Tschechowa, Olga (1897–1980)

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Tschechowa, Olga (1897–1980)

Russian-born German film actress. Born on April 26, 1897, in Aleksandropol, Russia; died on March 9, 1980, in Munich, Germany; daughter of an engineer and a painter; studied sculpture and engraving in schools in Moscow and St. Petersburg; took acting lessons at Constantin Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theater school; married Michael Chekhov (an actor), around 1913 (marriage ended around 1916); children: daughter Ada.

Selected filmography:

Schloss Vogelöd (Haunted Castle, 1921); Liebe im Ring (Love in the Ring, 1930); Love on Command (1931); Liebelei (Flirtation, 1933); Der Choral von Leuthen (The Hymn of Leuthen, 1933); Maskerade (Masquerade in Vienna, 1934); Regine (1934); Die Welt ohne Maske (The World Unmasked, 1934); Burgtheater (Town Theater, 1936); Die gelbe Flagge (The Yellow Flag, 1937); Verliebtes Abenteuer (Amorous Adventure, 1938); Zwei Frauen (Two Women, 1938); Die unheimlichen Wünsche (Sinister Desires, 1939); Befreite Hände (Unfettered Hands, 1939); Gefährlicher Frühling (Dangerous Spring, 1943).

Born in Aleksandropol in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia in 1897, Olga Tschechowa was the daughter of a German-born father and a Russian mother. Her father, who came from Germany's Westphalia, was an engineer who served as minister of railways in tsarist Russia, while her mother was a painter. Her uncle was the famous Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov; her aunt was the actress Olga Knipper-Chekova .

It seemed preordained that Olga would find a life for herself somewhere in the arts, as had her mother, uncle, and grandmother who achieved fame as a singer. As a girl, she shuttled between schools in St. Petersburg and Moscow, where she studied sculpture and engraving. In her teens, she became interested in acting, and enrolled in classes at Constantin Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theater school. Tschechowa married her cousin Michael Chekhov, himself a well-established actor, when she was 16. The marriage ended just three years later, shortly after the birth of their daughter Ada Chekhova .

In the turmoil that followed Russia's Bolshevik Revolution, Tschechowa was persuaded in the early 1920s to leave her native Russia for the relative quiet of Berlin. There she worked designing posters until she was discovered by prominent German filmmakers Erich Pommer and F.W. Murnau. Murnau, one of the most influential German film directors of the period, cast Tschechowa in a leading role in his Schloss Vogelöd (Haunted Castle), and that single film launched her solidly on a career that would span three decades and earn her the epithet of the "Grand Dame of German film."

Tschechowa teamed with German boxing champion Max Schmeling in 1930 to star in Liebe im Ring (Love in the Ring). Three years later, she shared the screen with Magda Schneider,

Gustav Gründgens, Luise Ullrich , and Paul Hörbiger in Max Ophuls' very successful Liebelei (Flirtation). In 1934, she appeared with newcomer Paula Wessely in Willi Forst's masterpiece Maskerade (Masquerade in Vienna), a film that played her worldly sophistication off the innocence and naivete of her costar. Two years later, she costarred with Werner Krauss in Burgtheater (Town Theater).

These successes in German film soon took Tschechowa to film capitals through the world, including Paris, Prague, Rome, and Vienna. She visited Hollywood in 1931 to make Love on Command, the German adaptation of American director Mal St. Clair's The Boudoir Diplomat. After a decade in German film, the Russian émigré had acquired a sophistication and regal bearing that managed to keep autograph seekers and other admirers at bay. Her worldly image was enhanced by the traces of a Russian accent that she retained. When European casting agents of the day contemplated a role calling for an elegant woman of a certain age, beautiful and regal, Tschechowa was the first actress to spring to mind.

In 1933, as the Hitler regime was solidifying its hold on the German government, Tschechowa starred in Der Choral von Leuthen (The Hymn of Leuthen), in which she played a noblewoman who offered shelter within the walls of her castle to a Prussian platoon under the command of Frederick II the Great. The making of this film coincided with a call that went out from Berlin for propaganda films glorifying German history, particularly the days of Frederick the Great. Led by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda apparatus called upon filmmakers to produce these "Fridericus-Filme" to depict the former German ruler as a widely popular hero who was devoted not only to his subjects but to traditional values. Nazi propagandists clearly hoped that, in these glamorous film portraits of the Hohenzollern king, German moviegoers of the early 1930s would see a striking resemblance to their current leader.

Despite the government edict calling for the production of German historical epics, Tschechowa herself clearly preferred working in such American-style comedies as Die gelbe Flagge (The Yellow Flag, 1937) and Verliebtes Abenteuer (Amorous Adventure, 1938). She was similarly disposed towards musicals and fantasy films, such as Die Welt ohne Maske (The World Unmasked, 1934) and Die unheimlichen Wünsche (Sinister Desires, 1939). In the latter film, Tschechowa's role was hardly a stretch. She portrayed a glamorous actress who seeks vengeance on a noble who spurns her in favor of a simple working girl.

The actress also enjoyed great success in roles that pitted her against younger and less worldly rivals for the affections of a man. Tschechowa's films of this type include Zwei Frauen (Two Women, 1938), in which she plays a woman who competes with her 18-year-old daughter for the affections of a pilot, as well as Befreite Hände (Unfettered Hands, 1939) and Gefährlicher Frühling (Dangerous Spring, 1943). In the latter film, she played a mature but still beautiful woman who manages to lure a professor away from her niece.

In the years following the end of World War II, Tschechowa launched her own film production company, an ill-fated venture that failed not long after it was begun. Much more successful was a cosmetics company that she founded in the early 1950s. Forty years later, the company boasted branches in Helsinki, Milan, Vienna, and the United States. Her stunning beauty on the silver screen and her success in later life as a cosmetics mogul prompted Tschechowa to write a number of beauty-care books, most of which received a warm reception from German readers. Less well received was her autobiography, Meine Uhren gehen anders (My Clocks Tell Different Times), despite the fact that it contained detailed instructions on how to create some of her secret beauty preparations.

In a November 1967 interview with the magazine Sud-deutsche Zeitung, she told a reporter: "I retired because I didn't want to spoil the illusions of all those people who admired me." Four years later, the actress emerged briefly from retirement to star in an episode of the German TV series "Duell zu dritt" (Duel for Three). Tschechowa died at her home in Munich on March 9, 1980, at the age of 82.


Romani, Cinzia. Tainted Goddesses: Female Film Stars of the Third Reich. NY: Sarpedon, 1992.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania