Elisabeth Bergner was a famed actress and former spy who helped other actors escape Nazi Germany. Born in Austrian Galicia, Bergner studied at the Academy for Music and the Performing Arts in Vienna from 1912 to 1915 and performed one of her first professional roles as Nora in A Doll’s House in 1915. She joined the Communist Party in 1918, serving as a courier during the 1919 Hungarian Revolution. In 1920 she moved to Berlin, performing in roles such as Rosalind in As You Like It and Tschang Haitang in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle. Bergner was performing in London when the Nazis came to power and remained in Britain, using her finances to help other actors escape. She continued to delight audiences on Broadway and the London stage until 1973 and in films until the 1980s.
Early Life and Career
One of the most successful and popular stage and screen actresses in pre-World War II Germany, “die Bergner,” as she was known, was born on August 22, 1897, in Drobycz, Austrian Galicia, to a merchant, Emil Ettel (d. 1934) and Anna Rosa (née Wagner). Soon after her birth, the family, whose surname had been changed to the more German-sounding Bergner, moved to Vienna, where she grew up together with her older sister Theodora (Lola) and her younger brother Friedrich. In 1911 she was enrolled at a private acting school and from 1912 to 1915 she attended the Academy for Music and the Performing Arts. Through her friend Thomas Schramek she became acquainted with a young poet, Albert Ehrenstein, who helped her obtain her first theater engagement, in Innsbruck, where she made her debut in October, 1915.
By the end of that year she had already appeared in the major role of Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In 1916 she moved to Zürich, where she performed at the highly regarded Stadttheater (Municipal Theater), in roles such as Annchen in Jugend by Max Halber and as Ophelia to Alexander Moissi’s Hamlet in a production by Alfred Rencker, the director of the theater. Moissi, a celebrated Albanian-born actor, fell fervently in love with her, but she did not return his affection. Later she captivated her audience as Rosalind in As You Like It—the first of the androgynous trouser roles (Hosenrollen) for which she became noted—and had a great success as Lulu in Erdgeist (Earth Spirit), as Elfie in Schloss Wetterstein, both by Frank Wedekind (1864–1918), and as Cassandra in the adaptation by Franz Werfel (1890–1945) of Euripides’s The Trojan Women.
In the cosmopolitan environment of Zürich during World War I she was a friend not only of the leaders of the Dada movement, but also of Else Lasker-Schüler, Claire Gol, Werfel, Wedekind and the expressionist sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881–1919), for whom she had modeled and who apparently committed suicide because Bergner rejected his advances.
In 1918 she returned to Vienna, where her natural sympathy for the poor and downtrodden led her to join the Austrian Communist Party. During the Hungarian revolution of 1919, led by Béla Kun, she for some time served as courier between Kun and leaders of the party in Austria. On stage, she appeared in Miss Julie by August Strindberg and as the young Jew, Moritz Scharf, in Die Sendung Semaels by Arnold Zweig (1887–1968). In 1920 Otto Falckenberg brought her to Munich, where the critics lauded her performance in the city’s premiere, in 1921, of Der Schwierige by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. In the same year she made a guest appearance in Berlin with actors Conrad Veidt and Alexander Granach, the success of which led her to move to the German capital. Here she performed both at the Deutsches Theater of Felix Holländer and Max Reinhardt and at the Lessing Theater under Victor Barnowsky. It was at the latter that she appeared once more as Rosalind in As You Like It (a role in which she played a record 566 consecutive performances), taking Berlin by storm and winning plaudits not only from theatergoers but also from critics such as Kurt Tucholsky. Other roles included Viola in Twelfth Night, Ophelia, and Tschang Haitang in Bertold Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Schauspieltheater, an ensemble created by Brecht, Helene Weigel and others to counter the increasing commercialization of the theater.
In 1924 G. B. Shaw insisted that Max Reinhardt cast her in the title role in St. Joan.
Neither the wide spectrum of her roles, nor the inexhaustible nuances of her artistic skills, including the range of her voice, can in themselves account for the “Bergner Phenomenon.” Seemingly contradictory elements created an inimitable aura, the magic she projected: she was at one and the same time both a tender, fragile child-woman and a “femme fatale.” Behind her dreamy manner and engrossed concentration one could detect intellect, vitality, tenderness, a strong will, humor and wit. As Elsa Lasker-Schüler punningly observed, “She penetrates to one’s heart—but she also goes to one’s head.” With her androgynous appearance, nervous gestures and capacity for total selflessness, Bergner embodied a new, erotic ideal, a complex, fastidious type of female.
In 1924 Bergner began a crucial collaboration with Paul Czinner (1890–1972), whom she married in London in 1931, and who wrote the screenplays for her films and directed them. Together with him, she made Nju, A Tragicomedy of Daily Life, The Violinist of Florence, Liebe, Fräulein Else, The Loves of Ariane, Der träumende Mund (for which Bergner wrote the screenplay) and, after the couple’s emigration, Catherine the Great and Margaret Kennedy’s Escape Me Never, which won her a nomination for an Academy Award after its U.S. screening in 1935.
World War Two
When the National Socialists came to power Bergner, who was in England working on a new film, did not return to Berlin. Rapidly learning English, she was soon able to resume her former stage and screen career. She particularly infuriated the Hitler regime by encouraging other famous actors to leave Germany, even sending them money to help them escape. When Catherine the Great was screened in Berlin, the Nazis staged a public riot, banned all her films and launched a general campaign against Jewish artists. Meanwhile, Bergner scored a triumphant success with Escape Me Never, both in London and in New York. In 1936 she starred with Laurence Olivier in a film version of As You Like It and in the same year appeared in James Barrie’s The Boy David. The playwright was so delighted that he left her a legacy of USD 10,000 for “the best performance ever given in any play of mine.”
In 1938 Bergner and Czinner became British citizens and the following year her mother and sister joined them in London before the German attack on Poland on September 1. In 1940 Bergner began work on 49th Parallel, which proved to be a powerful Allied propaganda film. But in the course of making the film she and Czinner unexpectedly moved to the United States, leaving the film to be completed with British actress Glynis Johns. Her defection caused an outrage; the British public, suffering from German air bombardment, resented what they perceived as a cowardly desertion, but which was more probably the result of pure fear engendered by the terrible fate meted out by the Nazi regime to so many of their Jewish colleagues who had not escaped from Germany.
Career in the United States
In the United States Bergner had to begin her career anew. While Czinner had no difficulty finding work in Hollywood, it was only at the end of 1941 that she herself received a major role in an anti-Nazi film entitled Paris Calling, which was not a success. She therefore returned to the stage, scoring a Broadway triumph in The Two Mrs. Carrolls, which was performed more than three hundred times in 1943–1944 and earned her the Delia Austrian Medal of the Drama League of New York.
Herself in exile, Bergner continued to help fellow émigré artists who reached the United States, among them Bertolt Brecht and his friend Ruth Berlau. She also helped many children to flee Germany and participated in anti-fascist activities such as the establishment of the Council for a Democratic Germany.
Yet for Bergner and her husband the post-war years proved difficult. She was cast infrequently and the Cold War tensions and McCarthyism of the late 1940s eventually led them to leave the United States. In 1949, following a religious crisis, she became a Christian Scientist. In the same year she toured Israel. In October 1950 the Czinners returned to their home in London, but it took some time for Bergner to reestablish herself. This she eventually did when she returned to the German stage in March 1954, in a production of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea in West Berlin. In October of that year she was “back home” as a guest artist at the Theater in der Josefstadt. From then on she again received numerous major roles in Germany, Austria and even Britain, where she appeared in television and on radio. A special triumph was her 1959 appearance in the German version of Dear Liar, a dramatization of the correspondence between the actress Stella Patrick Campbell and G. B. Shaw, in which she appeared opposite O. E. Hasse. She had a similar success in 1964, in Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot, directed in Düsseldorf by Karl Heinz Stroux. The child-woman had been transformed into a charming, though occasionally unfathomable, old lady. In 1973 she made her final stage appearance, in London in a production of Catsplay by Istvan Örkeny (1912–1979) but she continued to work in films for almost ten years.
Honors and Legacy
Bergner’s dramatic skills won her numerous prizes. In 1962 she became the first actress to be honored with the coveted Schiller Prize of the City of Mannheim. In 1979 she received the Ernst Lubitsch Prize. In 1980 Austria awarded her the Cross of Merit for Science and Art and in 1982 she won the Eleonora Duse Prize Asolo. In the Berlin district of Seglitz, a city park was named after her. In 1985, when she was already ill with cancer, she traveled to East Berlin, where she was made an honorary member in the Deutsches Theater and received the Hans Otto Medal of the German Democratic Republic, which was named after one of her good friends of former times. In April 1985 she broadcast a moving account of her life on Austrian national radio. Her memoirs, Bewundert viel und viel gescholten (Greatly admired and often cursed), subtitled Elisabeth Bergners unordentliche Erinnerungen (Elisabeth Bergner’s disorderly memoirs), published in 1978, had received favorable reviews.
Elisabeth Bergner died in her London home on May 12, 1986.
Der Evangelimann (1923).
Dona Juana (1927).
Konigin Luise (1927).
Fräulein Else (1929).
Der träumende Mund (1932).
Catherine the Great/Rise of Catherine the Great (1934).
Escape Me Never (1935).
As You Like It (1936).
Dreaming Lips (1937).
Stolen Life (1939).
Paris Calling (1941).
Die Glückliche Jahre der Thorwalds (1962).
Cry of the Banshee (1970).
The Pedestrian/Der Fussganger (1974).
Der Pfingstausflug (1978).
The Pentecost Outing (1979).
Feine Gesellschaft (1982).
Bergner, Elisabeth. Bewundert viel und viel gescholten. Unordentliche Erinnerungen. Munich: 1978.
Eloesser, Arthur. Elisabeth Bergner. Berlin: 1927.
Zweig, Arnold. “Aufstieg einer Schauspielerin. Elisabeth Bergner.” In Juden auf der deutschen Bühne. Berlin: 1928: 157–169.
Elisabeth Bergner. Mit Beiträgen von Eva Orbanz, Sybille Wirsing und Wolfgang Jacobsen. Berlin: 1983.
Völker, Klaus. Elisabeth Bergner. Das Leben einer Schauspielerin. Berlin: 1990.
Unsere schwarze Rose. Elisabeth Bergner. Ausstellung des Historischen Museums der Stadt Wien in Zusammenarbeit mit dem Jüdischen Museum der Stadt Wien, January 21–March 21, 1993. Wien: 1993.
Elisabeth-Bergner-Archiv bei der Akademie der Künste, Berlin.
Lexikon Jüdische Frauen. Edited by Jutta Dick and Marina Sassenberg.