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.

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.

Beyond the ‘1945 divide’: Reassembling radio histories in Wrocław, formerly Breslau

Carolyn Birdsall, University of Amsterdam, and Joanna Walewska, Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń

15 May 2018


Our joint research works towards ‘reassembling’ radio broadcasting histories in the Silesian region, located in and around what is today the southern-most region of Poland. Following a first meeting in 2016, we have been developing this shared interest from the vantage of our respective research on radio culture before and after World War II.

Our focus on this region represents an intervention in media histories that still tend to privilege national settings, with capital cities as primary media hubs. This research therefore builds on a recent emphasis on the transnational and regional dimensions to radio broadcasting, which has called for more analytical attention to transborder listening, to technical infrastructures and the broader conditions of radio geopolitics.

We argue that this case is instructive for an understanding of radio geopolitics, since the German-language station in Breslau (now Wrocław) was launched in 1924 against the background of ongoing border disputes between Poland and Germany in the wake of World War I. In this context, the potential for radio transmission to reach listeners across national borders meant that the Breslau station and its programming increasingly gained political significance, with its outlook shaped by ongoing sovereignty conflicts and linguistic nationalism. From the mid-1920s onwards, a significant infrastructural investment is evident in stronger transmitters (located in Żórawina/Rothsürben) and relay stations (from 1927 onwards in Gliwice/Gleiwitz), along with the national German station from Königs Wusterhausen (from 1926 onwards).

As the above image indicates, already from this early period, the Breslau programme magazine projected the imagined listenership of German-language radio as extending to territories to the north into the territories of Poland, which regained its independence in 1918, and to German-speaking communities in Czechoslovakia. Following the National Socialist takeover in 1933, and the subsequent centralised reorganisation of radio, the renamed Reichssender Breslau and a new relay station in Görlitz became significant in broadcasting pro-fascist propaganda to Czechoslovak border areas in the lead up to the 1938 Munich Agreement, which resulted in Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia’s Bohemia and Moravia regions. During World War II, Silesian radio was reduced in importance with fewer transmissions, although a faked attack on the Gleiwitz station was used as a pretext for Germany’s declaration of war on Poland on 1 September 1939.

As a result of the Yalta conference in 1945, Lower Silesia was incorporated by Poland and was a region where unprecedented exchange of people took place. One of the goals of Communist propaganda in this period was to “polonise” the region and to erase all traces of German heritage. An illustrative example can be found in post-war cinema, which emphasised the notion of Poland acquiring ‘empty’ towns and cities in Silesia, which had been evacuated by Germany at the end of World War II.

In the above clip, from the 1964 drama Prawo i pięść (Fist and Law, dir. Jerzy Hoffman and Edward Skórzewski), we watch a special group, sent to secure order and establish administration in what is meant to be a small town in Lower Silesia abandoned by the Germans.  The last traces of German presence are not only highlighted in the form of signs for street names and shops, but the film emphasises the eeriness of the deserted town with sounds from an unmanned wired radio system with public loudspeakers, and a drunk German radio operator appearing to be the last person remaining.

In what follows, we turn now to the complexities of periodization for a history of radio in Silesia, and the need to challenge a straight-forward notion of a ‘1945 divide’, as population exchanges were carried out gradually, mostly due to the need for the technical skills and know-how of German specialists and technicians in order to launch heavily-destroyed industry. A puppet administration, the Communist government in Poland considered the highly-industrialised region of Lower Silesia to be of great importance, due to their awareness of its significance for Poland’s post-war reconstruction. For Polish Radio, which had undergone an almost-complete destruction of its broadcasting infrastructure, Silesia was significant since several radio factories were located in the region in  Dzierżoniów/Rychbach, Bielawa/Langenbielau and Duszniki Zdrój/Bad Reinerz. In fact, until 1948, Dzierżoniów, a very small town, was established as a headquarters of the Polish Radio Engineering Industry Association.

Lower Silesia became a place of cultural exchange between the German, Polish and Jewish communities, which settled en masse in Dzierżoniów and Bielawa. Jewish engineers played an important role in the process of reconstruction of the radio engineering industry, many of whom were employed in managerial positions. The Jewish community in Dzierżoniów also organized vocational courses for its members, including one devoted to the repair of radio sets.  We can find evidence in written archives of Polish Radio that German engineers were employed in radio station in Wrocław as late as 1947. Also, one of the traces of German-Polish technical heritage exchange is radio set “Ludowe”, which was widely known as “Hitlerek”, because it was based on the popular, German state-subsidised radio receiver DKE38 (Deutschler Kleinempfänger or German People’s Receiver) model from 1938.

Wrocław was one of the last radio stations rebuilt after the war because of the ongoing uncertainty about status of Poland’s western borders. Nonetheless, the above newsreel from 1947 shows that its transmitter infrastructure served as a significant setting during these “Recovered Territories” (Ziemie Odzyskane) campaigns. This newsreel segment centres on a speech delivered by President Bolesław Bierut from inside the main concert hall of the Wrocław station, in which he reiterated the importance of the official re-launch of regular broadcasting in Silesia amidst these campaigns to regain territories. The official opening of Wrocław Radio station in October 1947 marked a turning point, as after this, the employment of German engineers was considered unnecessary.

Our current research critically engages with the complex situation of Polish-Russian-German-Jewish relations in the period 1944­–1948. This consideration includes an acknowledgement of continuities across the ‘1945 divide’ and asks how radio infrastructures might not only be ‘read’ in terms of political symbolism, but also forms of contention. We also attend to the material traces of radio when studying a historical record that was actively ‘displaced’ and damaged as a result of World War II and its aftermath. Further challenges to access and language barriers have resulted in a situation where, apart from an occasional mention, pre-1945 radio in Breslau has received little attention in German radio historiography. In Poland, too, Wrocław and Lower Silesia have not received substantial attention in either official or scholarly accounts of national radio history to date.

Our case study, which has been marginalised in national radio historiographies, serves as an impetus to reconsider the significance of transnational radio in twentieth-century Europe. Its complexity may also work as a reminder of the rich potential of a more integrated and connective research agenda for radio history in Central and Eastern Europe during and after World War II, and for which we hope our collaboration is the first step working in this direction.

Carolyn Birdsall is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Her publications include Nazi Soundscapes: Sound, Technology and Urban Space in Germany, 1933–1945 (2012), and Sonic Meditations: Body, Sound, Technology (2008, edited with Anthony Enns). Birdsall’s current research examines sound archival practice, with a particular interest in early radio archives and concepts of ‘documentary sound.’ Contact:

Joanna Walewska is Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń. Her current research project, Radio on the Leash: Radio-Engineering Industry, Institutions, and Listeners’ Practices in People’s Republic of Poland is concerned with the cultural and social dimensions to the history of radio in Poland after World War II. Contact:

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.

Zarah Leander and the Dream of a (Nazi) European Cinema

Benjamin G. Martin, Uppsala University

10 October 2017


In late 1942, Nazi Germany dominated Europe. And in cinemas, one German movie had begun its own victorious march across the continent: Die große Liebe (The Great Love, 1942), the single biggest box office hit of the Nazi film industry. But the star of the most successful film in the history of Europe’s most powerful regime was not German. The role was played by the Swedish actress and singer Zarah Leander. With her red hair, misty eyes, and sultry, deep singing voice, Leander had starred in several popular movies since being signed by Germany’s UFA studios in 1936. Carefully cultivated, aggressively promoted, and lavishly remunerated, Leander rose quickly to become Nazi cinema’s brightest star. Die große Liebe applied her singing and acting talents to a story set in the wartime present, striking a chord with Germans—some 27 million of whom saw the movie by mid-1944—and with audiences across Europe.

Leander’s success in Die große Liebe was more than just a hit for Berlin’s movie industry. As it drew audiences (and profits) from France to Finland, this film marked the culmination of a project that the Nazi film establishment, led by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, had pursued for nearly a decade. The goal was to make Germany the dominant film power on the European continent. The project’s central strategy was to restructure Europe’s fractured landscape of small, national cinemas into a unified, integrated pan-European film market. In this unified “Film Europe,” Germany’s centralized, state-controlled industry would seize the leading role hitherto played by the American studios. Berlin, rather than Hollywood, would produce the border-crossing blockbusters that would entertain European audiences—and cement Germany’s cultural hegemony in Europe. In Die große Liebe, Zarah Leander played a valuable role in bringing about the Nazi “New Order” in European cultural life.

Figure 1: Source:

Zarah Leander’s life and films, her melodramatic glamour and her distinctive husky voice, have stimulated a good deal of fan literature, as well as some excellent scholarly work. Particularly useful is Jana Bruns’s Nazi Cinema’s New Women (Cambridge, 2009), which carefully analyses each of her Nazi-era films in their German political and social context. But Leander’s story also embodies the European story of Nazi cinema. I explore that European story in my own recent book, in which Leander, unfortunately, makes only the briefest appearance. In fact, appreciating the continental scope of the Nazis’ film ambitions can help illuminate the role, function, and historical significance of the enigmatic star.

Talent scouts at Germany’s mighty UFA studios first heard of Leander—born Sara Stina Hedberg in 1907 in Karlstad, Sweden—when her performance in a 1936 Vienna musical revue attracted international attention. Undeterred by her modest screen experience, the Nazi regime’s film authorities spared no expense to convince her to come to Berlin. The head of the Reich Film Chamber travelled personally to Vienna to begin contract negotiations. The contract that emerged promised Leander the astonishing sum of 200,000 Reichsmarks for three movies to be made over the coming twelve months. (By comparison, the average annual income of a German working man was around 1,700 RM.) The Germans even agreed to the extraordinary demand that UFA pay most of this salary in Swedish kronor. With the ink barely dry on the contract, the Nazi star-making machine moved into high gear, placing images of Leander’s doe-eyed face on the cover of countless magazines before she had made a single film in Germany!

What can account for this extraordinary commitment of resources on an unknown, foreign actress? Consider the state of the German film industry at the time. Foreign anti-Nazi boycotts and a decline in exports caused by the depression choked the German film industry in 1936. Goebbels responded by essentially nationalizing German cinema, using a trust company to acquire controlling shares in the key studios and consolidating the industry into fewer and fewer hands. But Goebbels knew that domestic reforms alone could not solve the industry’s economic problems, nor appease his own political ambitions. Indeed, no European country could cover the skyrocketing production costs of high-quality movies on the basis on domestic box office receipts. Easy access to a large export market was essential. With this goal in mind, Goebbels’s Reich Film Chamber had already begun creating a new pan-European institution: the International Film Chamber (IFC). First proposed at a grand conference in Berlin in 1935, this body streamlined exchanges among Europe’s film industries so as to forge something like a single European market for film. Only this, it was believed, would enable Europe’s film industries to resist the pressures of the Hollywood studios. (Hollywood, unsurprisingly, scorned the IFC as an anti-American ploy.)

Figure 2: Goebbels speaking at the International Film Congress, Berlin, April 1935. Source: SZ-Photo/IBL-Bildbyrå

By the autumn of 1936, the pan-European work of the IFC was fully underway. It had attracted members from across Europe, opened an office in Berlin, and forged a deal with fascist Italy’s film leaders, who agreed to make the Venice Film Festival the IFC’s official showcase. On August 20, representatives of Austria, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland had met in Venice to discuss plans for an office to coordinate international film distribution, a bank for coordinating currency exchanges, and an international court of arbitration. (Goebbels himself attended, where he met with his Italian counterpart Dino Alfieri to cement the Nazi-fascist “Axis.”) But none of this mattered if Germany did not have movies able to succeed in this integrated European market. And that meant European-quality stars.

This was the state of play in autumn 1936 when the Nazi film world got wind of Zarah Leander. From the first, her significance was determined by what she could do for the Nazi state-led film apparatus not primarily in Germany, but in the rest of Europe. Here was an actress with the potential not just to replace Marlene Dietrich—whose 1930 departure for Hollywood had been a lasting blow to the German industry—but to be a new Garbo. And, if the Germans could keep her from running off to Hollywood, she could be Germany’s European Garbo.

Figure 3: The German film magazine Film-Kurier helps launch Leander’s first UFA film, To New Shores (1937)

Leander’s star potential with non-German audiences was tested at the 1937 Venice Film Festival, where UFA presented her first German feature, To New Shores (Zu neuen Ufern, Detlef Sierck, 1937). Its reception proved that the massive investment in Leander had been worth it. Of the eight features Germany entered into competition, all were panned by critics and audiences, but one. “Only the film To New Shores was endorsed,” a Nazi official reported to Goebbels, “on account of the popularity of Zarah Leander” (quoted in Bruns, 120). That she was not German, Nazi officials recognised, was key to her appeal. It toned down any impression of the strident nationalism for which the Nazis were rightly known, making the regime’s cultural output seem less threatening. The appearance of the Swedish star in German productions likewise affirmed Berlin’s status as not merely Germany’s “Hollywood on the Spree River,” but as the film capital of Europe. Her role only grew over the following years, in particular after the huge success of the Leander vehicle Heimat (Carl Froelich, 1938).

Figure 4: Poster for Heimat (1939)

Goebbels’s European dreams were spurred to new heights by the outbreak of war in 1939. The German-dominated “New Order” in Europe that seemed promised by Hitler’s military victories must also, Goebbels believed, include a new cultural order. The International Film Chamber had fallen silent in 1939. But now the time had come to revive it. And in Berlin in July 1941, Goebbels personally received representatives of the governments and film industries of Belgium, Bohemia and Moravia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, and Sweden. There they signed on to a new incarnation of International Film Chamber, reborn in the spirit of the New European Order. When the United States entered the war at the end of that year, the IFC acquired the power to ban Hollywood films from the continent. Meeting in hotels from Brussels to Budapest, IFC delegates helped enforce this ban. IFC leaders promised the carrot of access to a streamlined continental market and brandished the stick of cutting off supplies of celluloid film to non-compliant countries. Now Goebbels’s dream was becoming reality: “Film Europe,” internally integrated, externally closed, and German-dominated, was coming into being.

Figure 5: International Film Chamber delegates meet at Rome’s Cincittà studios, April 1942. Source: Istituto LUCE/Cinecittà.

And Goebbels also had the European-level star ready to seize this moment. Indeed, Zarah Leander’s European function was never more clearly on display than in her wartime blockbuster, Die große Liebe. Using the kind of standardized contracts, pan-European distribution agreements, and economic clearing arrangements hammered out by the IFC, the Germans pushed the film into markets across the continent.

Figure 6: Signal, a Nazi propaganda magazine with continent-wide distribution, promotes Die große Liebe, 1942, source: Stefan Bohman, “Difficult Person” ; Figure 7: Poster for the film’s French release, 1943, source:; Figure 8: Poster for the film’s Italian release, source:; Figure 9: Publicity material for the film’s Swedish release, 1943, source: Svenska filminstitutet.

The film tells the story of the romance between glamorous revue singer Hanna Holborn and Luftwaffe pilot Paul Wendtland, played by Viktor Staal. The story line is of a love frustrated by the duties of wartime, even as it is somehow heightened by the excitement of war. (Hanna and Paul’s first night together follows an air attack on Berlin.) But this German love story takes place against a backdrop that is self-consciously European in scope. The film opens in North Africa, ends in the Alps, and in between takes its viewers to Berlin, Paris, Rome, and even into the Soviet Union (alongside the invading German forces). It is as if Paul and Hanna’s drama, their conflict between love and duty, were too big for Germany alone. It spreads out in the Europe that now belonged to Hitler’s Reich. But—as the film’s demeaning portrayal of the Italians reveals—this was a Europe for Germany, a playground for German desire, a stage for German ambition.

Such were the real aims of Goebbels’s cinema empire, in front of and behind the camera. During WWII the continent’s film industries came as close as they ever have to achieving European unity, but in a form based on German domination, in the service of totalitarianism, racism, and war.

Benjamin G. Martin works at Uppsala University as researcher in the Department of History of Science and Ideas, with support from a grant from the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences. A graduate of the University of Chicago (A.B.) and Columbia University (PhD), he has been based in Sweden since 2010. His publications on film include The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture (Harvard University Press 2016) and articles on the International Film Chamber and on Sweden’s role in the IFC. This blog post grew out of introductory remarks he was invited to make at a screening of Die große Liebe at the Swedish Film Institute, Stockholm, in April 2017.

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.

  • Archives