Bergner, Elisabeth (1897–1986)

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Bergner, Elisabeth (1897–1986)

Austrian-born actress of stage and screen who charmed and fascinated audiences in Europe for over 50 years with her androgynous persona and dramatic versatility. Born Elisabeth (Ella) Ettel on August 22, 1897, in Drohobycz, Austrian Galicia (now Drogobych, Ukraine); died in London, England, on May 12, 1986; daughter of a merchant; family soon moved to Vienna with her and an older sister Lola and a younger brother Friedrich; married Paul Czinner (a producer-director), in 1933 (died 1972).

Made stage debut in Innsbruck (1915); performed in Zurich (1916–18); after some time in Vienna, where she was a member of the Austrian Communist Party and served as liaison between its leadership and the imprisoned Béla Kun, moved to Berlin (1922), and became a star in the role of Rosalinde in Shakespeare's As You Like It; played in her first motion picture, Der Evangelimann; began collaboration with Paul Czinner (1924); made more films and performed in plays of Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice), G.B. Shaw and W. Somerset Maugham; befriended German actor Hans Otto (1928), who was murdered by the Nazis (1933); wrote the screenplay for her film The Dreaming Mouth (1932); remained in England after moving there in late 1932; had successes on stage and screen; was a sensation as Gemma Jones in Margaret Kennedy's Escape Me Never; assisted émigrés with money and advice; with husband, came to U.S. (1940) under a cloud that took years to dissipate; had much less success in America than Britain, collaborating with

Bertolt Brecht and involved in exile politics (Council for a Democratic Germany); toured Germany and Israel (1949–50); returned to England (October 1950); gave performances in Berlin and Vienna (1954); elected member of Arts Academy of Berlin (1956); performed on stage and television in Germany, UK (1950s–1970s); performed last stage role but continued to make television films (1973); retrospective exhibitions in Berlin (1987) and Vienna (1993).


Der Evangelimann (Ger., 1923); Nju (Husbands or Lovers, Ger., 1924); Der Geiger von Florenz (Impetuous Youth Liebe, Ger., 1926); Donna Juana (Ger., 1927), Köulein Luise (Queen Louise, Ger., 1927); Fräulein Else (Miss Else, Ger., 1929); Ariane (The Loves of Ariane, 1931); Derträumende Mund (Dreaming Lips, Ger., 1932); Catherine the Great (U.K., 1934); Escape Me Never (U.K., 1935); As You Like It (U.K., 1936); Dreaming Lips (U.K., 1937); Stolen Life (U.K., 1939); Paris Calling (U.S., 1942); Die Glückliche Jahre der Thorwalds (Ger., 1962); Strogoff (Courier to the Czar, Ger., 1968); Cry of the Banshee (U.K., 1970); (cameo) Der Fussgänger (The Pedestrian, Ger., 1974); Der Pfingstausflug (Ger., 1978); Feine Gesellschaft (Ger., 1982).

From 1923 to 1933, "die Bergner" ruled the German stage and screen, but her career was indelibly marked by the upheavals of the 20th century, especially Nazism. She was born Elisabeth (Ella) Ettel on August 22, 1897, in Drohobycz, Austrian Galicia (modern-day Drogobych, Ukraine), into a Jewish family that had assimilated German language and culture. Soon after her birth her father, a merchant, changed the family name to the more Germanic-sounding Bergner. The family moved to Vienna when Elisabeth was a small child. She grew up in the Leopoldstadt, the Austrian capital's predominantly Jewish district. In 1907, Elisabeth, her sister Theodora (Lola) and her brother Friedrich began tutoring with Jacob Levy Moreno (1889–1974), the well-known founder of group psychology and psychodrama who became a lifelong friend.

The little girl showed a great interest in acting and in 1911 was enrolled at a private acting school. In 1912, she began attending classes at the Academy for Music and Performing Art. One of her teachers, Stefan Hock (1877–1947), instilled a deep respect for the great German classics. Bergner always remained close to him, assisting him financially when he arrived in London as an impoverished refugee in the 1930s. At the beginning of her acting career, her friends included the young writer Albert Ehrenstein and the artist Oskar Kokoschka. In October 1915, her first professional stage appearance took place in Innsbruck, and by December of that year she had appeared in the role of Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House. An offer from the Municipal Theater of Zurich, Switzerland, followed.

During World War I, Zurich was a center of intellectual and political ferment, and many new ideas emerged out of its atmosphere of intense cultural experimentation and political nonconformity. The vivacious young actress counted the leaders of the Dada movement as friends as well as Else Lasker-Schüler , Yvan and Claire Goll , Franz Werfel, Frank Wedekind, Wilhelm Lehmbruck and Alexander Moissi. Alfred Reucker, director of the Zurich theater, presented a brilliant Hamlet in which Bergner was Ophelia and Alexander Moissi played Hamlet. Moissi, a celebrated Albanian-born actor, fell fervently in love with Bergner, but she ignored his overtures.

Bergner was involved with the expressionist sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881–1919), for whom she had modeled. The gifted but unbalanced Lehmbruck, who gave her the name "Marja," was convinced that Bergner's purity could save him from catastrophe. Infected with venereal disease through contact with a prostitute, he implored her to make love with him, casting her in the role of Ottegebe, the virginal maiden who cures the sick knight of his affliction in Gerhart Hauptmann's play Der arme Heinrich. Unwilling to make this sacrifice, Elisabeth deepened her relationship with Albert Ehrenstein and soon moved to Berlin and Vienna to accept major roles. In Vienna, she received a desperate telegraph from Lehmbruck: "Marja, if you want to rescue me, come back!" She did not answer. Two days later, she read in the papers that Lehmbruck committed suicide in Berlin on March 25, 1919. Beside herself with grief and guilt, Bergner sought help from the psychologist Alfred Adler and over a period of time overcame this crisis. In the fall of 1919, she performed brilliantly in several of Frank Wedekind's plays exploring female sexuality, including Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box (Louise Brooks would play the lead in the movie).

The period between the two world wars was unstable and chaotic in Central Europe. Austria had shrunk almost overnight from a great multinational state to a tiny landlocked republic unable to feed itself and at the mercy of its hostile neighbors. While the Habsburg monarchy was dissolved, revolution had swept away tsarist rule in the Russian Empire. Although Bergner's knowledge of Marxist ideology was sketchy at best, she sympathized with the poor and oppressed, desiring a world free of war and exploitation. Her decision to join the militant Austrian Communist Party was typical of youth of the period. She became involved in the Hungarian revolution led by Béla Kun in 1919, serving as a courier between Austrian Communist leaders and Kun for several months. This period represented the height of Bergner's political involvement, though throughout her life she remained sympathetic to the persecuted and oppressed.

Bergner suffered several periods of depression at the beginning of her career. In June 1918, she spent time in a sanitarium because of exhaustion.

After seeking Adler's help over Lehmbruck's suicide in 1919, she received psychiatric treatment the following April and May at the Steinhof facility near Vienna. She resumed her acting career, appearing in the role of August Strindberg's Miss Julie at Vienna's Burgtheater. In 1921, she impressed Munich critics with her performance in the local premiere of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Der Schwierige. That same year, she also made a guest appearance in Berlin with Conrad Veidt and Alexander Granach. Encouraged by these successes, Bergner moved permanently to Berlin in 1922 where she had a starring role in Arnolt Bronnen's expressionistic play Vatermord and performed at Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater as well.

With her disheveled chestnut-red locks, the huge dark pensive eyes and the touchingly tiny shoulders, which always appear to be held up in anxious anticipation, [Bergner] has the charm of a helpless and extremely disquieting small girl.

—Tilly Wedekind

Stardom came in 1923 when Bergner appeared as Rosalinde in Shakespeare's As You Like It. Directed by Victor Baranowsky, this production at Berlin's Lessing Theater made Elisabeth Bergner the toast of Berlin. An overnight sensation in her mid-20s, she was now a theater personality equal to Tilla Durieux . The celebrated actor Fritz Kortner declared that "all of Berlin is in love with her" while the journalist Kurt Tucholsky wrote in Die Weltbühne: "Bergner! Bergner! acclaimed the gallery. And we who were present nodded our heads and wished her nothing but the best. Praying that God preserves her as she is, so young, so beautiful, so gracious. And that she never is involved with films." Tucholsky's concern that Bergner's gift might be wasted in films did not prevent her from accepting a small role that same year in Der Evangelimann, a silent film based on the opera by Wilhelm Kienzl.

By 1924, Bergner was established enough that George Bernard Shaw insisted Max Reinhardt give her the starring role in his play St. Joan. That same year, she began a crucial collaboration with Paul Czinner (1890–1972), appearing in a film directed by him, Nju, A Tragicomedy of Daily Life. From 1924 until 1938, Czinner would be responsible for the screenplays and direction of all her motion pictures, though she would not marry him until 1933. Bergner's financial independence now enabled her to purchase a house in the exclusive Dahlem section of Berlin. Berlin was a heady place in the 1920s, and the popular actress threw herself enthusiastically into its stimulating cultural milieu.

Elisabeth Bergner's appearance was novel, provocative, and disturbing. Slight, with bent shoulders, she was, in the words of Sir John Gielgud, "an eager, mischievous, elfin figure with pathos beneath her childish charm." Her film roles in the 1920s emphasized her youthful appearance. In his analysis of Bergner's starring role in the 1926 film The Violinist of Florence, film historian Siegfried Kracauer argued that by dressing in boy's clothing and appearing to be "half lad, half girl," she created an androgynous character who was immensely appealing to millions of Germans. In her later film roles, including Miss Else (1929) and The Loves of Ariane (1931), Bergner would evolve into a child-woman, fragile, complex and enigmatic. Under the inspired direction of Max Reinhardt, her talents flourished in portrayals of Shakespearean heroines. She played 560 consecutive performances of Rosalind, her favorite role, in As You Like It, breaking all records for Shakespearean runs in the German capital. Wearing a tiny, cone-shaped hunter's hat, a velvet cape draped across a shoulder in a cavalier fashion, and boldly swinging a sword, Bergner projected youthful bravado night after night to thousands of theatergoers enchanted by this girl disguised as a boy.

In 1924, Bergner began her film career with Czinner's movie Nju. He used the intimate setting, dim lighting, and subtle gestures of the Kammerspiele, a form of theater that brought out the best in the actress. In The Violinist of Florence, Elisabeth Bergner held her violin so delicately that she conjured up a magical moment, while gliding across the drawing room as in a dream. By the late 1920s, she was a superstar in the German entertainment world. Her theater appearances were invariably sold out, and her films were box-office successes. In July 1927, she traveled to Spain, appearing in the film Doña Juana. The last years of the decade were particularly productive for her. In 1928–29, she starred in her most successful silent film, Miss Else. Stardom brought new friendships. In 1928, she became acquainted with the splendid actor Hans Otto (1900–1933), a committed artist, active Communist, and a passionate anti-Nazi. Bergner's involvement with Otto deepened her political consciousness as she became increasingly aware of the Fascist danger in Germany. While filming Miss Else, she met the actor Paul Morgan, who was also Jewish and concerned about the growing threat of anti-Semitism. Otto and Morgan would both be killed by the Nazis. In November 1929, Bergner appeared in a German version of Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude, ensuring that O'Neill's plays would be a staple of the German-language theater.

The New York stock market crash in October 1929 had profound economic and political consequences in Europe. Political violence followed massive unemployment. In September 1930, Adolf Hitler's National Socialists won an overwhelming victory transforming the German Reichstag, a parliament that had become incapable of governing. As democracy died in Germany and Central Europe, Jewish artists like Elisabeth Bergner were suddenly at risk. She and Czinner found it prudent to work in the English-speaking world, preparing for political catastrophe in Germany. Her first sound film, Ariane, produced in 1930–31, also appeared in an English-language version entitled The Loves of Ariane. By 1932, Nazi storm troopers routinely beat their political foes to death. Jewish artists like Bergner were warned by their "Aryan" colleagues to leave Germany. In late 1932, her costar Werner Krauss told her, "Elisabeth, Elisabeth, what I have to tell you makes me gag: They no longer want you to remain here." On November 11, 1932, she and Krauss appeared together in a benefit performance of Gerhart Hauptmann's The Flight of Gabriel Schilling, one of her last performances in Berlin.

Even before Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, Czinner and Bergner had fled to London and were married there on January 9. Although her knowledge of English was adequate, Bergner worked to perfect her mastery of the language, signing up for lessons with the noted language teacher Florence "Flossie" Freedman . Her reputation as well as her husband's contacts opened doors, and, by late November 1933, Bergner appeared in the starring role of Gemma Jones in Escape Me Never, a play by the novelist Margaret Kennedy . On the first night at the Opera House in Manchester, Bergner was so nervous that the director had to push her onto the stage for her first entrance. But all went well, and Escape Me Never was an unqualified success when it reached London. Almost overnight, she became the darling of the British; no foreign-born actress except Sarah Bernhardt had been so popular. Bergner took Escape Me Never to New York in 1935 where it was highly acclaimed. A successful film version the same year resulted in a nomination for an Academy Award.

Success abroad did not negate grim news from home. In late November 1933, her close friend Hans Otto was tortured and thrown to his death from the Berlin police station as a warning to all intellectuals and "reds" who opposed the Third Reich. Fearing for friends and family, she sent money to help them escape. As a successful actress, her income gave her ample resources to aid those in need. The film version of Shakespeare's As You Like It, starring Bergner and Laurence Olivier, premiered in New York in November 1936. Both actors received excellent reviews. Alexander Woolcott asserted that Bergner was "probably the ablest actress living today," and some critics suggested that she would soon challenge Greta Garbo . In 1936 in London, Bergner appeared in James M. Barrie's The Boy David. Although the play was not critically well received, it delighted its playwright, the famous author of Peter Pan. The aging Barrie became infatuated with the beautiful actress and left her $10,000 in his will for "the best performance ever given in any play of mine."

In 1937, Elisabeth Bergner completed a British remake of her German hit Dreaming Lips. In July 1938 as war loomed, she and Czinner became British citizens. That same year, she appeared in Stolen Life, her first film not directed by her husband. Her appearance as St. Joan at the Malvern Festival in 1938 caused an awkward moment for the actress. She cut the famous "Bells" speech in the play without realizing that George Bernard Shaw was in the audience that afternoon. An infuriated Shaw threw the book at her after the performance, but she gave him back as good as she got.

Bergner's mother and sister escaped the Nazis' clutches, arriving in London before Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. In 1940, Bergner starred in 49th Parallel, a film about six survivors of a Nazi submarine who try to escape from Canada to a still-neutral United States. With excellent acting by Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey, Laurence Olivier, Eric Portman, and Anton Walbrook, 49th Parallel was one of the best Allied propaganda films of World War II. Bergner played Anna, an unsophisticated German-speaking Hutterite girl living on a farm near Winnipeg. She learned Hutterite customs and dialect living at one of their colonies located at Elie, Manitoba, 30 miles west of Winnipeg. During a lull in the shooting, Bergner lit a cigarette and took a few puffs before an irate Hutterite woman snatched the offending item from her lips. Hutterite women did not smoke. Although the 49th Parallel conveyed a powerful anti-Nazi message, Bergner did not complete her role. Instead, she defected to the United States with no forewarning. Director John Powell saved the film, which went on to become a commercial success, by replacing Bergner with the talented British actress Glynis Johns . Bergner can still be seen in the long shots, which were retained in the final version of the film, released in the United States under the title The Invaders.

When the British public learned of Bergner's defection, they were outraged. The discovery that she had sewn jewelry into her clothing made them angrier still. Standing alone against the Nazi threat, the British did not take kindly to an act they regarded as cowardice. Few among them, however, could have known the panic which had enveloped Bergner and her husband. As Jews, they knew only too well the fate which awaited them if Nazi armies successfully crossed the Channel. Before the U.S. entered the war in 1941, the Nazi invasion was a very real possibility. The Czinners fled not because they had lost faith in Britain's will to fight, but because of pure terror, an intelligent analysis in light of what was learned later of the fate of six million Jews.

In America, Bergner was faced with beginning anew for the third time. Her husband immediately began working in Hollywood, but roles were difficult for her to procure. It was not until the final months of 1941 that she received a starring role in an anti-Nazi film called Paris Calling. A lugubrious and unconvincing motion picture, Paris Calling was Bergner's only appearance on the American screen. She returned to the stage, touring in Escape Me Never, and scored a major Broadway success in The Two Mrs. Carrolls, a thriller which was performed more than 300 times in 1943–44. This triumph earned her the Delia Austrian Medal of the Drama League of New York. As the tide of war changed in favor of the Allies in 1943, Bergner deepened her contacts with leftist exile circles. She and her husband provided funding for the famous German exile playwright Bertolt Brecht who crafted a modern version of John Webster's 17th-century play The Duchess of Malfi. There were many difficulties in this project, including the firing of one of the initial collaborators and his replacement by the poet W.H. Auden. By the time the play finally premiered in October 1946, it had become essentially a Brecht-Bergner collaboration. Unfortunately, the critics were savage in their reception of the play. Bergner continued to be involved in émigré political life, appearing as a signer of the declaration of principles of the Council for a Democratic Germany. This document cautioned against a policy of harsh punishment based on the notion of collective guilt and called for thoroughgoing social reforms in Germany.

The postwar years were difficult for Bergner and her husband. No longer young, she was cast infrequently. Her appearance in The Cup of Trembling, a study of alcoholism, in 1948 was one of the few times she appeared on stage after the war. Cold War tensions and McCarthyism in the late 1940s forced Bergner to consider leaving the United States. A religious crisis led her to become a Christian Scientist in 1949. In November of that same year, she toured Israel and Germany. In October 1950, the Czinners returned to London. Her defection, however, was not easily forgiven by older Britains while the younger generation had simply never heard of this aging actress with a German accent. Doggedly, she worked at reestablishing her reputation, and, by 1954, she was professionally and emotionally ready to return to the German stage. In March 1954, she appeared in a German production of Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea in West Berlin. Highly acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, she reestablished herself as one of the leading actresses in German theater. By October 1954, she was "back home," appearing in a guest role at Vienna's Theater in der Josefstadt.

Johns, Glynis (1923—)

English actress. Born on October 5, 1923, in Durban, South Africa; daughter of Mervyn Johns (an actor) and Alys Steele.

In 1935, 12-year-old Glynis Johns made her London stage debut; three years later, she appeared in her first film, South Riding. The lady with the gravel-voice and a flair for comedy won a Tony award for her performance in Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical A Little Night Music. She was also nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress in The Sundowners (1960). Her films include Around the World in 80 Days (1956), All Mine to Give (1958), Shake Hands with the Devil (1959), The Cabinet of Caligari (1962), Papa's Delicate Condition (1962), Mary Poppins (1964), Under Milkwood (1971), and Zell and Me (1988). When her father remarried in 1976, her stepmother was actress Diana Churchill (b. 1913).

From this point forward, Bergner received many major roles in Germany, Austria, and Britain. By the 1960s, the British had forgiven her, and she appeared in starring roles in a number of distinguished television films. Honors also came in profusion, including the Friedrich Schiller Prize of the City of Mannheim in 1962—the first time an actress had been awarded that coveted distinction. In 1973, Bergner appeared on stage for the last time, in London's Greenwich Theater in a production of Istvan Örkeny's Catsplay, though she continued to work in films for almost another decade. Her memoirs, written entirely by herself and subtitled Elisabeth Bergner's disorderly memories, appeared in Germany in 1978, receiving positive reviews. In 1980, her native Austria awarded her the "Cross of Merit for Science and Art." The Eleonora Duse Prize and a 1983 Berlin Film Festival retrospective dedicated to actors and actresses exiled by the Nazi regime followed. Ill with cancer in 1985, she visited East Berlin to receive honorary membership in the Deutsches Theater and the Hans Otto Medal of the German Democratic Republic, named for her friend. In April 1985, she gave a moving account of her life on an Austrian radio interview.

Full of years and honors, the 88-year-old Elisabeth Bergner died in her London home, 42 Eaton Square, on May 12, 1986. Hers had been a long life, rich in achievements and upheaval. Said her friend Sir John Gielgud: She was "an amazingly original and enigmatic personality of enormous fascination; I am very proud to have known her and to have counted myself among her friends."


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Bergner, Elisabeth (1897–1986)

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