25 April 2018

Napoléon (1927)

Abel Gance’s epic film Napoléon (1927) is one of the masterpieces of the European silent cinema. Gance tells the story of the French general's youth and early military career in a massive, six-hour biopic. The film's legendary reputation is due to the astonishing range of techniques that Gance uses to tell his story, culminating in the final twenty-minute triptych sequence, which alternates wide screen panoramas with complex multiple-image montages projected simultaneously on three screens. And Albert Dieudonné was perfectly cast as Napoleon Bonaparte.

Albert Dieudonné in Napoléon (1927)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 84/1, 1925-1935. Photo: Ufa. Albert Dieudonné as the title character in Abel Gance’s epic film Napoléon (1927).

Vladimir Roudenko in Napoleon (1927)
French postcard by Cinémagazine-Edition, no. 456. Photo: Vladimir Roudenko as the young Napoléon in Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927).

Gina Manès as Josephine in Napoléon0001
French postcard by Editions Cinémagazines, no. 459. Photo: Gina Manès as Josephine de Beauharnais in Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927).

Nicolas Koline in Napoléon (1927)
French postcard by Editions Cinémagazine, no. 460. Photo: Nicolas Koline as Tristan Fleuri in Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927).

A chronology of great triumph and defeat 

Napoléon (1927) begins in Brienne-le-Château with youthful Napoleon (Vladimir Roudenko) attending military school where he manages a snowball fight like a military campaign, yet he suffers the insults of other boys.

The film continues a decade later with scenes of the French Revolution and Napoleon's (Albert Dieudonné) presence at the periphery as a young army lieutenant. He returns to visit his family home in Corsica but politics shift against him and put him in mortal danger. He flees, taking his family to France.

Serving as an officer of artillery in the Siege of Toulon, Napoleon's genius for leadership is rewarded with a promotion to brigadier general. Jealous revolutionaries imprison Napoleon but then the political tide turns against the Revolution's own leaders. Napoleon leaves prison, forming plans to invade Italy.

He falls in love with the beautiful Joséphine de Beauharnais (Gina Manès). The emergency government charges him with the task of protecting the National Assembly. Succeeding in this he is promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Interior, and he marries Joséphine. He takes control of the army which protects the French–Italian border, and propels it to victory in an invasion of Italy.

Many innovative techniques were used to make the film, including fast cutting, extensive close-ups, a wide variety of hand-held camera shots, location shooting, point of view shots, multiple-camera setups, multiple exposure, superimposition, underwater camera, kaleidoscopic images, film tinting, split screen and mosaic shots, multi-screen projection, and other visual effects.

Director, writer and producer  Abel Gance planned for Napoléon to be the first of six films about Napoleon's career, a chronology of great triumph and defeat ending in Napoleon's death in exile on the island of Saint Helena. After the difficulties encountered in making the first film, Gance realised that the costs involved would make the full project impossible.

Napoléon was first released in a gala at the Palais Garnier (then the home of the Paris Opera) on 7 April 1927. Napoléon had been screened in only eight European cities when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the rights to it, but after screening it in London, it was cut drastically in length, and only the central panel of the three-screen Polyvision sequences was retained before it was put on limited release in the United States. There, the film was indifferently received at a time when talkies were just starting to appear.

The film was restored in 1981 after twenty years' work by silent film historian Kevin Brownlow.

Edmond Van Daële in Napoléon (1927)
French postcard by Editions Cinémagazine, no. 461. Photo: Edmond Van Daële as Robespierre in Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927).

Abel Gance
French postcard by Editions Cinémagazine, no. 473. Photo: publicity still for Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927), with Abel Gance himself as Saint Just.

Albert Dieudonné in Napoléon (1927)
French postcard by Editions Cinémagazine, no. 474. Photo: Lipnitzky. Publicity still for Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927), with Albert Dieudonné as Napoléon. The postcard is a pastiche of the famous portrait of Bonaparte at Arcole, 1796, by Baron Antoine-Jean Gros. See more.

Albert Dieudonné as Napoléon
French postcard. Photo Choumoff. Albert Dieudonné as Napoleon. The retro of the card makes publicity for Dieudonné in a stage version 'Bonaparte' at the Theatre de la Renaissance.

Abel Gance (Mon Ciné, 1926)
Director/actor Abel Gance on the cover of the French film journal Mon Ciné, no. 253, V, 23 December 1926. Gance is groomed as the character he played in Napoléon (1927), that of Saint-Just, one of the leading men of the French Terror.

Sources: Michael Brooke (IMDb), Wikipedia and IMDb.

24 April 2018

Willi Domgraf Fassbaender

Celebrated German opera singer Willi Domgraf Fassbaender (1897–1978) was one of the leading lyric baritones of the inter-war period. He was particularly associated with Mozart and Italian roles. During the 1930s, ‘the Italian baritone’ starred in a number of musical films, which helped his shining international reputation.

Willi Domgraf Fassbaender
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 7290/1, 1932-1933 (sent by mail in the Netherlands in 1935). Photo: Atelier Schneider, Berlin.

Beautiful Voice

Willi Domgraf Fassbaender (also written as Willy Domgraf(-)Fassb(a)ender) was born in Aachen, Germany, in 1897.

Initially, he intended to become a conductor and musicologist for church music, but eventually he studied singing with Julius Stückgold. He had a beautiful voice and used it with fine musicianship.

He began his career as an oratorio and concert singer, but the director of the Stadttheater Aachen encouraged him to appear in opera and operetta. In 1922 he made his debut in Aachen as Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro.

In the following year, Leo Blech engaged him to the Deutsche Oper Berlin where the young singer continued his vocal studies with Paul Bruns. Due to strong competition, Domgraf-Fassbaender changed to the opera house in Düsseldorf, completing his studies with the famous Giuseppe Borgatti in Milan.

It was in Düsseldorf where he gained experience in an extensive repertoire: Figaro, Count Almaviva, Rigoletto, Wolfram, Papageno, Don Giovanni, et cetera. In 1927 he joined the company of the State Opera in Stuttgart, where he became one of its most popular singers.

It was Richard Tauber (his partner in La Bohème and Carmen) who recommended him to go back to Berlin. General manager Heinz Tietjen, who was to become his mentor, contracted him to the Berlin State Opera, where he gained quickly a reputation as ‘the Italian baritone’.

Willi Domgraf Fassbaender
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 152/1. Photo: Aafa Film. Publicity still for Theodor Körner (Carl Boese, 1932).

Heydays of the German Film Musical

Willi Domgraf Fassbaender was an accomplished singer-actor, and his shining international reputation was helped by his starring in a number of musical films. In 1932, at the heydays of the German film musical, he made his film debut in Der Sieger/The Winner (Hans Hinrich, Paul Martin, 1932) with Hans Albers.

An adaptation of Friedrich Smetana’s opera Die Verkaufte Braut/The Bartered Bride (Max Ophüls, 1932) with the beautiful Jarmila Novotnà in the title role, gained world-wide success. He sang the role of Hans, which was originally meant for a tenor.

That same year he also appeared in the short film Goethe-Gedenkfilm - 1. Der Werdegang/Goethe Memorial Film, part 1 (Fritz Wendhausen, 1932), and in Theodor Körner (Carl Boese, 1932) with Dorothea Wieck.

Next he starred in Ich will Dich Liebe lehren/I Will Teach You to Love (Heinz Hilpert, 1933). He insisted on also playing in the alternate French version, L’homme qui ne sait pas dire non/The Man Who Doesn't Know to Say No, but his accent was so bad that this version was never released.

After the rise to power of the Nazis, he became a party member of the NSDAP in May 1933. The following years he was the star of Aufforderung zum Tanz/Invitation to the Dance (Rudolf van der Noss, 1933), Starke Herzen/Strong Hearts (Herbert Maisch, 1937), Ein Lied von Liebe/A Song of Love (Jürgen von Alten, 1938) in which he starred with his wife Sabine Peters, and Lauter Liebe/Pure Love (Heinz Rühmann, 1940) with Hertha Feiler.

Lissi Arna and  Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender in Theodor Körner (1932)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 152/4. Photo: Aafa Film. Publicity still for Theodor Körner (Carl Boese, 1932) with Lizzy Arna.


Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender’s devotion to modern works was quite remarkable (including operas by Malipiero, Wellesz, Schoeck), but his career was dominated by his Italian parts and Mozart.

Fritz Busch invited him to the Glyndebourne Festival, where he sang the Count in Le Nozze di Figaro as well as Guglielmo in Così fan tutte in the 1934, 1935 and 1939 series. In 1937 he was chosen by Arturo Toscanini to sing Papageno in Die Zauberflöte/The Magic Flute at the Salzburg Festival.

In 1942 he received the title of ‘Kammersänger'. After World War II, he performed mostly in Vienna, Munich, Hannover, and Nuremberg. At the Vienna State Opera, he sang Wolfram, Papageno and Ford.

His last film appearance was as Figaro in the DEFA production of Figaros Hochzeit/The Marriage of Figaro (Georg Wildhagen, 1949) with Angelika Hauff and Sabine Peters.

After 1951 Domgraf-Fassbaender worked as an outstanding stage director. In 1954 he went to the Conservatory of Nuremberg, where he led the opera school and taught a vocal class.

Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender died in 1978, in Nuremberg. His only daughter, from his marriage with Sabine Peters, was mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender (1939), who studied exclusively with her father and was to become a celebrated mezzo.

167 Willi Domgraf Fassbaender_Haus Neueburg (Film Album 2; 167)
German collectors card by Ross, Haus Neueburg Film Album 2, no. 167. Photo: Schneider. Collection: Manuel Palomino Arjona (Flickr).

211 Willi Domgraf Fassbaender & Maria Elsner_Haus Neueburg (Film Album 2; 211)
With Maria Elsner in a stage production. German collectors card by Ross, Haus Neueburg Film Album 2, no. 211. Photo: Schneider. Collection: Manuel Palomino Arjona (Flickr).

Sources: Andrea Suhm-Binder (subito – cantabile), Thomas Staedeli (Cyranos), Wikipedia (German and English), Filmportal.de, and IMDb.

23 April 2018

Margarete Slezak

Margarete Slezak (1901–1953) was an Austrian singer and actress, who appeared in several films between 1928 and 1953. She was the sister of Walter Slezak.

Margarete Slezak
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 2807/1, 1939-1940. Photo: K.L. Haenchen.

Margarete Slezak
German postcard by Film-Foto-Verlag, no. A 2797/1, 1939-1940. Photo: Harcourt.

Soprano voice

Margarete Slezak was born in 1901 in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland). She was the daughter of the opera singer and film comedian Leo Slezak and actress Elsa (née Wertheim) Slezak. Her brother was the actor Walter Slezak.

Her father trained her soprano voice and had her learn several instruments such as violin and saxophone. When she was ten years old she sang at the choir of the church in Tegernsee, Bavaria.

Her first engagement took her to the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin from 1930 to 1933 and soon she became a popular opera singer. From 1935 to 1943 she was a member of the ensemble of the Städtischen Opernhauses Berlin-Charlottenburg.

Slezak also appeared in several films. Her debut was the silent film Das Mädel aus der Hödrichsmühle/The girl from the Hödrich mill (Herr Stumfekl, 1928). Among her sound films are the comedy Ich heirate meine Frau/ I Marry My Wife (Johannes Riemann, 1934) with Lil Dagover, and the crime film Der Vorhang fällt/The Curtain Falls (Georg Jacoby, 1939) starring Anneliese Uhlig.

After the Second World War, Slezak appeared in South America and Southeastern Europe. She also sang in Berlin at the Theater des Westens, at the Staatsoper Berlin and in the Wintergarden.

After her father's death in 1946, she managed the Slezak house in Rottach-Egern, where she lived with her husband, the singer Peter Winter. The book Mein Lebensmärchen (My Life's Fairy Tale), which she published in 1947, is a record of her father's memoirs, which she collected in his last months and published on his behalf after his death.

Margarete Slezak
German postcard by Film-Foto-Verlag, no. A 3411/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Tita Binz.

Margarete Slezak
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 3411/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Harcourt.

One of the last Rubble Films

After the war, Margarete Slezak played a supporting role in the West German sports film Derby (Roger von Norman, 1949) starring Hannelore Schroth and Willy Fritsch. With Fritsch, she also appeared in the historical comedy König für eine Nacht/King for One Night (Paul May, 1950).

Then followed a part in the romantic comedy Des Lebens Überfluss/Abundance of Life (Wolfgang Liebeneiner, 1950) one of the last of the Trümmerfilme (Rubble films) made in the immediate post-war years. It updates a story by Ludwig Tieck to modern-day Hamburg, addressing the shortage of housing in the heavily bombed city.

During the 1950s she played supporting parts in operetta films like Die Csardasfürstin/The Csardas Princess (Georg Jacoby, 1950) starring Marika Rökk and Johannes Heesters, and Die Blume von Hawaii/The Flower of Hawaii (Géza von Cziffra, 1953) featuring Maria Litto.

Her final film was the circus film Keine Angst vor großen Tieren/Not Afraid of Big Animals (Ulrich Erfurth, 1953) starring Heinz Rühmann.

Margarete Slezak died in 1953 in Rottach-Egern, West Germany. After her death her biography Der Apfel fällt nicht weit vom Stamm (The apple does not fall far from the tribe) was published.

Margarete Slezak
Big German card by Ross Verlag. Photo: Lindner.

Margarete Slezak
German postcard by Film-Foto-Verlag, no. A 3510/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Harcourt.

Sources: Thomas Staedeli (Cyranos), Filmportal.de, Androom, Wikipedia (German and English), and IMDb.