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Thea von Harbou

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Thea von Harbou
von Harbou, c. 1928
Thea Gabriele von Harbou

(1888-12-27)27 December 1888
Died1 July 1954(1954-07-01) (aged 65)
Berlin, Germany
  • Filmmaker
  • actress
  • author
Years active1905–1954
Spouse(s)Rudolf Klein-Rogge (1914–1920)
Fritz Lang (1922–1933)
Ayi Tendulkar (c. 1933–??)

Thea Gabriele von Harbou (27 December 1888 – 1 July 1954) was a German screenwriter, novelist, film director, and actress. She is remembered as the screenwriter of the science fiction film classic Metropolis (1927) and for the 1925 novel on which it was based. von Harbou collaborated as a screenwriter with film director Fritz Lang, her husband, during the period of transition from silent to sound films.

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Early life, family, and education

Thea von Harbou was born in Tauperlitz (now part of Döhlau), Bavaria, in 1888,[1] into a family of minor nobility and government officials, which gave her a level of sophisticated comfort. As a child, she was educated in a convent by private tutors who taught her several languages as well as piano and violin. She was a child prodigy.[2]

Her first works, a short story published in a magazine and a volume of poems published privately, focused on perceptions of art, subjects considered unusual for a girl of thirteen. Despite her privileged childhood, von Harbou wanted to earn a living on her own, which led her to become an actress despite her father's disapproval.[3]

From novelist to screenwriter

After her debut in 1906, von Harbou met actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge and married him during World War I. By 1917, she and Klein-Rogge had moved to Berlin where von Harbou devoted herself to building her career as a writer. She was drawn to writing epic myths and legends with an overtly nationalistic tone.[3] In one historian's estimation: "Her novels became patriotic and morale-boosting, urging women to sacrifice and duty while promoting the eternal glory of the fatherland".[3]

Her first close interaction with cinema came when German director Joe May decided to adapt a piece of her fiction, Die heilige Simplizia. From that moment forward, "Her fiction output slowed down. In short order she would become one of Germany's most celebrated film writers, not only because of her partnership with Fritz Lang, but also for writing scripts for F. W. Murnau, Carl Dreyer, E. A. Dupont, and other German luminaries".[3]

Her brother, Horst von Harbou, worked for Universum Film as a photographer and began to work closely with Thea and Fritz Lang on many of their most famous productions.[4]

Partnership with Lang

Thea von Harbou's first collaboration with Fritz Lang was marked by a common interest in India. As von Harbou worked on an adaptation of her novel Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb, 1918), Joe May assigned Lang to help her write the screenplay and work out production details.[5] Praising Harbou's skills, Erich Kettelhut recalled: "She was not only well-liked by her colleagues, but also as much a creative force, as highly motivated and smoothly efficient, as her husband. Her loving personality was crucial to the professional teamwork. von Harbou's ability to reach out to people and find compromise in the worst situations was a vital resource."[6]

Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou in their Berlin flat, 1923 or 1924

von Harbou and Lang began an affair during this time; she divorced Klein-Rogge in 1920.[7] Following the success of Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler) and the death of Lang's first wife, the couple married in 1922.[8] They worked on a script that would reflect their pride in their German heritage, Die Nibelungen (1924), and enhance von Harbou's reputation as a writer for the screen. She became known for her unique habit of wearing the same dress throughout filming, even as she cooked hot meals for the crew during late nights.[9] Visitors remembered Harbou taking charge of all the domestic and social responsibilities when visiting the couple's apartment.[10] During this time of poverty in 1920s Germany, Harbou became active in acquiring food for her film crew, as one friend recalled, "She was even able to talk the UFA into carrying the costs so the crew could get their meals for free ... she stood there on the rough floor of that drafty shed for hours and didn't mind peeling potatoes or cleaning vegetables with the other women. Such was the spirit of sacrifice."[9]

von Harbou often developed her screenplays into full-length novels, with their publication scheduled to coincide with the release of the film, though this was not the case with Metropolis (1927).[11] von Harbou was a central player in producing Metropolis, and this epic became significant. Besides writing the novel and the screenplay, and developing the distinct moral ending of Metropolis, she discovered Gustav Fröhlich, who played the lead role of Freder Fredersen.[12]

Her next major collaboration with Lang was M (1931), a film about a child murderer. It was written with exquisite attention to accuracy. Lang and von Harbou had been enthralled with news coverage of Peter Kürten, known as the Monster of Düsseldorf, during the late 1920s. She used newspaper articles in developing the script and "maintained regular contact with the police headquarters on Alexanderplatz and was permitted access to the communications and secret publications of Berlin's force".[13] Recalling the script, von Harbou's secretary Hilde Guttmann later said, "I saw many other film manuscripts, but never one which could compare with the manuscript for M. Two typewriter ribbons were stuck together to give us three colors: one black and red, and the other blue. The camera work and the action were typed in black, the dialogue blue, and the sound, where synchronized, was typed in red".[14] Harbou received no credit as the script writer for M.[15]

She was also involved in politics, joining the campaign against Germany's paragraph 218, which made abortion a crime.[16] At a mass rally in 1931, she said:

Our main goal is to find a new form of preventing pregnancy and therefore to make the entire 218 unnecessary. Immediately, however, the paragraph must fall because it is no longer morally recognized by women. It is no longer a law. We need a new sexual code because the old was created by men and no man is in a position to understand the agony of a woman who is carrying a child she knows she cannot feed. This law derived from male psychology, which forces a woman into having a child, creates, even if not deliberately, constitutional inferiority of women in relation to men which serves as a bulwark against women's activity in economic and political life.[16]


Shortly after von Harbou married Lang, he developed the habit of openly pursuing younger women, but they nevertheless presented themselves as a happy couple with a contented home that would have seemed like a small museum of exotic art for the common citizen.[17] Then, during the production of Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, Lang discovered von Harbou in bed with Ayi Tendulkar, an Indian journalist and student 17 years younger than her.[18]

After Lang and von Harbou's divorce became final on 20 April 1933, the couple slowly lost contact with each other.[19] Shortly after the divorce, von Harbou and Ayi Tendulkar contracted a secret marriage, because the Nazi state did not permit someone of her public stature to marry a dark-skinned Indian.[20][21][22]

Under Nazi rule

With Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933, the German film industry began to be used for propaganda purposes. von Harbou was loyal to the new regime. Around 1934, a year after the Nazi Party came to power, on her own initiative she wrote and directed two films, Elisabeth und der Narr and Hanneles Himmelfahrt. However, she did not find the experience of directing satisfactory and remained a prolific scenarist during this time. "Under a regime where every film was a 'state film,' Thea von Harbou amassed writing credits on some twenty-six films, while giving uncredited assistance on countless others-including a handful with an indisputable National Socialist worldview".[23]

When war broke out in 1939, her husband was forced to leave Germany, and their marriage ended. With von Harbou's blessing, he courted and later married an Indian woman, who would visit her after the war (in 1953).[22]

After World War II

A monument in her hometown of Tauperlitz

From July to October 1945, Thea von Harbou was held in Staumühle, a British prison camp. Though many have asserted she had significant Nazi sympathies, von Harbou claimed she only joined the Nazi Party to help Indian immigrants in Germany, like her husband. Lang's biographer, Patrick McGilligan, wrote: "Her direct work on behalf of the government consisted, she claimed, entirely of volunteer welding, making hearing aids, and emergency medical care. In fact, she received a medal of merit for saving people in two air raids."[24] In prison, she directed a performance of Faust and when released she worked as a Trümmerfrau (rubble woman) in 1945 and 1946.


Toward the end of von Harbou's life, pain from high blood pressure, migraines, and neuralgia weakened her, although she continued to write or dictate from her bed.[25] After attending a showing of Der müde Tod (Destiny, 1921) as a guest of honor in June 1954, she fell and suffered serious internal injuries in her hip. On 1 July 1954, five days later, she died in hospital at the age of sixty-five.[26]

Several years after her death, Lang directed the film The Indian Tomb (1959), based upon one of von Harbou's novels.


Some of Harbou's most prominent films:


Some of Harbou's most prominent books:


  1. ^ "Thea von Harbou (1888–1954)". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2014-08-05.
  2. ^ McGilligan 1997, pp. 62–63.
  3. ^ a b c d McGilligan 1997, p. 63.
  4. ^ McGilligan 1997, p. 62.
  5. ^ McGilligan 1997, p. 64.
  6. ^ McGilligan 1997, p. 92.
  7. ^ Eder, Bruce. "Overview:Rudolf Klein-Rogge". Allmovie. Retrieved April 28, 2015.
  8. ^ McGilligan 1997, p. 87.
  9. ^ a b McGilligan 1997, p. 97.
  10. ^ McGilligan 1997, p. 91.
  11. ^ McGilligan 1997, p. 109.
  12. ^ McGilligan 1997, p. 113.
  13. ^ McGilligan 1997, p. 150.
  14. ^ McGilligan 1997, p. 152.
  15. ^ Stevens, Dana. "Writing, Scratching, and Politics from M to Mabuse." Qui Parle 7.1 1993 (63)
  16. ^ a b Petro, Patrice. Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1989 (26)
  17. ^ McGilligan 1997, pp. 90–91.
  18. ^ McGilligan 1997, p. 168.
  19. ^ McGilligan 1997, p. 181.
  20. ^ McGilligan 1997, p. 184.
  21. ^ Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul, In the Shadow of Freedom: Three Lives in Hitler's Germany and Gandhi's India, Zubaan Books, 2013
  22. ^ a b Padgaonkar, Dileep (8 March 2013). "The singular destiny of Ayi Tendulkar". The Times of India. Retrieved 18 August 2014.
  23. ^ McGilligan 1997, p. 185.
  24. ^ McGilligan 1997, p. 330.
  25. ^ McGilligan 1997, p. 413.
  26. ^ McGilligan 1997, p. 414.


Further reading

  • Thea von Harbou - AMC Movie Guide
  • Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representations in Weimar Germany by Patrice Petro
  • Writing, Scratching, and Politics from M to Mabuse in Qui Parle by Dana Stevens
  • In the Shadow of Freedom by Ayi Tendulkar's daughter Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul née Laxmi Thea Tendulkar

External links

This page was last edited on 13 April 2024, at 07:51
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