Söderbaum, Kristina (1912—)

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Söderbaum, Kristina (1912—)

Swedish star of German films during the Nazi era. Name variations: Kristina Soderbaum or Soederbaum. Born in Djursholm-Stockholm, Sweden, on September 5, 1912 (one source cites 1909); daughter of Henrik Söderbaum; married Veit Harlan (a director); children: sons, Caspar and Kristian.

Born in 1912 in a suburb of Stockholm, Sweden, Kristina Söderbaum wished to be an actress as a young girl, but her father, a chemistry professor who also served as president of the committee that awarded the Nobel Prizes, did not approve of her going on stage, or worse, appearing in films. In 1930, she moved to Berlin to study art history. Not until her father's death did she seriously attempt a film career. Remaining in Germany, in 1936 Söderbaum made her film debut in Onkel Bräsig, a patriotic drama that would be quickly forgotten. Although she displayed skill, was attractive, and had learned to speak German (almost) without an accent, Söderbaum had a career that seemed to be going nowhere until 1938, when director Veit Harlan came across some of her photographs in studio files.

Harlan had become one of Nazi Germany's leading film directors by the late 1930s, both because he enjoyed the protection of Joseph Goebbels, the regime's powerful Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, and also because he was ideologically loyal to Nazism and gifted at turning out, on schedule, one successful film after another. Harlan chose Söderbaum to play the leading role in Jugend (Youth), the story of a tragic love which ends when the unhappy heroine drowns herself. The public loved Söderbaum's acting in Jugend, turning her into a star virtually overnight. As well, Harlan and Söderbaum got married. Before 1938 was over, Harlan had directed another film with Söderbaum in the lead, the mystery Verwehte Spuren (Covered Tracks). She played a woman in Paris who investigates the cause of her mother's disappearance, only to discover that her body had been hidden because she had died of the plague. With a first-rate script by Thea von Harbou , Verwehte Spuren too was successful, and Söderbaum's reputation soared.

In 1939, on the eve of World War II, Söderbaum appeared in a patriotic epic set in the past, Das unsterbliche Herz (The Immortal Heart). Acting alongside Heinrich George and Paul Wegener, two of the great stars of the German stage, Söderbaum was more than able to hold her own. The film was popular with German audiences, and even received praise from The New York Times when it was shown in Manhattan in October 1939, only weeks after Nazi Germany's conquest of Poland. Another 1939 film starring Söderbaum was Die Reise nach Tilsit (The Journey to Tilsit), based on a story by Hermann Sudermann (1857–1928). More than the previous films she had starred in, this one was strongly influenced by Nazi and German ideology. Söderbaum found herself perfectly cast as Elske, the blonde, demure young wife of an arrogant young husband who betrays her with a lustful, promiscuous and provocatively clad Polish woman named Madlyn (played by Anna Dammann ). Die Reise nach Tilsit is typical of Goebbels' propaganda, including the idea that city folk are corrupt, and that only in pure rural types like Elske do "German" (i.e., Nazi) ideals instinctively continue to flourish.

Söderbaum's appearance in the next film in her career, Jud Süss (1940), was to haunt her for the rest of her life. A highly polished work of anti-Semitism, Jud Süss was based on a novel by the German-Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger published before the Nazis came to power. Although fiction, Feuchtwanger's book was based on an actual historical episode in the 18th century in which a Jewish financier was convicted of having bankrupted the state treasury and executed. The Nazis distorted the story to use it as a framework for anti-Semitic propaganda. The role of Dorothea Sturm, the pure German girl who is raped by the Jewish villain Joseph Süss Oppenheimer (Jud Süss), did not even exist in the Feuchtwanger novel, but was inserted by Harlan who very likely did so with the encouragement of Goebbels. When Söderbaum found out that the actress Viktoria von Ballasko was being considered for the role of Dorothea, she moved decisively to secure it for herself. After being attacked by Jud Süss, Dorothea can no longer live in a state of dishonor and drowns herself. Since Söderbaum had already played the role of a young woman who drowns herself some years before, and would do so again in the future, some Germans pinned on her the nick-nameReichswasserleiche (Reich Water Corpse). Although it was released in 1940, before the start of the Holocaust and mass murder of European Jewry, Jud Süss was nevertheless an important component of the Nazi regime's increasingly radical policies against Jews who lived under their rule, and was designed to strengthen public approval and support of these measures.

After Jud Süss, Söderbaum appeared in several more large-budget films. In Die goldene Stadt (1942, The Golden City), only the second film to be made in color by a German studio, she appears as Anna, a German country girl whose dream is to see Prague, the "golden city." However, like it did for her mother before her, contact with the city brings only tragedy. Having been seduced by a cousin and now pregnant, Anna is rejected by all, including her father. Going to the swamp that had once been her mother's grave, she drowns herself. Metaphorically, Anna's fate was deserved, because she had abandoned her rural homeland and become infected with the evil spirit of the city of Prague.

In 1943, Söderbaum starred in Immensee, based on the classic novel by Theodor Storm (1817–1888). As Elisabeth, the ideal Aryan woman with blue eyes and blonde hair whose life is the embodiment of "Germanic fidelity" (Deutsche Treue), she marries a man to forget her unrequited love for a young musician, and then learns to love and respect her husband. Again shot in color, this film celebrated the sanctity of marriage (the Nazi regime often proclaimed the primacy of "family values"). The beauty of the stark north German landscape created an idyllic mood that must have been in dramatic contrast to the lives of most Germans in 1943, when it became clear that the Reich might lose the war. Söderbaum even appeared briefly in a nude swimming scene in the film, but its intent was not erotic but rather to emphasize the racially beneficial aspects of the outdoor life. Söderbaum ended 1943 by filming Opfergang (Sacrifice), in which, not surprisingly, she dies at the end.

The last film in which Kristina Söderbaum would appear in Nazi Germany was the patriotic epic Kolberg (1945). By the time this film was shot, in 1944, it was clear to all that the Third Reich was doomed. Nevertheless, Goebbels spent vast amounts of money and engaged a large number of troops as extras so as to create a Hollywood-style extravaganza. The film was set in the Napoleonic era and based on an actual historical event, except for the fact that the actual Kolberg, unlike the one of Goebbels' fantasy, did surrender at the end. The theme of Kolberg

was "no surrender." As Maria Werner, another 100% Aryan woman, Söderbaum displays courage and tenacity, refusing even to think of surrendering although she becomes the sole survivor of her family. At the end, she is presented as an exemplar of Nazi virtue when the mayor of the town tells her, "Yes, Maria, you have given everything you had. But not in vain…. [W]hen someone takes upon himself so much suffering, then he is truly a beautiful person. You are noble, Maria; you have done your duty; you were not afraid to die."

After World War II, Harlan was accused of having collaborated with the Nazi regime and stood trial for the first time in the spring of 1949, a proceeding that ended in an acquittal. Söderbaum, as a Swedish citizen, could have continued with her career during this period, and did in fact receive offers of work in her native Sweden, as well as in Italy and even in Germany. She refused these, however, until her husband was cleared of all charges and could thus resume his career as well. Two more trials of Harlan followed, ending in April 1950, when he was again acquitted. At this point, the couple resumed their joint career, but the world had changed and success largely managed to elude them. From 1951 to 1958, Söderbaum starred in seven more films, often receiving good reviews for her acting, which some critics believed had grown more nuanced and subtle with the passage of time. But the films themselves were generally not deemed wholly successful, either as art or commerce. Kristina Söderbaum made one final screen appearance, in Hans Jürgen Syberberg's Karl May (1974). After her husband's death in 1964, she devoted much of her time to photography. Her memoirs were first published in 1983.


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