Obituary: Brigitte Helm

Werner Sudendorff
Tuesday 18 June 1996 00:02 BST

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.

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