Elisabeth Bergner

author: Anna Kaszuba-Dębska, 2012


translated by Scotia Gilroy

Elisabeth Bergner was born on August 22nd, 1897, as Elżbieta Ettel in Drohobych, although her parents lived in Austria, after having left Poland many years before. Her mother was Anna Rosa, neé Wagner, and her father was Emil Ettel, a merchant. Both were secular Jews. Many years later, Elisabeth wrote about them in her memoirs as follows: From my childhood I remember my parents incessantly arguing. My father was severe, my mother kind. Both of them moved to Vienna from Poland, but it was here that they met. He was 23 years old and she was 18 when they got married. I am completely certain that neither of them had been with anybody else before their marriage. During the First World War, when I was 18 years old, I tried to get a passport in order to leave the country for some performances, but I had some difficulties due to the fact that I had been born in Drohobych. When I asked my mother why I had been born there when my sister, who was four years older than me, had been born in Vienna, she answered that there had been a wonderful midwife there. Another time she told me that at that time she had tried to run away from my father, in order to shake some common sense into him. She also told me that when she returned to Vienna with me, a four-week-old baby, and with her Polish mother, Hania, my father wanted to throw me immediately out of the window because I was not a boy. I have only a dim recollection of Hania: a friendly, pockmarked face under a granny-style kerchief. Mama also told me that I cried for weeks when Hania returned to Drohobych, when I was four years old. From this excerpt one can conclude that Elisabeth's mother, Anna Rosa Ettel, neé Wagner, ran away from her husband while pregnant in order to make him see common sense. She escaped to Drohobych, a city very far from Vienna, at the farthest extremities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. How did she manage, all alone in such a difficult situation, to get from her husband's home in Vienna to a place located several hundred kilometers away? Where did this young woman, pregnant and with a four-year-old child, seek help? There is only one possible answer – she went to be with her close family, her mother or her grandmother. And there, in August 1897, surrounded by her caring family, she gave birth to a daughter, the future star of German cinema. Was the wonderful midwife who delivered her Gittel Wagner, the same who, five years earlier, brought into the world the future writer and artist, Bruno Schulz? It seems quite likely. In the book Drohobych, Drohobych by Henryk Grynberg, we can read the following recollection by Dr. Leopold Lustig, one of Schulz's acquaintances: The apartment building was built by my great-grandmother, Gittel, a midwife who earned a lot of money. When she died, hundreds of candles were placed on her grave by both Jews and non-Jews. The apartment building had a plastered facade with cornices, and there was a gate for my grandfather's carts and carriages. In the yard there was a well that we were proud of because it had very good water. The water-carrier, Imcio, brought the water upstairs. Running water was installed in 1933. Because Great-Grandfather Szlojme Erdman was so hairy, he was known as Szlojme the Goat. His brother was nicknamed Berł the Goat, and his nephew Lipe the Goat. He sold carts and carriages and was also a horse-dealer, but he always lost money. Once he brought a mare home whose tail was tied on with twine. Great-grandma gave him money for beer and asked him not to do business anymore. He suffered from uremia. (…) They had two sons. Icek went to America in 1903, and Jakub right after the war. And they had three daughters. It's quite probable that the midwife Gittel Wagner was related to the future actress's mother, Anna Rosa Ettel, neé Wagner. The question arises whether one can assume that another member of this family was the future model identified in Schulz's drawings as Fryderyka Wagner. Elisabeth Bergner made her stage debut when she was only fourteen years old. A year later she performed in Innsbruck and Vienna. At the age of sixteen she toured Austria and Germany with a repertoire of Shakespeare. She was recognized as the best Shakespearean actress. She worked as a model, posing for an older German sculptor, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, who fell madly in love with her. In the 1920s, Elisabeth moved to Munich, and then to Berlin. In 1923 she made her screen debut in the film Der Evangelimann. Due to the rise of Nazism in Germany, she moved to London with her long-term friend Paul Czinner, who was a journalist, film-maker, writer, producer and director. They had been friends since 1924, when Bergner accepted an offer to play the main role in a film called Nju. Despite Czinner's homosexuality, they got married and lived together in London. The arrangement turned out to be happy for both of them, enriching their partnership both personally and professionally. In 1934 Elisabeth played the main role in a film made by Czinner in London called Catherine the Great. The film was never released to the public in Germany and was banned there as a result of the racist government policies in effect at the time. In 1935 she was nominated in America for an Oscar, for Best Female Lead Actress, for her role in Escape Me Never. Her acting talent was enthusiastically received by the English and American critics. While in England she performed in the theater, where she was able to fulfill her acting ambitions the most. It was with her great talent in mind that Sir James Matthew Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, wrote his last play. A year later she played the role of Rosalind in the film As You Like It, opposite the rising star of the English cinema, Laurence Olivier, who was ten years younger than her. Were people in far-off Drohobych talking about this world-famous Oscar nominee, who was from their town? In the Wanda and Sztuka Cinemas in Drohobych, in the 1929-1933 season, were they showing Fraulein Else starring Anna Rosa's daughter, of the Wagner family, lauded by the Heros Film Society in Warsaw and the Kolos Małopolska Film Society? Did the engineer Izydor Schulz – an enthusiast of "the tenth muse," owner in 1912 of the Urania Cinema in Drohobych and in 1919 of the Urania Polish Film Rental Shop at 28 Długa Street in Kraków, director of the Polmet lamp, street light and metal products factory which produced radio receivers and amplification equipment in Lwów, founder of two cinemas in Warsaw (the Corso Cinema at 7 Wierzbowa Street and the Nirwana Cinema at 73 Mokotowska Street), founder of the Grankina Cinema in Łódź and the Zacisza Cinema in Sosnowiece, and director of the Corso Cinematographic Agency, a company representing Parisian Gaumont and Italian Mondial – talk with his brother Bruno about this young, beautiful, fascinating actress dressed in furs who had been born in their hometown? Quite certainly he did. Bruno was interested in culture, read the Polish and Austrian press, and loved film. It seems very likely, even quite certain, that in this small Galician town belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire people were talking about the young Viennese rising star of the cinema, who had come from the Wagner family of Drohobych. Articles promoting the film Fraulein Else reported: The brilliant trio of Elżbieta Bergner, Albert Basserman, and Albert Steinruk, under the experienced direction of Paweł Czinner, give an acting tour de force in this film. Such a dramatic conflict, founded on the interior struggle and sacrifice of a young, naive girl, has never seen a deeper expression! ... Fraulein Else, with Elżbieta Bergner, a master of tears and smiles…If there has ever been a film made that is purely artistic with a deeply emotional foundation – without a hint of false sentiment – it is undoubtedly Fraulein Else…The actress in the title role, Elżbieta Bergner, is wonderfully subtle and brimming with artistic charm, and has rightly been nicknamed by the world the "master of tears and smiles"...The acting, the directing, and captivating story create a magnificent film, which has met with enthusiastic responses all around the world...In the film Fraulein Else, the cinematic art has reached the peak of excellence! Scenes with mountains in the background, daring racing scenes in Saint Moritz, artistic interiors, masterly use of light and shadow – these are the technical virtues of this beautiful work of art. This actress from Drohobych, in a small hat and high-heeled boots, with an enormous fur stole across her shoulders, very self-assured in photographs, became one of the recurring models in the drawings and graphic works of Bruno Schulz, especially those done for The Booke of Idolatry. Her film debut and developing film career were during the 1920s, exactly when Schulz was doing his graphic works with cliché-verre. During the German occupation in 1940, Elisabeth emigrated with her husband to the USA. She worked in Hollywood and on Broadway. Despite her success in films, she preferred to act in the theater. She never visited her birthplace: I have never been to Drohobych. At least, so far. When Alexander Granach read his memoirs to me in Hollywood, in which he yearned so strongly for Poland, I had tears in my eyes. He promised me that he would take me to Poland one day, particularly Drohobych. But this never happened. He died during the Second World War.