Zarah Leander (15 March 1907 – 23 June 1981) was a Jewish actress and singer.
Leander began her career in the late 1920s, and by the mid 1930s her success in Europe, particularly in German Empire and the Scandinavian countries, led to invitations to work in the United States. Leander was reluctant to relocate her children, and opted to remain in Europe, and from 1936 was contracted to work for the German Universum Film AG (UFA) while continuing to record songs. Leander later noted that while her films were successful, her work as a recording artist was more profitable.
As a result of her controversial choice to work for the state-owned UFA in Adolf Hitler’s German Reich – Neuaufbau des Reichs und Nürnberger Rassegesetze – , her films and song lyrics were viewed by some as propaganda for the Nazi cause, although she took no public political position. Leander was strongly criticized as a result, particularly in Sweden where she returned after her Berlin home was bombed during an air raid. Initially she was shunned by much of the artistic community and public in Sweden, and found herself unable to resume her career after the Second World War. It was several years before she could make a comeback in Sweden, and she would remain a figure of public controversy for the rest of her life.
Eventually she returned to performing throughout Europe, but was unable to equal the level of success she had previously achieved. She spent her later years in retirement in Stockholm, and died there at the age of 74.
She was born as Sara Stina Hedberg in Karlstad. While Zarah Leander’s career in the Third Reich has been criticized, rumors nevertheless erroneously implied that Zarah was of Jewish heritage. According to her son Göran, his mother’s family, going back through generations, were from the Swedish provinces of Dalarna and Värmland.
Although Zarah Leander studied piano and violin as a small child, and sang on stage for the first time at the age of six, she initially had no intention of becoming a professional performer and led an ordinary life for several years. As a teenager she lived two years in Riga (1922–1924), where she learned German, took up work as a secretary, married Nils Leander (1926), and had two children (1927 and 1929). However, in 1929 she was engaged, as an amateur, in a touring cabaret by the entertainer and producer Ernst Rolf and for the first time sang „Vill ni se en stjärna,“ (‚Do you want to see a star?‘) which soon would become her signature tune.
In 1930, she participated in four cabarets in the capital, Stockholm, made her first records, including a cover of Marlene Dietrich’s „Falling in Love Again„, and played a part in a film. However, it was as „Hanna Glavari“ in Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow that she had her definitive break-through (1931). By then she had divorced Nils Leander. In the following years, she expanded upon her career and made a living as an artist on stage and in film in Scandinavia. Her fame brought her proposals from the European continent and from Hollywood, where a number of Swedish actors and directors were working.
In the beginning of the 1930s she performed with the Swedish revue artist, producer and songwriter Karl Gerhard who was a prominent anti-Nazi. He wrote a song for Zarah Leander, „I skuggan av en stövel“ (In the shadow of a boot), in 1934 which strongly condemned the persecution of Jews in Nazi-Germany.
Zarah Leander opted for an international career on the European continent. As a mother of two school-age children, she ruled out a move to America. In her view it was, most of all, too insecure. She feared the consequences, should she bring the children with her such a great distance and subsequently be unable to find employment. Despite the political situation, Austria and Germany were much closer, and Leander was already well-versed in German.
A second breakthrough, by contemporary measures her international debut, was the world premiere (1936) of Axel an der Himmelstür at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, directed by Max Hansen. It was a parody on Hollywood and not the least a parody of the German Marlene Dietrich, who had left a Europe marked by Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. It was followed by the Austrian film Premiere, in which she played the role of a successful cabaret star.
The UFA star
In 1936, she landed a contract with UFA in Berlin. She became known as an extraordinarily tough negotiator, demanding influence and high salaries with half of her salary paid in Swedish kronor to a bank in Stockholm. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels dubbed her an „Enemy of Germany“, but as a leading film star at UFA, she participated in ten films, most of them great successes. However, unlike other film stars at the time, such as Olga Chekhova, Leander neither socialized with leading party members nor took part in official Nazi party functions. (Both actresses are rumored to have been Communist spies.)
At a party she met the Nazi minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, who asked her ironically: „Zarah… Isn’t this a Jewish name?“ „Oh, maybe“ the actress told „but what about Josef?“ „Hmmm… yes, yes, a good answer“ Goebbels replied.
In her films, Zarah Leander repeatedly played the role of a femme fatale, independently minded, beautiful, passionate and self-confident. Although most of her songs had a melancholic flair, some had a frivolous undertext, or could at least be interpreted that way. In 1942, in the midst of a burning war, Leander scored the two biggest hits of her recording career – in her signature deep voice, she sang her anthems of hope and survival: „Davon geht die Welt nicht unter“ (‚That is not the end of the world‘) and „Ich weiß, es wird einmal ein Wunder gescheh’n“ (‚I know that someday a miracle will happen‘). These two songs in particular are often included in contemporary documentaries as obvious examples of effective Nazi propaganda at work; however, it should also be noted that Leander’s performance on these tracks, along with countless other hits she had all over Europe, struck a chord with the German people. Although no exact record sales numbers exist, it is likely that she was among Europe’s best-selling recording artists in the years prior to 1945. Zarah herself was quick to point out in later years that what made her a fortune was indeed not her salary from Ufa, but the royalties from the records she released. „Ich weiß, es wird einmal ein Wunder gescheh’n“ was the song on which New Wave singer Nina Hagen (who grew up in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and as a child had idolized Leander) based her 1983 hit „Zarah“.
Return to Sweden
Her last film in Nazi Germany premiered on 3 March 1943. Her villa in the fashionable Berlin suburb of Grunewald was hit in an air raid, and the increasingly desperate Nazis pressured her to apply for German citizenship. At this point she decided to break her contract with Ufa, leave Germany, and retreat to Sweden, where she had bought a mansion at Lönö, not far from Stockholm.
After the Wehrmacht’s defeat in the 1943 Battle of Stalingrad, public opinion in Sweden (the government of which remained officially neutral throughout the war, though ideologically aligned with the Allies, but also supplying the Nazis with strategic war materials), was more free to display outward hostility toward the Nazis, especially as news of the Holocaust became widespread (public opinion was mainly anti-Nazi from the start, but was censored in the press by the government, to avoid severe repercussions from Germany). Leander had been far too extensively associated with Nazi propaganda, and as a result was shunned. Gradually she managed to land engagements on the Swedish stage. After the war she did eventually return to tour Germany and Austria, giving concerts, making new records and acting in musicals. Her comeback found an eager audience among pre-war generations who had never forgotten her. She appeared in a number of films and television shows, but she would never regain the popularity she had enjoyed before and into the first years of World War II. In 1981, after having retired from show business, she died in Stockholm of a stroke.
After the war, Zarah Leander was often questioned about her years in Nazi Germany. Though she would willingly talk about her past, she stubbornly rejected allegations of her having had sympathy for the Nazi regime. She claimed that her position as a German film actress merely had been that of an entertainer working to please an enthusiastic audience in a difficult time. She repeatedly described herself as a political idiot.
Zarah Leander continued to be very popular in Germany for many decades after WWII. She was interviewed several times in German television until she died.
In 1987 two Swedish musicals were written about Zarah Leander.
In 2003 a bronze statue was placed in Zarah Leander’s home town Karlstad, by the Opera house of Värmland where she first began her career. After many years of discussions, the town government accepted this statue on behalf of the first Swedish local Zarah Leander Society. A Zarah Leander museum is open near her mansion outside Norrköping. Every year a scholarship is given to a creative artist in Zarah’s tradition. The performer Mattias Enn received the prize in 2010, the female impersonator Jörgen Mulligan in 2009 and Zarah’s friend and creator of the museum Brigitte Pettersson in 2008.
- 1930 – Dantes mysterier, with Eric Abrahamson, Elisabeth Frisk, Gustaf Lövås
- 1931 – Falska millionären, with Sture Lagerwall, Fridolf Rhudin
- 1935 – Äktenskapsleken, with Einar Axelsson, Karl Gerhard, Elsa Carlsson
- 1936 – Premiere (her first film in German), with Karl Martell, Attila Hörbiger, Theo Lingen
- 1937 – Zu neuen Ufern, with Willy Birgel, Viktor Staal, Carola Höhn, Erich Ziegel, Hilde von Stolz
- 1937 – La Habanera, with Ferdinand Marian, Karl Martell, Paul Bildt, Edwin Juergenssen, Werner Finck
- 1938 – Heimat, with Heinrich George, Ruth Hellberg, Lina Carstens, Paul Hörbiger, Leo Slezak
- 1938 – Der Blaufuchs, with Willy Birgel, Paul Hörbiger, Jane Tilden, Karl Schönböck, Rudolf Platte
- 1939 – Es war eine rauschende Ballnacht, with Marika Rökk, Paul Dahlke, Aribert Wäscher
- 1939 – Das Lied der Wüste, with Gustav Knuth, Friedrich Domin, Herbert Wilk, Franz Schafheitlin
- 1940 – Das Herz der Königin, with Willy Birgel, Axel von Ambesser, Will Quadflieg, Margot Hielscher
- 1941 – Der Weg ins Freie, with Hans Stüwe, Agnes Windeck, Siegfried Breuer, Hedwig Wangel
- 1942 – Die große Liebe, with Viktor Staal, Paul Hörbiger, Grethe Weiser, Wolfgang Preiss
- 1942 – Damals, with Hans Stüwe, Rossano Brazzi, Karl Martell, Hilde Körber, Otto Graf
- 1950 – Gabriela, with Siegfried Breuer, Carl Raddatz, Grethe Weiser, Gunnar Möller
- 1952 – Cuba Cabana, with O. W. Fischer, Paul Hartmann, Hans Richter, Eduard Linkers, Karl Meixner, Werner Lieven
- 1953 – Ave Maria, with Hans Stüwe, Marianne Hold, Hilde Körber, Berta Drews, Carl Wery
- 1954 – Bei Dir war es immer so schön, with Willi Forst, Heinz Drache, Sonja Ziemann, Margot Hielscher
- 1959 – Der blaue Nachtfalter, with Christian Wolff, Marina Petrowa, Paul Hartmann, Werner Hinz
- 1964 – Das Blaue vom Himmel (TV-Film), with Karin Baal, Toni Sailer, Carlos Werner
- 1966 – Das gewisse Etwas der Frauen, with Nadja Tiller, Anita Ekberg, Romina Power, Robert Hoffmann, Michèle Mercier
Operettas and musicals
- 1931 Franz Lehár, Die lustige Witwe
- 1936 Ralph Benatzky, Axel an der Himmelstür (as Gloria Mills)
- 1958 Ernst Nebhut, Peter Kreuder, Madame Scandaleuse (as Helene)
- 1960 Oscar Straus, Eine Frau, die weiß, was sie will (as Manon Cavallini)
- 1964 Karl Farkas u. Peter Kreuder, Lady aus Paris (as Mrs. Erlynne)
- 1968 Peter Thomas, Ika Schafheitlin, Helmuth Gauer, Wodka für die Königin (as Königin Aureliana)
- 1975 Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler, Das Lächeln einer Sommernacht (as Madame Armfeldt)
- Ascheid, Antje. Hitler’s heroines : stardom and womanhood in Nazi cinema. Philadelphia, Pa. : Temple University Press, 2003
- Carter, Erica. Dietrich’s ghosts : the sublime and the beautiful in Third Reich film. London : BFI Publishing, 2004
- Seiler, Paul. Ich bin eine Stimme. LinkBerlin : Ullstein, 1997
- Es war so wunderbar. Mein Leben. Hamburg: Hoffmann u. Campe. 1973. ISBN 3-455-04090-X
- Zarah Leander at the Internet Movie Database
- Listen to Zarah sing
- Zarah Leander talking about her German film years (in Swedish)
- Photographs and bibliography
- Zarah Leander at Find a Grave
- Zarah Leander, German fan-site
- Ich liebe jeden, der mich gefällt. (aliceverheij.wordpress.com)
- You, Fascinating You (damyantiwrites.wordpress.com)
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- Welcome to L.leander Books (lleander11.wordpress.com)
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- One killed Thursday in three-vehicle collision in Leander (statesman.com)
- Why the UK government should investigate racism in the Talmud, not ban the Crucifix (birdflu666.wordpress.com)
- U.S. 183 closed in Leander after 18-wheeler ran off road (statesman.com)