Obituary: Brigitte Helm

She didn't have the glamour of Dietrich or the divine aspects of Garbo, but Brigitte Helm was none the less one of the cinema's immortal icons. She was the virginal Maria and the hypersexed robot Maria in Fritz Lang's monstrous Metropolis (1926), one of the great classics of German silent films.

Helm's career began like a cheap novel. In 1924 her mother sent a picture of 18-year-old Brigitte to the director Fritz Lang; he gave her a screen test, and the completely unknown actress won the lead female role in what was then the most expensive German film ever made.

Metropolis ruined UFA and made Brigitte Helm an overnight success. UFA gave her a contract, and over the next 10 years she acted in 29 German, French and English films. But just as suddenly as she had emerged, she disappeared again. In 1935 she withdrew from the cinema, and from then on never appeared on the stage or on television, refused all invitations and didn't give a single interview.

She was born Brigitte Schittenhelm in 1906, in Berlin. She gained her acting experience in school productions, but never thought of pursuing a theatrical training. After her Abitur (the final school exams), she wanted to be an astronomer, and was clearly serious about everything modern. And then she got the part in Metropolis.

Her mimicry and gestures were much affected by Expressionism: as the saintly Maria she makes wide eyes, clasps her hands to her breast and puckers up her mouth for a chaste kiss. As Maria the robot she is only a sexual body and object of desire, the personification of sin, a "witch" of lust and an erotic mad image of the night.

UFA wanted to typecast her as a man-eating vamp: she twice had to play "Alraune", the legendary woman born of the seed of a murderer artificially placed in the womb a whore, who drives men to their deaths. 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 Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney ("The Love of Jeanne Ney", 1927), she plays a helpless blind woman who is seduced by a rogue. In Abwege ("Crisis", 1928), she portrays a spoilt woman of the world who from sheer boredom almost destroys her own life.

In her films of the early 1930s Brigitte Helm became the embodiment of the down-to earth, 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.

Her role as the Hoschstaplerin ("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.

At the height of her success, she 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 bad press reviews and a car accident, for which she was sentenced to a brief gaol sentence, she withdrew into her private life. She married the industrialist Hugo Kuenheim and had four sons from this marriage.

In the 1960s film historians began researching into her life. A British journalist got as far as her house in Ascona but she wouldn't let him in. She received a German journalist at the end of the 1980s only on the condition that the conversation was entirely about fashion and the fashion designer Werner Mahrenholz who had emigrated to England. Her son told a film historian categorically when the latter asked to talk with Brigitte Helm about her films, "If I arrange that, she will disinherit me." She was done with cinema, once and for all.

Werner Sudendorff

Brigitte Eva Gisela Schittenhelm (Brigitte Helm), actress: born Berlin 17 March 1906; married secondly Hugo Kuenheim (four sons); died Ascona, Switzerland 11 June 1996.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform