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Anton Walbrook

A Life of Masks and Mirrors


James Downs

Viennese-born actor Adolf Wohlbrück enjoyed huge success on both stage and screen in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, becoming one of the first truly international stars. After leaving Nazi Germany for Hollywood in 1936, he changed his name to Anton Walbrook and then settled in Britain, where he won filmgoers’ hearts with his portrayal of Prince Albert in two lavish biopics of Queen Victoria. Further film success followed with Dangerous Moonlight and Gaslight, several collaborations with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – including his striking performance as Lermontov in The Red Shoes – and later work with Max Ophuls and Otto Preminger.

Despite great popularity and a prolifi c career of some forty films, alongside theatre, radio and television work, Walbrook was an intensely private individual who kept much of his personal life hidden from view. His reticence created an aura of mystery and «otherness» about him, which coloured both his acting performances and the way he was perceived by the public – an image that was reinforced in Britain by his continental background.

Remarkably, this is the first full-length biography of Walbrook, drawing on over a decade of extensive archival research to document his life and acting career.

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Chapter 2 ‘I suppose one doesn’t count as a human being without a uniform.’ Stage, Silence and Sound, 1920–1932


CHAPTER 2‘I suppose one doesn’t count as a human beingwithout 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...

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