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Great European Lives: German silent film actress Brigitte Helm

Brigitte Helm studies herself in the German silent film 'The Burning Mill'. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on the life of the German silent film actress Brigitte Helm.

More than 90 years have passed since the release of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a film so beautifully crafted and ahead of its time that even today it’s celebrated as one of the greatest ever made even today. Filmed over 18 months in 1925 and 1926, the lavish sets, groundbreaking special effects and sheer scale – more than 37,000 extras – almost bankrupted Berlin’s Ufa studios. But Metropolis is still screened in cinemas around the world, spellbinding modern audiences accustomed to pin-sharp CGI and surround sound.

The film’s most enduring sequence shows Maria, the idealistic revolutionary leader of the futuristic city’s downtrodden workers, being cloned and transplanted into a malevolent robotic alter ego. When the android stands and takes its first steps it feels like a watershed moment in the development of humanity, let alone cinema.

The contrast between the two Marias, the wide-eyed idealist and the smouldering robotic vamp, is so striking it’s almost impossible to believe it’s the same actor playing both roles. It’s even harder to countenance that Brigitte Helm, still a teenager when she took on the parts, had barely acted before she turned in one of the greatest performances of the silent era.

Helm’s presence dominates the screen, her face luminous and her entire body employed in intricately detailed characterisation, not least during the erotic dance performed in a brothel by the ‘bad’ Maria for a crowd of tuxedoed men reduced to speechless, quivering lust.

The wink she gives straight into the camera having received her instructions ahead of her descent to the workers’ levels is one of the great cinema moments, her face filling the screen with huge eyes and a malevolent smirk.

Despite what should have been the launch of a stellar career on the strength of an astonishing debut performance, not to mention her easy transition later from silent film to talkies, Brigitte Helm was destined to become one of global cinema’s greatest enigmas, disappearing from the screen and the public eye before she was 30 in a flurry of rumours and half-truths as the joyous tumult of Weimar Germany gave way to National Socialism.

Helm found the making of Metropolis incredibly hard: Lang was a director who demanded a level of performance and commitment that went way beyond a few directorial notes. It took nine days to film the scene in which the robot comes to life, for example, with Helm encased in the costume and her face covered by a mask for hours at a time. When she finally asked whether a double might be used to allow her to rest Lang refused, insisting, “I need to believe it’s you inside that robot”.

For a scene featuring a chase across rooftops in which Maria had to leap a void and cling to a rope, Lang demanded she perform the stunt herself. Mattresses were placed beneath the scenery but with a potential fall of around 30ft there was a tangible risk of serious injury. Helm made the jump but, shaken, bruised, grazed and winded, fled the set in tears.

“I’ll never forget the incredible strain Fritz Lang put us under,” she said on the film’s release. “The work wasn’t easy and the authenticity demanded was a serious test of nerve. I even passed out on set when, during the transformation scene, Maria, as the robot, is clamped into a kind of wooden armament. Because the shot took so long I couldn’t get enough air and nearly suffocated.”

She was born Brigitte Schittenhelm in Berlin, the daughter of a Prussian army officer who died when she was young, and was sent to a strict Lutheran school in Brandenburg. A single production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream aside, Helm never showed the slightest interest in acting and even dismissed it as a frivolous waste of time: she intended to become an astronomer. Her mother meanwhile had a different kind of star system in mind when she took it upon herself to send photographs of the 16-year-old to screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who was at the time starting work on the Metropolis screenplay, to be directed by her husband Fritz Lang.

Von Harbou saw something in Helm’s sharp features and wide, round eyes and called her in for a screen test. The husband and wife team liked what they saw, Helm’s haughty ambivalence a refreshing change from the usual starry-eyed youngsters, and despite an acting CV comprising a single school Shakespeare production, Helm was cast as the female lead in Metropolis. Her potential was so explosive she was then locked into a ten-year contract at Ufa.

Despite her instant success the studio showed little interest in developing Helm’s talent. Discounting duplicate roles in the same films made in different languages (she spoke fluent English and French) Brigitte Helm made 28 films with 24 different directors, making it impossible to forge a proper rapport with any of them.

In studio publicity her potential was constantly talked up yet there seemed little intention of nurturing it. She was given three months of acting lessons prior to starting work on Metropolis and a handful of elocution lessons before her first talkie, 1930’s Die Singende Stadt, but Helm was otherwise entirely self-taught. She continued turning in remarkable performances, such as in G.W. Pabst’s Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney, made a few months after Metropolis, in which Helm played a blind woman caught up in the Russian Civil War. But despite such clear evidence of her versatility Ufa kept casting Helm as a femme fatale or vamp, a waste of her talent that didn’t go unnoticed.

“The role of a young wife driven wild by neglect is a stock one but Brigitte Helm’s interpretation showed the public for the first time that they were watching something terribly real,” said the Guardian of her performance in Pabst’s 1929 Abwege, released in Britain as The Crisis. “Helm is no vamp. She is not sufficiently of this earth for that.”

It’s hard to know why the studio treated their valuable asset with such a lack of imagination. It could have been down to that empty CV – unlike most leading cinema names of the day Helm had no theatrical legacy and therefore wasn’t considered a ‘proper’ actor. Either way, exasperated by persistent miscasting, not to mention some hideously unreasonable clauses in her contract monitoring her weight, in 1929 Helm quit. The studio summoned her to the court of arbitration where she lost, appealed and lost again, leaving her both tied to the studio and with hefty legal bills.

The vampish roles kept coming. In Alraune, released in 1930, she was hideously miscast as a prostitute and club singer, performing a song and dance routine so excruciating that audiences laughed. From 1933, with the Nazis in power, the tone of German film began to change, especially when it came to women’s roles. The femme fatale didn’t fit the high moral domestic standards of the regime and when Helm was given a series of wholesome Aryan maternal parts her distaste for Nazism made them no more palatable.

Off screen, matters were equally unfulfilling. Her first marriage broke down in 1934, after six years, and that autumn she received a two-month prison sentence for injuring a woman pedestrian while driving in Berlin, her second such offence in less than a year. As well as her brief incarceration, Helm didn’t work for six months, Ufa deciding it was better for all that she laid low for a while. Sent to Greece on a long publicity tour, she was loaned to the Terra studio for Ein idealer Gatte, a film based on Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, adapted by Thea von Harbou, which turned out to be her last film and last public appearance.

In 1935, she married the wealthy industrialist Hugo Künheim, whose Jewish heritage led to Helm’s condemnation for ‘race defilement’. Knowing she would be expected to appear in films endorsing this hideous doctrine she turned down a new contract offer from Ufa and retired from the screen. She was 29 years old. On the birth of their first child Pieter in January 1936 the family left the increasingly anti-Semitic Nazi Germany, first for New York and then Ascona in Switzerland, a small town close to the Italian border where Helm lived for the rest of her life. She gave no interviews, ignored all fan mail, displayed no interest in her previous life and took no interest in her public legacy.

Towards the end of her life Pieter told a film historian seeking an introduction to his mother that if he so much as asked her for one, “she would disinherit me”. Brigitte Helm found herself defined by a decade over which she had next to no control. Once she’d reclaimed that control there was no way she was ever letting go of it again, not for anyone.

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