.27 Nonetheless, the film was a success both at home and internationally, where it was shown (with subtitles) in cities across Europe including London, Glasgow, Paris, Prague, Budapest and Copenhagen. When Wohlbrück emigrated to Britain, his name was already familiar from popular screenings of Maskerade and the film remains one of his best-loved and most widely known successes.

There seems to have been at least a partial intention to present Heideneck – whose name means ‘heathen’ or ‘pagan’ – as a decadent Lothario, but the moral defects in his character are somewhat toned down by the Viennese charm that permeates the film. The lack of any real struggle or character development for Heideneck limited Wohlbrück in what he ←82 | 83→could do with the part, and in consequence he comes across as rather stiff. There is no denying Maskerade’s aesthetic brilliance, however: in addition to Franz Planer’s lush cinematography – with its beautifully lit scenes in the falling snow, symphonic camera movements across the ballroom floor and clever audiovisual effects – there is a lively music score by Willy Schmidt-Gentner (played by the Vienna Philharmonic) and even a virtuoso singing performance from Enrico Caruso, not to mention the witty screenplay by Reisch and Forst. Despite the constraints of his role, Wohlbrück still dominates the screen with his physical presence from the moment he appears at the top of the ballroom stairs, immaculately clothed in evening dress, standing motionless as the crowd whirls around him. There are many scenes like this throughout his film career where he seems to be set above or apart from his surroundings, at the centre of activity yet somehow detached from its worldliness – the characters of Lermontov and the Master of Ceremonies in La Ronde spring to mind. Much of his later career was only made possible by the success of Maskerade, but in the meantime the relentless schedule of film production continued: the year ahead would see him star in a further three romantic movies.

Love is a Mystery: 1934’s Romantic Trilogy

The first of these, Eine Frau die weiß was sie will [A Woman Who Knows What She Wants], was directed by Viktor Janson and adapted from a 1932 operetta by Oscar Straus, with both a musical plot and plenty of musical numbers.28 Lil Dagover – who played Jane, the dark-eyed girl who is kidnapped by Cesare in Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (Wiene, 1920) – is Mona Cavallini, an opera star who is much admired by the men, especially the debonair Axel Basse (Wohlbrück). After a triumphant performance ←83 | 84→in London she goes to stay in Stockholm where her divorced husband Erik Mattisson (Anton Edthofer), lives with their daughter Karin (Maria Behling), whom she has not seen for fifteen years. Forced by her hard-headed industrialist husband to choose between family life or a career, she opted for the latter and in consequence has been prevented by Mattisson from ever having contact with their infant daughter. Karin meanwhile has fallen in love with Axel but is frustrated at his infatuation with the opera singer. Karin – unaware that Cavallini is her mother – asks her father to arrange for a meeting so that she can explain about her feelings. Her plan is successful – Cavallini spurns Axel’s advances and instead sends him in Karin’s direction, resulting in their marriage.

Complications ensue when Karin learns that her husband has met Cavallini behind her back. Suspecting him of having an affair, she decides to get her revenge by having a fling with another man. Cavallini learns of her plan – but can she stop her daughter destroying her marriage? Will she reveal her identity to Karin? Things are resolved, as one would expect, with a great deal of light-hearted melodrama and singing, although it is possible to see in certain aspects of the film a moral lesson for young women about the primacy of domestic compliance and motherhood in the Third Reich over a creative career.29

Eine Frau, die weiß was sie will received its premiere on 31 August 1934 during filming of Die englische Heirat, which took place between the end of July and early September 1934. This was Wohlbrück’s second comedy for Reinhold Schünzel and once again he found himself cast as an English gentleman.30 The plot involves an English aristocrat, Douglas ←84 | 85→Mavis (played by Georg Alexander) who makes a hasty marriage with his Berlin driving instructor Gerte Winter (Renate Müller) and then faces the difficult task of relating this news to his family. Returning to England he is unable to face his formidable grandmother Lady Mavis (played by veteran actress Adele Sandrock) and during the ensuing delay winds up engaged to two other women. Meanwhile, his wife has grown tired of waiting to hear from him and drives from Berlin to England. On the boat crossing the channel, she meets Douglas’ friend and family lawyer Warwick Brent (Wohlbrück), with whom she shares an instant chemistry. Her arrival at Mavis Hall leads to various amusing situations of concealed identity and hasty plot twists, but the film is intriguing for its portrayal of the English: the society depicted in the film appears to date from long before the 1930s. Life is dominated by the women, who dress in heavy Victorian costumes laden with pearls and oversize fans; the men are portrayed as weak, cuckolded, awkward and foolish, constantly fumbling with their hats. Their jaws drop at the sight of Gerte’s stylish car, which sweeps up the driveway bringing German modernity into England’s staid and ancient mansion houses. The young woman later rescues Lady Mavis from a road accident with a haywain, which is driven by a peasant who looks like he has stepped straight out of a Constable painting. Even if the image of Wohlbrück in England is a fantasy, it is impossible to watch the scenes of him sailing towards the English coastline without making parallels with the journey he would make three years later.

Müller turned in a hugely enjoyable performance in the role of Gerte. As a car mechanic, she was challenging male roles as she had done in Viktor und Viktoria, showing confidence and enterprise while at the same time retaining her feminine appeal. One of the most memorable scenes in Die englische Heirat is the sensual tango danced between Müller and Wohlbrück, which is evocatively contrasted with the stiff dancing of the formal partners at the Mavis birthday ball. Standing by the radio in a room at Mavis Hall, they listen as the voice of cabaret singer Bella (Hilde Hildebrand) – another of Douglas’s ‘fiancées’ – begins singing ‘Liebe ist ein Geheimnis’ [Love is a Mystery]. After exchanging a long, intense gaze, they wordlessly start to dance, moving out of shot as the camera takes on their point of view, following the glances of the Mavis family who watch them glide into another room …

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Wohlbrück and Müller made four films together and the strong chemistry that existed between them is evident in almost every scene – this one especially. The premiere was on 31 October 1934 at the Gloria-Palast, the magnificent Gothic cinema on Kurfürstendamm, next door to the Kaiser ←86 | 87→Wilhelm Memorial Church in the west Berlin district of Charlottenburg. Reviews were generally highly favourable, although one critic felt that an actor as gifted [begabt] as Wohlbrück was rather wasted by being cast as such a likeable and attractive character, perhaps feeling that his talent was better engaged in darker and more complex characters such as Balduin.31

Something of the high esteem with which Wohlbrück’s talent was held can be gleaned from the language used in the contract that he negotiated with Tobis-Europa during the late summer of 1934. The final draft was sent to him for approval on 6 September 1934 and the terms are revealing with regard to Wohlbrück’s status and bargaining power.

For the season 1935/6, namely from 1 March 1935 to 28 February 1936, he was committed to appearing in four films, up to two of which could be with UFA at Wohlbrück’s request. Mutual consent was required before the actor could begin work with directors, but prior approval had already been given in the cases of Erich Waschneck, Karl Hartl, Willi Forst and Carl Froelich. In addition to a gross salary of RM 100,000 he would be paid RM 6250 for every week of filming with additional fees paid for multi-language versions: it is an interesting reflection of practices at the time that several paragraphs are devoted to the issue of multi-language productions, including a guarantee to supply Wohlbrück with a script for any foreign language versions at least three weeks prior to the start of shooting so as to allow him time to study the dialogue. As he lived in Berlin, he was expected to attend all film premieres in the city without recompense, but generous travel allowances and arrangements were offered for premieres elsewhere – such as Vienna and Paris. Perhaps the most significant clause in the contract was the one guaranteeing that Wohlbrück’s name would always appear first in any film credits or promotional material, and that no other actor’s name would be printed in larger characters or a special font.32 From evidence such as this, the frequency with which he appeared on magazine covers, the amount of space given to him in the press and the prolific ←87 | 88→references to him in readers’ letters and questions, there seems little doubt that by the middle of the 1930s Wohlbrück was Germany’s No. 1 actor.


The contract also guaranteed Wohlbrück a two-week break between films, an opportunity he often used for holidays in Paris or visits to Merano in northern Italy where his mother now lived. There seemed to have been a very short gap, however, between completion of the filming of Die englische Heirat and the start of work on Regine, an adaptation of Gottfried Keller’s novel with Wohlbrück in the lead role.33 Regine is one of Wohlbrück’s most delightful comedies, with a touching innocence about it that seems to defy the sinister currents that were pushing his country towards war. The film opens with Frank Reynolds (Wohlbrück), an engineer, addressing a crowd of workers. He has spent several years in America working on a huge project. On the steamer home he flirts with actress and singer Floris Bell (Olga Tschechowa) who is attracted to him. Having achieved success, he returns home to his uncle, who lives in a sleepy, picturesque small town in southern Germany. These scenes were filmed in the Bavarian town of Miltenberg, taking advantage of its attractive timber buildings and surrounding countryside. As he arrives at the house, he hears Regine (Luise Ulrich), his uncle’s pretty young housemaid, singing the song ‘Treue Liebe’ as she does the washing. Despite the difference in their professions they fall in love and get married. While Frank is away, Regine falls in with a group of frivolous society women who encourage her to behave indiscreetly. Floris makes him suspect that Regine is having an affair. Distressed, Regine makes a suicide attempt, only for Frank to burst in at the last moment and save her.

There are obvious parallels with Maskerade: once again, tensions arise from Wohlbrück’s rejection of Tschechowa’s elegant but decadent beauty in favour of a poor but pure-hearted young girl, and it is possible to interpret ←88 | 89→the moral of this story as providing another boost for the Nazi ideal of the ‘wholesome German maiden.’ Filming of Regine began on 10 September 1934 and was – remarkably – completed by the end of the month. Passed by the film censors on 20 November 1934, it received its premiere on 7 January 1935. Proving popular with audiences, it was submitted as Germany’s entry that year for the Venice Film Festival. Although Regine failed to win any awards for Germany, it was a sign of the times that Triumph des Willens [Triumph of the Will], Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary record of the Nazi party Congress at Nuremberg on 5 September 1934 – attended by 700,000 party members – won the best Foreign Documentary prize.

In the autumn of 1934 Wohlbrück moved from his Münchenerstraße apartment to a small but attractive house at Waltraudstraße 17 in a quiet, leafy quarter of Zehlendorf in southwest Berlin. The pale grey building had a pointed roof and sat in a well-kept garden, facing away from the road. There was no name either on the gate or on the entrance door, and the anonymity of the place fitted perfectly with Wohlbrück’s desire to be left alone when not performing.34 Fans, however, did not respect his wishes and would mass in large numbers outside his gate waiting for him to come home from the film studio, waving autograph books and postcards for him to sign. A rather unique form of fan attention had arisen in the wake of Regine, as dozens of young women began writing to Wohlbrück seeking employment as his housekeeper, and hinting at their desire that the working relationship would eventually develop into romance and marriage as it had for Luise Ulrich’s character.35 Although he spoke about this with humour to reporters, his passion for privacy was already well-known and such intrusions must have been felt deeply. Wohlbrück’s lifelong insistence on absolute separation between his private and public life was sometimes misinterpreted as arrogance or aloofness; he would find life even more difficult in Britain and America, where the traditional German respect for film star’s right to privacy carried little weight.

The tiresome need to fend off admirers was not the only setback caused by Wohlbrück’s good looks, as these also lost him a film role. Although ←89 | 90→it had been published over thirty years earlier, Thomas Mann’s novel Der Tod in Venedig [Death in Venice] had not yet been adapted for the screen and when discussions began in 1934, Wohlbrück’s name was put forward as a possibility for the lead part of Aschenbach. Mann had his doubts, feeling that Wohlbrück was too handsome for the role.36 In the novel, Aschenbach is in his early fifties and clearly past his prime – towards the end of the novel, he resorts to make-up to disguise his age. Whether or not the novelists’ opinion of Wohlbrück was a factor, production of the film was placed on hold and would remain so for many years. Nonetheless, the Mann family were intimately involved with the cinematic and theatrical circles in which Wohlbrück moved. Thomas Mann’s brother Heinrich Mann wrote the novel Professor Unrat which was made into the film that made Marlene Dietrich a star, Der Blau Engel [The Blue Angel] (1930). Thomas’s son Klaus Mann had been engaged to actress Pamela Wedekind for a while, while his daughter Erika was married to Gustaf Gründgens for three years. Many thought this – and his later marriage to Marianne Hoppe – to have been a ‘lavender marriage’, and certainly his divorce of Erika in 1929 was the cause of some ill-feeling within the family. After their separation, Erika embarked on a series of lesbian affairs, beginning with Pamela Wedekind, as well as opening Die Pfeffermühle [The Pepper Mill] cabaret in Munich which performed anti-Nazi skits in addition to musical and singing acts. The writings of both Thomas and Heinrich Mann were thrown on the pyre during the Nazi book-burnings of May 1933, by which time the brothers had left the country. The exodus from Nazi Germany was still continuing but for the time being Wohlbrück, Gründgens, Schünzel and others remained where they were. The choice was not simply one of staying or leaving. Remaining in Germany raised questions about how one lived with the Nazi regime. For the time being, a degree of creative freedom was allowed to filmmakers but Goebbels was slowly tightening the screws. How long could Wohlbrück keep making films?

* Warwick Brent, Die englische Heirat.

1 Brendan G. Carroll, The Last Prodigy: A Biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1997), p. 222. Wohlbrück also appeared on stage in another operetta during the year, although the extent of his singing role is uncertain: Zehn Minuten Glück was composed by Will Meisel and staged at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz with a cast that included Wohlbrück, Paul Morgan, Fritz Grünbaum, Siegfried Arno and Blandine Ebinger. See Klaus Edam and Rudolf Schröder, 100 Jahre Will Meisel, Eine Berliner Geschichte mit Musik (Berlin: Edition Meisel, 1996), pp. 27, 207. During the 1930/31 season he appeared with Maria Paudler in the operetta Peppina at Berlin’s Komische Oper. Eugen Semrau, Robert Stolz, sein Leben, seine Musik (Vienna: Residenz Verlag, 2002), p. 52.

2 In 1934 he accepted Max Reinhardt’s invitation to Hollywood. He had worked with Reinhardt arranging the music for Johann Strauss Die Fledermaus and later Rosalinda. Mannheim and Stossel left Germany in 1933.

3 Most of the speech is reproduced in Gerd Albrecht, Nationalsozialistische Filmpolitik (1969), p. 439. See also the ‘Report of the UFA Board Meeting of March 29, 1933.’

4 Kevin Macdonald, Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter (1994), p. 94.

5 On his later career, see Ursula Hardt, From Caligari to California: Eric Pommer’s Life in the International Film Wars (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1996). Stapenhorst would follow him into exile in 1935, working for a few years in London with Alexander Korda before returning to Switzerland where he spent most of the war.

6 Born Ludwig Bamberger in Mainz in 1892, the director was the younger brother of stage designer and documentary filmmaker Rudolf Bamberger (1888–1944/5). Their Jewish mother had studied piano under Clara Schumann and was a cousin of famed concert pianist Greta Sultan. Rudolf died in Auschwitz.

7 The ban was only temporary, however, and it was revived at the Lustspielhaus the following year with much the same cast, although Eduard Wesener was replaced by Wolfgang Liebeneiner. See Gerwin Strobl, The Swastika and the Stage: German Theatre and Society, 1933–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 95. Wohlbrück’s performance was praised in a review published in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (9 June 1933), evening edition, No. 1047.

8 Different accounts of how and why Wohlbrück grew his trademark moustache can also be found in Wahre Geschichten, No. 2 (February 1935) and Ludwig Berger, Theatermenschen so sah ich sie (1962), pp. 73–4.

9 Sylvia Terry-Smith, 1940), p. 11.

10 Filmwelt, No. 11 (18 March 1934), p. 11.

11 Karsten Witte has commented on how German film studios were keen to model and market some of their stars at least partially on A-list Hollywood celebrities, with Wohlbrück’s image being based on that of Clark Gable, Lilian Harvey on Claudette Colbert and Marika Rökk on Eleanor Powell: see Witte’s Lachende Erben, toller Tag: Filmkomödie im Dritten Reich (Berlin: Vorwerk 8, 1995), p. 112. Wohlbrück was aware of this, and it seems to have occasionally been discussed in interviews, e.g., Ciné Revue, No. 5 (2 February 1978), p. 21.

12 Werner Holl, Das Buch von Adolf Wohlbrück (1935), p. 49; Terry-Smith (1940), p. 11.

13 Licht-Bild-Bühne (October 1933), Film-Kurier (5 October 1933), Völkischer Beobachter, No. 279 (6 October 1933.) Berger left Germany for England in 1935, but returned after failing to find work. Following the outbreak of war, he went back to England and directed The Thief of Baghdad for Alexander Korda, although interference from the producer led to much of the film being directed by Michael Powell and Tim Whelan.

14 Wettach, Grock. King of Clowns (1957), pp. 200–3.

15 See the discussion by Valerie Weinstein in Antisemitism in Film Comedy in Nazi Germany (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019), p. 108.

16 Ernst Engelbrecht and Leo Heller Kinder der Nacht. Bilder aus dem Verbrecherleben (Berlin: Hermann Paetel Verlag, 1926), pp. 21–5.

17 Lisa Pine, Nazi Family Policy, 1933–1945 (London/Oxford: Berg, 1997), p. 9.

18 See Hans Peter Bleuel, Strength through Joy. Sex and Society in Nazi Germany (London: Secker & Warburg, 1973) and Dagmar Herzog (ed.), Sexuality and German Fascism (London: Berghahn, 2005).

19 See Dagmar Herzog, ‘Hubris and Hypocrisy, Incitement and Disavowal: Sexuality and German Fascism,’ in his Sexuality and German Fascism (2005), p. 4.

20 Andreas Sternweiler, 750 Warme Berliner (Verlag Rosa Winkel), p. 78; Hans-Georg Stumke and Rudi Finkler, Rosa Winkel, Rosa Listen: homosexuelle und gesundes volksempfinden von Auschwitz bis heute (1981), p. 312f.

21 Wohlbrück ‘mochte ihn, ohne ihn sexuell zu belästigen.’ Bernhard Rosenkranz & Gottfried Lorenz, Hamburg auf anderen Wegen: Die Geschichte des schwulen Lebens in der Hansestad (2012), p. 201.

22 Andreas Pretzel, Vom Dorian Gray zum Eldorado: Historische Orte undschillernde Persönlichkeiten im Schöneberger Regenbogenkiez (Berlin: MANEO, 2012), p. 25. These details are from the transcript of the Gestapo interrogation of ‘Hans K.’ on 7 September 1937 – by which time Wohlbrück was safely in London – as recorded in Landesarchiv Berlin, A Rep. 358–02, No. 65233, Sheet 3–3R.

23 Robert’s nonchalant reaction upon being told of Susanne’s gender – a raised eyebrow – was echoed by Osgood Fielding’s character at the end of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1962).

24 David Stewart Hull, Film in the Third Reich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), p. 41. Presumably this claim draws on box office sales taken during 1934 as well.

25 Le Film Complet (16 February 1935)

26 Wohlbrück was scheduled to work in Vienna from 26 February to 27 March 1934 according to a memorandum sent from the Reichsfachschaftfilm to the Finanzamt Devisenstelle, 23 February 1934. Bundesarchiv Wohlbrück file, 9.

27 Paula’s glamorous dress was designed by Gerda Gottstein (‘Gerdago’), whose parents died in Theresienstadt; she was Jewish, but married to a non-Jew. Reisch emigrated from Germany and would later meet Wohlbrück in London.

28 The Viennese composer Oscar Straus (1870–1954) was unrelated to the famous Strauss family, nor to Richard Strauss. After the Nazi Anschluss of Austria, Straus fled to France and then on to Hollywood where he enjoyed some success composing film scores. He wrote the music for Wohlbrück’s film La Ronde (1950).

29 ‘Karin gives up her career to do her duty. She will marry Axel Basse (Adolf Wohlbriick), her father’s associate, and raise a family for the Reich – in accordance with her father’s wishes.’ Harry Waldmann, Nazi Films in America 1933–1942 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008), p. 106. Many of Waldmann’s statements and interpretations are questionable, although he makes some interesting points about how Nazi-era films were marketed in America to play down their ideological content. A Woman Who Knows What She Wants was released in America on 17 July 1936 and shown at venues such as the Casino Theatre in New York.

30 The screenplay was written by Louis de Wohl, based on his own novel. De Wohl opposed the Nazi regime and left Germany in 1935 for England, where he later worked for MI5.

31 Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (1 November 1934) quoted in Uwe Klöckner-Draga, Renate Müller – Ihr Leben, ein Drahtseilakt. Ein deutscher Filmstar, der keinen Juden lieben durfte (Bayreuth: Verlag Kern, 2006), p. 170.

32 Draft contract sent to Adolf Wohlbrück from Europa-Filmverleih Aktiengesellschaft, 6 September 1934. Bundesarchiv, Wohlbrück file, 15–7.

33 This was actually Erich Waschneck’s second adaptation of Gottfried Keller’s novel, following the silent film version he had made in 1927.

34 Das Buch von Adolf Wohlbrück (1935), pp. 44–5.

35 Hanna Heßling, ‘Zigeunerbaron zu Hause: Adolf Wohlbrück plaudert am Kamin,’ Mein Film, No. 484 (1935), pp. 4–6.

36 Mann to Gottfried Bermann-Fischer, 1 November 1934, in Thomas Mann. Briefwechsel mit seinem Verleger Gottfried Bermann-Fischer 1932–1955, vol. 1 (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 1973), p. 85.

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‘Sentimental Dreamer … one cannot change one’s
own skin’
Filmmaking under the New Regime, 1934–1935

The Nazification of German culture was undertaken through the process of Gleichschaltung – synchronisation or co-ordination – by which all aspects of German life would be brought into line with Nazi ideology. Cultural activities were regulated by the new Reichskulturkammer [Reich Culture Chamber], which had seven separate departments dedicated to monitoring different areas of the arts. From now, Wohlbrück’s cinema career would be closely watched by officials of the Reichsfilmkammer, especially those of Reichsfachschaft Film [RFF, Film Department] and its Kontingentstelle, or Quota Office, at 210 Friedrichstraße. It was their task to ensure that the film industry maintained the correct quota of German and foreign films – a matter that acquired checking the nationality and racial status of personnel involved. The Quota Office worked closely with the Amt für Rasseforschung [Bureau of Racial Investigation] in seeking documentary evidence of Aryan ancestry.1

This Byzantine departmental hierarchy sounds archaic and abstract, but it was a grim reality of daily life. No man or woman could be employed in any capacity within the film industry unless they were enrolled as members of the RFF, and to obtain approval, it was necessary to provide detailed answers to a series of questions about racial ancestry, criminal convictions, religion and political affiliation.

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When Wohlbrück completed the questionnaire on 25 September 1933 he gave his religion as ‘Catholic’, stating that his father’s and mother’s families were, respectively, Lutheran and Catholic. As he had been educated at a monastic school this may have sounded plausible, but something about his story did not ring true with the Quota Office: doubts arose during the following year, possibly due to further investigation, and a request was sent to the RFF on 18 September 1934 demanding that the actor provide documentary evidence of ‘seiner arischen Abstammung’ [‘his Aryan descent’.]2 The papers he supplied did not convince them, and further requests were made.3 Unease was felt about his mother’s ancestry. Was she not a Cohn? The surname of his grandmother, Lewien, did not sound Aryan.

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Rumours about this investigation began to circulate, and on 27 October A. Kuhn of the Swiss periodical Der neue Film contacted the RFF in Berlin with a copy of a Basle newspaper cutting reporting a ban on Wohlbrück and Paul Hörbiger appearing in films. It should be noted that the desire for confirmation of actors’ Aryan status was by no means confined to the Nazi bureaucrats of the RFF or Quota Office: the editors of the ‘Fragenteil’ or ‘Questions pages’ of magazines such as Filmwelt were constantly replying to anxious queries from readers about the Aryan credentials of their favourite stars. The issue of 18 November 1934, for example, which had Wohlbrück on its front cover, printed replies to readers who were often identified only by their initials or pseudonyms: ‘Gruße an alle’ was reassured that ‘Die drei genannten Darsteller sind arisch’ [‘The three named actors are Aryan. Best wishes.’], ‘F. W.’ of Breslau had his ‘Question 2’ answered with ‘Arisch’ while ‘G.St’ of Berlin received the (presumably welcome) information that ‘Walter Rilla [ist] arisch’ – although Rilla actually had Jewish ancestry and later moved to England where he co-starred with Wohlbrück in his first British film. Reading through other magazines of this time reveals a growing number of such queries: rumours spread quickly and there was always the risk of consequences at the box office. The RFF replied quickly to Kuhn’s letter, insisting that there was no truth in the story.4 A memorandum sent between the Quota Office and the RFF the previous day indicates that the Nazi authorities had declared themselves satisfied about Wohlbrück’s Aryan credentials – at least for the time being.5

This made life easier, for in November 1934 production began on his next film. A year after playing the part of Johann Strauss in Walzerkrieg, Wohlbrück now had the lead role in a screen adaptation of a Strauss operetta – Der Zigeunerbaron [The Gypsy Baron], composed in 1885 by Strauss’s eldest son.6 Set in Hungary at the close of the eighteenth century, the story ←93 | 94→begins as a mysterious stranger joins the company of travelling gypsies on their way to market. He is in fact Sándor Barinkay, the Master of Barinka, the rightful owner of the estate who was forced to flee the region as a child, now returning to reclaim his inheritance. Barinkay befriends a gypsy girl named Saffi (Hansi Knoteck) but she grows jealous when he seems to be attracted to the beautiful Arsena (Gina Falckenberg), daughter of Czupan (Fritz Kampers), a cruel and wealthy pig farmer who is now the most important man in Barinka. It does not take long before trouble brews between the ‘Gypsy Baron’ and Czupan …

The Gypsy Baron contains all the ingredients required for popular entertainment – a strong story with a sympathetic and courageous hero, a love triangle, a great deal of singing and dancing, plus racy jokes and a lively music score. A French-language version of the film – Le baron tzigane – was shot simultaneously, with Wohlbrück playing the lead role in both productions. This was a punishing regime for him, as he did not receive the breaks given to the monolingual actors who were able to rest during the alternating film shoots. The part of Arsena in the French film was played by Danièle Parola, and a popular publicity shot showed Wohlbrück in a picturesque gypsy costume standing between the two identically dressed actresses – Falckenburg and Parola – his arm around them both. (Gina, of course, was the daughter of Munich theatre director Otto Falckenberg, and already an experienced actress by this time, although she does not seem to have appeared with Wohlbrück on stage). This image appeared on the front cover of a November issue of Filmwelt magazine, which also contained photographs of Wohlbrück on location in the lakes outside Potsdam, during filming of the comical duck shooting scenes involving Czupan and Arsena.7 Kampers spent two days wading about in the icy waters, keeping off the cold by drinking copious amounts of cognac. Most of the film was shot at UFA’s studios at Babelsberg, and during production the set was visited by Hermann Göring, President of the Reichstag and Minister-President for Prussia, the state of which Berlin was capital. Göring’s interest was not simply due to the economic importance of Babelsberg within Berlin, ←94 | 95→but his fiancée Emmy Sonnemann was an actress and he was keen to find her work in the film industry. Photographs show Göring on the set, with Wohlbrück, Knoteck and others in costume standing around.8

Not all the filming was done at Babelsberg, and a more exotic location was required for some of the exterior shots around the Castle Barinka. These scenes were shot at Dubrovnik, which involved Wohlbrück and a large number of cast and crew travelling to Dalmatia.9 They had done so partly to get away from the torrential rain that dogged filming around Berlin, but when the unit arrived in Yugoslavia they found themselves experiencing an unseasonable spell of snow. Hansi Knoteck caught a chill during the filming and had still not recovered by the time of the premiere the following spring.10

There was no question now that Wohlbrück had attained star status. Large crowds attended the premieres of The Gypsy Baron in Berlin and Hamburg, and he was greeted with near hysteria when he flew straight after to Vienna to attend his first big film premiere in his home city. Tickets for this and the autograph-signing session at the UFA-Kino had sold out long in advance, and large sums of money were being offered to obtain access. Security was needed to hold back the crowds at the session, during which Wohlbrück signed postcards and albums for some two and a half hours. At his specific request, donations were collected here for the city’s Urania education centre which offered lectures and training for the unemployed, as well as film screenings and courses. In order to leave the building afterwards, security guards had to push back a wall of fans who had blocked the street outside.11

In both Austria and Germany his portrait appeared regularly on the covers of German film magazines such as Filmwoche and Filmwelt, and in May 1935 the latter ran a lavishly illustrated four-part series that chronicled his life and career in considerable detail.12 Many of the photographs were ←95 | 96→private ones of his family, and were presumably supplied by Wohlbrück himself: an unusual concession with regards to his privacy, but at least he was in control. The degree of public interest is further confirmed by the publication that same year of Das Buch von Adolf Wohlbrück, written by Walter Gottfried Lohmeyer under the pseudonym of ‘Werner Holl’. Dr Lohmeyer (1890–1951) was a highly educated freelance journalist with a background in publishing, translation and editorial work, and a long-standing interest in theatre and film. He had already published short monographs on other actors, such as Das Otto Gebühr-Buch (Berlin: A. Scherl, 1927) and Viktor de Kowa: Die Geschichte e. Aufstiegs (Berlin: H. Wendt, 1934).13 The 52-page booklet is divided into eight short sections and contains nineteen black and white illustrations, mainly film stills. Das Buch von Adolf Wohlbrück is written in an informal tone, referring to its subject throughout as ‘our friend’ and evidently based on personal interviews with the actor. Although it contains many valuable anecdotes and information, it is light on factual matters such as dates, but remained the only monograph on Wohlbrück until Brigitte Stieghahn’s privately printed study sixty years later. Apart from the value of its content, the existence of the book is significant as a marker of the actor’s status at the time, capturing something of the excitement and adulation that surrounded him.

Ich war Jack Mortimer

After escaping from such excitement during a few weeks’ private holiday in Sicily, Wohlbrück returned to Vienna in June for filming of Ich war ←96 | 97→Jack Mortimer [I Was Jack Mortimer], an adaptation of Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s recently published novel.14 The screenplay had been written by Thea von Harbou, ex-wife of Fritz Lang, and it was directed by Carl Froelich, a member of the Nazi party since 1933.15 The novel is set in Vienna and follows the actions of taxi driver Ferdinand Sponer during the course of one night, following the murder of his passenger, who was shot through the window of his taxi in busy traffic. Having failed to notice the shooting, Sponer panics after discovering the body, and realising that the delay will make his story sound suspicious, he decides his only option is to assume the identity of the dead man – Jack Mortimer – put on his clothes and check in to the hotel. Although this is a fast-paced and thoroughly modern thriller, resonating with noirish tropes such as femmes fatales, stolen identity and moral ambiguity, it is also redolent with nostalgia for the Old Vienna, perpetually haunted by its Hapsburg ghosts, with its ‘old commissionaires, minor officials, former servants and the like, who sported side whiskers and waxed nostalgically about the Court, the Arcieren Life Guards, the huge tips dispensed by the foreign potentates, the Emperor’s house guests …’16

The decision to set the film in Budapest instead of the Austrian capital is strange, especially when the filming actually took place in Vienna, but otherwise the novel is followed fairly closely. Sponer (Wohlbrück) spends much of his time sitting in the railway station’s taxi rank, waiting for fares that barely provide enough money to live on; he is disenchanted with his ←97 | 98→life and work as well as his relationship with his long-suffering girlfriend Marie Polikow (Marieluise Claudius).17 Near the start of the film he is shown collecting renowned conductor Pedro Montemayor (Eugen Klöpfer) and his wife Winifred (Sybille Schmitz) from the station and taking them to the Corso Palace Hotel. Conversation between the Montemayors reveals that the conductor has learned of his wife’s affair with an American named Jack Mortimer, and knows that she is expecting him to arrive in Budapest that evening. Meanwhile Sponer has met the elegant and wealthy Daisy (Hilde Hildebrand) and persuaded her to hire him as a chauffeur to drive her to Monte Carlo, but his delight at securing this new job is dashed when – having picked up Jack Mortimer from the station – he discovers the American’s corpse and bags in the back seat of his taxi.

Wohlbrück’s performance expresses powerfully Sponer’s rising panic as events spin out of control, leading him to make a series of illogical decisions, including disposing of Mortimer’s body in the river and returning home with his bags. This sense of paranoia and confusion is enforced by the use of camera effects such as superimposed images, close-ups, distorted vision and montages. It is only when Marie points out that no-one travels from America without bulky luggage that Sponer realises that Mortimer’s cases must have been forwarded to the hotel and his failure to arrive there will point the finger of suspicion at him. His masquerade as Mortimer leads him into more trouble when Winifred Montemayor arrives at the hotel, closely followed by her husband …

The ‘double identity’ theme at the heart of I was Jack Mortimer was a common motif in German cinema at the time, and indeed would recur again and again in Wohlbrück’s films: there is such a strong pattern in his career of gravitating towards characters who struggle with duplicitous roles, inner conflicts, pseudonyms and concealed personal histories, that the suggestion of some correspondence with Wohlbrück’s own nature is hard to avoid. Both on- and off-screen, his was a life of masks and mirrors. At the end of July, filming began for Der Student von Prag [The Student of Prague], in which Wohlbrück played the starring role of Balduin, an impoverished ←98 | 99→student who sells his mirror image to a mysterious stranger in return for success in pursuing the woman he loves. Although the dual identity theme provides some echoes of his last film, this is a much darker tale.

Dreams and Shadows: Filming The Student of Prague

The film’s director – Arthur, or Artur, Robison – had rather a divided background himself. Born in Chicago in 1888 into a German-American family, he was educated both in the United States and in Germany, where the family returned when he was about 7 years old. After studying medicine in Munich, he practised briefly in Berlin before returning to America where he began acting on stage. He then came back to Germany and began working in the film industry, where one of his earliest films was Nächte des Grauens [Nights of Horror] which he co-directed with Richard Oswald in 1916. Starring Emil Jannings and Werner Krauss, with whom Wohlbrück had recently appeared on stage at the Deutsches Theater, this was the first feature-length film to depict vampires. He went on to make his best-known film Schatten: Eine nächtliche Halluzination [Warning Shadows: Nocturnal Hallucinations] in 1923, which marked a radical attempt to tell a story using visual imagery alone: apart from the opening credits, there are no intertitles. The plot is simple enough – a travelling entertainer (Alexander Granach) arrives at a house to perform a show for guests at a dinner party, among whom are four men whom the host (played by Reinhardt protégé Fritz Kortner) suspects are guilty of flirting with his wife. However, as he performs his puppetry and shadow play, the characters see their fears and fantasies projected onto the screen. The distinction between phantasm and reality is lost as the shadows become the doubles of the human characters, and the decadence and depravity of their inner desires is played out in a dark vortex of illusions, reflections and silhouettes.

Robison’s film is one of the great classics of Expressionist cinema, on a par with The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1921) and Nosferatu (1922), with which it shares much in common. The idea for Schatten had come from Nosferatu’s producer Albin Grau, who also brought with him its cinematographer Fritz ←99 | 100→Arno Wagner and some cast members such as Alexander Granach – another of Wohlbrück’s stage colleagues from the Munich Schauspielhaus – and Gustav von Wangenheim. Although it preceded Der Student von Prag by over a decade, Schatten anticipates many of the themes and images of the later film, most notably the scene in which Fritz Kortner smashes his reflection in a mirror. During the interim, Robison directed almost twenty other films, including IRA drama The Informer (1929) and French-language Hollywood productions, exemplifying the sort of international career in which Wohlbrück was then making his name.18 Sadly, Der Student von Prag would be his last production.

The film opens in Prague in the 1860s, where Balduin (Wohlbrück) and his fellow students are celebrating the birthday of the innkeeper’s niece Lydia (Edna Greyff). Into the cellar swirls famous singer Julia Stella (Dorothea Wieck), who is immediately surrounded by the admiring crowd of raucous students. Balduin is struck by her beauty, and when another student attempts to kiss Julia, Balduin draws his sword to defend her honour – a scene that allowed Wohlbrück to display his fencing skills. Impressed by his conduct and martial prowess, Julia invites the students to her next concert.

Balduin becomes infatuated with Julia but is also bitterly frustrated by the social gulf that separates them. She is always surrounded by the rich and famous, especially Baron Waldis (Erich Fiedler). As Balduin’s bitterness grows, he meets the mysterious Dr Carpis (Theodor Loos) who appears in black hat and cape, somewhat resembling Dr Caligari. As Balduin is pouring out his feelings to himself in front of a large mirror, Carpis covers the glass with his cape and offers the young student a deal: if he sells the doctor his reflection, he will have success in pursuing Julia.

The student agrees, but by surrendering an image of himself, what exactly has Balduin done? This aspect of the story was rooted in German Romanticism, and resonated with the myth of the doppelgänger or ‘double’. Earlier explorations of the theme include E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Die Doppelgänger (1812), Die Geschichte des verlornen Spiegelbildes (1815), Der goldene Topf (1814) and Adalbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl ←100 | 101→(1814).19 In Chamisso’s tale, Schlemihl meets a mysterious ‘man in grey’ at a garden party who offers him the lucky purse of Fortunatus in exchange for his shadow. Enticed by the prospect of a never-ending supply of money, Schlemihl agrees; the grey man pockets his shadow and promises to return in a year and a day. Schlemihl becomes weary of limitless wealth and disturbed by his shadowless existence, forced to wander throughout Europe and haunted by the mysterious stranger who dogs his steps and thwarts his designs, especially when he falls for the beautiful Mina. Unlike Der Student von Prag, Schlemihl’s predicament focusses on the absence of a shadow, and shows little interest in the separate existence of this duplicate image.

Hoffmann was strongly influenced by the Schlemihl tale, most notably in his short story Die Abenteuer der Sylvesternacht (1815) in which the hero Spikher allows his mirror image to be stolen by Giulietta, who is working for Spikher’s diabolical tempter, Dapertutto.20 There are perhaps echoes also of Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson (1839), in which a man grows up hating his double who keeps reappearing whenever he acts badly. Tormented, he travels around Europe sinking into self-loathing and depravity. The double takes on the role of Wilson’s conscience and in Rome he finally turns on him with his sword. Having killed his own conscience – just as Balduin will eventually shoot his own mirror image – so Wilson’s falls into damnation.

Hans Heinz Ewers’ screenplay for Der Student von Prag drew on elements of all these stories, but this was the third film to be based on the novel and all three films varied significantly. Rather surprisingly perhaps, Wohlbrück had seen neither of the previous films before reading the script.21 The first film was co-directed in 1913 by Paul Wegener and Danish filmmaker Stellan Rye, shot on location in Prague with Wegener himself playing the role of Balduin. The 1926 version was directed by Henrik Galeen, who directed Der Golem and wrote the screenplay for Nosferatu. Like Werner ←101 | 102→Krauss who played Scapinelli, Galeen was another of Max Reinhardt’s protégés. The part of Balduin was given to Conrad Veidt – Cesare the sleep-walker in Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari [The Cabinet of Dr Caligari] (1920) – and one of UFA’s highest paid stars. Like Wohlbrück, he had served in the German infantry during WWI, at which time he was engaged in a romantic relationship with Lucie Mannheim, Wohlbrück’s singing partner in Die Geschiedene Frau.22 There are some stylistic similarities between Der Student von Prag and these earlier Expressionist masterpieces, most notably in the scenes that take place in the narrow, sloping streets of old Prague, which use painted backdrops lit by candles and sunk in deep shadow. Although the sets are marginally more ‘realistic’ than those in Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, at one point Balduin places his hand against a wall and it can be seen bending beneath Wohlbrück’s fingers.

The Nazis’ grip on the film industry continued to tighten, and although Der Student von Prag was produced by Cine-Allianz, it was the first film produced without the company’s Jewish founders Arnold Pressburger and Gregory Rabinovich, who had been forced out of the company due to their non-Aryan status.23 September 1935 saw the passing of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws, which prohibited marriage or extra-marital intercourse between German citizens and Jews, forbade Jewish households from employing German women under the age of 45 and set out a series of definitions about eligibility for Reich Citizenship Law that was aimed at excluding Jews, Romany gypsies and others deemed undesirable by the Nazis. Supplementary legislation that provided a more precise definition of who was to be regarded as Jewish was passed on 14 November, by the terms of which Wohlbrück was identified as a Mischling ersten Grades, who was allowed to retain German citizenship but was classed as only partly belonging to the German race and nation.’ Although Ewers had aligned himself to some aspects of the Nazi regime, his views and writings fell foul of the Nazi authorities and led to him being blacklisted in 1934, but ←102 | 103→production of the film had already started by then and it was decided to let it continue.24

Der Student von Prag premiered at the Gloria-Palast on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district on 10 December. In a review the following morning the Vienna Neue Freie Presse praised the ‘honesty and intensity’ of Wohlbrück’s acting.25 Nonetheless, Robison’s sound film differed considerably from the two earlier silent versions and these changes were significant in shaping Wohlbrück’s interpretation. The screenplay, written by Robison with Hans Kyser, makes Julia a singer rather than an aristocrat, and also a former lover of Dr Carpis, thus granting his scheming a very human motive. Once Carpis becomes less of a demonic Mephistopheles, so the tone of the film becomes less supernatural and more psychological. This placed more emphasis on Wohlbrück’s ability to express Balduin’s inner state, as he develops from the carefree young student into a tortured but divided soul. As the film continues, his upward social progress and gambling success is accompanied by a growing sense of doom and foreboding, as Balduin begins to be haunted by dreams and visions of his mirror image. Without any make-up or additional costume, Wohlbrück succeeded in conveying a sense of two different personalities at war with one another, the intensity of his performance being heightened by Theo Mackeben’s superb music score.

It is intriguing how many motifs from the actor’s later films are found in Der Student von Prag, such as the smashed mirror that was recreated in The Red Shoes, the cape-and-mask costume worn by ‘The Bat’ in Oh … Rosalinda!! and the white-shirted duelling scene in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The way in which he portrays Balduin’s final descent into madness anticipated similar performances as Mallen in Gaslight (1940) and Suvorin in The Queen of Spades (1949), and indeed the latter employs the same gambling motif: near the end of Der Student von Prag Balduin repeatedly throws three dice, each time bringing up three sixes – symbolising the unwisely acquired guarantee of gambling success, but also the demonic power (666 being the Biblical ‘Number of the Beast’) that now ←103 | 104→threatens to destroy him. After such a demanding role, it was only right that Wohlbrück headed off to Paris in August for a well-deserved break.26

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Playing the Hero: Der Kurier des Zaren

Jules Verne’s novel Michael Strogoff: The Courier of the Czar was first published in 1876 and is regarded as one of his finest works. It is a stirring tale, concerning the adventures of Michael Strogoff, who acts as courier for Tsar Alexander II and has to dash across Siberia to warn the Tsar’s brother – governor of Irkutsk – of planned treachery by a local Tatar warlord named Feofar. Strogoff encounters various characters on his journey – Nadia, daughter of a political exile, two journalists reporting the war – as well as his mother in Omsk, where he is captured. Nadia and Strogoff’s mother are forced to watch as Michael is (apparently) blinded with a hot blade by the cruel Tatars, but he later escapes and reaches Irkutsk where Nadia’s father helps defeat the rebellion, before giving Strogoff his daughter’s hand in marriage.

The novel was adapted for the silent screen in 1926 but the advent of sound and improved technology provided the potential for another dramatic film version, and the idea was developed by producer Joseph Ermolieff. Born in Russia, Ermolieff had been a pioneer in silent cinema production and distribution, before setting up his own company and relocating to Paris in 1920. Ermolieff entrusted the task of direction to Richard Eichberg (1888–1953), a prolific filmmaker who had either directed or produced over 150 films since 1915. The cast of Der Kurier des Zaren included many familiar names, such as Hilde Hildebrand, Theo Lingen, Lucie Höflich (as Strogoff’s mother) with Akim Tamiroff playing the villainous Tatar.

As with Viktor und Viktoria/Georges et Georgette, a French-language version of the film was shot simultaneously, for which Eichberg enlisted the help of Jacques Baroncelli as co-director. So, while Eichberg was filming in the large Jofa studios on the former Johannisthal airport site in Berlin, Baroncelli was working on the French version at the Tobis Studios in Epinay near Paris.27 There were several cast changes, but Wohlbrück was again able ←105 | 106→to retain his starring role due to his proficiency in the French language. Filming actually began with the Bulgarian location shots in mid-September, while work in the studios was not completed until the middle of December.

Biographical notes

James Downs (Author)

Dr James Downs is an archivist in the University of Exeter’s Special Collections Department, also home to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, where he previously worked for almost a decade. He has written and presented conference papers about Walbrook on several occasions as well as being interviewed at the actor’s grave for the «Life and Death in Hampstead Sound Trail» and curating the 2013 exhibition «Anton Walbrook – Star and Enigma.» In addition to teaching film adaptation and cataloguing archival material relating to other German émigrés, he has written two books and over thirty articles on a range of topics relating to the history of film and photography, visual culture and religious history, and since 2018 he has been the editor of the magazine Photographica World .


Title: Anton Walbrook