Goebbels’ four great actresses weren’t German

If during the happy twenties and early thirties there was a cinematography capable of successfully rivaling Hollywood, that was the German one. Not only did it have large production companies, such as the UFA and its extensive distribution network; also with a magnificent panel of professionals capable of making great films: Nosferatu (1922), Metropolis (1926), The blue angel (1930) … With the arrival of the National Socialists to power all this changed, but less than is usually claimed.

Intransigence and the fanaticism of the Nazis caused some of their most important figures to leave Germany. This was the case with Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich, Billy Wilder or Peter Lorre, although some returned shortly after, such as Wilhelm Pabst. However, the vast majority of professionals, such as screenwriter Thea von Harbou, Oscar-winning actor Emil Jannings, actress Lil Dagover or director Luis Trenker, chose to stay, and others came from different countries in search of fame and fortune.

But what was most important was the strict censorship to which German cinema was subjected, which curtailed its creativity in favor of a certain academicism molded to the ideological directives of the regime. A regime represented by the Minister of Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment, the cinephile Josef Goebbels, under whose sphere of power cinematography had fallen in full.

Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou in their Berlin flat, 1923 or 1924.

Public domain

Goebbels cinema

The minister he was perhaps the most intelligent of the Nazi gyrfalcons, and always maintained a great nose to capture the sensitivity of the masses. In fact, after the poor box office success of the first clearly propaganda film, SA-Mann Brand (1933), changed strategy, aware of the ability of cinema to move wills.

Without renouncing anti-Semitic films – such as the Robert and Vertam 1939 – or those who supported the government’s euthanasia measures – such as I accuse (1941)–, Goebbels decided to inoculate his ideology in small doses in many of the nearly 1,200 titles that were released during those years.

And what was projected in the more than four thousand rooms in the Reich in 1935, which would rise to 8,300 in 1943? It was overwhelmingly predominant entertainment, in the form of musicals, adventure films or comedies, without forgetting the romantic or universal dramas, so much to the taste of the average spectator (yes, when it was a biographical film, the political load rose too many integers).


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Some of those films can still be seen on German television channels, but also Austrian or Swiss, in the equivalents of our “Neighborhood Cinema”, some of those films, especially those starring the incombustible Heinz Rühmann. They are tapes with a more than correct invoice that make you have a good time to the viewer.

Along with the production a complete star system that the regime promoted to entertain the population and to divert attention from much more disturbing issues. In that sense, the premieres became real social events, with assistance from the Führer included.

In parallel, the media reported the gossip of some stars who were seen participating in different events: carrying a piggy bank in the annual Winter Help collection, visiting the sick and wounded in hospitals … All of this increased their fame beyond celluloid.

Hitler and Goebbels visit a set at the UFA, Germany's most important film studio, in 1935.

Hitler and Goebbels visit a set at the UFA, Germany’s most important film studio, in 1935.

Federal Archives, picture 183-1990-1002-500 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

These actors and actresses, today largely forgotten, gave the note of color to a society that, after the outbreak of war, made cinema your best and almost only exhaust valve, not only in Germany, but also in the occupied countries, from France to Norway. There, German cinema, lacking in competition, dominated the billboards.

These are maybe the four most representative actresses of German cinema of those years. Interestingly, none were born in the Reich.

Marika Röok

Frivolous, but without going overboard

The great star of Third Reich cinematography was undoubtedly Marika Röok (1913-2004). Daughter of a Hungarian architect and born in Cairo, she was educated between Budapest and Paris. Considered by many as the sex symbol of the regimeShe was a very complete professional: not only did she sing and dance, but after overcoming some diction problems with German, she became a remarkable actress.

However, his ease in musical movies, which suited her like a glove, and her wedding to operetta director Georg Jacoby pigeonholed her into that genre, preventing her from developing all her dramatic abilities.

With his everlasting smile, played somewhat frivolous roles, in which appeared light clothes, including some daring scene that did not usually go further, but that dazzled the male audience. But behind this air of liberalism and modernity was hidden the role of traditional woman, as the prevailing ideology ordered.

Between his greatest successes stand out One night in May (May Moon, 1939) and Kora Terry (1940), in which she played the double role of a twin.

Zarah Leander

A Grace for the Reich

Disputing Röok for stardom was the Swedish actress Zarah Leander (Zarah Stina Hedberg, 1907-81). He came to German cinema from the hand of director Hans Detleft Sierck, who later emigrated to the United States changing his name to Douglas Sirk.

Tall and seductive, with a personal charm that exuded a certain sadness, Leander specialized in great musicals, portraying captivating characters although tormented that gave him a certain air to Greta Garbo. However, her hoarse alto voice, similar to that of Marlene Dietrich, and her great fondness for food, which forced her to perform weight loss cures before some filming, subtracted her whole to unseat Röok.

Promotional photography of Zarah Leander.

Promotional photography of Zarah Leander.

Public domain

With everything, starred in some of the biggest hits in German cinema of those days, like The Queen’s Heart (The Queen’s Heart, 1940) or The great love (The Great Love, 1942), which broke all box office records, and one of whose songs, The world will not end because of this (The world will not end for this), swept the charts.

Despite his successes, Leander only made ten films in Germany until 1943. Then, after shooting Back then (The lost home) he went to Sweden never to return. Various versions of what seemed like an escape are being shuffled. The most plausible, after the destruction of his mansion outside Berlin during a British bombardment, was the assumption that Germany was not going to win the war, so that it was possible to recover in health. Although there has also been speculation with the inability of the UFA to pay him in Swedish crowns, as stipulated in his contract, or with an unlikely flirtation with the Soviet cause.

Kristina Söderbaum

The melodrama star

At the other end of the record was Kristina Söderbaum (1912-2001) from Sweden. From a good family – his father came to chair the Nobel Prize Committee – he studied in various countries until he landed in Berlin. Discovered by director Veit Harlan, they formed a perfect cinematic tandem. Her childish face and voice turned her into the innocent girl victim of unscrupulousness, as in Jud Süss (The Jew Süss, 1940), or malicious rivals, as in The trip to Tilsit (The trip to Tilsit, 1939). His roles were often drenched in tears and often ended badly, including dramatic death. She ended up knowing her as the imperial body of water, which could be translated by the weeping corpse of the Reich.

Ilse Werner

The image of naturalness

Born in Jakarta, Ilse Werner (Ilse Charlotte Still, 1921-2005) was the daughter of a German and Dutch, and adopted the nationality of her father. It was discovered by the Hungarian director Géza von Bolvary in Vienna, where he had moved to study drama with Max Reinhardt. His first big movie success was The restless girls (The 4 revoltosas, 1938).

Total artist, Werner acted, sang and danced very well, and its powerful and inimitable whistle enchanted the public, as in we make music (1942). He alternated his film career with recording records and appearing on numerous radio programs. A movie inspired by one of the most successful, Wunchskonzrt (1940), would be the one that would definitely place her in stardom.

His simple bearing and naturalness In her performances, which contrasted with the sophistication and corsetry of other actresses, they made her the idol of the troops, who saw in her the girl who was waiting for them at home.

In general, none of these actresses had great trouble returning to work after the war, except temporarily Kristina Söderbaum, burdened by her participation in anti-Semitic production Jud Süss. Still, none of them were going to reach their previous levels of success anymore.

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