German-Speaking Actresses in English-Speaking Roles, Part 1

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A Brief History

On July 22, 2014, Franka Potente celebrated her 40th birthday. This German actress, probably unknown to most American movie viewers, has appeared in a few relatively significant English-speaking roles.

Digging Deeper

The following article will also name other relative unknowns as well as great movie stars in a concise reference list. The glue that binds them together is the fact that they were all born German-speaking in either Germany, Austria or Switzerland and later starred in English or American movies. For the purposes of this article, neither American actresses born to German parents, such as Kirsten Dunst and Sandra Bullock, nor German models who have appeared in films, such as Heidi Klum or Claudia Schiffer, will be considered.

To the great surprise of the author, while researching this list, she discovered just how many German-speaking women performed for English-speaking audiences. For simplicity’s sake, the list will be divided into three separate groups by genre and published separately but linked together. Franka Potente will be discussed in Part 3.

Part 1: The Early Years

1) Lilia Skala (1896-1994)

Austrian Lilia Skala was one the first women to graduate in architecture and engineering from the German Technical University of Dresden. She was even a practicing professional in Vienna and has the reputation of being Austria’s first female architect. Discovered by Max Reinhardt, founder of the Max Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna, one of the most important German-language acting schools, she began acting in his theater troupe and starred in Austrian movies. Due to their Jewish background, however, Max Reinhardt and later Skala, her husband and children fled their Nazi-occupied homeland. Once in the United States, her quick grasp of the English language enabled her to make the transition to the American stage. Lilia Skala also appeared in countless television shows and series, on Broadway and even appeared alongside Sidney Poitier in the movie Lilies of the Field, as the mother superior, a role for which she received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress in 1964. A younger audience might recognize her from her role as a retired ballerina in Flashdance.

2) Elisabeth Bergner (1897-1986)

As a teenager, Elisabeth Bergner toured Austria and Germany with a Shakespearean company. Having been born a Jew in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, she was prime target of the growing Nazi movement, so she moved to London in 1933 with her director husband Paul Czinner. Following an Academy Award nomination in 1936 for her role in Escape Me Never, which was directed by her husband, she starred as Rosalind opposite Laurence Olivier’s Orlando in the screen adaptation of As You Like It, the first Shakespearean play filmed with sound. The movie was not a success as many were put off by Bergner’s thick German accent. In 1940 she and Czinner emigrated to the United States where she starred in her only Hollywood movie, Paris Rising, which was not a success. She then returned to Europe and later had a role in Maximilian Shell’s The Pedestrian (Der Fußganger), a film that received an Academy Award nomination and won a Golden Globe for Best-Foreign Language Foreign Film in 1974. Elisabeth Bergner is considered to be the inspiration for the character of Margo Channing in the highly regarded film All About Eve, made famous by Bette Davis. While performing in a play, Bergner took a younger, aspiring actress under her wing. This actress then began behaving horribly and attempted to control things. Bergner recounted this to American author Mary Orr who used this as the basis for her short story “The Wisdom of Eve”.

3) Lotte Lenya (1898-1981)

Immortalized in the Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin versions of “Mack the Knife”, Ms. Lotte Lenya was an original cast member the Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) composed by her husband, Kurt Weill, with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht. She recorded many of Weill’s songs, including the original German version of “Mack the Knife” (“Mackie Messer”). Though Austrian-born, she moved with her husband, a German-born Jew, to the United States to escape persecution by the Nazis. There, she performed on stage, both on and off-Broadway, and in 1956 she received a Tony award for her role as Jenny in an off-Broadway version of the Threepenny Opera, the only time an off-Broadway performance was so honored. She then made the transition to film and had a supporting role in the Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, starring Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty, for which she received an Academy Award nomination in 1961. To English-speaking audiences her most memorable role, however, is probably that of Soviet agent Rosa Klebb whose secret weapon in the James Bond film From Russia with Love is a poison-laced blade hidden in her shoe. Shortly before her death, Lenya was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.

4) Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992)

No other German actress, and few other actresses of any nationality for that matter, have managed to reach the ranks of Marlene Dietrich, a legend in her own lifetime. A chorus girl, stage and silent film actress in Berlin of the 1920s, it was her first sound film The Blue Angel, directed by Josef von Sternberg and released in 1930, that showcased her singing talents and garnered her international attention and acclaim. Paramount Pictures offered her a contract, and she and von Sternberg, a Jew, moved to Hollywood where she starred in such early hits as Morocco, which earned her her only Academy Award nomination, Blonde Venus and Shanghai Express, all directed by von Sternberg. Dietrich’s movies after she and von Sternberg stopped their artistic collaboration in 1935 were not nearly as successful as her first ones and she was labeled “box office poison”. She never ever fully recovered the superstar status she had working with von Sternberg, but she later had memorable roles in 1957’s Witness for the Prosecution and 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg. While in London in 1935, she was approached by officials of the Nazi Party who offered her a German film contract and the chance to become the foremost actress of the Third Reich if only she would return to Germany. Dietrich refused their offer and applied for US citizenship in 1937 which was granted two years later. During World War II, Dietrich became one of the most active entertainers involved in the war effort and performed for both the US and allied troops. Her rendition of Lili Marleen, a song popular with troops on both sides, was blasted so loud that the enemy would be sure to hear it, demoralizing them. It took many years for the Germans to forgive her for all this. From the 1950s onwards, she concentrated more on cabaret work and traveled the world performing as a chanteuse. In 1960 her tour took her to Germany where she was met with a mixed response. While some protested her and accused her of betrayal, others were happy to have her home. She also starred on Broadway in 1967 and 1968 and won a Tony Award. Her career came to an end in 1975 when she fell on stage, breaking her hip. This accident caused her to withdraw from public life and seclude herself in her Paris apartment. She did allow, however, the director Maximilian Schell to interview her for his documentary film of her life; she lent her voice but refused to be pictured on camera. This biography simply titled Marlene earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary in 1984. Dietrich died in 1992. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dietrich asked that she be buried in her native Berlin. This request was granted, and she was buried with various medals including the French Legion of Honor Medal and the US Medal of Freedom for her fight against Nazism. Of all of her accomplishments, the thing that made Dietrich the most proud was her Medal of Freedom which had been awarded to her by the US government for her war effort. In her native Germany, however, even after her death, she was still shrouded in controversy. A memorial service was cancelled and only after some heated debate, was a street in Berlin named after her in 1997. In the meantime, however, the Germans seem to have forgiven her, and she was made an honorary citizen of Berlin in 2002. Today Dietrich is ranked as the 9th greatest actress of all time.

5) Luise Rainer (1910- )

Luise Rainer, a German native with Jewish heritage, holds many Academy Award records: First, she was the first actor or actress to win multiple Oscars; Second, she was the first one to be awarded them consecutively; And third, she is currently the oldest living Academy Award winner. Now aged 104 at the publication of this article, she was 16 when she was discovered in Vienna by Austrian stage director Max Reinhardt who had also discovered Lilia Skala. As a result of his tutelage, she was offered a contract by MGM in 1935 and moved to Hollywood where she won two Oscars in quick succession, one for The Great Ziegfried in 1936 and one for The Good Earth in 1937. She later lamented that this event was the worst thing that could have happened to her as audience expectations from then on would be hard to fulfill. Although she was given the nickname the “Viennese teardrop” because of her emotional performances, following non-consequential roles in a few subsequent snoozers, she decided to leave Hollywood after three years. Today she is considered an “Oscar victim”. Though she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, there was some controversy about awarding her a star on the Boulevard of Stars in Berlin, despite the fact that she was Germany’s only Academy Award-winning actress. The jury initially rejected Rainer on the basis that she was largely forgotten, but a campaign and Facebook initiative started and politicians and the press were lobbied. Seeing all the public support for Rainer, the jury finally relented and she was awarded her German star.

6) Lilli Palmer (1914-1986)

Born Lilli Preiser, she took the name Palmer from an English actress whom she admired. In her youth she studied drama in Berlin, but fear of persecution because of her Jewish background caused her to flee to Paris in 1933 following the German takeover by the Nazis. There, while working in a cabaret, she was discovered by British talent scouts who offered her a contract in England. She had her English-language film debut in Crime Unlimited and would go on to make many British films over the next decade. In 1943 she married Rex Harrison who later became famous in the 1960s for his roles in Cleopatra, My Fair Lady and Dr. Doolittle and moved to Hollywood with him two years later. She would star in many American movies over the years, opposite famous actors and actresses such as Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Debbie Reynolds, William Holden and Robert Taylor. Shortly before her divorce from Harrison in 1956, she returned to Europe and began performing there again as well. Palmer has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and during her life received two nominations for Golden Globe awards. In Europe she was a highly decorated actress, winning both international as well as German awards. In Germany a prize named collectively after her and the actor Curd Jürgens is awarded to deserving up-and-coming actors and actresses. Palmer was also a woman of many talents, and in addition to acting, she was also a best-selling author and an artist. In her youth she played table tennis and represented Germany in the 1930 World Table Tennis World Championships in Berlin.

7) Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)

Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig (Hedy) Kiesler to Jewish parents in Vienna, shot to fame early in life when she starred in the Czech-produced 1933 film Ecstasy in which she played a neglected housewife. Her simulation of an orgasm and her showing full frontal nudity is what gave her notoriety in this role. Her husband, one of the richest men in Austria, was so shocked and embarrassed by what he saw that he tried to buy up all copies of the film. Thank God he didn’t live in this digital age…Not happy in her marriage, Lamarr, then still known as Hedy Kiesler, later left her husband and traveled to Paris and then London. In London she met with Louis B. Mayer, studio head of MGM, who offered her a contract. His only condition was that she change her name so that American audiences would not recognize her as that “Ecstasy lady”. At MGM, she starred with many Hollywood heavyweights such as Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, but she would have her biggest hit when she left MGM for Paramount Pictures and played the female lead in Cecil B. DeMille’s Sampson and Delilah in 1949 opposite Victor Mature. Lamarr was not to have much more Hollywood success, though. Aside from romping around naked and playing Delilah, Lamarr is today mainly known for her many marriages (she had six husbands!) and for inventing an early technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping.

Actually everyone with a cell phone has her to thank for it. During World War II, she and composer George Anthiel came up with a broadcasting solution to prevent radio-controlled torpedoes from going off course due to interference. She knew a little bit about torpedoes from her first husband who was an armaments manufacturer. On the basis of a keyboard, they employed frequency hopping to unpredictably change the signal sent from the control center to the torpedo at short bursts. This would prevent enemies from ascertaining the control signal. She and Anthiel were granted a patent, but the US Navy was not interested and only employed the technology in 1962 during the Blockade of Cuba after the patent had expired. Her contribution was recognized in 1997 when the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave her an award.

This brought Lamarr’s invention to the attention of Wi-LAN, Inc., a wireless technology developer situated in Ottawa, who then bought the rights to the technology. Today the technology is used in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi networks as well as in cell phones and some cordless phones. Hedy Lamarr who had spent many years battling money-related issues due to the lack of movie roles and failed marriages, even having been arrested for shoplifting, ended up dying a very rich woman. In 2014 she and Anthiel were inducted into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame.

Please stay tuned in the next few weeks for parts 2 and 3 of this list in which other German-speaking actresses such as Ursula Andress and Diane Kruger will be presented.

An observation by the author: Most of these early actresses are either Jewish or worked closely with Jews. This fact is particularly interesting since in the upcoming lists there will be significantly less (or maybe not any) actresses who have ties to Judaism. The Nazi fascists either chased the talent from Germany or exterminated it in the Vaterland. Question for students (and subscribers): If that is not a lesson for us all, then what is?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Farina, William.  The German Cabaret Legacy in American Popular Music.  McFarland, 2013.


About Author

Beth Michaels

Beth Michaels attended a private college in Northeast Ohio from which she earned a Bachelor’s degree in German with a minor in French. From there she moved to Germany where she attended the University of Heidelberg for two years. Additional schooling earned her certifications as a foreign language correspondent and state-certified translator. In her professional career, Beth worked for a leading German manufacturer of ophthalmological medical instruments and devices as a quality representative, regulatory affairs manager and internal auditor.