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
I remember you showing me clips of Renate Muller but I had no idea she died in 1937. What a tragedy. She was wonderful. I love her swagger when she comes down the stairs at the nightclub. She’s got it down perfectly.
I thought Madonna actually would have been good in the 1980s remake of Viktor und Viktoria. She had the right kind of insouciant, ambisexual quality back then–Julie Andrews was 30 years too old for the part and, let’s face it, pretty lacking in oomph. Well, as far as I’m concerned, Blake Edwards ruined every movie project he touched, but that’s just me . . .
Is Viktor Viktoria available in any format?
I have a bootleg VHS copy . . . There are so many clips from it on YouTube you can practically see the whole movie (in German, of course). I bet it is available on DVD if you have an all-region player. I;ll ask Bettina . . .
Great post Eve! I’ve known about her for quite some time now. I recently researched her here at the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts. I have an authorized copy of Viktor Viktoria, plus I think I might have some of her other films too of anyone wants me to burn them a copy.
A friend just loaned me a captioned DVD of “Das Flötenkonzert von Sans-Souci”–not the movie of hers I would have chosen to see, but I’ll take what Renate Muller I can. I wonder if “Togger” still exists?
From my German friend Bettina, who is too overwhelmed by work to post herself right now:
“Younger people, up to the age of about 30 rarely care for the movie period from the Thirties to Sixties. Only a few are interested and that is no wonder as there are less and less older movies on TV. That counts for old German movies as well, if not more. Students, my professor friend tells me, know cult films such as ‘Casablanca’ and the German ‘Die Feuerzangenbowle’ (1944) but not much more. ‘Viktor /Viktoria’ is available on DVD here and it is one of a very few films available with Renate Müller. Younger people feel even more awkward watching old German movies (Thirties to Forties). That is totally different with young German movies, they are very popular as e.g. movies by Til Schweiger. As for the book market, movie books are much less popular than in the States and so are movie DVDs.
Tonio, my professor friend, made a test with a class of 25 students. Not one of them ever heard the name of Richard Burton, can you believe that? There is one name though, everyone has heard of – even if they have never ever seen one movie with her: Marilyn Monroe.”