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Stage flight

Nicholas Jacobs admires a new book that examines the lives of German and Austrian actors who made a mark in Britain

22 February, 2019 — By Nicholas Jacobs

Lucie Mannheim in The 39 Steps

IN an age of emigration it is still extraordinary to think that nearly 80,000 German and Austrians fleeing from Hitler, some 90 per cent of them Jewish, had arrived here in Britain by the end of 1939.

For many years they have been the subject of excellent research. For a long time the reigning monarchs of this field have been Professors Charmian Brinson and Richard Dove.

Among other books and articles, Dove has published a biography of the German playwright Ernst Toller, who in the mid 30s lived in Lambolle Road in Belsize Park, as well as an account of five German-speaking writers – including Stefan Zweig – in London during the Second World War.

He has now written a riveting account of German and Austrian actors who succeeded against all odds in making their careers on the London stage, arriving here from the land of Goethe, Schiller and Brecht, to the land of Ivor Novello, Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan, but also of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Bernard Shaw.

Despite its seemingly specialised title – Foreign Parts: German and Austrian Actors on the British Stage, 1933-1960 – its author’s encyclopedic but clearly communicated knowledge of theatre history in Weimar Germany (including the odd phenomenon of the Jewish theatre in Nazi Berlin) and in pre-war and war-time Britain, makes this book an essential contribution to European cultural history.

Gerard Heinz. Photo: Ernest Rodker

Its price is high, but it is a well-produced, reader-friendly and attractive volume. (A paperback version at £10 is planned for April.) The Jewish theatre in Nazi Berlin is not alone among the highways and byways of this book. The German theatre in Soviet Ukraine, the German theatre in Belsize Park, and the Austrian cabaret/theatre at 153 Finchley Road also feature strongly.

The five actors chosen here, out of some 30 German-speaking actors who made their careers on the London stage or screen, are Frederick Falk, Lily Kann, Martin Miller, Gerhard Hinze and Lucie Mannheim. If these names are now little known, they are portrayed (and pictured) admirably here. We get to know each of them and their highly successful careers in Germany and/or Austria and in Soviet Russia before they arrived here, mostly as Jewish exiles from Hitler.

Gerhard Hinze was not Jewish, but had been badly beaten up as a communist in Germany after 1933 and had taken refuge with others in Soviet Russia.

Lucie Mannheim came here in 1934, having been a star on the German stage since 1919. From 1935, when the famous Observer theatre critic Ivor Brown devoted an article praising her in the Evening Standard, she was a success on the London stage.

Her career was helped by her marriage to the English actor Marius Goring and by occasional appearances on the screen, notably in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. In 1940 Mannheim joined the German Service of the BBC, excelling as Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. She was the only one of the five to return to her “beloved Berlin” after the war. She returned to London in 1948, often in Ibsen plays, but also worked in German TV dramas from the 60s.

Martin Miller in The Führer Speaks, 1940. Photo: Martin Miller and Hannah Norbert-Miller Archive, University of London

Gerhard Hinze, who changed his name to Gerard Heinz in Britain arrived here in May 1938 after an adventurous life in the German theatre in the Soviet Ukraine, where he also picked up an English partner, the late Joan Rodker. They lived with their baby son (born in Odessa) in Boundary Road, St John’s Wood, while Hinze pursued his theatrical career at the Free German League of Culture in Belsize Park. However, his adventures were not over yet. He was interned as an “enemy alien” and transported to Canada. Even interned Hinze was active theatrically, organising performances of Chekov and Oscar Wilde, before being returned to Britain and released by mistake, after which he had a busy career here on stage and screen.

The careers of Frederick Valk, Lilly Kann and Martin Miller are no less extraordinary.

This book is so overwhelmingly rich in information and story, it cannot be comprised in a short review.

However, one story must be told. The experienced Austrian actor Martin Miller was a disconcertingly brilliant Hitler impersonator. His wonderful spoof, Hitler Speaks, in German, performed at the Austrian Exile Theatre on April Fool’s Day 1940 was so good that it was subsequently broadcast by the BBC German Service. Now it can still be enjoyed – on YouTube – highly recommended.

• Foreign Parts: German and Austrian Actors on the British Stage, 1933-1960. By Richard Dove Legenda, £70


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