Born in Vienna in November of 1896, Adolf Anton Wilhelm Wohlbrück was an Austrian actor who settled in the United Kingdom under the name Anton Walbrook. He was descended from ten generations of actors, although his father, Adolf Ferdinand Wohlbrück, broke from the tradition and became a well known and successful stage clown. At the age of seven, his family relocated to Berlin. Wohlbrück left school in 1911, at the age of fifteen, to train as an actor under the prominent theater and film director Max Reinhardt.
Wohlbrück’s talent was quickly recognized and he was given a five-year contract to work with the Deutsches Theater. Still under contract, he enlisted and fought on both the western and eastern fronts before he was captured in France in 1917 to spend the rest of the war as a prisoner. After his return home, Wohlbrück met actress and director Hermine Korner who became a lifelong mentor and co-actor in several highly-praised stage productions. Although he enjoyed the classics, he also appeared in new stage productions and became drawn to the rapidly expanding German film industry.
In the early 1930s, Adolf Wohlbrück was cast in some exceptional movies among which were the 1933 cross-dressing musical comedy “Viktor and Viktoria” and the international 1934 Austrian operetta film “Masquerade” which later won the Best Screenplay at the Vienna Film Festival. Wohlbrück’s character in the 1934 film was Ferdinand von Heidenick, a charming, rather well-mannered, and slightly dangerous man. His following was built on films with such a character role; however, he also succeeded in other diverse roles in such films as the 1935 thriller “I Was Jack Mortimer”, director Arthur Robison’s 1935 German horror film “The Student of Prague”, and the 1936 action-packed historical drama “The Czar’s Courier”, based on Jules Verne’s novel “Michael Strogoff”.
Widely known and respected as an actor in both theater and film, Wohlbrück built up his career and appeared alongside some of Germany’s best leading ladies. In 1936, he traveled to Hollywood to reshoot dialogue for the 1937 multinational film “The Soldier and the Lady”, director George Nichols Jr’s American version of “Michael Stogoff”. It was during this period in Hollywood that Wohlbrück changed his name to Anton Walbrook. Rather than return to Germany where, under the government’s law, he risked persecution due to being a homosexual and a person of mixed race in the first degree due to his mother being Jewish, Walbrook decided to settle in England. He continued acting in England and appeared in many European-continental character roles.
In the first six years of his film work in Britain, Anton Walbrook appeared in many film studies of men struggling to find their identities in a foreign land. These displaced person roles included Prince Albert in the 1937 “Victoria the Great” and its sequel, the 1938 “Sixty Glorious Years”; the role of Polish pilot and composer Stefan Radetzky in the 1940 “Dangerous Moonlight”; and the foreign domestic despot Paul Mallen in Thorold Dickinson’s 1940 version of the psychological thriller “Gaslight”. Walbrook also appeared on stage in the role of Otto in the first London production of “Design for Living” in January of 1939 playing opposite Diana Wynyard and Rex Harrison.
Walbrook appeared in several more film roles in England during the late 1940s, including the dashing “good” German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in the 1943 “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” and the tyrannical impersario in Michael Powell’s 1948 ballet film “The Red Shoes”, which received many nominations, a Golden Globe and two Academy Awards. One of Walbrook most unusual films of this time was the 1949 Gothic thriller “The Queen of Spades” in which he co-starred with Edith Evans. This fantasy-horror film, based on a short story by Alexander Pushkin, used sets from original baroque designs by English stage designer Oliver Messel. Some critics considered it one of the true classics of supernatural cinema.
After the end of the war, Anton Walbrook returned to his homeland Germany and accepted stage work in Munich. His most notable film performances for this early-1950s period are the two movies he did for German-French director Max Ophüls: the 1950 French film “La Ronde”, nominated for two Academy Awards and originally classified by New York film censors as immoral, and the 1955 historical romance film “Lola Montès”, the last completed film of Max Ophüls. Walbrook’s final film role was the duplicitous French army officer Major Esterhazy in the 1958 Dreyfus Affair dramatization “I Accuse!”, directed by José Ferrer.
After his last film, Walbrook performed in stage productions, both in Britain and Germany, often with appearances in comedies and musicals. He continued acting until his death of a heart attack in Feldafing, Bavaria, Germany in August of 1967. In accordance with his last testament, Walbrook was cremated and his ashes were interred in the churchyard of St. John’s Church, Hampstead, London.
Note: In 2020, author and archivist at the University of Exeter’s Special Collections Department James Downs published his monograph “Anton Walbrook: A Life of Masks and Mirrors”, the first Walbrook biography. Downs had previously written and presented conference papers on Walbrook and had curated the 2013 exhibition “Anton Walbrook: Star and Enigma” at the Bill Douglas Cinema Theater in Exeter, United Kingdom. More information on the biography can be found at: https://www.peterlang.com/document/1058817
Top Insert Image: JDA Riga, “Anton Walbrook as Michael Strogoff, The Czar’s Courier”, 1936, Bromide Postcard Print, 13.7 x 8.6 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London
Second Insert Image: Anton Walbrook in “The Man from Morocco”, 1945, Director Mutz Greenbaum, Cinematographer Basil Emmett and Geoffrey Faithfull
Third Insert Image: Angus McBean, “Rex Harrison, Diana Wynyard, Anton Walbrook”, 1939, Gelatin Silver Print, 20.2 x 25.3 cm, Harvard Theater Collection, Harvard University
Fourth Insert Image: “Anton Walbrook as Jean Boucheron,The Rat”, “The Rat”, 1937, Director Jack Raymond, Cinematographer Freddie Young
Bottom Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Anton Walbrook”, Date Unknown, Studio Photo Shot, 15.2 x 10.2 cm, Private Collection