Leander, Zarah (1907–1981)

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Leander, Zarah (1907–1981)

Swedish actress and singer who became the greatest screen idol of the Third Reich. Name variations: Sarah Leander. Born Zarah Stina Hedberg in Karlstad, Sweden, on March 15, 1907; died in Stockholm, Sweden, on June 23, 1981; married Nils Leander; married Vidar Forsell; married Arne Hülpers; children: daughter, Boel; son, Göran.

Ironically, the woman who was likely the greatest screen idol of the Third Reich was not German but a foreigner. Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, was profoundly displeased that the leading lady of National Socialist Germany was a Swedish actress and singer named Zarah Leander. After making ten films in Nazi Germany, Leander returned to Sweden in 1943 at a time when the war was turning against the Hitler regime. Her postwar career was burdened by accusations of having played a role in providing entertainment for a criminal state, but in her final years she emerged as the most important icon ever known in Germany's gay community.

Born in 1907 into a family of pastors (her father and generations of his ancestors were Lutheran ministers), Zarah Hedberg exhibited musical precocity at age six by participating in a concert in her hometown of Karlstad. Soon after, she began to display equally impressive talent as a singer. In 1929, Zarah made her debut in several provincial theaters in productions by Ernst Rolf, Sweden's equivalent of Florenz Ziegfeld.

From 1930 through 1932, she regularly appeared on stage at Stockholm's Vasa-Theater as well as at the same city's Ekmanstheater. Regarded as both an accomplished actress and singer, she also performed outside of Sweden from this point on. In Vienna, beginning in September 1936, she starred in a highly popular operetta, Ralph Benatzky's Axel an der Himmelstür (Axel at Heaven's Gate). The production's director was Max Hansen, who had left Germany in 1933 after having allegedly "insulted the Führer." Hansen had discovered the unknown Zarah Leander while on a trip to Scandinavia. In addition to engaging her for Benatzky's operetta, he also brought her to the attention of talent scouts from UFA, the vast film studio that was Nazi Germany's version of Hollywood.

In 1936, Leander made her first German-language film. Premiere, an Austrian production, was lavish; in the film's most spectacular scene, Leander appeared in an ornate gown, holding the train of her dress and singing "Ich hab' vielleicht noch nie geliebt" (Perhaps I Have Never Loved Yet), while descending a seemingly endless staircase. Although Premiere was only moderately successful, Leander's talents convinced UFA executives that she was a property well worth signing. Her contract was both generous—200,000 reichsmarks for three films—and unusual, in that it stipulated that 53% of her salary was to be paid in Swedish kronor directly to her bank in Stockholm.

By 1936, it had become clear to Goebbels that, try as he might, Nazi Germany was without a replacement for several entertainment superstars who had either left the country, like Marlene Dietrich (as an anti-Nazi, Dietrich would refuse to return to Germany), or had flatly refused to ever perform in German films, like Greta Garbo . To find an actress of comparable star quality was now imperative, and, although it incensed him to do so, Goebbels set in motion his huge propaganda machine in order to create a superstar for a German people in need of diversion from the assault of daily propaganda. In the closing weeks of 1936, the state-controlled UFA studio began an extensive promotion of the still little-known Swedish actress.

A press campaign which reached 4,000 German newspapers, resulting in her face appearing on 80 magazine covers, created interest in the Berlin opening in February 1937 of Leander's Premiere. Canned slogans—easily inserted into the media because in the previous year all film criticism in the normal sense of the term had been banned—appeared "spontaneously" in virtually all German newspapers and magazines. The German reading public found themselves overwhelmed by such encomiums as "Zarah Leander, the great Swedish artist; a second Greta Garbo," "Zarah Leander, the great film and revue star, a captivating figure as singer and actress," and "Zarah Leander, the woman with the dark voice."

Photographs that accompanied the "suggested" press pieces revealed a woman with a face that was the incarnation of "ineffable sadness," a strong-boned visage with unforgettable languorous eyes. Some film historians have suggested that Leander's sad, yearning expression appealed to a German public which had become starved for romantic escapism. She also exuded a strength of personality that many likely longed for in an environment of relentless control and manipulation. The image portrayed by these photographic portraits of Leander was no accident; in fact, it represented the efforts of Franz Weihmayr, the superbly skilled cinematographer who would play a significant role in making all ten of her films for UFA visually memorable. The aggressive UFA publicity drive paid dividends almost immediately. Within the space of a few weeks, the previously little-known Swedish performer had become famous throughout the German Reich.

In her 1937 film La Habañera, Leander starred in the role of Astrée Sternhjelm, a young Swedish woman who visits Puerto Rico and falls in love with the bullfighter Don Pedro, whom she marries. The film ends with the now villainous Don Pedro losing his life, and his widow following the instincts of her blood by returning with her young son to her Nordic homeland. It was directed by Detlef Sierck (known as Douglas Sirk after he arrived in Hollywood), who fled to the United States soon after this film was completed because his Jewish wife, actress Hildegard Jary , was endangered in Germany. Both Leander's acting and singing in the film brought positive assessments by critics, including one who wrote in Berlin's 12 Uhr-Blatt: "She touches us most of all when she sings 'La Habañera' in that deep voice."

In her next film, Heimat (Homeland), Leander played the role of a German opera singer

who has become a celebrated artist. She returns home after a long absence to find herself still rejected by her father because of an affair she had years earlier that resulted in an illegitimate child. She regains the love of her father after her seducer, an unscrupulous banker, is caught being involved in illegal financial dealings and commits suicide. The film ends happily with the singer reconciled with her family. Leander's vocal talents blossomed in this vehicle, in which she sings an aria from Gluck's "Orfeo" as well as an excerpt from Bach's "St. Matthew's Passion." Not surprisingly, the muzzled critics again praised the singing Swedish actress. One characterized the entire film by noting:

The return to one's roots is an instinct passed down from father to son in one of the noblest works yet produced by our national film industry…. Zarah Leander, suf fused with patriotic feeling, and with a spare, intense style stripped of the slightest superfluous gesture, portrays a woman who has done wrong but who comes to her senses in time, who left the city of her birth but returns, in faith and good will…. With this performance, La Leander makes it clear that she is our most complete actress.

Emphasizing the folkish and nationalist elements in this film, Nazi film officials scheduled its premiere on June 25, 1938, in the Free City of Danzig, a territory that had been taken from the defeated German Reich at the time of the hated Treaty of Versailles. The Berlin premiere did not take place until September 1, 1938.

Two weeks before the start of World War II, Leander's 1939 film Es war eine rauschende Ballnacht (It Was a Wild Night at the Ball) premiered on August 15. The film, set in Tsarist Russia, casts Leander as Katharina Murakin, the wife of a wealthy merchant, who renews her youthful love affair with the composer Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky. The movie ends tragically when, just as the two lovers are about to be reunited, the composer falls victim to cholera and dies. This confection, which among other things ignores the historical fact that Tchaikovsky was gay, was popular with a German public uneasy about their future as the world once again was plunged into war. Writing in Die Filmwelt, critic H.E. Fischer gushed: "And Zarah Leander? Is it necessary to mention again that vibrant, fascinating voice? No. But it must be said that in this film she is more beautiful than ever, and truly moving in its numerous dramatic scenes. Another outstanding feature of the film is its photography, Franz Weihmayr is a master cameraman, one who creates music for the eyes. Every shot glows with an inner light of its own, and this is truly the mark of a master!"

By June 1942, when Die grosse Liebe (The Great Love) premiered in Berlin, Nazi Germany was fighting for its very existence in what was now the Second World War. Leander plays the role of Hanna Holberg, the star singer of Berlin's "Scala" music hall. Luftwaffe pilot Paul Wendlandt (played by Viktor Staal), spends the night with Hanna as the result of a surprise air raid and quickly realizes that he has fallen in love. After a series of complications, Hanna once again encounters Paul, this time in a military hospital where she works as a nurse. At the end of the film, firmly convinced that the war will soon end, she silently takes the wounded Paul's hand in her own. The continuing optimism about the war that was being fostered by the regime is reflected in one of the songs Leander sings in the film, entitled "Ich weiss, es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehen" (I Know That a Miracle Will Happen Someday). Another of the film's songs, "Davon geht die Welt nicht unter" (The World Will Not Die of This), reflects the same spirit of almost desperate optimism in the face of growing panic. Ironically, these songs were written by Bruno Balz while he spent three weeks in a Gestapo prison accused of homosexuality. This film would be Zarah Leander's greatest triumph in the Third Reich, representing not only a cinematic achievement but a major contribution by the UFA studios to German home-front morale, which was being severely tested; only two weeks before the film's premiere, a massive Royal Air Force bombing raid had reduced the heart of the city of Cologne to rubble in little over 90 minutes.

Although it was in many ways a typical UFA escapist film, Die grosse Liebe was also regarded by the studio heads and by Joseph Goebbels as a "war-education film," seamlessly blending the elements of popular entertainment and mass manipulation. Not only propagandistically, but financially as well, this film was considered a great success. Its original cost estimate had been a little over 1.5 million reichsmarks, and although its actual cost was 3.1 million, the film would earn over 9.2 million reichsmarks by November 1944 and, astonishingly, would be viewed by almost 28 million moviegoers.

Zarah Leander no doubt savored the immense popularity of Die grosse Liebe, and she began work on her next film soon after its premiere. As the highest paid, and very likely the most popular, German film actor, "die Leander," as she was referred to by fans, could reasonably look ahead to more triumphs. But the end of her German film career, and of Nazi Germany itself, was coming within view. Defeat loomed on the eastern front, and the staggering loss of the German Sixth Army at the battle of Stalingrad in January 1943 marked the beginning of the end of Hitler's Reich. Leander's tenth and last German film, Damals (Back Then), is relayed in flashbacks and tells of a passionate love, a fragile marriage, and a suspicion of murder. During the filming, she learned that UFA would no longer honor the clause in her contract requiring that 53% of her salary be transferred to her Swedish bank account. Leander then went on strike, refusing to participate in the film until the matter was resolved in her favor. Goebbels took this as a personal challenge, and he unsuccessfully tried to persuade her to accept a new arrangement, namely becoming a German citizen and exchanging her estates in Sweden for a manor and estate in East Prussia. The film had barely been completed when an Allied bombing raid brought ruin to Leander's Berlin villa. While it burned, she managed to throw her wardrobe to passersby on the street. Damals premiered in March 1943, and she made a few song recordings, but six weeks later Zarah Leander flew home to Sweden, never to return to Nazi Germany.

She received a cool welcome in her homeland. Many Swedes felt only hostility toward a performer they believed had given prestige to an inhuman regime, while enriching herself in the process. She ignored these reactions. Leander divorced her second husband and focused her energies on making profitable a fish cannery into which she had invested much of her fortune. In Nazi Germany, where she had been a superstar for half a decade, she was now persona non grata. Goebbels and the UFA executives who had earlier ignored Leander's professed indifference to politics and her hosting of parties which included many friends and acquaintances who were gay, now mounted a press attack on her. The Nazi media exposed her to be a "friend of the Jews," and it was reported that she had given an interview with the Swedish newspaper Ny Dag in which she acknowledged being friendly with Jews. She had also responded to a question about whether of not she might sing anti-German songs in her new revue by suggesting that this was entirely up to the director to decide. Despite these attacks, her songs continued to be broadcast by German radio stations, and her films were still being screened in many locations in the Reich. The SS even noted in one of its confidential intelligence reports that jokes were circulating among the German population in which Zarah Leander, after having been summoned to an engagement at the Führer's military headquarters, is requested to sing one of the hit songs from Die grosse Liebe, namely "I Know That a Miracle Will Happen Someday."

After several years of virtual internal exile on her rural Swedish estate, Leander reemerged to continue her career. At first she failed to gain entry into the postwar Austrian and Swiss film world, but by February 1949 she was again in Germany, on a concert tour of the Western occupation zones of that defeated nation. Although no longer youthful, she made appearances in a number of West German films throughout the 1950s, including Cuba Cubana (1952), Ave Maria (1953), Bei Dir war es immer so schön (It Was Always So Nice With You, 1954), and Der blaue Nachtfalter (The Blue Moth, 1959).

In September 1958, she began a successful run at Vienna's Raimund-Theater in Peter Kreuder's musical Madame Scandaleuse, a show that also pleased audiences in Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich. In 1964, she returned to Vienna to star in another Kreuder musical, Lady aus Paris (The Lady from Paris), and Leander was still performing at the end of the 1960s in Hamburg in Wodka für die Königin (Vodka for the Queen). She performed in musical comedies in Berlin during these years and even ventured into a joint Italian-German production. Leander also appeared in the new medium of television, including on the show "Star unter Sternen" (A Star under the Stars), and was featured on the program "TV Hören und Sehen" which screened a series on her life on the occasion of her 65th birthday in 1972.

In her final decades, Zarah Leander became the most important icon of Germany's gay community, a status she would hold even in the years after her death in Stockholm on June 23, 1981. The unusual nature of her voice, described by German filmmaker Helma Sanders-Brahms as a "hermaphroditic voice, half man, half woman," was remarked on by other observers for its powerfully seductive aspects which were revealed as she sang erotic songs in the baritone range. The audiences who came to see her in the last years of her career were primarily comprised of gay males who forgave the aging star for her appearance; even with the prodigious help of wigs, jewelry and makeup, she could no longer disguise the ravages of time. During these years (she appeared on stage as late as 1978), she often performed at transvestite balls ("Tuntenbälle") such as the "Ball der Freunde" (The Friends' Ball) at the gay Club 70. At a time in West Germany when Paragraph 175 of the Criminal Code continued to stigmatize homosexuality, Leander's concerts were one of the few places where gay men could meet openly without fear of being arrested.

In the history of cinema, Zarah Leander was and will always remain a National Socialist star. A talented and ambitious artist, she took full advantage of the golden opportunity that opened up for her and other relatively unknown performers in Germany during the 1930s with the emigration of German superstars. Although she claimed to have no interest in politics, Leander's actions revealed an acute awareness of how Nazi Germany was ruled, and she successfully curried favor with some of the most powerful figures in that society. As a consequence, she was able to reap rich rewards from these arrangements, persuading herself (and others) that she had somehow remained separate from and free of their malignant power. Both during and after World War II, she held on to the belief that she had never played a role in the hideous nature of the Third Reich. Her memoirs indicate little if any introspection on these matters.


Ascheid, Antje. "A Sierckian Double Image: The Narration of Zarah Leander as a National Socialist Star," in Film Criticism. Vol. 23, no. 2–3. Winter–Spring 1999, pp. 46–73.

Ascheid, Antje Ingrid. "Hitler's Heroines? Stardom, Womanhood and the Popular in Nazi Cinema," Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1999.

Currid, Brian Patrick. "The Acoustics of National Publicity: Music in German Mass Culture," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1998.

Koepnick, Lutz. "En-gendering Mass Culture: The Case of Zarah Leander," in Patricia Herminghouse and Magda Mueller, eds., Gender and Germanness: Cultural Productions of Nation. Providence, RI: Berghahn Publishers, 1997, pp. 161–175.

Kreimeier, Klaus. The Ufa Story: A History of Germany's Greatest Film Company 1918–1945. NY: Hill and Wang, 1996.

Kuzniar, Alice A. "Zarah Leander and Transgender Specularity," in Film Criticism. Vol. 23, no. 2–3. Winter–Spring 1999, pp. 74–93.

Leander, Zarah. Es war so wunderbar! Mein Leben. Translated by Anna-Liese Kornitzky. Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe Verlag, 1983.

——. So bin ich und so bleibe ich. Gütersloh: Bertelsmann Lesering, 1958.

"Die Nazis und die Schauspieler," in Theater heute. No. 9, 1989, special issue.

Papen, Manuela von. "Opportunities and Limitations: The New Woman in Third Reich Cinema," in Women's History Review. Vol. 8, no. 4, 1999, pp. 693–728.

Rentschler, Eric. The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Romani, Cinza. Tainted Goddesses: Female Film Stars of the Third Reich. Translated by Robert Connolly. NY: Sarpedon, 1992.

Sanders, Ulrike. Zarah Leander: Kann denn Schlager Sünde sein? Cologne: Pahl-Rugenstein Verlag, 1988.

Schulte-Sasse, Linda. Entertaining the Third Reich: Illusions of Wholeness in Nazi Cinema. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.

Seiler, Paul. Ein Mythos lebt: Zarah Leander. Berlin: Graphische Werkstätten, 1991.

——. Zarah Leander: Ein Kultbuch. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, 1985.

——. Zarah Leander: Ich bin eine Stimme. Berlin: Ullstein Verlag, 1997.

Wistrich, Robert. Who's Who in Nazi Germany. London and NY: Routledge, 1995.

Zumkeller, Cornelia. Zarah Leander: Ihre Filme, ihr Leben. Munich: W. Heyne Verlag, 1988.

related media:

Blackwood, Christian. My Life for Zarah Leander (Mein Leben für Zarah Leander, video), Christian Blackwood Productions, Bayerischer Rundfunk, 1987.

Cabaret's Golden Age, Vol. I, Flapper-Pavillion CD 9727, released 1991.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Leander, Zarah (1907–1981)

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