Zarah Leander and the Dream of a (Nazi) European Cinema

Benjamin G. Martin, Uppsala University

10 October 2017

In late 1942, Nazi Germany dominated Europe. And in cinemas, one German movie had begun its own victorious march across the continent: Die große Liebe (The Great Love, 1942), the single biggest box office hit of the Nazi film industry. But the star of the most successful film in the history of Europe’s most powerful regime was not German. The role was played by the Swedish actress and singer Zarah Leander. With her red hair, misty eyes, and sultry, deep singing voice, Leander had starred in several popular movies since being signed by Germany’s UFA studios in 1936. Carefully cultivated, aggressively promoted, and lavishly remunerated, Leander rose quickly to become Nazi cinema’s brightest star. Die große Liebe applied her singing and acting talents to a story set in the wartime present, striking a chord with Germans—some 27 million of whom saw the movie by mid-1944—and with audiences across Europe.

Leander’s success in Die große Liebe was more than just a hit for Berlin’s movie industry. As it drew audiences (and profits) from France to Finland, this film marked the culmination of a project that the Nazi film establishment, led by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, had pursued for nearly a decade. The goal was to make Germany the dominant film power on the European continent. The project’s central strategy was to restructure Europe’s fractured landscape of small, national cinemas into a unified, integrated pan-European film market. In this unified “Film Europe,” Germany’s centralized, state-controlled industry would seize the leading role hitherto played by the American studios. Berlin, rather than Hollywood, would produce the border-crossing blockbusters that would entertain European audiences—and cement Germany’s cultural hegemony in Europe. In Die große Liebe, Zarah Leander played a valuable role in bringing about the Nazi “New Order” in European cultural life.

Figure 1: Source:

Zarah Leander’s life and films, her melodramatic glamour and her distinctive husky voice, have stimulated a good deal of fan literature, as well as some excellent scholarly work. Particularly useful is Jana Bruns’s Nazi Cinema’s New Women (Cambridge, 2009), which carefully analyses each of her Nazi-era films in their German political and social context. But Leander’s story also embodies the European story of Nazi cinema. I explore that European story in my own recent book, in which Leander, unfortunately, makes only the briefest appearance. In fact, appreciating the continental scope of the Nazis’ film ambitions can help illuminate the role, function, and historical significance of the enigmatic star.

Talent scouts at Germany’s mighty UFA studios first heard of Leander—born Sara Stina Hedberg in 1907 in Karlstad, Sweden—when her performance in a 1936 Vienna musical revue attracted international attention. Undeterred by her modest screen experience, the Nazi regime’s film authorities spared no expense to convince her to come to Berlin. The head of the Reich Film Chamber travelled personally to Vienna to begin contract negotiations. The contract that emerged promised Leander the astonishing sum of 200,000 Reichsmarks for three movies to be made over the coming twelve months. (By comparison, the average annual income of a German working man was around 1,700 RM.) The Germans even agreed to the extraordinary demand that UFA pay most of this salary in Swedish kronor. With the ink barely dry on the contract, the Nazi star-making machine moved into high gear, placing images of Leander’s doe-eyed face on the cover of countless magazines before she had made a single film in Germany!

What can account for this extraordinary commitment of resources on an unknown, foreign actress? Consider the state of the German film industry at the time. Foreign anti-Nazi boycotts and a decline in exports caused by the depression choked the German film industry in 1936. Goebbels responded by essentially nationalizing German cinema, using a trust company to acquire controlling shares in the key studios and consolidating the industry into fewer and fewer hands. But Goebbels knew that domestic reforms alone could not solve the industry’s economic problems, nor appease his own political ambitions. Indeed, no European country could cover the skyrocketing production costs of high-quality movies on the basis on domestic box office receipts. Easy access to a large export market was essential. With this goal in mind, Goebbels’s Reich Film Chamber had already begun creating a new pan-European institution: the International Film Chamber (IFC). First proposed at a grand conference in Berlin in 1935, this body streamlined exchanges among Europe’s film industries so as to forge something like a single European market for film. Only this, it was believed, would enable Europe’s film industries to resist the pressures of the Hollywood studios. (Hollywood, unsurprisingly, scorned the IFC as an anti-American ploy.)

Figure 2: Goebbels speaking at the International Film Congress, Berlin, April 1935. Source: SZ-Photo/IBL-Bildbyrå

By the autumn of 1936, the pan-European work of the IFC was fully underway. It had attracted members from across Europe, opened an office in Berlin, and forged a deal with fascist Italy’s film leaders, who agreed to make the Venice Film Festival the IFC’s official showcase. On August 20, representatives of Austria, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland had met in Venice to discuss plans for an office to coordinate international film distribution, a bank for coordinating currency exchanges, and an international court of arbitration. (Goebbels himself attended, where he met with his Italian counterpart Dino Alfieri to cement the Nazi-fascist “Axis.”) But none of this mattered if Germany did not have movies able to succeed in this integrated European market. And that meant European-quality stars.

This was the state of play in autumn 1936 when the Nazi film world got wind of Zarah Leander. From the first, her significance was determined by what she could do for the Nazi state-led film apparatus not primarily in Germany, but in the rest of Europe. Here was an actress with the potential not just to replace Marlene Dietrich—whose 1930 departure for Hollywood had been a lasting blow to the German industry—but to be a new Garbo. And, if the Germans could keep her from running off to Hollywood, she could be Germany’s European Garbo.

Figure 3: The German film magazine Film-Kurier helps launch Leander’s first UFA film, To New Shores (1937)

Leander’s star potential with non-German audiences was tested at the 1937 Venice Film Festival, where UFA presented her first German feature, To New Shores (Zu neuen Ufern, Detlef Sierck, 1937). Its reception proved that the massive investment in Leander had been worth it. Of the eight features Germany entered into competition, all were panned by critics and audiences, but one. “Only the film To New Shores was endorsed,” a Nazi official reported to Goebbels, “on account of the popularity of Zarah Leander” (quoted in Bruns, 120). That she was not German, Nazi officials recognised, was key to her appeal. It toned down any impression of the strident nationalism for which the Nazis were rightly known, making the regime’s cultural output seem less threatening. The appearance of the Swedish star in German productions likewise affirmed Berlin’s status as not merely Germany’s “Hollywood on the Spree River,” but as the film capital of Europe. Her role only grew over the following years, in particular after the huge success of the Leander vehicle Heimat (Carl Froelich, 1938).

Figure 4: Poster for Heimat (1939)

Goebbels’s European dreams were spurred to new heights by the outbreak of war in 1939. The German-dominated “New Order” in Europe that seemed promised by Hitler’s military victories must also, Goebbels believed, include a new cultural order. The International Film Chamber had fallen silent in 1939. But now the time had come to revive it. And in Berlin in July 1941, Goebbels personally received representatives of the governments and film industries of Belgium, Bohemia and Moravia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, and Sweden. There they signed on to a new incarnation of International Film Chamber, reborn in the spirit of the New European Order. When the United States entered the war at the end of that year, the IFC acquired the power to ban Hollywood films from the continent. Meeting in hotels from Brussels to Budapest, IFC delegates helped enforce this ban. IFC leaders promised the carrot of access to a streamlined continental market and brandished the stick of cutting off supplies of celluloid film to non-compliant countries. Now Goebbels’s dream was becoming reality: “Film Europe,” internally integrated, externally closed, and German-dominated, was coming into being.

Figure 5: International Film Chamber delegates meet at Rome’s Cincittà studios, April 1942. Source: Istituto LUCE/Cinecittà.

And Goebbels also had the European-level star ready to seize this moment. Indeed, Zarah Leander’s European function was never more clearly on display than in her wartime blockbuster, Die große Liebe. Using the kind of standardized contracts, pan-European distribution agreements, and economic clearing arrangements hammered out by the IFC, the Germans pushed the film into markets across the continent.

Figure 6: Signal, a Nazi propaganda magazine with continent-wide distribution, promotes Die große Liebe, 1942, source: Stefan Bohman, “Difficult Person” ; Figure 7: Poster for the film’s French release, 1943, source:; Figure 8: Poster for the film’s Italian release, source:; Figure 9: Publicity material for the film’s Swedish release, 1943, source: Svenska filminstitutet.

The film tells the story of the romance between glamorous revue singer Hanna Holborn and Luftwaffe pilot Paul Wendtland, played by Viktor Staal. The story line is of a love frustrated by the duties of wartime, even as it is somehow heightened by the excitement of war. (Hanna and Paul’s first night together follows an air attack on Berlin.) But this German love story takes place against a backdrop that is self-consciously European in scope. The film opens in North Africa, ends in the Alps, and in between takes its viewers to Berlin, Paris, Rome, and even into the Soviet Union (alongside the invading German forces). It is as if Paul and Hanna’s drama, their conflict between love and duty, were too big for Germany alone. It spreads out in the Europe that now belonged to Hitler’s Reich. But—as the film’s demeaning portrayal of the Italians reveals—this was a Europe for Germany, a playground for German desire, a stage for German ambition.

Such were the real aims of Goebbels’s cinema empire, in front of and behind the camera. During WWII the continent’s film industries came as close as they ever have to achieving European unity, but in a form based on German domination, in the service of totalitarianism, racism, and war.

Benjamin G. Martin works at Uppsala University as researcher in the Department of History of Science and Ideas, with support from a grant from the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences. A graduate of the University of Chicago (A.B.) and Columbia University (PhD), he has been based in Sweden since 2010. His publications on film include The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture (Harvard University Press 2016) and articles on the International Film Chamber and on Sweden’s role in the IFC. This blog post grew out of introductory remarks he was invited to make at a screening of Die große Liebe at the Swedish Film Institute, Stockholm, in April 2017.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

‘I want to tell the world!’ The Soho Fair, Belinda Lee and Miracle in Soho (Julian Amyes, 1957)

Jingan Young, King’s College London

3 October 2017

Directed by Julian Amyes and released in the summer of 1957, Miracle in Soho was executive produced by Earl St. John for the J. Arthur Rank Organisation and co-produced and written by Emeric Pressburger whose original version of the script was written in 1934 under the title The Miracle in St. Anthony’s Lane. Incidentally, the year before the release of Miracle in Soho Hungarian born Pressburger’s successful working partnership with the director Michael Powell had come to an end. Powell would go on to make Peeping Tom which utilises North Soho (Fitzrovia) for its violent opening sequence.

The “miracle” of the 1957 Miracle in Soho occurs after the whispered prayers of Julia Gozzi (Belinda Lee) within the fictional St. Anthony’s Church located in the fictional St. Anthony’s Lane, Soho. Following her prayer for the return of an Anglo-Irish road driller and “incorrigible breaker of hearts” Michael Morgan (John Gregson), the water mains beneath the Soho lane burst destroying the newly-laid asphalt. Morgan returns to repair the road and ultimately the lovers are reconciled.

A failure critically and at the box office, critics upon release of the film were largely disappointed with this constructed Soho set alongside the morally integrated world of its character-driven plot.

Monthly Film Bulletin declared “This depressing production, with its synthetic Soho setting, has characters conceived strictly within the less happy conventions of British comedy”, Variety called it “A rather slow moving sentimental yarn” and Picturegoer condemned its “wispy plot, set in a studio-built Soho street” though hopeful in its introduction to a “peaceful mixture of people, far removed from the gangsters and floozies that usually people the screen Soho.”[i]

The Soho of the film was designed by Carmen Dillon who won an Academy Award for her work on Hamlet (Laurence Olivier, 1948) St. Anthony’s Lane is a self-contained, mammoth Pinewood Studios set. Alongside the “wispy” plot of the Italian Gozzi family’s planned emigration to Canada and the Irish philanderer Michael Morgan’s redemption – the meteoric rise of television may also be to blame for the film’s poor reception.

Splashed on the front-page of What’s On in London in 1957, the film was described as a sentimental little fairy story which abysmally failed in its representation of Soho:

The ‘miracle’ of the title of Pressburger’s sentimental little fairy story, Miracle in Soho, at the Odeon, Leicester Square, is LOVE. It hits philandering, unpleasantly-cocksure labourer John Gregson while he’s digging up the road and overnight magically makes a new man of him. Equally miraculously it hits Italian Belinda Lee, who gives up going to Canada with her family in order to woo him. Silly girl. Of course, this isn’t really Soho at all, but I don’t suppose that’s going to worry anyone except a few fussy Sohoians.[ii]

But the film’s cross-promotion with the Soho Fair and film impresario J. Arthur Rank’s Euro-centric approach during the mid 1950s (with Miracle, the Italian film market) provides the film with a further complexity in the context of British film history.

In July of 1955 the Mayor of Westminster officially re-launched Cosmopolitan Soho to the world. The fair was co-organised by the Soho Association and the proprietor of the York Minster pub Gaston Berlemont who conveyed to a reporter from The Spectator that he got the idea at the deconsecration service at St. Anne’s, Soho’s parish church until it was bombed. He recalls to the reporter: “Now there was no church […] there should be a fair in her honour.”

Soho’s multifarious reputation in the public sphere as a cosmopolitan space continued to publicly obstruct the new planning philosophy and technique which was transformed during the Second World War. Drawing on Soho’s reputation for cultural and ethnic diversity the fair’s organisers were able to “create an idiosyncratic mood of celebration that could be marketed to local and national audiences via the media and entertainment industries” (Mort, 2010, 198).

The week-long Soho Fair was recorded by Pathé News in the form of short newsreels such as Soho Goes Gay! (British Pathé, 1955) and was screened in British cinemas throughout the summer. “A good place which can do fine things” declared a promotional piece published in The Observer titled “A Fair Week’s Run for the Real Soho.” The same publication would later report: “The idea that Soho is a romantic little ‘Continental Quarter’ in the heart of innocent England – a myth – almost became reality yesterday afternoon.”

The New Statesman was horrified: “There used to be – I daresay there still is – an admirable honesty about Soho. It does not pretend to be something: it just was. But the bell is tolling. Soho is having a Fair […] Someone has had the idea of producing Soho to the world so that it is not only to be Soho, but also to pretend to be.”[iii] In the same hyperbolic vein, The Spectator magazine reported the fair to be filled with absurdities:

There are many absurdities at the Soho Fair…A garish Dutch organ plays in Golden Square, painted with Elizabethan musicians and Victorian odalisques: a band of West Indians pours out Latin-American rhythms…Bohemian young Frenchman…a dark, Celtic Lady plies a spinning-wheel in Shaftesbury Avenue. [iv]

In 1956 J. Arthur Rank “supped with the devil” in extending his efforts in promotion by advertising on new platforms which included purchasing advertising slots in commercial television and popular magazines. Rank produced a 20-min promotional film Full Screen Ahead (1957) to be screened in Rank’s cinemas. The film took the audience on a day out at Pinewood [Studios] with a visit to the set of Miracle in Soho. Fan magazine Picturegoer ran several profiles of the then twenty-one-year-old Belinda Lee in an attempt to reinvent Rank’s star:

Belinda Lee has set the Rank Organisation quite a problem. All because she wants to live down her past. At twenty-one, the nicest, least-spoiled star in Britain really has a past…Miss Lee is making Miracle in London. And the talk around Pinewood is that it gives her the sort of dramatic role that could change her whole career. Belinda Lee sees it that way, too.[v]

Penned by Derek Walker, his series of articles for Picturegoer “Belinda Lee Covers Up Her Past”, “Lee – a Star by Friendly Persuasion and “A Star By Friendly Persuasion – Part II. Why She’s Not a Blonde Bombshell” legitimizes Lee as a serious actor and in Part II accounts for Pressburger’s casting of Lee in the role of Julia Gozzi as merely happenstance.

Pressburger saw her photograph outside of his offices at Pinewood and there and then decided “that, is just what I want for Miracle in Soho.”[vi] Steve Chibnall recounts the Rank Organisation’s big idea of 1955 – 1957 which involved forgoing the American film market for Europe where “British-based actors such as Herbert Lom and Belinda Lee would play sympathetic Italian characters.”

Chibnall says:

When Rank had a star such as Belinda Lee, who they believed would appeal to the Italian market, they used the most talented of Studio Favalli’s illustrators to promote her films. Arnaldo Putzu painted his first British posters for her breakthrough role in the social realist crime film The Secret Place (1957), Cesselon depicted her as an Anglo-Italian girl in Miracle in Soho (1957).[vii] (Steve Chibnall, 2016)

In the year of Miracle in Soho’s release Belinda Lee endorsed cosmetics such as Vitapointe of Paris in The Daily Express. Marketing for the product even managed to incorporate Pressburger’s film for the tagline reads: “I want to tell the world! I’ve found a hair dressing cream that works miracles!”[viii]

Despite the film’s resolution, the redemption of the self-serving, philanderer Michael Morgan through the love-of-a-good-woman manifested through Julia’s prayer, the doubts vehemently expressed by Julia Gozzi’s siblings Mafalda (Rosalie Crutchley) and Fillipo (Ian Bannen) on emigrating to Canada are never fully developed and their initial reservations on leaving Soho and their desires to cultivate new businesses in Soho there are abruptly dropped by the film. The failed redevelopment of the Soho lane is also abandoned in favour of the title love story.

Miracle in Soho may not have achieved Pressburger’s intentions, and one wonders what the final film contained within his earlier scripts set in a Berlin synagogue would have been like, but the film is a welcomed addition to a metropolis massively riven by discord and furthermore contributes to a post-war Soho film canon (and one I have found to be larger than most expect!) that contains an exhaustive array of crime narratives following Spivs and prostitutes.

[i] Films of that year included the Oscar-winning David Lean’s The Bridge on The River Kwai. Clem. “Review: Miracle in Soho.” Variety. Jul 24 (1957): 26. “MIRACLE IN SOHO.” Monthly Film Bulletin 24, no. 276 (1957): 104. “Miracle in Soho”, Picturegoer. London 34.1161 (Aug 3, 1957), 14.

[ii] “Miracle in Soho”. What’s On in London. July 12th, 1957. Courtesy of Steve Crook. The Powell & Pressburger Pages Online.

[iii] Interview with the Soho locals and the Fair’s origins see “A Fair Week’s Run for the Real Soho.” The Observer (1901- 2003); Jul 10 (1955), 10. Edward Hyams laments the old Soho where you could “if you had the odd taste for it, see actors, artists and writers eating.” See his piece “Pretending to be Soho”, The New Statesman and Nation 50, Jul 16 (1955), 65 – 66.

[iv] Part of The Spectator’s Notebook, this amusing short piece gives a first-hand look at the origins of the Soho Fair. See “THERE ARE MANY Absurdities at the Soho Fair.”  The Spectator 195, no. 6629 (Jul 15, 1955): 86.

[v] Derek Walker’s profile is accompanied by several images of Lee as “pin-up” in “Belinda Lee Covers Up Her Past.” Picturegoer. March 16, 1967, 5.

[vi] Ibid., 5.

[vii] Ironically says Chibnall, Rank’s big ideas would be made possible in the 1960s by American investment based on the success of British films in the USA. See Steve Chibnall, “Banging the Gong: The Promotional Strategies of Britain’s J. Arthur Rank Organisation in the 1950s.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (2016), 12.

[viii] The black-and-white advertisement uses a large photograph of Lee to promote Vitapointe of Paris with a tagline below that reads “Just 1 minute brushing – and my hair is shining! By Belinda Lee.”, The Daily Express. September 26, 1957, 13.

Jingan Young is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter. She holds a BA (Hons) in English with Film Studies from King’s College London and a Master of Studies in Creative Writing from the University of Oxford. She is currently reading for a PhD in Film Studies at King’s College London where her thesis examines the cinematic representations of London’s Soho in post-war British cinema. She welcomes anyone who may wish to add to her ever-extending list of Soho films. She also blogs and tweets about her research @sohoonscreen and

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.


Call for Papers: IAMHIST Blog – ‘A Day at the Archives…’ series

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The IAMHIST Blog is place for analysing film, radio and television history in a discursive context, and offers scholars working within these areas a space to disseminate their findings, knowledge and research.

A new series for the Blog, entitled ‘A Day at the Archives…’, aims to discuss different researcher’s experiences (from PhD student to Professor) of using a variety of archives and/or museums from around the world, particularly those which may help to contribute to and inform our knowledge of film, radio and television history, and thus work to advertise and highlight useful avenues for historical and empirical research for other scholars working within these areas.

If you would be interested in writing a piece for this series, which is intended to run indefinitely, then please email the IAMHIST Blog Editor, Llewella Chapman, with your suggestions and ideas:

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It should be noted that researchers are also very welcome to write about their own research projects for the IAMHIST Blog (separate from this series), and if you are interested in writing a more general piece for the Blog then please let Llewella know.

Please refer to the ‘IAMHIST Blog Guidelines’, which can be found [here] if you wish to contribute a piece for the Blog. For this specific series, the title of your piece for the Blog should be ‘A Day at the Archives/Museum… Name of archive/museum, location’. An example of this would be:

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Tobias Hochscherf and Roel Vande Winkel have recently published what is hoped to be the first piece as part of this series, which can be viewed here: [link].

N.B. Offering to write a piece for this series works on a first-come-first-serve basis. If the archive/museum which you wish to write about has already been suggested by another scholar, then you will be offered the opportunity to write about another archive/museum of your choice (which hasn’t already been claimed).

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