Back in August I was fortunate enough to have three poems included in a print anthology of contemporary poetry by the guys at A Swift Exit. One of those poems, Woman Among the Ruins, was a dramatic monologue inspired by the life of Thea von Harbou – otherwise known as, Fritz Lang’s wife. I was inspired to write the poem as I was saddened whilst reading about the life and achievements of this incredible woman and seeing how, whereas Fritz Lang has all but assured cinematic immortality, her name has all but been erased. As I will mention, despite the part she played in the masterpieces adorned the walls of the Lang mythos, her life has not yet been thought worthy of a full-length biographical treatment. What follows here is a distillation of information I have managed to cobble together from the internet and scattered sources in lieu of this injustice being re-addressed.
Introduction: raise the topic of German Expressionist cinema, and either Metropolis (1927) or M (1931) in particular, with any self-respecting film buff and they will probably break into rapturous praise about the singular genius and incomparable vision of director Fritz Lang. When said film buff pauses for breath, if you interject the name of Lang’s wife and collaborator Thea von Harbou you are likely to get little more than a quizzical raised eyebrow in response. And while it’s true that Lang’s contributions to cinema should not be undersold, the at-best footnote status of von Harbou is something in need of dramatic historical re-evaluation. To date, her life and accomplishments have not been subject to a biographical treatment despite having forged her own way as a respected novelist and short-story writer at a time when it was difficult for women to do so, as well as contributing significantly to the development of German Expressionist cinema, co-writing (among many others) Der müde Tod (Destiny), both of Lang’s Dr Mabuse films, Metropolis, and M.
Thea von Harbou in 1935
So where did it all go wrong for von Harbou? For many critics, von Harbou sentenced herself to this footnote status in 1933 when she openly aligned herself with the National Socialist party, which came to power under Hitler’s charismatic spell in 1933. Shortly after, Lang fled first to Paris and later America, where he would go on to have immense success in Hollywood and establish the abiding legend of the émigré cinematic auteur. In contrast, von Harbou remained and continued her career screen-writing movies supportive of the Third Reich. Following the defeat of Germany in 1945, von Harbou was first interned in a British prison camp and then worked as a Trümmerfrau– a woman whose job it was to clear the rubble from the ruins of the desolated German cities.
And yet, if it was this dubious political affiliation that has been responsible for persona non grata status in film history, we should ask why is it that several biographies of Leni Reifenstahl exist? Clearly, there is something else going on here. And the truth may well be far more prosaic than images of jack-booted soldiers marching in line against blazing red flags bearing Swastikas; rather, what we witness with the wild variance in the Lang/von Harbou historiographies may well be simply the emotional fall-out from a relationship disintegrated beyond reconciliation where each partner vies for position as the saintly victim of the roguish other. However, in this case only one party – Lang – partook of public opportunities to disparage the work of the other and as a result von Harbou had languished in silence ever since.
Early life: Thea Gabriele Von Harbou was born in Döhlau, Bavaria, in 1888 into a family of minor Prussian nobility which would later experience financial difficulties. A precocious child, she was educated by private tutors and was adept at speaking several languages as well as playing piano and violin. She wrote from an early age and published her first poems as well as stories about animals – which she loved –from the age of 14. Her first novel, Wenn’s Morgen wird, followed in 1905.
And yet, despite the secure life all but offered to her from this privileged background, von Harbou was always head-strong and keen to forge her own path. And so, when her family began to struggle financially she threw herself – against her father’s wishes – into both her fiction writing as well as acting in the theatre. She moved to Dresden when she was 18 to pursue these ambitions and, as an actress, travelled around Germany and performed in Düsseldorf (1906), Weimar (1908), Chemnitz (1911) and Aachen (1913). She juggled these twin ambitions well and in 1910, at the age of 22, celebrated her first great literary success with Die nach uns kommen. This success was built upon with serialised works appearing in various newspapers, which with her style of blended melodrama, feminism, and nationalism, helped her to become a popular author of the time.
Following this literary success von Harbou decided to prioritise writing over her theatre work. However, not before meeting the actor and director Rudolf Klein-Rogge in Aachen – the man who would go onto become von Harbou’s first husband (and who himself would later star in several Lang-Harbou films following their divorce in 1920). Von Harbou and Klein-Rogge were married in 1914 and moved to Berlin in 1918, feeling that it would be a more suitable environment in which to market von Harbou’s books.
The move to screen-writing: In 1919, director Joe May enlisted von Harbou to adapt a piece of fiction, Die Legende von der heiligen Simplicia (The Legend of Blessed Simplica), for the screen. This was her first screen-play and thereafter began a prolific and successful period of writing for the screen. Through her association with May, von Harbou met Fritz Lang and together they collaborated on Lang’s next film Das wandernde Bild (The Wandering Image) and began an affair despite both being married. Von Harbou divorced Klein-Rogge in 1920 and, following both the success of Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler) and the curious death of Lang’s first wife, the couple were married in 1922.
Her screen-writing work continued through the 1920s and elicited high praise from her contemporaries for work on Murnau’s Phantom (1922) and von Gerlach’s Zur Chronik von Grieshuus (1925). In particular, her dramaturgical skill and ability to think in specifically cinematic terms – no small feat considering the relative youth of the form – were praised by many at the time. However, it is for her collaboration with Lang for which she is most known. Until 1933, when the National Socialists came to power in Germany and Lang fled, she would she co-write every film that Lang would direct – including most famously Metropolis (1927) and M (1931).
Rather than a novelisation of a film, Metropolis the novel (released a year before the film) was in fact developed from a screenplay written in 1924. As such, the plots between the two are largely similar (albeit with a few stylistic changes on Lang’s part and the film undergoing substantial cuts by the production company, UFA): set in a technologically advanced future, the city of Metropolis is a mass of sky-scrappers and engineering marvels where the upper-classes lounge around in idleness totally oblivious to the life of unrelenting toil experienced by an underground network of labourers whose existence is little more than food for the insatiable appetite of the monstrous machine-city. One such upper-class inhabitant is Freder, who we meet at the beginning idling in ‘The Club of Sons’ among the company of various females and enjoying the many aesthetic distractions available to him. Freder is the son of one the city’s principal architect Joh Fredersen, an emotionless and absent man whose entire existence revolves around ensuring the smooth running of the city by serving it fresh labour.
One day, Freder encounters Maria, who manages to intrude into the pleasure garden of the elite with a group of children belonging to the workers. Maria is soon ushered out but Freder remains shocked by the event and, fascinated by unknown implications suggested by the intrusion, goes to the machine rooms to find her. Eventually he finds her heading an underground assemblage of angry workers expressing their grievances at their lot and on the verge of rebelling violently against Metropolis. Maria placates them, emphasising that revolution is not the answer but rather a figure, a Messiah if you will, who can mediate between the two worlds of the ruling and working class for the betterment of both. Freder makes himself known to Maria, declares his love for her, and announces himself to be the mediator she speaks of.
Another character is the sinister Rotwang (played in the movie by von Harbou’s former husband Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an inventor who lives in a curious old house amid the gleaming futurist vision of Metropolis and which is guarded by an occult seal conveyed upon it by a fabled magician. Rotwang and Fredersen have a long history, with the two men previously competing for the attention of a woman, Hel, who had initially been involved with Rotwang but who changed her affections to Fredersen before she died. The wounds run deep in Rotwang and he is obsessed with “resurrecting” Hel in mechanical form. Fredersen orders Rotwang to give this mechanical Hel Maria’s likeness so that it can soil her reputation among the workers. What follows is an apocalyptic unleashing of primal forces as the false Maria whips up the latent violent descent of the workers into a terrifying and unforgiving mob seeking the destruction of Metropolis. Of course, Freder saves the day and a new order is established with the head and the hands mediated by the heart.
In later years, Lang was very critical of Metropolis and stated that von Harbou’s contributions to the script were hugely over-emphasised and that it was philosophically muddled. Presumably, he wasn’t meaning to imply that it was his contributions that were muddled, which surely would have been the case if von Harbou’s input was as small as he liked to claim. It is in such comments that we detect traces of the kind of spitefulness characteristic of one’s reassessment of a relationship gone sour. For my part, Metropolis is only philosophically muddled when one is trying to impose a one-dimensional undergraduate anti-capitalist reading onto it. Rather, while the story certainly contains criticisms of capitalism, it is a long way away from the Marxist reading many are keen to layer onto it. One thing for sure though, is that for all its intricacies, it is not a “great” novel. My main criticism is that it is stylistically written in such an impressionistic style (some might uncharitably say “over-written”) that it is often hard to know what is going on. Then, suddenly the tone will change from the high-minded and poetic expression to plot twists and melodrama more suited to the most formulaic of genre books. So while I’m sceptical over Lang’s claims that the movie is philosophically muddled, I concede that the novel is stylistically so.
Von Harbou’s next major project with Lang was M (1931), a film about a child murderer and inspired by the case of Peter Kürten, “the Monster of Düsseldorf”, during the late 1920s. The movie, Lang’s first “talkie”, betrays its German Expressionist heritage with its representation of aberrant psychological states through the use of contrasting lightness and darkness and unusual camera angles but fuses it with the kind of gritty realism which would characterise the Film Noir genre a decade later. No doubt this realism grew organically from von Harbou’s assiduous following of the news coverage of the Kürten case both in the newspapers and through regular contact with the police headquarters on Alexanderplatz where she was granted access to secret police communications.
The films opens with shots of children playing and a woman setting the table for dinner, and a girl bouncing a ball on her way home. She is approached by a man whistling a tune who offers to buy her a balloon. A few edits later the ball is shown rolling away and the balloon has absconded and flits impotently trapped in telephone lines. It’s a brief and brutal sequence; the perfect introduction to a dark and twisted story.
Following the death of the little girl both the police and the local underworld criminals start manhunts; however, it is the vigilante manhunt that identifies the killer first, marking him in an ingenious manner, and subject him to a kangaroo court where the man (played by Peter Lorre in his first major role) makes an impassioned speech in an effort to win some measure of sympathy from those assembled. His plea is unsuccessful but [spoiler alert] is saved by the police crashing into proceedings just in time and who take him to face an official trial.
The film is a masterpiece. For my money, I consider it the superior overall film to Metropolis, despite the earlier film’s more spectacular visual aesthetic. Of course, like Metropolis, it is almost impossible to distinguish (from a screen-writing perspective) which contributions owe more to Lang and which to von Harbou, but it is readily accepted that von Harbou was an integral part of the research for the movie as well as an active part in the development of the script.
Personal and professional decline: In 1932, a year before Adolf Hitler came to power, von Harbou joined the National Socialist German Workers Party and a Nazi banner flew over the Lang household, an action largely attributed to von Harbou. In all likelihood this was the case, but some critics have written that Lang was in fact quite tolerant of the Nazis when he thought that he may actually win their approval and it was only following a supposed private meeting between Goebbels and Lang in March 1933, where the Nazi propaganda chief informed Lang that The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was going to be banned, that Lang thought to flee. Of course, this is a long way from claiming that Lang shared von Harbou’s Nazi sympathies, but is nevertheless an interesting counterpoint to Lang’s vehement anti-Nazi position which he espoused once secure in Hollywood’s bosom. There’s much to speculate about here, the scope of which certainly goes beyond the remit of this post, but there are several critics who are confident in stating with certainty that, whatever the respective politics of Lang and von Harbou were, these differences did not contribute to their divorce – a point supported by the fact that von Harbou’s political affiliation wasn’t so much as mentioned once in their divorce papers. Instead, a more likely factor contributing to their divorce was the fact that not long after his marriage to von Harbou Lang became fond of openly pursuing younger women. Lang even went so far as to secure an apartment in his building for one of his mistresses, Gerda Maurus – an actress in Spione – in the same way as he had got an apartment for von Harbou while married to his former wife.
Thea with new beau, Avi
So, given such brazen goings-on, we can be forgiven for a lack of sympathy towards Lang when he returned home early from the set of Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) to find von Harbou in bed with Avi Tendulkar, an Indian student 17 years her junior. Their divorce became final on 20th April 1933 (curiously, Hitler’s birthday) but the real sadness of the story is revealed in a remark von Harbou once made to her secretary that “we were married eleven years because for ten years we didn’t have time to get divorced.” After the divorce Lang and von Harbou soon ceased all contact and while Lang fled Germany von Harbou continued her relationship with Avi Tendulkar and were later forced to marry in secret due to Nazi restrictions on people of her public profile to marry an Indian. Indeed, von Harbou later claimed that she only joined the Nazi Party to help Indian immigrants in Germany, such as Avi, and that her “Nazi sympathies” in actual fact only manifested so far as volunteer welding, making hearing aids, and emergency medical care. An uncharitable assessment would simply be to charge her with trying to minimise her Nazi sympathies to avoid public pressure, but her interest in India seems well attested by her relationship, the influence of India in several of her stories, and a curious side-note that in the 1950s, with her career all but over, she would write in a room adorned with two photos: one of Hitler, and the other of Gandhi.
With Lang out of the frame, Harbou successfully worked as a screenwriter during the Third Reich, collaborating with prominent Third Reich filmmakers such as Veit Harlan, Josef von Baky, Hans Steinhoff, and Erich Engel. Given the Nazi leaning of this output it is not surprising that, following the Allied victory in 1945, none of the projects she was involved with during this time have been widely seen and, what’s more, their mere existence has been enough for film historians to minimise or erase completely all trace of von Harbou from her pre-1933 output.
Post-war years: Following Germany’s defeat in 1945, von Harbou was first detained at a British prison camp in Staumühle from July to October. Whilst here she directed a performance of Faust and upon being released she worked as a trümmerfrau (rubble woman) clearing the streets of the rubble from the destroyed buildings. She later received a work permit and continued to work in the film industry, first synchronizing movies, but later continuing to write scripts. However, despite the unflagging nature of her creative drive through the 50s she would only realise only three more scripts. Despite this change in her creative fortunes, she continued to write and when pain from high blood pressure, migraines, and neuralgia afflicted her she would write or dictate from her bed.
Trummerfrauen, or “rubble women”, clearing the streets in the aftermath of WWII
In 1954 one of her first movies – Der müde Tod (Destiny) (1921) – was shown in Berlin. Von Harbou attended as a guest of honour but sustained a hip injury from slipping over when leaving the theatre. A few days later she died in Berlin.
Conclusion: Okay, Nazis: bad. Sympathising with Nazism: not good either. But it seems to me that the historical treatment of Thea von Harbou is at best far off the mark, and at times distinctly unsavoury. Coming from Lang, comments diminishing her and aggrandising himself are, well, understandable – if not necessarily forgivable – given their divorce and the creative and personal investments at stake. However, from film historians whose job it is to document the development of the art form, to wilfully permit – and sometimes actively perform – the erasure of someone demonstrates a chilling psychological make-up akin to the “disappearings” so readily turned to as a solution by those with a totalitarian mindset. Here was a woman of considerable artistic talent and indomitable will, forging her own way at a time when opportunities for women were scarce, and against a backdrop of considerable social and political upheaval. Amidst all of this, her talent is duly noted by her peers and she is able to work along the best names of the era as an equal. Even Lang, several years after von Harbou’s death, directed the film The Indian Tomb which was based upon one of her novels. Disagree with her politics, sure, but her contributions deserve the right to fight their own corner in the marketplace of ideas. Unfortunately it seems that because the stature of her talent and depth of her contributions so often impinge on tenets of the Lang mythos, she has had to suffer the indignity of being silenced all these years. When her fascinating life-story eventually does get the biography it deserves, it will have been both richly-deserved and long overdue.