A Book Review by Bibi Berki.

Author James Downs asserts that Walbrook (above in Der Kurier des Zaren, 1936) was always drawn to parts that contained some degree of duality and wonders if this might have been related to the fact that the exile lives a ‘destabilised’ kind of life, looking for an answer to the question of his identity.”

In the autumn of 1936, the Austrian-born actor Adolf Wohlbrück arrived in Hollywood to shoot new scenes for an English-language remake of the historical epic Der Kurier des Zaren. The 39-year-old was Germany’s number one actor, with a string of exceptional films and roles behind him. While officials from the Reichsfilmkammer were fully expecting him to come back (by 1936 those among his fellow artists who were going to flee the Nazis had already largely done so), his fans were getting restive. Their beloved stars were disappearing abroad and Wohlbrück, who had a legion of female worshippers, was too precious a commodity to go the way of Dietrich.

They were still waiting a year later, despite the fact that Wohlbrück was now Walbrook, had co-starred in one of Britain’s most successful films of the decade, Victoria the Great (1937), and was living among other exiled Germans in North London (rather than the Hollywood hills). Walbrook’s transition from German romantic screen idol to most favoured foreigner in British cinema was not, as James Downs reveals in his engrossing and definitive new biography of the actor, as cut and dried as it was for several of his contemporaries. Had it not been for an ongoing investigation into his homosexuality, there might have been nothing to stop him enjoying sustained success in German films throughout the Nazi era – maybe not even a part-Jewish heritage, which was being overlooked for some actors highly prized by the regime.

Planned or otherwise, his time in exile was the legacy-making moment of his career. His name is forever linked with Powell and Pressburger: the heart-rending immigration office monologue as Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorf in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), the suppressed volcano that is Lermontov in The Red Shoes (1948), the hypnotic “We are not your brothers” speech by Peter in 49th Parallel (1941). His voice, with its melodic staccato, is as memorable as his striking face and figure. An intense, magnetic presence, he owned the role of the brooding, attractive, cultured European. Not that he was necessarily typecast: the lead roles in Gaslight (1940) and The Queen of Spades (1949) – both directed by Thorold Dickinson – allowed him to range in a darker place with more extreme performances. Dickinson later described why Walbrook was such a perfect choice for the maniacal husband, Paul Mallen, in Gaslight: “He had this extraordinarily mobile face and in both the films we made there are close-ups that you wouldn’t dare try to get from the ordinary actor.”

These, then, are the career-defining roles, a stunning body of work encased in an era of British cinema at its most magical. But for the first time we are presented with what happened either side of them. Downs, who has spent the last 10 years researching the actor’s life and work, not only supplies the fascinating details of a prolific career but explains how it came to be so compartmentalized, how Walbrook could be one thing in Germany and quite another in Britain. It is, in short, a story as much wrapped up in issues of exile and war as it is of talent and personality.

Walbrook was born in Vienna in 1896, the son of a well-known and successful stage clown. His family moved to Berlin when he was seven; eight years later he left school to train as an actor under Max Reinhardt. His potential was recognized immediately, and he was given a five-year contract to work at the Deutsches Theater. While still under contract, he enlisted and fought on both the eastern and western fronts before being captured in France in 1917 and spending the rest of the war as a prisoner. On his return he came across the actress (and director) Hermine Korner, with whom he went on to appear in several highly-regarded stage productions and who became a life-long friend and mentor. Indeed, as Downs points out, “the influence of Hermione Korner on Wohlbruck’s career and style can hardly be overstated”.

His heart lay in the classics of German literature, but he also found himself appearing in new stage work and was drawn to the rapidly-expanding German film industry. There is nothing throwaway about his choice of film roles; he was cast in some exceptional movies of the early thirties, including the cross-dressing musical comedy Victor and Victoria (Viktor and Viktoria, 1933) and the international hit Masquerade (Maskerade, 1934). The latter is a sublime example of the Viennese genre, its opening scenes taking place in a heady, high society carnival ball, the camera roving amongst the dancers and the flying streamers. It is a fluid, sensory experience and when Walbrook’s character, Ferdinand von Heidenick, steps into that frenetic activity, stiff and straight, all eyes, including ours, are glued to him. His following was built on films such as these, as a charming, rather mannered, slightly dangerous leading man, but there was plenty of variety, and he also made his mark in such diverse outings as the thriller I Was Jack Mortimer (Ich War Jack Mortimer, 1935), the curious horror, The Student of Prague (Der Student von Prag, 1935) and, of course, the action-packed saga that took him briefly to Hollywood, Der Kurier Des Zaren (known as Michel Strogoff in its French-language version and changed to The Soldier and the Lady for the American re-make).

Walbrook had already reached great professional heights, was widely known and respected, and had appeared alongside some of Germany’s most beloved leading ladies, including Renate Müller and Paula Wessely. It was inevitable that he would be coaxed abroad. But his decision to stay away came as a shock to his fans as well as to the German film authorities who believed he was only on a promotional tour and were still paying his expenses. There is evidence that the actor had made overtures to the British film industry before his arrival. Downs quotes sources at the time which suggested that the actor was weary of being questioned about his racial status and possibly his sexuality as well. However, “his staunch denunciations of Nazism that established his moral credentials in wartime Britain were slow to emerge, and certainly fellow-émigrés and expatriates did not regard him in this light until 1936”, says Downs.   

As Germany and Britain moved closer towards war, so Walbrook found himself, like his fellow countryman Conrad Veidt, lending his German accent to films that accentuated the rightness of the British cause. But, while Veidt was prepared to do his bit by playing Nazis, Walbrook’s propaganda roles were more likely to involve anti-Nazi rhetoric from the mouth of the “good German”. Walbrook never fell out of love with his homeland – only the disease of Hitlerism, as he put it. His sensitive portrayal of Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorf presented the British public with the antithesis of the Nazi idealogue – a rational and decent individual who would rather be in an enemy country than endure another moment under Hitler. It could not have been a million miles from the truth of Walbrook himself. The first six years of his film work in Britain represents, says Downs, “a long series of studies of men who are struggling to find their identities in a foreign land”. These displaced stranger roles included Prince Albert (Victoria the Great, 1937 and Sixty Glorious Years, 1938), the Polish pilot and composer, Stefan Radetzky, in Dangerous Moonlight (1940) and the vaguely foreign domestic despot, Paul Mallen, in Gaslight.

After the war, Walbrook became something of a wanderer. Free to return to his homeland and perhaps relishing a release from a very British type of propaganda, he accepted stage work in Germany – thrilled to appear in his beloved Munich. The most notable film performances for this early 50s period are in two movies for Max Ophüls: La Ronde (1950) andLola Montès (1955), the first an enormous world-wide hit, the other, a lavish, spectacular yet complex film coming five years later, failing to win critical praise, though since positively reassessed. In La Ronde, Walbrook was the master of ceremonies, holding together the six stories of love and lust in fin de siècle Vienna; shades of his Viennese-styled film past merging with a newer, maturer version of the outsider looking in. A man still set apart. His final film role was as the duplicitous French army officer, Major Esterhazy, in the Dreyfus Affair dramatisation, I Accuse! (1958), directed by and starring José Ferrer. After this, Walbrook kept to the stage, both in Britain and Germany, often in comedies and musicals. He was working in Germany when he died in 1967 and was buried, according to his wishes, in Hampstead, North London.

Downs asserts that Walbrook was always drawn to parts that contained some degree of duality and wonders if this might have been related to the fact that the exile lives a “destabilised” kind of life, looking for an answer to the question of his identity, unable to disentangle the past version of himself from the present. Walbrook was a deeply private individual and gave few interviews (which makes the feat of this biography even greater) and his guarded approach to all things personal may have been a career imperative, given his homosexuality, not to mention a desire to protect his partners. An actor who moves onto the plane of stardom must always have an eye on legacy, choose roles that speak to him and possibly contain the truth within himself. Perhaps this duality in his roles allowed a little of himself to be released.

The screenwriter, Emeric Pressburger, took the essence of Walbrook’s personality traits and made a remarkable screen character out of them. Lermontov in The Red Shoes was more or less written for him and was, as Downs says, “the apotheosis of all Walbrook’s screen personas.”

he dominates every moment of the film, in which he appears and his performance as Lermontov remains possibly the highlight of his acting career – in part because of the undeniable resemblance between his own personality and that of the ballet impresario.”

Stand-offish – particularly on set – and never keen to engage on personal matters, Walbrook nonetheless gave more of himself than many actors and his extraordinary roster of complex roles does nearly all of the talking for him.

Bibi Berki is a London-based writer, producer and journalist. Her work has appeared in many UK publications and her podcast series, The Kiss – The Women who Made a Movie Masterpiece, was featured in a recent BFI Blu-ray.

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