Von Dassanowsky, Elfi
von DASSANOWSKY, Elfi
Nationality: Austrian/American. Born: Elfriede Maria Elisabeth Charlotte von Dassanowsky in Vienna, Austria, 2 February 1924; became citizen of the United States, 1962; now holds dual citizenship. Education: A child prodigy in piano, she was the youngest female student to be admitted to Vienna's Hochschule für Musik und darstellende Kunst (Academy of Music and Performing Arts); studied piano with German concert pianist Emil von Sauer, voice with Paula Mark-Neusser, and acting with Eduard Volters. Family: Married L. Harris de Czonkas, 1953 (divorced); children: two sons (one deceased), one daughter. Career: Piano coach for actor Curd Jürgens and director Karl Hartl, 1942; offered star contract by UFA Studios Berlin, 1944; opera debut as Susanna in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, St. Pölten, Austria, 1946; co-founded Belvedere Film Studios, Vienna, 1946; guest appearances in opera and operetta, as concert singer, pianist, and actress in Austria and West Germany; broadcast announcer for Allied Forces Broadcasting and BBC, Vienna; creator and performer of musical recitals for Allied High Command, Vienna, 1947–49; administrator and casting director, Phoebus International Films, Hamburg, 1951–53; master classes in piano and voice in Europe and United States; Hollywood vocal coach and business-woman, from 1962; reestablished Belvedere Film Productions, Los Angeles/Vienna, 1999. Awards: Order of Merit in Gold, Austria, 1991; Gold Medal of the City of Vienna, 1996; 2 February 1996 named Elfi von Dassanowsky Day by California Senate; honored by city of Los Angeles, 1996; UNESCO Mozart Medal, 1997; Austrian Film Archive Lifetime Achievement Medal, 1998; honorary title of professor granted by Austrian President, 1998; Women's International Center Living Legacy Award, 2000. Address: c/o Belvedere Film Prod., 13052 Moorpark Street, Suite 203, Studio City, CA 91604, U.S.A.
Films as Producer:
Symphonie in Salzburg (Diglas)
Kunstschätze des Klosterneuburger Stiftes (Hanus); Die Glücksmühle (The Mill of Good Fortune) (Hanus) (+ ro); Wer küßt wen? (Glück mußt Du haben auf dieser Welt) (Friese)
Der Leberfleck (The Freckle) (Carl) ( + ro)
Dr. Rosin (de Glahs); Märchen vom Glück (Traum vom Glück; Kiss Me Casanova) (de Glahs)
Wen die Götter lieben (Mozart) (Hartl) (mus asst)
Frauen sind keine Engel (Forst) (mus asst)
The Mozart Story (Hartl) (mus asst)
Walzer von Strauss (Waltz by Strauss) (Silbermann) (ro as narrator)
Porträt von Elfi von Dassanowsky (Wessely—for TV) (ro)
By von DASSANOWSKY: articles—
"Besides, ich bin Österreicherin," interview with Gertraud Steiner, in Wiener Zeitung, 2 August 1996.
"A Life of Devotion to Austrian Culture," interview with Birgit Schwarz, in Austrian Information, vol. 3, 1996.
"Die Diva und der Professor," interview with Inge Dalma, in Rot-Weiss-Rot, no. 3, 1996.
"Austria's Shining Light," interview with Carol Bidwell, in Los Angeles Daily News, 6 October 1997.
Interview with Hyde Flippo, in The German-Hollywood Connection, http://www.german-way.com/cinema/dass.html, 1998.
"An Hour with 'World-Citizen' Elfi von Dassanowsky," interview with Hedda Egerer, in Noblesse, no. 18, 1998
"Nazi Offer Spurned, Star Rises," interview with Patricia Ward Biedermann, in Los Angeles Times, 29 February 1999.
"Märchen vom Glück am Bauernmarkt—Erinnerungen an die Belvedere-Filme," in Wiener Zeitung, 10 September 1999.
On von DASSANOWSKY: articles—
Ulrich, Rudolf, Österreicher in Hollywood, Vienna, 1993.
Whitesell, Heidi, "Woman in the Arts," in German Life, April/May 1996.
Hoffmann, Robert, "Ahead of Her Time," in Austria Kultur, no. 4, 1997.
Dassanowsky, Robert, "Male Sites/Female Visions: Four Female Austrian Film Pioneers," in Modern Austrian Literature, vol. 32, no. 1, 1999.
Ulrich, Rudolf, "Zum 75. Geburtstag einer Wiener Filmpionierin," in Blimp Film Magazine, no. 41, 1999.
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Gertraud Steiner suggests in her 1996 interview with Elfi von Dassanowsky that she has been a multi-talent—film producer, opera singer, pianist, theater actress, cultural diplomat—not only because she could be but also because she had to be. Reinvention and innovation was the only road to creative power for the women of her generation. Von Dassanowsky has also maintained that it was precisely the lack of men and the sociocultural rupture in postwar Central Europe that allowed her to slip into a leadership role in film at age 23—as Austria's second major female producer/studio head and as one of the handful in international cinema history to that time. Her background and her career show a distinct maverick spirit and a creative prowess that often ran counter to expectations and showed a strong sociopolitical conscience. Despite her classical beauty and dramatic voice which Nazi, Soviet, and Hollywood interests all attempted and failed to utilize, von Dassanowsky preferred to remain behind the camera and create on her own terms.
A musical prodigy in piano, von Dassanowsky entered Vienna's famed Academy of Music at age fifteen in 1939, one year after the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. Her accomplishments allowed her to teach as a student and in 1942 she was hired by director Karl Hartl to instruct rising star Curd Jürgens in piano so he could perform on camera in the Mozart-biopic, Wen die Götter lieben. Although Jürgens ultimately switched instruments for the role, von Dassanowsky continued to coach him for his next film and she would again be his vocal trainer in Hollywood during the 1960s. Von Dassanowsky refused to join any Nazi youth or arts organizations and subsequently her early operatic and piano careers were halted for two years of intense labor service. In 1944 UFA Studios in Berlin offered her a film contract, hoping to create another glamorous musical star along the lines of Zarah Leander, who had fallen into political disfavor. Despite prompting from the Propaganda Ministry, von Dassanowsky rejected the offer but escaped repercussions because of the collapse of the Reich.
With the Allied occupation of Austria, von Dassanowsky launched her opera career, performed a wide range of roles in the theater, had a stint at radio broadcasting, and directed and performed in musical entertainment at the behest of the Allied High Command. She turned down a Soviet offer of "stardom" and narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt by Stalin's forces. Her desire to help rebuild Austrian cinema—which was hampered by Soviet control of the major studios—led her to join August Diglas and silent-film director Emmerich Hanus in founding Belvedere Film in Vienna in 1946. Not simply one of the many production companies that sprang up in Austria and West Germany in the era, Belvedere was conceived as a traditional studio, which despite its early limited space and lack of material support, discovered and cultivated technical and performance talent. Although the studio made only seven films, it was instrumental, as John Walker puts it in Halliwell's Who's Who in Movies (13th Ed.), in "kick starting" postwar German-language film.
As producer responsible for creative decisions, von Dassanowsky attempted a re-vision of the Heimatfilm and the Viennese musical genres that had been tainted by Nazism. The early films, in which she also made appearances, were popular and but escaped critical attention. The last two productions, however, transcend the norms of the period. Dr. Rosin, the story of a gifted Viennese physician who is lost to the opium trade during the First World War, manages to evoke a half-dozen exotic locales in its back-lot production and predicts the on-location sweep of a David Lean epic. Märchen vom Glück, the most ambitious of the studio's productions, gave first roles to future European cinema and television stars Nadja Tiller, Gunther Philipp, and Evelyn Künneke, and fostered the comebacks of film icons O.W. Fischer and Maria Holst. The film, a satirical romance/musical set in a fictional country, echoes Duck Soup and American screwball comedy, but its iconoclastic political and gender-role subtext was provocative, and the kaleidoscopic style points towards the all-star Anglo-American satire extravaganzas of the mid-1960s.
Von Dassanowsky claims that both Dr. Rosin and Märchen vom Glück were actually directed by her co-producers, Emmerich Hanus and August Diglas, under the pseudonym Arthur de Glahs. During this period, von Dassanowsky also convinced young theater star Oskar Werner of his future in film, but before she could find him a suitable project, her former employer, Karl Hartl, cast him in Der Engel mit der Posaune (Angel with a Trumpet), which made Werner an international star. Although von Dassanowsky was responsible for the creative growth of the studio and encouraged experimentation, her warnings against over-expenditure went unheeded and ultimately Märchen vom Glück's star salaries and escalating budget ended Belvedere's run. She joined a fledgling German film company in Hamburg in 1951, where she worked as an administrator, casting director, and finally star—of the company's only documentary feature, now lost. She also brought together various contacts in the Allied Command in Vienna that helped pave the way for the international co-productions in German-language cinema.
By 1955, von Dassanowsky had settled in New York, and by 1962, she had reached Hollywood. Unfortunately, she could not find the leadership opportunities there that she had in Austria and West Germany in the 1940s and 1950s. Producer/director Otto Preminger, one of the interwar Austrian cinema exiles, encouraged her to go the starlet route. Frustrated by the sexism of the times, she instead returned to her musical talents as a vocal coach to film actors, and later became a businesswoman and promoter of Austrian-American cultural exchange. Her pioneering career attained international recognition in the 1990s, during which time became a writer and reestablished Belvedere Films as a production company.
—Robert von Dassanowsky