von Harbou, Thea (1888–1954)

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von Harbou, Thea (1888–1954)

German screenwriter, novelist, director and actress who is best known for her novel and screenplay Metropolis . Born on December 27, 1888, in Tauperlitz bei Hof, Bavaria; died in West Berlin on July 1, 1954; daughter of Theodor von Harbou and Clotilde (d'Alinge) von Harbou; married Rudolf Klein-Rogge, in 1914; married Fritz Lang (a director), around 1918 (divorced 1934).

Thea von Harbou was born into a financially unstable aristocratic family in 1888, the same year emotionally unstable Wilhelm II became kaiser of Germany. Her father worked as a chief forester, and young Thea grew up surrounded by woods and meadows. After finishing her secondary education at a girls' academy in Dresden, the stagestruck young Thea embarked on an acting career in 1906 in Düsseldorf, but despite considerable exertions on her part she did not achieve any significant success over the next few years. Convinced that she had a talent for writing, von Harbou began to send manuscripts to publishers, and by 1910 one of her novels, Die nach uns kommen (The Next Generation), had appeared in print, earning both good reviews and healthy sales.

From 1910 to 1952, von Harbou published two dozen novels, many of which became bestsellers. A strongly conservative and nationalistic bias is detectable in virtually all these works: Der Krieg und die Frauen (War and Women, 1913); Deutsche Frauen (German Women, 1914); Der unsterbliche Acker (Immortal Soil, 1915); Der junge Wacht am Rhein (The Young Watch on the Rhine, 1915), and Die deutsche Frau im Weltkrieg (The German Woman in the World War, 1916). The fierce nationalism and racism found in von Harbou's wartime writings, while hardly a unique point of view, was presented in popular and entertaining formats which made her a well-known personality on the extreme right of the political spectrum in the last years of imperial Germany. Her nationalistic fervor became if anything even more uncompromising in the books and articles she published after the collapse of the monarchy in November 1918. In these works, Germany was invariably depicted as the innocent victim in a world of evil foes. As they turned the pages of her books, von Harbou's readers learned again and again of a Fatherland that had been wronged by its implacable traditional geopolitical and philosophical adversaries, France and Great Britain. Many of her books appeared under the Scherl Verlag imprint, a publishing firm that was part of the media empire of Alfred Hugenberg, a politically ambitious industrialist who despised the democratic republic that had emerged in 1918. Starting in the late 1920s, Hugenberg provided substantial subsidies to Adolf Hitler's violently anti-democratic Nazi Party.

Married in 1914 to actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Thea divorced him soon after the war to marry Fritz Lang, a rising filmmaker. She was fascinated by the relatively new film medium. Endowed with a gift for understanding what mass audiences desired, von Harbou began writing screenplays for Lang. Beginning with his 1920 film Das wandernde Bild (Wandering Image), she wrote all Lang's motion pictures—works of cinematic art that are now regarded as landmarks in the history of film and are studied in classrooms around the globe. Of the ten screenplays she wrote between 1920 and 1933, the best known are Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, 1922), Die Nibelungen (1922–24), Metropolis (1927), M (1931), and Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse). By the mid-1920s, Thea von Harbou was acknowledged to be the leading writer of the German cinema, equal in talent to Carl Mayer.

In her most successful screenplay, Metropolis, a technically impressive science-fiction film which Lang shot in 1927, von Harbou gave voice to the deeply felt fears of mechanization and urban life that embodied a significant aspect of conservative intellectuals' cultural criticism of Weimar Germany. Skyscrapers in the film appear as tall, dark forms that make city streets little more than suffocatingly narrow canyons. The workers in Metropolis have completely lost all freedoms and human dignity, having been enticed and seduced by a robot that brings not social stability but profound dissatisfaction. Set in the year 2000, Metropolis is a cautionary tale of a city that has become totally polarized, with a hedonistic elite that seeks its pleasures above ground, their way of life made possible by the exploitation of a subterranean proletariat that has been ground down to a dehumanized state. The film remains visually impressive, in part because of the 35,000 extras used in its many crowd scenes. In production for 17 months, it cost what was then the vast sum of over 2 million reichsmarks, and presented such starkly memorable images as a Tower of Babel sequence in which a thousand men and women appear with their heads shaved.

Portrayed by von Harbou as essentially dull witted, the workers of Metropolis appear visually as drones laboring in their underground industrial complex. A ray of hope appears in the figure of Young Fredersen, scion of the master of the city, who is moved by the virginally pure woman Maria. She kindles in him a growing social conscience concerning the miseries of the workers. After a massive uprising of the workers is halted by Maria, who convinces them that their grievances will be addressed by a mediator who will unify and redeem the entire community, she is kidnapped by Young Fredersen's father. An evil scientist clones Maria into a malevolent robot who now spreads a spirit of rebellion among the easily misled workers. Mindlessly they turn to mob violence, going on a Luddite rampage and destroying the city's machines. A massive flood apparently drowns the city's children, enraging the grief-stricken masses who burn Maria's robot version as a witch. At the end, Young Fredersen and the real Maria are able to effect a heroic rescue of the children, thus destroying the scientist's power as well as ending class hatred that had threatened to destroy the city. This goal of social reconciliation is achieved when Young Fredersen's father, having experienced a moral awakening, joins with the liberated workers to become their leader as the wisely paternalistic "glorious father" they had always yearned for.

Although Metropolis was a smash hit both in Germany and abroad, its story line was harshly criticized from the start by liberal and leftist intellectuals. Although some writers merely dismissed her work as little more than forgettable, trashy entertainment, others detected more ominous ideas and ideals lurking in von Harbou's screenplay. The critic Axel Eggebrecht condemned the film for extolling social mysticism and denying "the unshakable logic of the class struggle." Both the novel Metropolis and the Fritz Lang film version of it have been the subject of criticism which has discerned conservative, reactionary and even proto-fascist tendencies in the story line. Metropolis' depiction of the workers as brainless slaves who become destructive at a whim has been compared to neo-conservative ideals of the period that called for a return to a social order based on hierarchies which would bring the uncontrolled masses back in line.

Adolf Hitler regarded Metropolis as a splendid motion picture, emphasizing as it did a community's triumph over class divisions through the appearance of a messianic leader. It is more than likely that Hitler identified himself with the film's hero Young Fredersen, comparing the goals of his own Nazi movement to the pseudo-liberation achieved by the workers when they willingly bowed to accept Fredersen senior's rule. The industrialist's authoritarian benevolence paralleled Nazi ideology, which promised to banish class antagonisms in an organic Gemeinschaft. Where the film appeared to most of its viewers to contain a criticism of the dangers of enslavement posed by humanity's growing dependence on technology, Hitler apparently could see only a celebration of a people's embrace of subordination to authority and hierarchy.

After Metropolis, von Harbou continued to write popular novels and screenplays. Her successful 1928 novel Frau im Mond (The Girl in the Moon) was transformed by Lang the following year into a popular film. Her screenplay for the 1931 film M, starring Peter Lorre as the child murderer brought to justice by the underworld, remains a classic of the Weimar cinema. In 1922 and again in 1933, Lang filmed von Harbou screenplays about the character Dr. Mabuse, a pathological criminal. In the 1933 version, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse), words closely resembling those of Hitler are put in madman Dr. Mabuse's mouth, and the film has been described as an anti-Nazi allegory. Most likely this is not the case, given the fact that von Harbou had joined the Nazi Party in 1932 as a sign of her enthusiastic support of all that Hitler stood for. That same year, von Harbou and her husband separated, at least in part because of irreconcilable political as well as personal reasons; their divorce became final in 1934.

In early 1933, soon after the Nazis came to power, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels asked Lang to remain in Germany, promising that he could continue to make films and indeed could expect to become head of the entire German film industry. Given the fact that Lang's mother was Jewish, this was a remarkable concession on the part of the Nazis. Goebbels also confided to Lang that after he had viewed Metropolis, Hitler made an announcement regarding Lang's role in the coming Third Reich: "That's the man to make National Socialist films." Lang left Germany the same evening. Von Harbou, on the other hand, remained and went on to have a successful career in the Third Reich, continuing to write screenplays as well as trying her hand as a director on two occasions (with only moderate success). In 1933, she was elected chair of the Association of German Sound Film Authors, a body that signaled its Nazification by purging itself of Jews and anti-fascists. She eagerly worked as a script doctor for propaganda films and provided scripts for several films directed by the notorious Veit Harlan.

By the end of the war, in 1945, Thea had become notorious as a last-ditch Nazi, particularly because of her screenplay for Kolberg, a historical epic that appealed to the German people to fight to the bitter end, pending a military miracle that might still change the course of the war. Declared a Nazi by German courts, she was banned from working in films for several years, but by the late 1940s was once more active in the industry, writing dubbing scripts for Deutsche London Film. Von Harbou's last screenplay was for the 1953 film Dein Herz ist meine Heimat (Your Heart is My Home). Critical opinion then and now has concluded that this, her final work, was no better than mediocre. Thea von Harbou died in West Berlin on July 1, 1954.


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

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von Harbou, Thea (1888–1954)

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