In Search of the Text

Khadija Koroma, University of Leicester

14 July 2021

Doing PhD during a pandemic is no easy feat, especially when the PhD entails literature and texts that have long since gone out of publication. My research focuses on the representation of African women in postcolonial literature through the Heinemann African Writers series (AWS).

The AWS has published over 200 texts between 1962 and the early 2000s. With COVID and its endless lockdowns, the typical library/archives search for my primary texts were out of question. With a ban on physical copies of books through the interlibrary loan system, and the British Library either closed or with limited opening hours, I had no choice but to take my search to second hand online bookstores for the necessary texts. Searching for, locating, and buying 200+ texts, with most of the earlier AWS texts being out of print, was not an option for a self-funded PhD student. Apart from the financial strain that this would have caused me, it would have also taken up a large part of my PhD, giving me very little time to focus on the key texts or write my thesis. However, at the same time, I knew that I needed to read as wide and as much of the AWS as was feasible. With the focus of my thesis being the representation of women in the texts, I needed to ensure that there was female presence in the narratives, as well as in the authorships of the texts chosen for my thesis. After an initial reading of a few of the most popular books in the AWS, I realised that the scarcity of female authors, as well as the exclusion of women in the texts, meant that I needed a plan.

With 3 years of project management work in local government under my belt, I was able to channel my inner project manager in order to create the plan. I was able to create a spreadsheet with drop down lists, tables, and rows including genre of text, points of interests and themes. I knew that looking through 200+ texts on a very limited budget and time was impossible. I had to focus my attention on certain texts. The easiest way and most sensible way to achieve this was through a set time period. I decided to focus on novels of the AWS written between 1965-1985. This was because the majority of African nations had achieved independence from their colonisers by 1965, meaning that texts within this period were a perfect fit for my research as they were written at the start of the ‘postcolonial’ era. This then limited the number of texts I needed to find and read.

The next issue I had to tackle was the inclusion of female authors. As I mentioned earlier, the AWS was a male-dominated series with only a handful of female writers. With my research topic in mind, I wanted to include as many female writers as possible that wrote within the time period outlined. I also had to decide what level of popularity I wanted to include in my research. With the most well-known author of the series being Chinua Achebe, whose popular Things Fall Apart (1962) had gained so much acclaim and academic scholarship, I had to carefully think about the contribution my thesis would make to this already crowded field. The second option was to choose the less popular authors whose work had gone largely unnoticed. However, this ran the risk of my finished thesis being very descriptive as opposed to analytical as there would be little to no secondary critics to engage with. I decided to include a mixture of well-known and less known authors. With the well-known authors such as Achebe, Buchi Emecheta and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, I stayed clear of their most popular works and instead chose works with less popularity such as Girls at War and Other Stories (1972) by Achebe, The Joys of Motherhood (1980) by Emecheta and Devil on the Cross (1982) by Ngugi. This provided an opportunity for my research to make an original contribution whilst also able to engage with academic scholarship. With the less-known authors, I chose their most popular works (Xala (1976) by Sembene Ousmane), giving me the same advantages as the well-known authors.

Creating a spreadsheet made the whole process of selecting texts much easier. I could record the texts after my first reading, writing short summaries as well as key themes and points of interest that I found in the narratives. Initially, I also wanted to include various forms and genre of texts in my thesis. However, after reading some of the plays in the AWS, I could see that there was very little female presence in them. Although it is possible to write about the absence of women in postcolonial plays, I do not believe that it would help me uncover how women were represented in postcolonial literature of the AWS. I was still able to include other genres, outside of the novel in my final selection of texts. These included the epistolary novel So Long a Letter (1981) by Mariama Ba, two different short story collections, one by Achebe, Girls at War, and the other by Bessie Head. The Collector of Treasures (1977). I also included a collection of speeches and essays by Tom Mboya, The Challenge to Nationhood (1970). After searching for, obtaining, and reading over 50 poems, 23 short stories, 15 prose, 10 plays, 10 novels, and a collection of essays and speeches, I was able to choose the 7 texts that would shape my thesis.

After the choosing of my primary texts came the initial self-doubt. Did I make the right choice? Should I read more texts? Have I chosen the best texts for my thesis? Would I be able to answer my research questions through these texts? The doubt, however, did not last long as the busyness of my PhD pushed these questions to the back of my mind as I began to focus on planning and formulating an argument for my thesis. The whole process of searching for and finding my texts has given me greater confidence in my PhD, as I can go back to my spreadsheet and see my rationale and notes behind every decision I made. Uncertainty regarding my source selection no longer plays on my mind, the back or front, and with the recent completion of the first chapter of my thesis, I can confidently say that I made the right choices.

Khadija Koroma is a PhD researcher at the University of Leicester. Her research is focused on women in postcolonial nations, particularly on how African women are represented through the narratives of the Heinemann African Writers Series.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Candidates for the 2021 IAMHIST Council election


James Chapman, Leen Engelen, James Fenwick, Tobias Hochscherf, Richard Legay, Alessandra Luciano, Katharina Niemeyer, Emil Stjernholm, Roel Vande Winkel, Rolf Werenskjold

Election statements:

James Chapman

I have been a member of IAMHIST Council since 2006 and became editor of the IAMHIST journal, the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, in 2010. I have been a frequent contributor to the IAMHIST Blog, with contributions to the ‘Day at the Archives’ series, advice blogs on publishing journal articles and monographs, and a forthcoming piece on analysing film budgets for the ‘Detectives in the Archives’ series.

As the journal’s editor, I am particularly interested in supporting scholars in the fields of film, radio and television history to develop their research into publishable form. To this end I regularly contribute to IAMHIST publishing workshops, as well as representing the HJFRT at editors’ and publishers’ forums. I welcome suggestions and proposals for possible special issues of the journal arising from research seminars, symposiums and conferences.

My ‘day job’ is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester (UK), where I am currently Postgraduate Research Director in the School of Arts in which role I am actively engaged in supporting PhD students across a range of disciplines through their studies. My own research focuses on the institutional and cultural histories of (mostly British) cinema and television, and my recent publications include Hitchcock and the Spy Film: Authorship, Genre and National Cinema (I. B. Tauris, 2018) and Contemporary British Television Drama (Bloomsbury, 2020). I am currently completing a history of British film finance (the world’s most fascinating subject!) and am writing a short monograph on Dr No, the first James Bond film, to be published on the film’s sixtieth anniversary in October 2022.

Leen Engelen

I am a film and media historian at LUCA School of Arts and at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. My research focusses on historical film cultures, film and the First World War, the position of film in wider cultures of spectacle and 19th century visual media such as the optical lantern and the Kaiser-Panorama. I recently co-edited a book on the post-World War I era Revival after the Great War. Rebuild, Repair, Remember, Reform (Leuven University Press, available in open access). I teach media historical courses to aspiring film makers as well as to university students.

I’ve been involved in IAMHIST for over fifteen years. As secretary general I organised several master classes for early career researchers and practitioners and was involved in the day-to-day business of the association. In 2019 I was elected IAMHIST president by the membership. What I value most about IAMHIST is its tradition in working with and coaching early career researcher through master classes, the IAMHIST prizes and special events for grad students at our biennial conferences. This is also how as a PhD student I first became involved in IAMHIST. Another aspect I especially appreciate is the orientation of IAMHIST towards academics as well as the archive world and media practitioners. These are aspects I’d like to develop further in the following years. I would also like to work towards widening the IAMHIST network and connecting with colleagues outside Western Europe and the United States.

James Fenwick

I’m a Senior Lecturer in Media and Communication at Sheffield Hallam University. Archives (both written and audio-visual) are integral to my research, using them to focus on film and television production companies, archives as subject, film festivals, unmade films, and Stanley Kubrick. I’m an editor of the Open Screens journal and a co-convenor of the BAFTSS Archives and Archival Methods Special Interest Group. I’m the author of Stanley Kubrick Produces (2020) and Unproduction Studies and the American Film Industry (forthcoming 2021), and co-editor of Shadow Cinema: The Historical and Production Contexts of Unmade Films (2020). I’ve been an active contributor to IAMHIST, including writing several articles for the IAMHIST blog and for the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.

I want to act as a voice on the IAMHIST Council for my precarious colleagues in the sector. I’m an early career researcher in that I completed my PhD five years ago, have worked a variety of insecure contracts since 2015, and have only had a permanent contract since 2019. I will bring my perspective and experience of having been a precarious researcher to the Council to advocate for those colleagues that are not in permanent academic positions and to ensure an inclusive research community. I’m an active supporter of schemes that give voice to precarious colleagues. I volunteer my time for the BAFTSS Mentoring and Job Coaching programmes and serve as an Inclusive Champion in my own institution. I believe IAMHIST has made great contributions in this area through the Masterclass sessions and the IAMHIST Challenge, schemes that I will champion wholeheartedly. I believe IAMHIST’s greatest strength is its international network. I want to ensure that IAMHIST can continue to develop an inclusive community of media history researchers and practitioners and I want to encourage greater collaboration between researchers and filmmakers, particularly given my own experience of supervising several practice-based doctoral students, and between researchers and archivists.

Tobias Hochscherf

Tobias Hochscherf is Professor of Audiovisual Media at Kiel University of Applied Sciences (KUAS) and the University of Flensburg. He is currently vice president of IAMHIST and the host of the 2022 biennial IAMHIST conference in Kiel, Germany, on the topic ‘Conflict and Conflict Resolution in the Media’. He studied German, English and Media at the universities in Hamburg and Kiel and received a PhD from the University of Liverpool (UK). From 2006 to 2009 he worked as senior lecturer in film and television studies at Northumbria University (UK). Owing to a background in broadcast journalism and filmmaking, he is editor-in-chief of the student radio station at KUAS. He teaches a variety of undergraduate (BA) and postgraduate (MA) modules on media, film and television – including courses on film and television history, media theory, radio broadcasting and film production. He is Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (UK) and Vice President of KUAS.

Tobias Hochscherf’s research focuses on film and television history as well as contemporary television drama; he has recently published Beyond the Bridge: Contemporary Danish Television Drama (2017). He is also author of The Continental Connection: German-speaking Émigrés and British Cinema, 1927-45 (2011) and co-editor of Divided, but not disconnected: German experiences of the Cold War (2010) and British Science Fiction Film and Television: Critical Essays (2011). He is associate editor of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, the Journal of Popular Television and on the editorial board of the Journal of Scandinavian Cinema.

Richard Legay

I wish to be part of the IAMHIST Council to give a voice to PhD students and early career researchers, and to represent their needs and aspirations. One key feature of IAMHIST has always been its supportiveness towards junior scholars and postgraduate students, something I have myself greatly benefited from. Having recently defended my PhD thesis, I believe that I am well suited to represent these voices in the council. I also wish to further the range of opportunities that our association offers to early career researchers, whether it is through specific workshops or networking activities.

I am a radio historian with a strong interest in popular culture, cross-media studies, and public history. I hold a PhD from the University of Luxembourg on the transnational history of commercial radio stations Radio Luxembourg and Europe n°1 in the 1960s. As a postdoctoral researcher for the Popkult60 research project, I curated an online exhibition on popular culture in Europe in the Long Sixties. I regularly published on radio history and was a co-editor on a special issue on ‘Radio Beyond Borders’ for the Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television.

Alessandra Luciano

After receiving my Bachelor in Film Studies: Theory & Practice from Exeter University, I decided to pursue my academic career at Columbia University, where I obtained my Masters in “Film Studies”. Because of the various classes and projects, I worked on at Columbia I decided not to pursue a PhD but to reorient myself toward film preservation. As such, I got my degree in the ‘Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image’ from the University of Amsterdam. In 2013, I started working at the Centre national de l’audiovisuel in Luxemburg – the national audiovisual archive, as lead film archivist and collection manager in CNA’s moving image archive. In 2018, I became Digital Curator at CNA, where I led our digital ambition, in regards to digital preservation and access strategies, as well as ensuring that our full potential was met through the use of new technologies and the advantages digital workflows can offer. Most recently, Paul Lesch has entrusted me with the role of deputy director of the CNA. A great opportunity that further motivates me to grow CNA’s national and international network.

Since leaving academia, I have successfully been able to combine theory with practice, across a spectrum of diverse interests and fields. I am on the organising committee of the international conference No Time To Wait, I work as copy-editor for the international peer-reviewed academic journal Cinéma&Cie, and joined the EUscreen Foundation board last year. I have also presented at various national and international conferences, including IAMHIST’s biennial conference at Northumbria University in Newcastle in 2019. I believe that my background is reflected throughout the different members of the association, and would therefore be an asset to IAMHIST, allowing me the unique opportunity to further align and expand the grounds on which academia and the cultural heritage sector meet.

Katharina Niemeyer

It is a pleasure to present again for re-election to the IAMHIST council. I had the opportunity to organise the IAMHIST conference (2017) as well as one masterclass in Paris (2015) and I had the pleasure to participate in many other activities: webmaster and community manager, book review editor (HJFRT) etc. If I am re-elected I will organise the next IAMHIST master class with Tobias Hochscherf in autumn 2021 and would also be pleased to organize one in Montreal in 2022 or 2023.

I am a media theorist and professor at the School of Media (Faculty of Communication) at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and director of CELAT (Centre de recherche Cultures-Arts-Sociétés). Trained in cultural sciences, media archaeology and media philosophy at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar (Germany), as well as in communication sciences at the University of Lyon (France) and at the University of Geneva (Switzerland), my research focuses on the relationships between media and (digital) technologies, temporalities, memory, and history. I recently co-edited the book Nostalgies contemporaines : médias, cultures et technologies, published in 2021 by Presses universitaires du Septentrion. I am a member of the editorial board of the journals MAST (Media Art Study and Theory), Memory, Mind & Media (Cambridge University Press) and also the co-founder of the International Media and Nostalgia Network. One of the current research projects I am exploring is entitled “An EXPLORATORY RESEARCH ON THE MEDIATIZATION of “TERRORISM” IN THE FRANCOPHONE AND ANGLOPHONE CANADIAN NEWS Media (1900-2000)”/ SSHRC – Insight Development Grants (2018-2022). The main purpose of this project is to understand how the Canadian news media – the francophone and anglophone press and television – used and defined the notion of “terrorism” before the beginning of the 21st century. The project brings forth an in-depth reflection on how “terrorism” has been covered and defined historically by the Canadian news media and, by doing so, will grasp the political, historical and legal issues that influence and are revealed via mediatization. Starting from an extensive research in francophone and anglophone media archives (Radio Canada/CBC, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, Library and Archives Canada, Toronto Public Library), this research has the following two main objectives: 1/ Provide a comprehensive overview of the media coverage of “terrorism” and 2/ Analyze the mediatization and capture, in a historical perspective, the evolution of the definitions of “terrorism” and its media staging.

Emil Stjernholm

I am an assistant professor in Media and Communication Studies at the Department of Communication and Media, Lund University. I earned my PhD in 2018 with a dissertation focusing on the Swedish filmmaker Gösta Werner and propaganda newsreels during World War II. My main areas of research include media history, documentary film and propaganda studies, with work appearing in journals such as the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and TelevisionStudies in European CinemaVIEW Journal of European Television History and Culture, BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies and Journal of Scandinavian Cinema. Currently, I am working on a media historical digital humanities project, Televising Information: Audiovisual Communication of Swedish Government Agencies, which is financed by the Swedish Research Council (2020–2023). As part of the project, I will spend one year as a visiting researcher at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry at Utrecht University and one year at the Department of Communication at the University of Copenhagen. I am also the co-editor of the book Nordic Media Histories of Propaganda and Persuasion, forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan in 2022.

I became an IAMHIST member during my time as a PhD student and I was immediately struck by the hospitable intellectual environment at conferences and other events organized by the association. My main motivation for applying to become a council member is the opportunity to provide the same type of support to PhD students and postdocs that I myself have benefited greatly from. I have a history of writing successful funding applications and would be happy to work with the organization of future IAMHIST events.

Roel Vande Winkel

I am a longstanding member of IAMHIST and associate editor of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. I ran the book reviews section of the HJFRT for more than a decade. I was introduced to IAMHIST as a PhD student almost twenty years ago, when I attended a masterclass and the biennial conference later that year. I have always enjoyed the informal and collegial atmosphere at these IAMHIST events. As a council member, I intend to contribute further to the role of the association as a meeting place between academic researchers (early career or established) and practitioners. This is valuable to me because I worked at the Belgian Royal Film Archive (Cinematek) before pursuing an academic career.

I have a background in history (MA) and communication studies (PhD). I am currently associate professor of film and television studies (KU Leuven – LUCA), board member of an international master in documentary film directing (DocNomads) and staff member of the Filmeu European Universities Alliance for Film and Media Arts. Like every other academic, I publish about my research in various forms (book chapters, monographs and edited collections). I am currently writing a monograph on Belgian cinema under the Nazi occupation (1940-1944). I am also looking for other ways to present the results of ongoing research and recently published the website

Rolf Werenskjold

Rolf Werenskjold is a Norwegian professor of media studies at Volda University College. He is a historian and media scholar who has published several studies on media and protests during the year 1968, modern American history, Norwegian media and the Spanish Civil War, Norwegian newsreels in the 1930s, and Norwegian foreign news journalism during the Cold War. He edited Media and the Cold War in the 1980s: Between Star Wars and Glasnost (2018), with Henrik G. Bastiansen and Martin Klimke. He has also recently participated with a chapter about ‘A Norwegian News Reels in the 1930s’ in the edited volume Researching Newsreels: Local, National and Transnational Case Studies (2018), edited by Ciara Chambers, Mats Jönsson, and Roel Vande Winkel. His latest publications are Ekko fra Spania: Den spanske borgerkrigen i norsk offentlighet, 1936-39 (Echo from Spain. The Spanish Civil War in the Norwegian public, 1936-39 ) (2019), with Hans Fredrik Dahl and Bernt Hagtvet, and he has been guest editor of the special issue on ‘Spies in Scandinavia’  in the Journal of Scandinanvian Cinema together with Tobias Hochscherf. In that issue he published the article ‘German Pressure: Spy Films and Political Censorship in Norway, 1914-1940’ (2019). Together with Tobias Hochscherf and Bjørn Sørenssen he is currently a guest editor of Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television’s specials issue on ‘Dissent and Dissidents in Central and Eastern European Film’ (September 2021). Werenskjold is a member of the Norwegian National Board of Media Studies, and the Board of the Norwegian Association of Media History. He is currently member of the Management Committee of the European research program Cost Action: New Exploratory Phase in Research on East European Cultures of Dissent. He is also an elected member of the Core Group of the program.

For a number of years I have been active in various research networks and programs, and have seen the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration across national borders. Media history is still a new research field. There are many white spots on the research map that need special attention. I will together with the rest of the board help to bring together both young and experienced researchers from different countries and regions, and stimulate the expansions of new topics of media history research. To achieve such goals I intend actively attending regular IAMHIST meetings – such as the annual master class and the biannual conferences.


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:

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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