In his 1928 book on film directing and screenwriting, Russian filmmaker Vsevolod Pudovkin notes that many literary figures had difficulty adjusting to “the optically expressive form” of film (110). Thea von Harbou, one of three German screenwriters who Pudovkin singles out, stands alongside Carl Mayer as one of the most influential film figures in Weimar German cinema, which spanned the years 1919 to 1933. Including an excerpt from Harbou’s script for Spione (1928), an espionage adventure film, Pudovkin goes on to praise the novelist Harbou for her ability to work with the film medium. Indeed, it is Harbou’s awareness of the “possibilities of the camera such as shots, framing, editing, [and] intensification through visually striking details” that distinguishes her work (212). In the scene in question—one of the most visually dynamic in the film—Harbou conveys in words the sense of movement, speed, and sudden discovery surrounding a train wreck. Each shot, each significant gesture, is noted, and in this she exemplifies the way her husband and collaborator Fritz Lang once described the model screenplay: “To the last intertitle everything has to be ready before the cameras roll” (62).
Thea Von Harbou portrait. Courtesy of the Deutsche Kinemathek.
Despite Pudovkin’s support and her work with Lang and F. W. Murnau, Harbou had her detractors. Unlike Lang, who did not rise to prominence with several directing and screenplay credits until 1919, Harbou had been publishing popular sensationalist novels since 1910. Reaching a wide readership through serialized publication in newspapers, her books, such as Der Krieg und die Frauen in 1913 and Die deutsche Frau im Weltkrieg in 1915, catered to a blend of wartime nationalist sentiment and feminism. When her family, descended from nobility, began to struggle financially, Harbou turned to both fiction writing and the theatre. As a stage actress from 1906 to 1914, she performed in Düsseldorf, Weimar, Chemnitz, and Aachen, where she met her first husband, theatre actor and director Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who later starred in several Lang-Harbou films. In her 1917 novel Der belagerte Tempel, Harbou even addressed the transition from theatre to film acting in a tale of two unemployed actors who move to Berlin.
If one strain of her writing dealt with a recognizable German present, another indulged in fantasy, adventure, science fiction, and colonialism. While most of Harbou’s contributions to the German film industry involved the adaptation of the literary works of others, many of her screenplays were based on her own novels and stories, such as Das indische Grabmal (1921), or were written in conjunction with book versions, such as Metropolis (1927), Spione (1928), and Frau im Mond (1929). In the film versions, a fascination with modernity and machines is made visual. Though Fritz Lang is often credited in written film history as the auteur of these films, an idea supported by his own accounts, Weimar film critics were careful to recognize the contributions of Harbou and screenwriters. This was so much the case that Siegfried Kracauer could lament the fact that such an “unusually talented director [Lang] could also be artistically aligned with Thea von Harbou.” In a review that couples misogyny with aesthetic critique, Kracauer holds Harbou responsible for the “sensational content” of Spione and suggests that Lang only made the “senseless” spy thriller “in order to please the author,” his wife. This disparagement of Harbou not only reveals a perception of her power both within her marriage and within the film community, but also suggests the extent to which she was considered the author and creator of her films.
Thea Von Harbou and Fritz Lang at work, photo by Waldemar Titzenthaler from book Berliner Interieurs, Photographien von Waldemar Titzenthaler (1999).
Because her work with Lang spans the bulk of his Weimar oeuvre, it is difficult to distinguish their respective contributions. Harbou, however, did work with other directors during the same period. From Joe May and Robert Dinesen to F. W. Murnau, Arthur von Gerlach, and Carl Theodor Dreyer, her filmmaking colleagues were prominent in the industry. As a writer of screen adaptations, Harbou received praise in the Lichtbildbühne review for her ability to balance milieu and character psychology in Murnau’s Phantom (1922), the film version of a Gerhart Hauptmann novel (16). In a review of von Gerlach’s Zur Chronik von Grieshuus, a Theodor Storm adaptation, Willy Haas paid Harbou a high compliment: “she is a wonderful dramaturgical technician, no doubt about that…. This simple, clear, continuous thread, this intensification at the end of the second chapter—. Our scenarists could… learn a whole lot from this handcraft.” Harbou’s familiarity with the plot twists of sensational literature prepared her for silent narrative cinema. By the time Lang and Harbou completed two sound films, M (1931) and Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933), their personal and professional relationship had ended. With the rise of National Socialism in 1933, Lang went into exile, continuing his career in Hollywood, while Harbou worked as a successful screenwriter during the Third Reich. For many film scholars, Harbou’s career effectively ended with her support for the Nazi Party and her failure to join Germany’s exile community. Others would banish her completely from world cinema history. Harbou’s artistic contributions, discredited because of her politics, have also been a function of Fritz Lang’s German émigré-in-America success story. Yet Harbou’s motivations in the early 1930s remain shrouded. Throughout the decade, she openly cohabited with the Indian doctoral student Ayi Tendulkar, several years her junior. Like her contemporary Leni Riefenstahl, Harbou may have been tempted by new professional opportunities. In 1934, she directed both Elisabeth und der Narr and Hanneles Himmelfahrt, but spent the remainder of the Nazi period writing screenplays, primarily comedies and entertainment films, but she now collaborated with prominent Third Reich filmmakers Veit Harlan, Josef von Baky, Hans Steinhoff, and Erich Engel. After a brief detainment by British authorities in 1945, Harbou continued to publish, to write screenplays, and to give lectures at the Free University of Berlin into the 1950s. In July 1954, she died from internal bleeding after tripping and falling in front of a movie theatre.
Thea Von Harbou’s nearly fifty-year, highly controversial career as a novelist and screenwriter merits attention rather than dismissal, and we can now place her political alliances alongside her accomplishments. First, we would consider opportunities for women under various German political regimes, from the monarchy to democracy to fascism. Second, we would look at her career choices in the light of the intersection between political and personal circumstances, given that the rise of Nazism coincided with the dissolution of her artistic partnership with Lang. Finally, distinguishing Harbou’s silent motion pictures from her Nazi sound-era films may be a step toward a more complex and critical portrait of this talented and ambitious woman as well as the two tumultuous eras in which she worked.
Kämpfende Herzen/Die Vier um die Frau. Dir.: Fritz Lang, sc.: Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang (Decla-Bioscop AG Germany 1921) cas.: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, si, b&w, 35mm, 5,600 ft. Archive: Deutsche Kinemathek [DEK].
FIAF’s website does not credit Harbou for many of films that she wrote: Das wandernde Bild, Kämpfende Herzen (Die Vier um die Frau), Der müde Tod, Das indische Grabmal I (Die Sendung des Yoghi), Das indische Grabmal II (Der Tiger von Eschnapur), Der brennende Acker, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler II (Inferno, ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit), Phantom. Die Finanzen des Großherzogs, Die Nibelungen I (Siegfried), Die Nibelungen II (Kriemhilds Rache), and Spione.
Metropolis has had an interesting history. Distributors thought that the film was too long and so the film was cut down to conform to standard runtimes. The excised footage was thought lost until footage with the missing scenes was found in 2005 at the National Film Archive of New Zealand in 2008 at the Museo del Cine in Brazil. The F.W. Murnau Stiftung confirmed that this footage was accurate and a new print was commissioned that restored and combined the various footage into a complete version of the film. The new print premiered at the 60th Berlinale and had a world-wide theatrical release. It is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Wagner, Brigitta B. "Thea von Harbou." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013. <https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-r04z-tm58>