Masks, Mirrors and Paper trails: Anton Walbrook and the archive

James Downs, University of Exeter

25 June 2021


Research for my biography of the actor Anton Walbrook (Anton Walbrook: a Life of Masks and Mirrors, published by Peter Lang in December 2020), took over ten years and made extensive use of archival sources. While this is not unusual, the notion of writing Walbrook’s biography itself came from the profound impression made when confronted with a collection of archival material; during the course of research, I was forced by necessity to seek out and acquire (over several years) a substantial collection of my own that includes original letters, postcards, film posters, vinyl, glass slides, lobby cards, cinema magazines, theatre programmes from the 1920s to the 1960s, copies of documentation from state archives and theatre museums, as well as some of the original costumes worn by Walbrook in his films. The process of writing and researching this biography thus began with an archival encounter, made extensive use of archives in the UK and Europe, and has itself resulted in the creation of an entirely new private, amateur archive (the future of which remains to be decided.)

In this blogpost, I want to share some discussions about these three ‘archival encounters’ in order to explore the relationship between archival research and life-writing, focusing on how the material aspects of the archive can shape perceptions of the biographical subject, and how much the concept of the ‘star body’ is itself embodied in the physical artefacts of the archive.

Adolf Wohlbrück/Anton Walbrook in a typical 1930s promotional postcard

For those unfamiliar with the actor’s career, he was born in Vienna in 1896 as Adolf Anton Wilhelm Wohlbrück. While still in his teens, he began studying under Max Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, although his theatrical career was interrupted by military service during the First World War. After spending time in a POW camp, he returned to acting after the war and made his name on the stage in Munich, Dresden, Düsseldorf and Berlin, with roles in over 200 productions. Although Wohlbrück appeared in a few silent films, it was only with the coming of sound that he enthusiastically engaged with cinema, where his good looks and rich sonorous voice quickly made him arguably the most popular film star in 1930s Germany. He moved to Hollywood in 1936 for an English remake of one of his films, changing his name to Anton Walbrook. Instead of returning to Germany, however, he sailed to Britain in 1937 where he was cast as Prince Albert in two lavish biopics about the life and reign of Queen Victoria. During the war he was an outspoken critic of Hitler and the Nazis, taking on heroic roles in patriotic wartime films as well as playing the matinee idol in romantic melodramas. There was also a darker element to his acting, and some of his best work during the 1940s was done in a series of films he made in collaboration with both Thorold Dickinson and the creative duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Walbrook returned to Germany after the war but, despite a number of successful theatrical performances, found it harder to establish himself in the film industry there. Even though he had taken British citizenship in 1947, he did not seem to feel quite at home here either, and his postwar life appears slightly rootless, with constant alternating between Britain and the continent and a series of itinerant journeys hopping between minor television films, musicals, operettas and the occasional flashes of brilliance on both stage and screen. He died in Germany in 1967, after having collapsed on stage with a heart attack.

The First Archival Encounter

Although I had heard of his name and seen a few of his films, Walbrook’s life and work was only vaguely familiar to me until one day in 2009 when I was working as a volunteer at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, part of the Special Collections Department of the University of Exeter. Among the materials I was given to catalogue was a small assortment of Walbrook material that had clearly been put together by a fan or collector.

Some of the Walbrook ephemera in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum

This consisted of pre-war material from the period when he was known as Adolf Wohlbrück and included postcards, film booklets, cinema programmes, cigarette cards, several issues of Illustrierte Film Kurier featuring Wohlbrück’s films and other ephemera. As I spread it all out on the table before me and began to sift through each item, there were two things that struck me:

Firstly, there was the strong sense of what one might call ‘fan power’. Clearly, Wohlbrück was regarded highly enough to have all this material produced about him and made available for fan consumption, and someone had taken the trouble to acquire all these items and keep them together for several decades.

Secondly, there was evidence of Wohlbrück’s star status. This can be gathered from examining the way in which he was described, the language used about him, where his name was positioned on the printed page, the number of times he appears on the front cover, the prominence accorded references to him or portraits in relation to those of other stars.

Working with this material started me thinking about the blank spaces between the Wohlbrück represented here and the Walbrook I knew from his British films. How did he get from 1930s Germany to wartime Britain? What was that process like for him? What came beforehand, what came after? I thought this would be an interesting narrative to read up on, but when I went in search of some substantial writing about him, I found there was very little available. I need to begin my own research.

It is worth emphasising that the deep impression made by this first ‘archival encounter’ relied upon the fact that all this material had already been brought together previously and I just happened to be exposed to it in its entirety. Had this pre-existing archive already been donated and catalogued, I would still have had access to every item and been able to request to see each one, but this would not have had the collective impact that it did. It is important not to underestimate how much our engagement with archival materials is shaped by the way in which they are presented to us, how they are catalogued, stored, digitised or made physically accessible to users of museums and libraries.

The Research Process

Once I began researching Walbrook’s life, I soon realised that this was a formidable task, with challenges including the paucity of primary archival material, the scattered location of small clusters of documents in European archives and – perhaps most crucially of all – the actor’s passionate insistence on absolute separation between his private and public lives and his family’s alleged destruction of personal papers relating to his sexuality. What would be the consequences of this situation for the writing of a biography?

Some examples of mask and mirror imagery in Walbrook’s films
 

The title of the biography, A Life of Masks and Mirrors, is partly a reference to recurring imagery in Walbrook’s films but also reflects these challenges I faced in pinning down his identity. Like any biographer, I wanted to try and get beneath the surface of my subject, to reveal something of Walbrook’s inner personality and tease out elements for my readers that they might otherwise have missed or struggled to understand. However, this is no straightforward matter, and it is essential to consider the complex relationship that exists between the separate aspects of Walbrook as a biographical subject – his onscreen star persona (including both acting performances and the image portrayed in promotional material), his offscreen life as a private individual, and the archival records in relation to both.

When writing about artists, it is always a temptation to blur the distinction between their creative work and their individual personalities – biographers are forever seeking autobiographical elements in the work of poets or novelists, and for a film actor it is tempting to conflate their onscreen roles with their personal lives. In 1955 Walbrook stated that he had not done any film role since 1935 that he had not chosen himself, and we might therefore concede that there is justification for arguing that his onscreen roles were of personal significance. Many of his films include the use of doubles, mirrors, masks, concealed identities, or characters who have a trouble relationship with their own past – often symbolised by a changed name.

The reasons why this might resonate with Walbrook are not hard to fathom – as a homosexual with Jewish ancestry it was a matter of survival that he learned to conceal his personal life from public scrutiny while living in Nazi Germany, and once he became an exile outside his country, his natural shyness became a defence mechanism, a protective barrier between the émigré and the ‘otherness’ of the alien world around him. Many of his screen characters were exiles, such as Paul Mallen in Gaslight, Peter in 49th Parallel who declares ‘our Germany is dead’, Prince Albert – struggling to establish his own identity as Prince Consort in a country that remained hostile to his foreign background and dismissive of his personal talents – or the ‘good German’ Theo in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and the Polish airman Stefan Radetzky in Dangerous Moonlight, both of whom flee fascism by emigrating to England but struggle to reconcile their past and present lives.

Walbrook also frequently played characters who possess a strong outer shell, loners who remain aloof and detached from the world around them– such as Boris  Lermontov in The Red Shoes and Herman Suvorin in The Queen of Spades, or the Master of Ceremonies in La Ronde, who interacts with others while appearing to exist on another plane altogether.

If there is indeed a correlation between Walbrook’s personal life and that of his onscreen performances, in terms of a tendency towards secrecy and concealment, then perhaps we might hope to find a more objective record in the archives? There are, however, many challenges in this too. First of all, it seems that a large amount of Walbrook’s private papers were destroyed after his death, allegedly by the family of his partner Eugene Edwards. There is no ‘Walbrook archive’ existing anywhere. Instead we only have small groups of letters and papers held within other collections across the world. The star’s ‘archival body’, if you like, is fragmented and dislocated, allowing us only to glimpse Walbrook through secondary perspectives, as he is reflected in the eyes of others. Even in interviews, Walbrook insisted on an absolute separation between private and public, warning journalists explicitly that certain questions were getting too close. Is it going to be possible for any archival sources to help a researcher to penetrate this wall?

The Archival Record: Practical Challenges

During the years of archival research, one of the most intriguing things to emerge was how little of the conventional narrative regarding Walbrook’s emigration was straightforward. It reminded me of a line in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, when Walbrook’s character admits to his interrogator:

‘I have not told a lie. But I have also not told the truth.’

Prior to my biography there was a standard synopsis of Walbrook’s career that was circulated in a number of biographical dictionaries and film encyclopedias: namely, that being Jewish, gay and fiercely opposed to Hitler, Walbrook had secretly left Germany for America under the pretence of making an English-language adaptation of one of his films, hated Hollywood, and then moved to Britain. This is not a lie, but neither is it the whole truth.

Archival discoveries in letters, diaries and contemporary press cuttings revealed that the situation was far from being as clear-cut as it appeared. Options for returns to Germany and Hollywood were being entertained or discussed at almost every point, and Walbrook’s reputation as a staunch anti-Nazi was far from clear – so much so, that many German émigrés in Hollywood suspected him of being a Nazi spy, and Jewish groups threatened to boycott his films.  While there is no reason to question Walbrook’s opposition to the Nazis, the archive revealed letters that he had signed ‘Heil Hitler’ and there was even a promotional card on which his portrait was adorned with a swastika:

While modern accounts of Walbrook’s emigration from Germany emphasise the danger he was in due to his mother being Jewish, there was no evidence from contemporary interviews that this was a concern, and indeed genealogical research revealed that his Jewish ancestors had embraced Catholicism at least a generation previously.

The reliability of the archival record often had to be questioned on different grounds. Could the detailed biographical information about his Lutheran and Catholic grandparents that he submitted to a Nazi questionnaire in 1933 be trusted, or were these fictitious statements meant to deter further investigation into his Aryan credentials? A wartime letter from his friend and secretary Alexander Bender contained comments about Walbrook’s feelings about Hollywood which contradicted what the actor was telling journalists in British film magazines. There was in fact a great deal of conflicting information about much of his life, his ancestry and his movements around Europe, not all of which I was able to reconcile by the time the biography was ready for publication. It seemed that the archives contained just as many ‘masks and mirrors’ as those that characterised his film work and personal life.

Fandom and the archive

In trying to acquire enough information about these various issues, I became an avid collector of Walbrook memorabilia as well as literature and ephemera relating to the worlds of cinema and theatre. As an avowed fan of Walbrook’s films, it was perfectly natural to take an interest in such material acquisitions, but as my collection grew and grew over the decade of research, I did begin to wonder if the enthusiasm of a fan or collector was really compatible with the rigorous detachment expected of an academic scholar. Is there a point at which the acquisition of material, or certain types of material, can become counter-productive in the work of writing and research? It is not hard to explain these great sense of satisfaction that is felt from owning Walbrook’s original Prince Albert costume, as worn in Sixty Glorious Years (below), but it less easy to pinpoint how it improves my analysis of his performance or adds to our understanding of 1930s British cinema.

One thing that the collector soon has to recognise is that the collecting never ceases. This is partly a comment on the addictive nature of collecting, but also an observation on the process by which collections can retain a ‘life’ of their own. Many scholars have written in recent years about the idea of  the ‘archive as process’, highlighting the many subjective choices and prejudicial biases that shape how an archive is built up, arranged, catalogued, described, defined, preserved and made (in)accessible, and noting that what is excluded is often as important as what is included.

Although I may sometimes refer to my collection as my ‘Walbrook archive’ it is nothing of the sort – it is an archive of my research, reflecting my specific tastes and interests, my financial wherewithal (or lack of it), cultural background and geographic location. Just like the fan collection I mentioned at the start – now absorbed into the holdings of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum – so too my own collection has already absorbed earlier collections, such as scrapbooks compiled by a 1930s film fan in the UK and a German admirer from the 1950s:


Fan activity can throw up some interesting insights – one of the scrapbooks included a letter from a fan in Turkey who was exchanging a Walbrook postcard for one of Deanna Durbin, which provides some evidence about the relative values accorded celebrities at a particular place and time. At some point in the future, when my own material remains are dust and ashes, this archive may be broken up and dispersed, or it may be part of another, larger archival collection elsewhere. Archives continue to evolve, they may absorb previous archives and in turn be themselves absorbed into others. They may be reduced in size through weeding, sale or dispersal, or increase in size through the focussed acquisition of new material. In 2013 an exhibition was held, Anton Walbrook. Star and Enigma, that incorporated items from both my own collection and that of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, as well as newly-created artwork by Dashiell Silva. Material created especially for the exhibition subsequently found its way into both my personal collection and the holdings of the Museum. My own research, which began with an archival encounter in the Museum, has now generated its own archival collection. In pursuing a paper trail of clues that I hoped would lead me to a greater understanding of Anton Walbrook, I have incidentally left my own paper trail of ephemera and correspondence, including archive and book request slips from various institutions, letters to and from other fans and scholars, and outlines of my biographical research that were printed up on conference papers and publicity material. In these days of digital databases, emails and virtual technology, it is a commonplace to lament how much we have lost in terms of personal interaction and physical engagement with archival material, and yet my own experience of researching A Life of Masks and Mirrors has always felt deeply personal, not just in the relationship between the biographer and subject, but also in the numerous human encounters, collaborations and intertwined narratives that have formed such a vital part of this labour. This is in part due to the physical nature of archives, and the way in which they provide a tangible link to the past – and hopefully this lively sense of connection can be found in the biography’s portrait of this most private and enigmatic of actors.

Anton Walbrook: a Life of Masks and Mirrors is available direct from the publisher, Peter Lang, as well as the usual booksellers and retail outlets: https://www.peterlang.com/view/title/72298?format=PBK


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, and curated 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 and presented conference papers about Walbrook on several occasions, published three books and over thirty articles on a range of topics relating to the history of film and photography, visual culture and religious history. Since 2018 he has been the editor of the magazine Photographica World.


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