A New Sybil's "WHO'Z DAT?"... BRIGITTE HELM (March 17, 1906 - June 11, 1996)

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Darlings! Mummie has made a decision! After reading dozens of posts and having hundreds of conversations with well-meaning folks who just don't know about the great CHARACTER actors who gave films the depth and genius that surrounded and supported the so-called "stars", I am going to post a regular, special entry called "SYBIL'S WHO'Z DAT?"....there'll be photos and a mini-bio, and the next time you see one of those familiar, fabulous faces that you just "can't quite place".......well, maybe these posts will help. Some of these actors worked more, had longer and broader careers, and ended up happier, more loved, and even wealthier than the "stars" that the public "worships". (I think there may be a metaphor in that! What do you think???). And speaking of “character” actors, Mummie is going to introduce everyone to the concept of a “character LEAD”!! ….and this person was one of the greatest stars overseas. She had the advantage of being both beautiful and very talented, and was unafraid of stretching herself to fully inhabit her roles. She’s Brigitte Helm (March 17th, 1906 – June 11th, 1996).

          Born Brigitte Eva Gisela Schittenhelm in Berlin, Germany, she was the daughter of a Prussian Army officer who died when she was a toddler. She grew to be a serious, idealistic boarding school student with plans to become an astronomer, but she appeared willingly enough in school plays to please her friends and mother. In fact, Helm regarded acting with Prussian disdain as an immoral occupation on its face and had no plans to pursue it as a career.

         Then her mother, who had no such notions, sent her daughter's photograph to the screenwriter, Thea von Harbou, the wife of Fritz Lang. Brigitte, who was just 17 when she was tricked into taking a screen test, was suddenly on her way to stardom. Lang cast her as the female lead in his early masterpiece, METROPOLIS (1924), then the most expensive German film ever made. She later became the most sought-after actress of the glory days of the German film industry, a tall blond beauty who starred in more than 35 movies and set directors against one another in the competition for her services. Ms. Helm was regarded as such a perfect embodiment of the era's ideal of cool sophistication that when she turned Josef von Sternberg down for the starring role in "Blue Angel," he had to settle for Marlene Dietrich. Yet for all the acclaim she received, Ms. Helm could never eclipse the role, or rather roles, in which the good Maria, an oppressed working girl, is transformed into an evil robotic doppelganger of herself in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis."

        Even today, 90 years after it was released, METROPOLIS is not only a cult classic, it is regularly listed among the half-dozen most important films ever made. This is a tribute, to be sure, to Lang's grotesque science-fiction vision, and the array of fabulous special effects he used to bring it to the screen. The film depicts the world of 2006, a time, Lang envisioned, when a ruling class lives in decadent luxury in the lofty heights of skyscrapers linked by aerial railways, while beneath the streets slave-like workers toil in unbearable conditions to sustain their masters.

        But for all the steam and special effects, for many who have seen the movie in its various incarnations, including a tinted version and one accompanied by music, the most compelling lingering image is neither the towers above nor the hellish factories below. It is the startling transformation of Ms. Helm from an idealistic young woman into a monstrous robot and then to a barely clad creature performing a lascivious dance in a brothel and corrupting every man who sets his eyes on her. While he may not have been the sadist many of his actors made him out to be, director Fritz Lang was such a hard-driving perfectionist that Ms. Helm, who worked virtually every day for 18 months, often hanging upside down or standing in water up to her waist for hours at a time, found the experience excruciating.

After one torturous ordeal, when she wondered why a double could not have taken her place during the nine days it took to shoot a scene in which she is encased in a metallic robot shell, her face obscured, Lang haughtily claimed an auteur's creative sensibility. "I have to feel that you are inside the robot," he said. "I was able to see you even when I didn't." After the movie made her an overnight star, Ms. Helm, who had her own artistic standards, refused to make another movie with Lang. Helm was one of those stars that made a successful transition to sound, but refused to abandon Germany for Hollywood. METROPOLIS financially ruined UFA (Berlin’s major film studio, the Universum Film-Aktien Gesellschaft), but it made Brigitte Helm an overnight success. UFA gave her a ten-year contract and wanted to typecast her as a man-eating vamp: she twice had to play ALRAUNE (1928- the silent version, and again in 1930-the sound version). A science fiction horror story, Alraune is the legendary woman born of the seed of a hanged murderer artificially placed in the womb of a whore, who drives men to their deaths. But by 1929 she had already attempted to refuse all vamp roles. She took UFA to court and lost; the trial cost her a fortune and after that she acted mostly in order to pay off her debts.

In addition to many mediocre and sometimes downright bad films, the director G.W. Pabst gave her some great acting opportunities. In THE LOVES OF JEANNE NEY (1927) she plays a helpless blind woman who is seduced by a rogue. In CRISIS (1928), she portrays a spoilt woman of the world who from sheer boredom almost destroys her own life. They included L’ARGENT (1928), GLORIA (1931), THE BLUE DANUBE (1932), L’ANTLANTIDE (1932), and GOLD (1934)

In her films of the early 1930s Brigitte Helm became the embodiment of the affluent, modern woman. With her slim figure and austere pre-Raphaelite profile, she seems unapproachable, a model fashion-conscious woman, under whose ice-cold outer appearance criminal energies flicker. Ms. Helm was regarded as such a perfect embodiment of the era's ideal of cool sophistication that when she turned Josef von Sternberg down for the starring role in BLUE ANGEL (1930), he had to settle for Marlene Dietrich. Later on, Helm was considered for the title role in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) before Elsa Lanchester was given the role.

Her role as the Hoschstaplerin ("The Deceiver") in DIE SCHONEN TAGE VON ARANJUEZ (The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez) (1933) was reprised in 1935 by Marlene Dietrich in the film DESIRE. In the G.W. Pabst film L’ATLANTIDE (1932), Helm plays an opaque, static goddess, the mere sight of whom makes men crazy. Her power is not of this world, but incomprehensible, magical. This was Helm's last really great role, a legendary mysterious sphinx of the German cinema. Helm acted in 29 German, French and English films.

But just as suddenly as she had emerged, she disappeared again. At the height of her success, she had told one critic that her whole film career was a matter of indifference to her and that she would much rather be a housewife: to cook, bring up her children and look after her husband. After a few bad press reviews of her later films and a car accident, for which she was sentenced to a brief jail sentence, she withdrew into her private life. In 1935, disgusted with the Nazi takeover of the film industry, she abruptly quit, marrying an industrialist, Hugo von Kunheim, himself a Nazi opponent, and Jewish. Helm incurred the wrath of Nazi Germany for "race defilement" by marrying him. She withdrew from the cinema, and she and her family fled to Switzerland. From then on she never appeared on stage, film or on television, and she refused all invitations and turned down almost all requests for interviews. She lived the rest of her life quietly there in Switzerland, and died on June 11, 1996. She was 90 years old. She was survived by her four sons.

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