To mark the publication of his new biography, James Downs explores the life of Anton Walbrook.
It must be fairly unusual for someone who was referred to as a ‘Jewish actor’ and was admired for his generous support of Jewish refugees during World War II, to have also been boycotted by Jewish groups due to suspicions of being a Nazi spy.
Such was the case, however, with the actor Adolf Wohlbruck (1896-1967), better known now as Anton Walbrook, the name he adopted following his emigration from Germany in 1936. After over a decade of research, my biography of the actor has just been published. Anton Walbrook. A Life of Masks and Mirrors uncovers some of the complexities of this enigmatic and fascinating character.
Adolf Anton Wilhelm Wohlbrück was born in Vienna on 19 November 1896, moving to Berlin with his sister and parents in 1904. His father – also Adolf Wohlbrück – was a clown, and the actor seems to have inherited some of his father’s skill at physical comedy and acrobatics. He was also a gambler, and the itinerant nature of circus life was a cause of disapproval and concern to his wife, Gisela Cohn, and her parents. In consequence, young Adolf and his sister Antoine spent much of their time with their maternal grandmother in Vienna.
A Charismatic Leading Man
Showing an early interest in the theatre, Wohlbrück trained under the great Max Reinhardt at drama school in Berlin, where he made his stage debut at the Deutsches Theater in 1915 before his acting career was interrupted by military service and time as a POW during WWI. After the war he returned to the theatre, acquiring a growing reputation for his stage work in Munich (1919-26), Dresden (1926-30) and Berlin (1930-36). Although he appeared in a few films during the 1920s, silent cinema did not hold a great appeal for him, partly because there was no opportunity to use his rich, sonorous voice but also because he enjoyed the audience interaction that came from live performance. He appeared in over 200 theatre productions, ranging from the great classics of German and English literature – Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare, Wilde and Shaw – to the more modern Expressionistic dramas being written by contemporary authors such as Wedekind, von Hofmannsthal and Brecht.
With the coming of sound, however, Wohlbrück moved to Berlin and soon established himself as a charismatic leading man in the German film industry. With his smouldering good looks, elegant dress sense and debonair charm, he specialized in romantic comedies and musicals, along with swashbuckling action movies such as Der Kuriers des Zsar [The Courier of the Tsar] and occasional darker melodramas such as Der Student von Prag [The Student of Prague]. By the mid-1930s he was arguably Germany’s top film star, able to demand high salaries and pursued by an enthusiastic fan base.
‘Ist doch ein Jude!’
By this time, of course, the German film industry had come under Nazi control, resulting in the expulsion of thousands of Jews and political dissidents, many of whom emigrated to Britain or America. The influx of continental talent brought new skills to Hollywood and the British film studios, but those that remained had to choose between conforming to Nazi regulations and the risk of unemployment, or worse.
Passing moral judgment on those who remained behind is no simple matter. While some actors and directors were eager to work closely with the Nazi regime and enjoy the wealth and perks this brought, others were unable to leave for financial or other reasons. Some felt they had an obligation to uphold traditional German culture and not let it all be taken over by the Nazis, and many of those who continued to work did their best to protect Jewish workers in the film industry, often at the risk of their own livelihoods. Although a large proportion of those who stayed in Germany after 1933 were deeply compromised by their co-operation with the Nazis, not all of them did so for reasons of cowardice or opportunism, and some of them regarded the real cowards as those who had fled the country for safety in foreign countries.
One of the curious things about Wohlbrück was that he was reported as having warned another actor about the rise of Nazism as early as 1930, recommending that he start learning a foreign language and prepare to leave the country when the situation inevitably grew worse. Despite this claim, he did not leave in 1933, and actually remained for another three years after the Nazis’ rise to power. He was, however, subject to investigation about his Aryan credentials. Doubts were raised about his mother’s name – Cohen – and that of his maternal grandmother – Lewien – and rumours circulated in the press about his Jewish ancestry, which the film studios were forced to repudiate. According to journalist Paul Marcus (‘PEM’), the words ‘Ist doch ein Jude!’’ were also scrawled on his dressing room locker.
Hollywood and London
However, after he travelled to Hollywood in October 1936 to film an English-language remake of Der Kurier des Zsar, he was regarded with some suspicion by the Jewish and anti-Nazi émigrés there. He had been collaborating with the Nazis for three years, and done very well out of this. Was it not possible that he had been sent to infiltrate the émigré community and report back on anti-Nazi networks in America? The Joint Boycott Council of the American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labor Committee put out a call to boycott his films, which resulted in screenings of Michael Strogoff, the French-language version of Der Kurier des Zsar, being pulled. The situation was only resolved when RKO made a statement arguing that the original footage of the film had been made in France, not Germany, accompanied by an affidavit affirming that Walbrook was ‘a non-Aryan.’ The objections were withdrawn, but some suspicion remained, and private letters found during research for the biography reveal that he continued to face hostility.
After filming of The Soldier and the Lady had finished, Walbrook, as he was now known, travelled to the UK in January 1937 where he was fortunate in finding a role as Prince Albert in a new biopic of Queen Victoria. This was the first in a series of ‘good Germans’ he would play for British cinema audiences, beginning with Prince Albert in Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938), and following this up with the anti-Nazi Hutterite leader Peter in 49th Parallel (1941), and Theo Kretschmar-Shuldorff in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), the study of the friendship between two soldiers, a British a Prussian officer who emigrates to Britain to escape the Nazis. In other films such as Dangerous Moonlight (1940) and The Man from Morocco (1944), his characters delivered fierce monologues against the Nazi ideology, calling for a global opposition by military and cultural means. Through the medium of these films, as well as the numerous press interviews he gave, Walbrook emphasized his anti-Nazi credentials and was able not only to avoid internship as an enemy alien, but also to become a popular matinee idol and earn the respect of leading figures in British artistic circles, such as Laurence Olivier and Sir Kenneth Clark. Later it was revealed that he had provided generous financial report to Jewish refugees in Britain, as well as taking part in the cultural activities organized by the émigré community.
In November 1937, Walbrook had moved to a house in Finchley in North London, where he would remain until the early 1950s when he took a large apartment in Frognal, on the other side of Hampstead Heath. The areas around Finchley, Hampstead, Swiss Cottage and St John’s Wood attracted a large number of German-speaking émigrés – Austrians, Germans, Hungarians and others – who had moved here to escape the Nazis, either because they were Jewish or for political reasons. The Cosmo café in Finchley Road was run by a Hungarian couple and was a magnet for émigrés, whose conversation in German, Yiddish, Hungarian and Russian echoed around the walls. In this and other similar cafes that sprung up, traditional strudel and schnitzel were served, and émigrés could spend most of their day conversing and playing chess over cups of coffee served in the continental style with a glass of water.
Walbook’s neighbours included included Emeric Pressburger, Oskar Kokoschka, Berthold Viertel, the Freuds, Nikolas Pevsner, Alfred Kerr, Stefan Zweig, László Moholy-Nagy, Arthur Koestler and others. The Freier Deutscher Kulturbund [Free German League of Culture, or FDKB] was founded at the Hampstead house of writer and artist Fred Uhlman in order to organise regular social and cultural events – such as concerts, lectures and plays – for the émigrés. There were other branches and associated organisations, such as the Blue Danube Club, the Laterndl and Kleine Bühn, with which Walbrook got involved. In May 1943 he took a prominent part in an event organised by the FDKB to mark the tenth anniversary of the Nazi book-burnings. Many of the exiled artists and writers who took part in the event, and who saw themselves as upholding true German cultural traditions during the Nazi aberration, were personal friends of Walbrook and regular guests at his house, on the walls of which hung paintings by Kokoschka, Emil Nolde and others.
In magazine articles and film encyclopedias, Walbrook was very occasionally referred to as a ‘Jewish actor’, and more usually designated as being ‘half-Jewish’ due to his mother. According to the categories enforced by the Nuremberg race laws of 1934, this would have made him a Mischling, which was certainly ample justification for fleeing Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s.
It is perhaps surprising, then, that in the numerous interviews he gave with the British or American press about the reasons for his emigration to Britain, there are no references to his mother being Jewish. Possibly this was for the protection of other family members, such as his sister, who remained in Austria throughout the war. During press coverage of his brief engagement to a dancer in 1938, there was mention of the actor’s ‘Jewish grandmother’, but otherwise there was almost no discussion of his Jewish identity or ancestry. His mother’s family had in fact converted to Catholicism a generation earlier, and he had an uncle, Rev. Theodor Kohn (1845-1915), who was the Roman Catholic bishop of Olmütz. My new biography of Walbrook looks at this issue in some detail, examining the motives for his decisions to emigrate and his options had he remained.
A British Citizen
After the end of the Second World War, Walbrook’s career proved uneven. Despite taking British citizenship in 1947, he seemed restless and unable to settle in his adopted homeland and would spend the rest of his life crisscrossing the channel. In addition to a small number of major screen roles, he returned to the German stage and appeared in musicals, television movies and radio plays. Some of these engaged with debates about antisemitism and Jewish identity, such as his role as Major Esterhazy in I Accuse (1957) – about the Dreyfus affair – and his stage performance as Von Berg in a German theatre adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy (1965). Many of Walbrook’s later roles deal with the process of getting old and reflecting on the decisions of one’s youth, addressing themes of denial, conscience, complicity and the sacrificing of one’s true identity for the sake of public success. It is easy to draw parallels with personal, institutional and national narratives from the 20th century.
Anton Walbrook. A Life of Masks and Mirrors by James Downs is published by Peter Lang priced £50.