Sagan, Leontine (1889–1974)

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Sagan, Leontine (1889–1974)

Jewish actress and film director who achieved critical acclaim before being forced to flee Nazi Germany for South Africa in 1933 and went on to co-found the National Theatre in Johannesburg. Name variations: Leontine Fleischer; Leontine Sagan-Fleischer; Leontine Fleischer-Sagan; Leontine Schlesinger. Pronunciation: Leon-teen-AH ZAH-gahn. Born Leontine Schlesinger on February 13, 1889, in Budapest, Hungary;died in Pretoria, South Africa, of cerebral thrombosis on May 20, 1974; daughter of Josef Schlesinger and Emma (Fasal) Schlesinger; attended elementary school in Vienna, Austria, and elementary and secondary school in Johannesburg, South Africa; attended the Acting School of the German Theater (Reinhardt School) in Berlin for the two-year course (1910–12); married Dr. Victor Fleischer (an archivist, dramatist, and novelist); children: not known.


Lion of San Marco at the Venice Film Festival (1932) for Mädchen in Uniform (variously translated as Maidens in Uniform, Girls in Uniform, and Children in Uniform ).

Moved from Vienna to Johannesburg with her parents sometime after 1900; returned to Berlin to attend the Acting School of the German Theater (1910); member of the Cooperative of German Stage Actors (Genossenschaft Deutscher Bühnen-Angehöriger, GDBA, 1912–34), acting in various cities, including Vienna, Frankfurt am Main, and Berlin; directed Mädchen in Uniform (1931), which brought her worldwide acclaim, and her second and only other film Men of Tomorrow (also titled Young Apollo ), in the United Kingdom (1932); remained in UK after National Socialist takeover and toured South Africa (1933); produced operettas by Ivor Novello in London, Glasgow, New York, and other cities (1934–39); worked as a stage director in Johannesburg and Capetown, South Africa (1939–42); helped co-found the National Theatre in Johannesburg; produced for the theater and BBC in London after 1943; returned to South Africa (1950s), where she worked as a director and impresario there and in Rhodesia until her death.

Major theater credits: (under direction of Erich Pabst) acted in Onkelchen hat geträumt at the Komödie (Comedy) in Berlin (Aug.–Sept. 1924); (under direction of Carl Sternheim) performed in 1913 at the Komödie (1924); appeared as Der Glaube (Faith) in Jedermann and Liza in Der lebende Leichnam (The Living Corpse) at the National Theater in Basel, Switzerland, during a tour with Max Reinhardt's acting company (1926); directed Freudiges Ereignis (Little Accident ) at the Komödie (1929); directed Children in Uniform at the Duchess Theater in London (her first production in England, 1932); subsequently produced Finished Abroad (1933); produced and acted in Children in Uniform and Nine Till Six in South Africa (1933); worked in London (1933–39); directed Richard III for the Oxford University Dramatical Society (1934); played Lady Anne at the Open Air Theatre (June 1934); directed and produced numerous plays, including Murder in Mayfair (1934), Glamorous Night (1935), Two Share a Dwelling (1935), Vicky (1935), O Evening Star (1936), Careless Rapture (1936), The Old Maid (1936), Balalaika (1936), Crest of the Wave (1937), Venus in Silk (1937), Paprika (1938), The Scarlet Pimpernel (1938), and The Dancing Years (1939); returned to South Africa (1939–43); produced Arc de Triomphe (1943), A Night in Venice (1944), and Gay Rosalinda (1945) in London.

Leontine Sagan learned acting from two masters of 20th-century theater, Max Reinhardt and Victor Barnowsky. Although the biographical details of her life remain scant, it is clear that she was far ahead of her time. Her films Mädchen in Uniform (1931) and Men of Tomorrow (1932), which used new photography and sound techniques and handled radical subject matter, established Sagan as one of the great directors in pre-World War II Germany and Britain.

Born in 1889 in Budapest, Hungary, Sagan was old enough to be fully aware of the turn-of-the-century renaissance that took place in Europe prior to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. In fact, she spent part of her childhood in Vienna, the city that epitomized this cultural revolution, before her family relocated in South Africa in the early 1900s. The family's move was by no means unusual, since many Jewish immigrants left Europe between 1901 and 1914 in order to escape the racism and prejudice prevalent there.

Sagan certainly must have been influenced by the events taking place around her while she was enrolled in primary school in Vienna, and these may well have sparked her interest in the theater when she attended secondary school in South Africa. In 1910, she returned to Europe where she had been accepted at the Acting School of the German Theater in Berlin, founded and directed by Reinhardt. In attempting to develop a "theater for the masses" before World War I, he had become famous, and he consistently sponsored, supported, and encouraged numerous novice actors, actresses, film directors, producers and artists in the 1920s and 1930s.

Following completion of her two-year course of study, Sagan began acting professionally and promptly joined the Cooperative of German Stage Actors (Genossenschaft Deutscher Bühnen-Angehöriger, GDBA) in 1912. It is uncertain when she first began using her stage name "Sagan"; however, she first appears under this name in the 1912 edition of the New Theater Almanac (Neuer Theater Almanach), the official publication of the GDBA.

During 1912 and 1913, Sagan played bit roles in Teplitz, Germany, and other smaller towns, intent on building her reputation as a stage actress. In 1914, she landed her first full-time professional job with a theater company at the Albert Theater in Dresden. In 1915, she was back in Austria at the Neue Wiener Bühne (New Vienna Stage), where she remained only one year before leaving for Frankfurt am Main. Sometime during 1915 or 1916 (the exact date and place are unknown), Sagan married Dr. Victor Fleischer, archivist for the reigning prince of Liechtenstein in Vienna, director of the Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt (Frankfurt Publishing House), and later a freelance dramatist in Berlin. In Frankfurt, Sagan established permanent residence with her husband and was active as an actress, especially in the Neues Theater (New Theater), the Frankfurter Kammerspiele (Frankfurt Chamber Theater), and the Schauspielhaus (Acting House). She had at least three different residences while in Frankfurt, before finally settling in an apartment on the Corneliusstrasse where she lived from 1921 to 1927.

Frankfurt's most intelligent actress was [Leontine] Sagan.

—Rudolf Frank

It is difficult to be certain how many acting jobs Sagan actually had at any given time. She was employed full-time at various theaters in Frankfurt am Main, while appearing concurrently in Vienna, Berlin, and very possibly in other large European cities. In 1926, she took part in a tour of Switzerland with Max Reinhardt's theater troupe, performing as "Glaube" (Faith) in Jedermann and as Liza in Der lebende Leichnam (The Living Corpse), both roles typically associated with Helene Thimig . That same year, she performed for the first time in Berlin. Sagan appeared at two theaters in Frankfurt am Main in the 1928–29 season, and also in Berlin at the well-known Renaissance Theater and the Englisches Theater Deutscher-Schauspieler e.V. (The English Theater for German Actors), which produced English plays for the interested elite. By 1930, she was working full-time at these two theaters, and living in an apartment in Berlin-Wilmersdorf.

Although Leontine Sagan was well known in theater circles by the middle 1920s, she first achieved worldwide recognition for two films that she directed in the early 1930s. Using her highly developed skills accumulated from nearly 20 years of work in the theater as an actress and director, she became an instant celebrity when her first film Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform or Maidens in Uniform), starring Dorothea Wieck and Hertha Thiele , was released in 1931. Based on the play Gestern und Heute (Yesterday and Today) by Christa Winsloe , Mädchen in Uniform was the first German film to be cooperatively produced. The Deutsche Film Gemeinschaft, comprised of cast members and crew, was formed especially for this purpose, and shares of company stock were distributed in lieu of salaries. This unusual production arrangement alone would have secured Mädchen in Uniform a place in film history; because the movie was an artistic achievement as well, it established Sagan as one of the top motion-picture directors in interwar Germany.

Sagan, who worked on the film under the supervision of Carl Froelich, received the Lion of San Marco at the 1932 Venice Film Festival for Mädchen, and the movie attained widespread critical acclaim for its fresh filming and sound techniques as well as for its superb handling of a lesbian theme. In fact, Mädchen in Uniform is regarded as the first truly radical lesbian film. Its structure is a mixture of montage and narrative sequences. Sagan pioneered the use of superimposition of one character's face over another's to convey the psychological bond between them. This technique is used especially to show the attraction between the teacher Fräulein von Bernburg and her student Manuela von Meinhardis. Sagan also utilized shadows to add depth and emotion. For instance, she used this technique in the lighting and shooting of the school's back staircase to symbolize the girls' confinement. They are not allowed to use the well-lighted front stairs, which are reserved for the teachers and administrative personnel.

The film's frank treatment of lesbianism and Prussian discipline at a German girls' school was also far ahead of other films at this time. The movie, with its anti-fascist, anti-authoritarian, and anti-patriarchal themes, is truly amazing when one considers that it was shot only two years before Adolf Hitler's rise to power. Perhaps it was for this reason that Mädchen in Uniform was considered so scandalous upon its original release, a reputation it kept for many years to come.

After her tremendous success, Sagan quickly started work on a new project in Great Britain, the film Men of Tomorrow, released in 1932. This was one of the first films produced by the Korda Studios, founded by brothers Alexander, Vincent, and Zoltan Korda, who had immigrated from Hungary in 1932 after having produced numerous successful films in their homeland. All three went on to notable film careers in Britain.

Sagan's influence on theater and filmmaking in the late 1920s and early 1930s was immense. Her novel techniques and original production methods revolutionized German theater, and this expertise was transferred to Britain when she decided to stay there following the National Socialist seizure of power in 1933. That year, despite huge success in London, Paris and Berlin, Mädchen in Uniform was banned by National Socialist Cultural Minister Joseph Goebbels for the unhealthy "moral attitude" that it promoted. Under these conditions, it was certainly safer for Sagan to stay in England. Sadly, after the release of Men of Tomorrow, which only had slight success, Sagan never again worked as a motion picture director. From then on, she contented herself with stage productions.

Without adequate language skills, it would have been nearly impossible, even for someone as talented as Sagan, to find work in London. Many émigré artists had difficulty finding work in England and America, and as the number of refugees increased after 1938, the situation would become even more dire. But Sagan's childhood and adolescence in South Africa had

prepared her well for work in the U.K.; she had a superb command of the English language. In 1933, she toured South Africa with the "Capetown Repertoire Society," directing and acting in various productions. Despite the job situation, she was able to find work upon her return to London in 1934. She produced plays for the Oxford University Dramatical Society, notably Richard III in 1934, and operettas by Ivor Novello in London, Glasgow, New York, and other cities from 1934 to 1939.

In 1939, Sagan helped found the Austrian exile theater "The Lantern" in London; she is listed on the theater's official letterhead as a sponsor. "The Lantern" became one of the best-known refugee theaters in Britain and actively promoted the British cause in the fight against fascism during World War II. Many of those involved with "The Lantern" also worked for the BBC developing programming for broadcast into occupied Europe. In addition, Sagan was actively involved in the Austrian exile PEN Club as a sponsor and patron of the arts, along with author Stefan Zweig and other notable Austrians. PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, Editors and Novelists) had been founded in 1921 in London to combat racial hatred and intolerance.

Sagan again returned to South Africa in late 1939 and helped co-found the National Theatre in Johannesburg. Afterwards, she worked as a director at the new theater, toured extensively, and produced throughout South Africa and Rhodesia. She was instrumental in the development of South African theater during the Second World War and was one of the best-known actresses and stage producers in the country. In 1943, she returned to London with her husband Victor Fleischer and began work for the BBC. They remained in London for the duration of the war, and Fleischer died there in 1951. Following the death of her husband, Sagan returned to South Africa where she again took up an active role in the theater of her adopted home. For the next 23 years, until her own death on May 20, 1974, she produced and directed in South Africa. As far as is known, she never remarried, and her death certificate lists her as "widowed."

In 1981, Sagan's film Mädchen in Uniform celebrated its London revival, and in recent years there has been more critical attention paid to her work, but to date no biography of Sagan has been published, and there are large gaps in the information available on her.


Arnsberg, Paul. Die Geschichte der Frankfurter Juden seit der Französischen Revolution, Bd. III. Darmstadt: Eduard Roether, 1983, p. 412.

Brüne, Klaus, ed. "Mädchen in Uniform," in Lexikon des Internationalen Films. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1988, p. 2381.

Deutsches Bühnenjahrbuch. Berlin: Verlag F.U. Günther & Sohn, 1915–35.

Institut für Zeitgeschichte (Institute of Contemporary History), Munich, Germany. "Abridged Death Certificate of Leontine Sagan-Fleischer from the Republic of South Africa, May 14, 1980."

Goble, Alan, ed. The International Film Index, 1895–1990. Vol. 2. Munich: Bowker-Saur, 1991, p. 1480.

International Biographical Dictionary of Central European Emigrés 1933–1945. Volume II. Ed. by Herbert A. Strauss and Werner Röder. Munich: K.G. Saur, 1983, p. 1009.

Jüdisches Lexikon. Ein enzyklopädisches Handbuch des jüdischen Wissens in vier Bänden. Bd. II. Berlin: Jüdischer, 1968 (reprint from 1928), p. 679.

Katz, Ephraim. The International Film Encyclopedia. London: Macmillan, 1982, p. 1009.

Krusche, Dieter, and Jürgen Labenski. Reclams Film Führer. 9. Aufl. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun., 1993, pp. 339–340.

Letter from Mr. Herbert Koch, Registry Archive of the City of Vienna, Austria, March 15, 1996.

Lyon, Christopher, and Susan Doll, eds. "Mädchen in Uniform," in The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Volume I. London: Macmillan, 1987, pp. 273–274.

Uglow, Jennifer S., and Frances Hinton, eds. The Macmillan Dictionary of Women's Biography. London: Macmillan, 1982, pp. 407–408.

Die Vertreibung des Geistigen aus Österreich. Zur Kulturpolitik des Nationalsozialismus. Ausstellungskatalog Hrsg. von der Zentralsparkasse und Kommerzialbank, Wien, in Zusammenarbeit mit der Hochschule für Angewandte Kunst in Wien. Jänner–Februar, 1985.

Walk, Joseph. Kurzbiographien zur Geschichte der Juden, 1918–1945. Munich: K.G. Saur, 1988, p. 323.

Who Was Who in the Theatre, 1912–1976. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1978.

suggested reading:

Berghaus, Günter, ed. Theatre and Film in Exile: German Artists in Great Britain, 1933–1945. Oxford: Berg, 1989.

Pally, Marcia. "Women in Love: Filmmakers who choose Lesbianism as a Subject," in Film Comment. Vol. 22. March–April 1986, pp. 35–39.

related media:

Mädchen in Uniform (98 min.), starring Hertha Thiele (as Manuela von Meinhardis), Dorothea Wieck (as Fräulein von Bernburg), Emilia Unda (as the Headmistress), Ellen Schwanneke (as Ilse von Westhagen), Hedwig Schlichter (as Fräulein von Kosten), and Gertrud de Lalsky (as Manuela's aunt), directed by Leontine Sagan, Deutsche Film Gemeinschaft, 1931.

Mädchen in Uniform (95 min. remake of 1931 version), starring Romy Schneider (as Manuela von Menhardis), directed by Geza von Radvanyi , CCC, 1958.

Men of Tomorrow (also titled Young Apollo), starring Robert Donat (as Julian Angell) and Merle Oberon (as Ysobel d'Aunay), directed by Leontine Sagan, Korda Studios, 1932.

Gregory Weeks , University of Graz, Austria