German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3796/1, 1928-1929. Photo: Paramount.
If Weimar cinema had one film star, then it was Emil Jannings (1884-1950) for sure. He was a great actor in the silent era and won the first Oscar for Best Actor. Too bad that during his later years he worked as a board member for the Ufa propaganda machine during the Third Reich.
Jannings was born Theodor Friedrich Emil Janenz in Rorschach (Switzerland), and grew up in Leipzig and Görlitz. He left gymnasium prematurely and worked as ship's mate. In 1900 he started to work at the Görlitz Stadttheater, after which he played in several provincial theaters and with travelling companies. Occasionally he directed plays too. In 1914 he reached Berlin where he was engaged in 1915-1916 at Max Reinhardt's Theater. In between he played on stage elsewhere and had his first film role in the war propagandafilm Im Schützengraben [In the Trenches] Until 1920 Jannings continued to play on stage, getting ever bigger roles.
From 1916 on, Emil Jannings played more and more in film, mostly in quickly staged melodramas and crime stories. In 1919 he had his big breakthrough as Louis XV in the lavish period piece Madame Dubarry, directed by his former theater colleague Ernst Lubitsch. The film was such an international hit that former war adversaries such as the United States embraced German cinema. Jannings and his co-actress Pola Negri (Dubarry) became instant stars. For a while he continued to play debauched rulers such as Henry V in Lubitsch' Anna Boleyn (1920), Amenes in Lubitsch' Weib des Pharao (1921) and czar Peter the Great in Peter der Grosse (Dimitri Buchowetzki 1922). Other strong historical characters were the title roles in Otello (1921-22) and Danton (1921) both by Buchowetzki. After the Italo-German co-production Quo Vadis? (1923-24), in which he incorporated emperor Nero, Jannings managed to get away from his historical characters with two major films. In F.W. Murnau's Der letzte Mann/The Last Laugh (1924) he was a proud hotel doorman who looses his self-esteem and that of others when he is reduced to a toilet man, working in the basement of the hotel. In Varieté/Variety (1925) by E.A. Dupont he is the strong acrobat, who kills his rival out of jealousy. Jannings magnificently expressed the fears and doubts of big, proud and big-hearted men, who are cheated by their surroundings.
The success of these films earned Jannings a 3-year contract with Paramount. Here he played again men who had a social position and then end in misery such as The Way of All Flesh (1927) and The Last Command (1928). They earned him the first Oscar ever distributed to an actor. Together with Lubitsch he tried to repeat their German successes in The Patriot (1928). When sound came in, Jannings left Hollywood and returned to Berlin, where he was launched in his first sound film Der blaue Engel/The Blue Angel (1929), directed by Ernst Lubitsch and based on a novel by Heinrich Mann, Professor Unrat. Jannings is the local university professor Von Rath who falls in love with cabaret singer Lola-Lola (Marlene Dietrich). Married to him she shamelessly exploits and humiliates him. When the film came out, Dietrich's populariy overshadowed Jannings. The film was her ticket to Hollywood. Jannings returned to play on stage, until 1936.
With his sound films of the early 1930s, Jannings could not compete with his earlier successes. Only after the nazi's came to power, his star rose again, while playing rulers, just like in the early 1920s but this time not the decadent versions anymore. He performed historical characters such as Friedrich Wilhelm I in Der alte und der junge König (1934-35), Geheimrat Clausen in der Herrscher (1936-37), the title roles in Robert Koch (1939) and Ohm Kruger (1941) and Bismarck in Die Entlassung (1942). All predecessors to Hitler, to be understood. In 1936 he became board member of Ufa and in 1938 he was chairman there. He was allowed to direct his own films, and thus was the main responsable for Ohm Kruger, one of the most expensive flms of the nazi era. His historical films contributed to the legitimization of the modern politics. In January 1945 he broke up work to the film Wo ist Herr Belling?, because of an illness. The film, never ended, was his last film. In 1946 Jannings was denazified and in 1950 he died in Austria.
Too bad about Jannings' last years, because he was a great actor in the silent era, one of the biggest (in every which way).
Ross Verlag nr. 3796/1.