SnapshotsElisabeth Bergner and Arthur Eloesser
Elisabeth Bergner and Arthur Eloesser
In our first post we would like to introduce you to two prominent Jewish personalities who embody some of the key features defining the experiences of the German-speaking Jewry in the late 19th and early 20th century. The actress Elisabeth Bergner (1897-1986) and her biographer, the literary scholar and journalist Arthur Eloesser (1870-1938).
Arthur Eloesser was born in 1870 in Berlin, the year Imperial Germany was founded and German Jewry was granted full legal emancipation. He studied German literature and obtained a PhD, however, his career in academia was stalled by his refusal to convert to Christianity to become a professor. Eloesser, therefore, subsequently pursued a career in journalism, yet he still published a wide range of books on literature including the seminal Geschichte der Deutschen Literatur vom Barock bis zur Gegenwart in two volumes (History of German Literature from the Barock until Present Times). After the Nazis came to power, Eloesser visited Palestine twice. He fell ill on his second journey and passed away in the Jewish hospital in Berlin in February 1938. His wife, Margarete, stayed in Germany and was deported to Riga in 1942 and murdered there. Today, we are reminded of her life by a Stolperstein outside the couple’s last address in Berlin.
In his capacity as a writer, Eloesser provides us with one of the earliest testimonies to the rising fame of Austrian actress, Elisabeth Bergner. His biography Elisabeth Bergner was published in 1927 in Berlin. Eloesser’s biography engages with Elisabeth Bergner’s early career as a silent movie star.
Elisabeth Bergner was born in Drohobych in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1897. She started her theatre career on the stages of Zurich, Innsbruck and Munich until her acclaimed performances would eventually lead her to Berlin. In the German capital, she gained international recognition for her performances, most notably her roles in productions by the Austrian-Jewish director Max Reinhardt at Deutsches Theater. Amongst her successes in the early period of her career in film were Der Evangelimann (1923), Nju (1924), Liebe (1926) and Fräulein Else (1929). Bergner was an icon of the ‘new woman’ as many characters she embodied posed a challenge to conventional gender roles. On the big screen, she celebrated her greatest successes in collaboration with her husband, Hungarian-Jewish director Paul Czinner. She was nominated for an Academy Award in the category Best Actress for playing Gemma Jones in his film Escape me never (1935). The movie was produced in their British Exile after the couple had fled Germany.
After a brief period in Hollywood, Czinner and Bergner moved to New York, where Bergner would successfully star in Broadway shows. The couple returned to London in 1950, however, she also resumed her career at the theatre in Berlin after 1954. Once again, she received critical acclaim for her acting and returned to star in British and German films in the 1960s. Elisabeth Bergner passed away at her home in London in 1986.
Elisabeth Bergner’s and Arthur Eloesser’s dramatic biographies represent in very different ways the classical challenges experienced by German-speaking Jewry trying to become part of modern German society.
A copy of the first edition of Arthur Eloesser’s biography on Elisabeth Bergner (pictured below) is part of the Leo Baeck Institute London’s collection of rare books and can be accessed via the library at Queen Mary, University of London.
Arthur Eloesser, photographer unknown, undated “Elisabeth Bergner” by Arthur Eloesser, Berlin 1927 Elisabeth Bergner, photographer unknown, probably 1920s
Photographs of Elisabeth Bergner and Arthur Eloesser courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute New York.