An cigarette card of Renate Müller has been listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $2.99.
1906 – 1937
I’ve always gotten a frisson of enjoyment from Weimar-era Berlin culture, probably because like, in a good horror movie, we all know what’s coming. So my iPod is full of German jazz bands, and I also have (thanks to my German friend Bettina) a CD of Renate Müller’s recordings. Renate was the German equivalent of . . . hmmm . . . pre-Astaire Ginger Rogers would be the best example. Sassy but wholesome, a tough city gal with apple-cheeked good looks, and a terrific singing voice. But unlike Ginger, Renate vanished—quite mysteriously [she says, ominously]—by the end of the 1930s.
She came from a Very Good Family: wealthy newspaper people. Renate was one of those artsy teenagers who majors in acting, but thanks to looks, talent and money, she actually got work. Through the late 1920s and early ’30s, Renate learned her trade onstage and in small movie roles, hitting stardom as a flirtatious office girl in Die Privatsekretärin (1931). She also appeared in the English-language version, The Office Girl; Renate also spoke French, boding well for her career. From 1931-36, she starred in comedies, musicals, period pieces, dramas; her most famous film being the marvelous Viktor und Viktoria (1933), so much better and sexier and funnier than the pallid remakes starring Jessie Matthews and Julie Andrews. This version—written and directed by Reinhold Schünzel—was more like Rouben Mamoulian’s airy delight Love Me Tonight.
Then, as well all know, all hell broke loose. The German film industry was taken over by that unpleasant Mr. Goebbels, and much of the either talent fled or stayed away. Marlene Dietrich, Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Michael Curtiz, Billy Wilder, Peter Lorre—Germany did not want to lose Renate Müller, too. She spoke French and English well enough to try a career elsewhere, and she had a Jewish boyfriend stashed away in Paris: she was being very closely watched-over. In 1937 Renate’s friend Thea von Harbou bullied her into making her only propaganda film, Togger (in which her father’s newspaper is taken over by evil Jews). The film opened on February 12, 1937; the usually busy actress sat idle thereafter—and died on October 7.
Renate Müller’s death is just as mysterious as Thelma Todd’s or Olive Thomas’, but there were so many millions of deaths to come that hers quickly faded away. All that is known is that she fell from a window in early October 1937—sources vary on whether it was her home, a hotel or even a mental hospital. She had reportedly undergone some recent medical treatment (again, a knee injury, epilepsy and drug addiction are batted around). Renate lingered in the hospital for a day or two before dying from either head trauma or internal injuries; Goebbels tried to keep the funeral quiet and suggested that coworkers and fans ignore it, but even pro-Nazi Thea von Harbou showed up.
No one will ever know what happened to Renate: did she commit suicide out of despair at what was happening to her country, her career and her industry? Was she killed on the orders of Goebbels, afraid of yet another embarrassing defection of a star to America? Or did she just accidentally fall—people do fall out of windows sometimes. Renate Müller is pretty much forgotten even in Germany—Bettina tells me Germans do not see nearly as many old films on TV as we do in the US. There is only one English-language book on her (a really bizarre 1944 number called Queen of America? The Case of Renate Müller); a pretty good (I am told) German book was published recently, which does me no good, as my parents would not let me take “that language” in school (I must note here they did let me take French, and I can’t speak that either, so there you are).
Happily, many of Renate Müller’s films still exist, though they are out of reach of even most Germans, let alone Americans. A lot of her vocal recordings are on YouTube and have been released on CD. And I leave you with Renate and her delightful over-the-top costar in Viktor und Viktoria, Hermann Thimig, singing one of the catchiest numbers in the film, “An Einem Tag im Frühling” (“One Day in Spring,” if Google Translate is to be trusted): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4f-MJAkObXE