Brigitte Helm: the woman behind the screen vamp
Sometimes I get asked by people I meet how it was moving from a big chaotic city like Milan to a small quiet town. What I always say to them is that at the beginning it was quite of a shock for an urban soul like me living almost in the middle of a silent hill. I had been living in a metropolis for 27 years and used to get early in the morning and get stuck in the traffic jam to reach my school since I was 6. I love my hometown: you can find everything in Milan, the coolest hangouts are there, best restaurant and top stores, a lot of museums and clubs as well as the cultural mix typical of a large interconnected city. Have you ever been in Milan during the fashion week? The city gets full of events and becomes the central stage of the world. I have always been fascinated by the atmosphere this event creates and the idea that my hometown was paid so much attention by the media for a whole week. Of course I miss Milan, for all the reasons reported above, but it’s also true that I cannot think about waking up in the morning without the view of Lake Maggiore and the shimmering of its water on a sunny day… After all, it is not so uncommon to hear about people moving from their hometown in the countryside to the big city and vice versa. We always miss what we don’t have … isn’t it??
I love where I live now because it is a quiet place, small enough to be not considered just a number. I feel I am not invisible anymore. And then is just 1h 15min far from Milan!
What always impresses me about this place, a part from the amazing panorama and the genuine friendliness of residents, is the fact that many celebrities such as movie stars or singers have moved here over the time. Switzerland is considered a top place to live because of its high standard of services delivered to its citizens. Among the big names of people who moved here there are Charlie Chaplin, Audrey Hepburn, Freddie Mercury, Sophia Loren, Shania Twain, Phil Collins, Tina Turner, James Blunt and Michael Schumacher to name a few.
It is curious how I discovered by chance that also Brigitte Helm, one of the iconic silent movies star of the Roaring Twenties, lived just 15 minutes by car form my home … While writing my post on the movie “Metropolis” I made this amazing discovery and could not clog myself from finding out more about her.
The cool-eyed screen vamp was lucky enough to act during the glory days of the German film industry. This tall blond beauty starred in more than 35 movies and set directors against one another in the competition for her services. The brilliant career that eventually led her to success was due to her unquestionable loveliness considered by movie industry insiders as such a perfect embodiment of the Jazz Era's ideal of cool sophistication. She was a woman of rectitude who never became anything close to the vamps she portrayed on the screen, according to most accounts she was a reluctant recruit to the movies.
Brigitte Helm is one of those unique performers that worth to be put in the group of iconic actresses like Louise Brooks, Sophia Loren, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. Like for these immortal feminine models of beauty, her face keeps on being recognized across generations. The German actress is remembered for her dual role as virginal Maria and her lavish robot double, in Fritz Lang's legendary 1927 silent film, Metropolis.
This Amazon beauty was born Brigitte Eva Gisela Schittenhelm in Berlin, in 1908. She was the daughter of a Prussian army officer who died when she was a toddler. She gained her acting experience in school productions, but she never thought of pursuing an acting career too seriously. After high school exams, she wanted to study to become an astronomer but her mother, who was aware of her daughter’s striking beauty, sent photos of the girl to director Fritz Lang in 1925. Soon she was invited to cast in the dual role of Maria and her evil robot double in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927).
Although she was never entirely comfortable as an actress, or as a performer, at 18 years old she obtained the double leading role in the movie that made her so famous. Shooting was not so easy as she spent hours of difficult and painful makeup sequences involving the creation of the robot. Some of the scene with the robot were risky and painful but in the end her patience paid off. Even though the movie was not that success, Brigitte became one of the most brilliant silent movies stars out of German cinema of the 1920s. With her slim figure and austere pre-Raphaelite profile, she seemed unapproachable with her ice-cold outer appearance.
Brigitte Helm in the movie Metropolis
In 1927 for all intents and purposes she was a movie star, even if the course into the film business wasn't proceeded by herself but by her mother who pushed her daughter career. Metropolis showed to the world how talented Brigitte Helm was with her mimicry and gestures deliberately borrowed from Expressionism such as the wide eyes, the clasps of her hands to her breast or the winks by the camera. The movie constituted simultaneously both the starting point as well as the climax of her career.
UFA always wanted to cast her as a man-eating vamp during her contract, a role she considered so distant from her nature and that she attempted to refuse to play by 1929. She preferred to be casted for more down-to earth and dramatic characters that could fit a little more her real personality. She took UFA to court for that but lost and since the trial costed her a fortune she was forced to act also for downright movies mostly in order to pay off her debts.
She starred in more than 30 movies between 1928 and 1935.
From year 1930 on she started to be assigned deeper and more complex characters. Her most remarkable movies - in addition to Metropolis which launched her career in 1927 - include:
- The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927)
- Alraune (1928)
- L'Argent (1928)
- Gloria (1931)
- The Blue Danube (1932)
- L'Atlantide (1932)
- Gold (1934)
When her career was reaching its pinnacle in the mid-1930s, she decided to left the movie industry.
She was never entirely comfortable as an actress and after the marriage with Hugo Von Kunheim, a German industrialist, she had no more need of acting to for a living. She even did turn down two leading roles in Hollywood: the lead role in The Blue Angel, which opened the way for Marlene Dietrich to take the part and shoot to stardom, and the role of the monster's bride in The Bride of Frankenstein.
When in 1934 Adolf Hitler became the Führer of the Nazy Germany, Brigitte Helm was disgusted by the government’s takeover of the German movie industry and did not renewed the contract with UFA.
Moreover, since her husband was of Jewish descent, they decided to quit Germany and move to Switzerland where they lived from 1935 onward. They had four children and lived quietly remaining anonymous in the small beautiful lake city of Ascona, in Canton Tessin. Ascona is 15 minutes far from where I leave and, when I think about such an iconic movie star who lived so close to me, I smile as I realize we share the same location, the same streets, the same old churches and of course the same enchanting panorama of the Lake Maggiore!
She never made any other movie, repeatedly refusing to talk about her film career anywhere at any time.
After ending her career, she refused all interviews and public appearances. She never actively recalled her movie work and refused all requests to discuss her screen career. This of course only helped to increased her mysterious legend.
In the 1960s film historians began to pay attention to the mysterious retreat of this iconic movie star and started to research into Brigitte Helm's life. It is said that a British journalist got to her house in Ascona trying to talked with her but she wouldn't let him in. She was done with cinema, once and for all. 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."
Brigitte Helm went on keeping a low profile until she passed away in 1996, at age 88, out of the limelight until the end. She was buried in the Ascona Cemetery and it’s rummy how her name does not appear on the cemetery website list of VIP personalities buried in Ascona ... even if her grave is there. I like to imagine that she probably asked to her offspring to keep her name off the radar forever!