Remembering Anton Walbrook

Feature Aliya Whiteley 29 Jan 2014 - 05:53

Aliya recounts five of the best performances from the wonderful Anton Walbrook...

Was there ever a better actor in close-up than Anton Walbrook? He had an intensity that could capture an audience and heighten every emotion: love, hatred, obsession, despair, and charm were all magnetically portrayed. He was the actor of choice for some truly great directors. Powell & Pressburger, Max Ophüls, and Thorold Dickinson cast him a number of times, and in return for their trust in him he quietly and methodically delivered astonishing performances.

A brief biography

Anton Walbrook was born in Vienna in 1896, as Adolf Anton Wilhelm Wohlbrück, and he came from a long line of entertainers (his father was a circus clown, and earlier generations of his family were theatrical actors). He had a love of music and studied the piano and guitar, but decided to carry on the family tradition, and became a successful actor in Austrian cinema and theatre.

Homosexual, and classified as half-Jewish, Walbrook left Austria in 1936. After a time working in the US he moved to Britain and settled there as Anton Walbrook. He could speak excellent English; he brought a voice coach (his English governess from his childhood) with him to every set. Initially cast in roles playing Prince Albert to Queen Victoria (which he very quickly tired of) he soon began to diversify, and during World War Two he delivered some of the most moving speeches in British cinema. He passionately hated Nazism, and donated half of his fee for his role in Powell & Pressburger’s 49th Parallel to the Red Cross. After the war ended, he stayed in Britain and continued to work in film until the end of the 1950s, when he retired.

Although he died of a heart attack in Bavaria in 1967, he wanted his ashes to be returned to Britain, where they now rest at St John’s Church, Hampstead.

Five of his best performances

1. Gaslight (1940)

Thorold Dickinson was a director who knew how to extract psychological horror from a script. When he made a film of the theatre play Gaslight, he squeezed every inch of nastiness from it, and it’s all in Anton Walbrook’s eyes.

Diana Wynyard plays Bella Mallen, newly married to Paul (Walbrook), happy and carefree until she moves into an old house with a history of murder. Then she slowly starts to lose her mind. The gaslights on the wall dim, and she hears things. She loses objects. Her husband starts out as a charming figure, but soon we start to see his manipulations, and Bella flutters weakly in the old house, unable to escape him. The camera, and Walbrook, pin her relentlessly with their mastery.

There was a Hollywood remake only a few years later with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, and both were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances (Bergman won the Oscar for Best Actress), but I think the acting in this version is stronger.

2. The Red Shoes (1948)

Boris Lermontov (Walbrook) is the director of the Ballet Lermontov, and he is obsessed with his art. He sees talent in Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) and channels his desires into her, creating the ballet of The Red Shoes. It’s the story of a girl who loves to dance, who sacrifices everything to dance, until she finds that she can’t stop dancing. It’s the story of Vicky’s life.

Powell and Pressburger created such beautiful films, and this is one of their very best. It deals with the demands of talent and success, and Lermontov’s obsession is so complete, so fierce, that it makes us believe that Vicky could be caught up in the pull of it.

In order for the film to work, ballet dancers were cast rather than actors who could be trained to dance. The dancers give great performances, and it means that the complete dance sequence in the film (the entire of the ballet of The Red Shoes is shown) is captivating. It combines ballet and film in a unique way, and that central ballet might have overshadowed the story, if anybody less mesmerising than Walbrook had been playing Lermontov.

3. La Ronde (1950)

The waltz that dominates Max Ophüls’ La Ronde is the perfect piece of music for the film. Fittingly, it was created by Viennese composer Oscar Straus, and Anton Walbrook sings along to it as the Raconteur, the storyteller, telling us that we are all puppets dancing to the tune of love. He has a twinkle in his eye, and a curve to his lip. He’s in control of this merry-go-round of a film.

Although he sings and talks of love, it strikes me that this isn’t a film about love at all. We see a number of scenarios, vignettes in which men and women negotiate their way towards sex. Sometimes they are coquettish, sometimes direct in their transactions, and yet the effect is still somehow very charming. It’s in the way they are framed, perhaps – with curtains draped over them, the camera turning around them. Certain realities are never addressed, but still La Ronde offers a certain kind of truth. Men, women, rich, poor, young, old – we are all physical creatures, and we all dress up our desires as theatrical performances. It’s a film uninterested in pretending there’s any mystery to sex, which makes it a very unusual, and enjoyable, piece of work.

4. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Churchill tried to have this Powell & Pressburger film banned. Perhaps he thought of it as unpatriotic, and also as a criticism of himself – he had similarities to the lead character, Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), who fought in the Boer War and the First World War. Wynne-Candy brings his fixed ideas about life to the Second World War, learning very late on that this is a different kind of war. Certainly this film is not straightforward propaganda, but it is the most reflective, warm, understanding film about what war does to us over time that I can think of.

The Major-General starts off as a keen young soldier, and gets involved in pre-WWI scuffles between Germany and Britain, leading to a duel with a very proud young German soldier (Walbrook). While convalescing in hospital, they become best friends, and also fall in love with the same woman (Deborah Kerr). The friendship perseveres throughout their lives, even through two wars. They age in different ways, and so, by the end of the film, we see them as two old men who have been altered by their experiences. This wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for the three performances at the heart of the film: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, and Anton Walbrook. You believe in their friendship, and their lives.

5. The Queen of Spades (1949)

Another Thorold Dickinson film, this time a cautionary tale of where greed can lead you. Based on a Pushkin short story, we follow the very unpleasant Russian Officer, Captain Suvorin (Walbrook) who wants nothing but to win a fortune at cards. In an old bookshop he comes across a book that gives away secrets of the supernatural, and he pieces together that Countess Ranevskaya (Edith Evans) might just be able to provide the answers. And so he embarks on a quest to manipulate Ranevskaya’s young ward in order to get into the house and uncover the mysteries that lie within.

Lots of very brilliant people worked on this film. Jack Clayton, Anton De Grunwald, cinematography by Otto Heller, music by Georges Auric – it’s an amazing list. The details within each expressionistic set adds to the building suspense, and there are some really scary moments where the use of sound is phenomenal. Screaming horses, dragging footsteps, ticking clocks: and then the sudden use of silence, and you find yourself glued to the screen. Suvorin is not at all likeable, but it’s impossible to stop watching him.

I love the final card game, where everything hinges on the turn of the last card. In the background, there’s a figure carved into the ceiling, a winged skeleton, that looks so incredibly spooky as it presides over the occasion. It brings a supernatural presence into the room, and makes the denouement very effective.

Those may be five great Walbrook performances, but in truth I’ve never seen a bad one. All of his screen appearances are magnetic, and at odds with the quiet, publicity-shy man who wanted to keep his personal life entirely separate from the world of the cinema.

Control was the key to Walbrook’s persona. His characters often wanted to be in charge of the situation, and his light, graceful movements belied the desire to dominate in his eyes. He might be best remembered for his role as the obsessive Lermontov in The Red Shoes, but I think my favourite performance of his is in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, where we see his character age to a point where he has to accept that control is no longer his. His face in those moments, as he accepts his loss of influence over his country, his children, and his own fate, is reason enough to call him a sublime actor.

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