Nationality: German. Born: Brigitte Eva Gisela Schittenhelm, in Berlin, 17 March 1906; daughter of a Prussian Army officer. Family: Married Hugo von Kumheim, 1935; two sons and two daughters. Career: Chosen by Fritz Lang to star in Metropolis , after the director saw her photograph and then screen test, 1925; subsequently worked under contract for Ufa, the national German film industry; abruptly retired in 1935, reportedly in reaction to Nazi takeover of the German film industry; moved with husband to Italy, 1942, and to Switzerland in the 1960s. Award: Deutscher Filmpreis (German Film Awards) Honorary Award "for continued outstanding individual contributions to German film over the years," 1968. Died: Ascona, Switzerland, 11 June 1996.
Films as Actress:
Metropolis (Lang) (as Maria/The Robot); Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney ( The Love of Jeanne Ney ) (Pabst) (as Gabrielle); Am Rande der Welt ( At the Edge of the World ) (Grune) (as Magda)
Die Jacht der sieben Sünden ( Yacht of the Seven Sins ) (J. and L. Fleck); Abwege ( Crisis; also known as Begierde and Desire ) (Pabst) (as Irene); Alraune ( Mandrake ; Unholy Love ) (Galeen) (title role)
Die Wunderbare Lüge der Nina Petrowna ( The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna ) (Schwarz); Skandal in Baben-Baden (Waschneck); Manolescu, Der König der Hochstapler (Tourjansky); L'Argent ( Money ) (L'Herbier) (as Baronin Sandorf)
Die Singende Stadt ( The Singing City ) (Gallone) (as Claire Landshoff); Alraune ( Daughter of Evil ) (Oswald) (title role)
Im Geheimdienst ( In the Employ of the Secret Service ) (Ucicky); Gloria (German and French versions) (Behrendt) (as Vera Latour)
Hochzeitreise zu dritt (French version: Voyage de noces ; Jacqueline et l'amour ) (Fried, May, Schmidt) (as Anita Paglione); Die Herrin von Atlantis (English-language version: Mistress of Atlantis ; French version: L'Atlantide ) (Pabst) (as Altinea); Eine von uns (Meyer); The Blue Danube (Wilcox) (as Countess Gabrielle); Die Gräfin von Monte-Cristo ( The Countess of Monte Cristo ) (Hartl) (as Jeanette)
Der Stern von Valencia (French version: L'Etoile de Valencia ) (de Poligny); Spione am Werk ( Spies at Work ) (Lamprecht); Die Schönen Tage von Aranjuez (French version: Adieu les beaux jours ) (Meyer) (as Olga); Der Laufer von Marathon ( The Marathon Runner ) (Dupont); Inge und die Millionen (Engel)
Die Insel (French version: Vers l'abime ) (Steinhoff); Furst Woronzeff (French version: Le Secret des Woronzeff ) (Beucler) (as Diane); Gold (French version: L'Or ) (Hartl, de Poligny) (as Florence Wills)
Ein Idealer Gatte ( An Ideal Husband ) (Selpin) (as Lady Gertrud Chiltern)
On HELM: books—
Rotha, Paul, The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema , London, 1930 (revised 1949, 1960).
Herzog, Peter, and Gene Vazzana, Brigitte Helm: From Metropolis to Gold, Portrait of a Goddess , New York, 1994.
On HELM: articles—
Rodek, Hans-Georg, "Die Helm: Unsterblich als Maschinenmensch Maria," in Die Welt , 13 June 1996.
McThomas, Robert, and Peter Herzog, obituary in New York Times , 14 June 1996.
* * *
Though her fame rests almost entirely with one film, and her name is hardly a familiar one even to many avid moviegoers, images of Brigitte Helm are among the most haunting and famous of any in the first century of film history. Even those who have never seen Metropolis are familiar with the pale lovely face as it is seen imprisoned in a glass coffin, eyes closed, like some science-fiction Snow White, or Brunnhilde in a silver helmet, or virgin saint. Or perhaps they recall the nearly nude shimmy dancer rising from an Art Deco clamshell bed, a robot turned Babylonian love goddess. In reality Helm had quite a successful film career following Metropolis , until the Nazification of the German film industry caused her to retire by the time she was 30.
Helm was only 19 when Fritz Lang cast her in his science fiction extravaganza Metropolis. A sensation in its own day and a classic ever since, Metropolis has been celebrated as the first major science fiction portrayal of the future, with long unrivaled and still unforgettable special effects, not to mention delirious melodrama careening into both Expressionistic stylization and Hollywood-style chase and rescue scenes. Scholars have traced the film's influence upon later films (e.g., 1984's Blade Runner ) and written a great deal about its relations to politics of the Left and Right, its splitting of the female image into virgin and robot-whore, and its sexualization of machinery, among many other matters. But studies of the figure of Maria and her robot double have seldom had much to say about Helm's performance in itself, one of the most remarkable of the silent era.
Metropolis features a great range of acting styles, from the imperious restraint and minimal gestures of Jon Frederson, Master of Metropolis, to the comic realism of the burly Foreman, and to the Expressionistic contortions of Rotwang, the mad scientist who wants to give his robot the human form of the saintly Maria to satisfy his own strange lust and to thwart her spiritual leadership of the proletariat. Helm's performance in both roles certainly leans toward Expressionism, as when Maria recoils in fear as Rotwang pursues her, or the false Maria gestures in insane ecstasy, one hand reaching crookedly to the sky, when she leads the workers on their rampage.
As the robot, Helm may be rather campily seductive when she first greets the Master of Metropolis, but when the double stands at Maria's underground altar and incites the workers to riot, and later leads them in their attack upon the machinery, she seems genuinely to be working herself into a hysterical frenzy. Unforgettable too is the swaggering smirk she gives young Freder as the crowd seizes him, her hand stretching out the collar of her dress. Her convulsive laughter as the robot is dragged to the stake may be inexplicable, but it is chilling. As for the saintly Maria (who does not have that name for nothing), Lang brings out the slightly strange beauty of Helm's face, with its large eyes and small mouth, most notably during her first scene, when she enters the pleasure palace with the poor children, and later when she steps down from her pulpit to give a chaste, tender kiss to Freder, with her hunching of the shoulders only adding to the intensity.
Helm's second film role, as the blind cousin of the title character in G.W. Pabst's The Love of Jeanne Ney , was a supporting part, but one for which she received excellent notices, with particular praise for portraying blindness convincingly. Pabst (who reported her so absorbed by the role that she was nearly struck by a car during a street scene) places great ironic emphasis upon those huge eyes, as when the villain who plans to marry and murder her for her father's money stares at them as if repelled, before kissing her on the forehead. Particularly memorable is the subtle way she recoils at the first touch of the villain, though her tour de force scene is later, when she brushes against him and then discovers the body of her just-murdered father.
Helm worked twice again with Pabst, first with the silent domestic drama Abwege ( Crisis ), one of the director's—and the actress's—most neglected major works. As a woman stifled in a marriage to a wealthy lawyer who scorns her friends, neglects her in favor of his work, and curtly foils her plan to run off with a less affluent artist, Helm is called upon to display a very large range of emotions—perhaps a few too many in rapid succession. Loving her husband but deluding herself that she can escape her misery and hurt him via a love affair or wild partying—even drug use—with her decadent friends in the Fast Set, Irene is alternately seductive and guilt-ridden, timid and bold, despairing and passionately hopeful. Pabst's camera seems hypnotized by Helm's strange beauty, especially her profile and what Paul Rotha, in a paean to her performance, called "her slender, supple figure"; the character Walter, the artist and would-be lover who obsessively draws portraits of Irene that are prominently displayed in several scenes, seems a stand-in for the director, or perhaps the audience. One of Helm's most splendid dramatic moments comes just after another would-be lover, a boxing champ, sexually attacks Irene in Walter's apartment. When Walter enters just in time, and the boxer leaves, Irene is shamefacedly about to part forever from her friend when she hears her husband pounding on the studio door: she flings off her dress, stands in her slip with a look of defiance and erotic excitement, and cries to the astonished Walter, "Open the door!"
Her other Pabst film is a very different matter. As the title character of Mistress of Atlantis , she has rather little screen time and little to say, though in the English-language version her voice is pleasant and not heavily accented. (In the days before dubbing became a regular practice, Helm frequently starred in both German and French, and sometimes English, versions of the same film, with different supporting casts and occasionally directors.) The film is an Orientalist fantasy set in the Saharan desert, telling a story similar to the oft-filmed She. It is not clear whether or not Antinea has powers beyond sheer seductive beauty, but she does madden her captive worshippers. Though Pabst's treatment of this material is quite unconventional in a number of respects, he does objectify his star in typical ways. A huge stone carving of her face is shown almost as often as she is; in one shot she stands beside it, both faces strikingly in profile. In another shot, in which she poses with a pet cheetah, her makeup and hairstyle may be Grecian, but here they seem eerily feline, as if she were the animal's twin.
A contract player for Ufa who reportedly turned down the leading role in The Blue Angel (it went to Marlene Dietrich), Helm did make a successful transition from silent to talking film. She appeared in both the silent Alraune and its talkie remake two years later, playing a mad biologist's "experiment" in genetic and social engineering. But whether playing murderous vamps, as in Alraune , or noble women, like her Lady Gertrude in her last film, a version of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband , Helm never found a role with the sensational impact that Metropolis had provided.