PAULA WESSELY – “WHY WOULD YOU LIKE ME?”

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The first Austrian actress to win – in 1935 – the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival, after a successful theatre career, the previous year Paula Wessely – in the role of the shy and brave Leopoldine Dur in Willi Forst’s Maskerade – had also finally won over film audiences in Venice. Thanks to her innate talent for acting. Thanks, perhaps, also to that particular hairstyle with a side parting that was soon to become fashionable. But thanks also – probably – to that sentence – “Why would you like me?” – which seemed so pertinent to the situation.

The flagship of Austrian cinema

A totally unconventional face for film. Perhaps it was for this reason that many film production companies initially struggled to find suitable roles for her. Yet, after an already successful theatre career, it was in 1934 that Paula Wessely – in the role of the shy and brave Leopoldine Dur in Willi Forst’s Maskerade – finally won over film audiences at the Venice Film Festival. Thanks, no doubt, to her innate talent for acting, discovered as a child. Perhaps it was also thanks to that particular hairstyle with a side parting that would soon become fashionable. But thanks also – most probably – to that sentence ‘Why would you like me?’ that seemed so pertinent to the situation.

What was the trigger that finally made the film world realise the undoubted worth of an actress like Paula Wessely, doesn’t really matter. What does matter, on the contrary, is all that this extraordinary artist – considered to be one of Austria’s most famous actresses – has managed to give her beloved audience during her long and prolific career.

Born in Vienna on January 20, 1907, Paula Anna Maria Wessely came from a Catholic family and was the daughter of a butcher – Carl Wessely – and Anna Orth. Particularly intelligent, young Paula used to get high grades at school. However, her innate talent for acting – probably inherited from her paternal aunt Josephine Wessely, who died prematurely at the age of twenty-seven and of whom Paula would always keep a portrait in her dressing room – would finally show itself shortly afterwards. And it was Paula’s German and history teacher – Madeleine Gutwenger – who noticed her peculiarity, to the point of informing her student’s parents about it and offering to accompany her – after a first, surprising performance during a school play on May 18, 1922, when Paula was only fifteen – to the auditions for the Staatsakademie für Musik und darstellende Kunst in Vienna.

The auditions ran well, and Paula Wessely became a member of the prestigious academy, culminating in her studies in 1924 at the Max Reinhardt Seminar, one of the most important acting schools in Austria.

In the same year, she also began her theatrical career. A career that immediately led her to travel a lot – from Austria to Germany to beautiful Prague – and which, in her homeland, saw her divide her time mainly between the Volkstheater and the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna. And it was during a show at the Theater in der Josefstadt that Paula got to know the man who would become her life and stage partner for many, many years: the actor Attila Hörbiger.

Hörbiger – just like Paula Wessely – is part of that group of actors who, before establishing themselves on the big screen, had already gained much public and critical acclaim in the theatrical field. From their marriage – which took place in 1935 – three daughters were born, all three actresses: Elisabeth Orth (1936), Christiane Hörbiger (1938) and Maresa Hörbiger (1945). Immediately after their marriage, the couple settled in the picturesque district of Grinzig – at Himmelstraße 24 – and, despite the many difficulties they faced from time to time, they were very happy and among the long-lasting couples in the world of show business in Austria.

Paula Wessely was not yet married, then, when she finally achieved her first film success in Willi Forst’s Maskerade. This role of hers – so atypical for the time – and her particular beauty that was so different from the film canons of the 1930s meant that she immediately became a celebrity even abroad. In fact, the film was presented in competition at the Venice Film Festival 1934, where it won the Best Screenplay Award.

And in Venice, Paula Wessely would also return the following year, starring in Episode – directed by Walter Reisch – and thus becoming the first Austrian actress to win the coveted Volpi Cup for Best Actress.

From then on, Paula became increasingly popular, in theatre, film and even as a voice actress when, in 1938, she became the voice of the first German edition of Snow White in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Yet, as we all know, things were not going well, both in Austria and Germany. And this inevitably had consequences for the local artists as well, many of whom had to emigrate or, staying at home, follow certain lines.

With three young daughters, Paula Wessely and Attila Hörbiger decided to stay in Vienna. The consequences were inevitable: their production company, Vienna-Film GmbH, had to be closed because several men of Jewish origin worked there. At the same time, the Hörbiger-Wessely family received a lot of attention from Goebbels and Hitler himself, who wanted to get closer to artists and the art world at all costs, in order to convey abroad the image of a nation where prosperity was always flourishing and the cultural scene very inspiring.

It was of little importance, then, whether Hitler himself was aware that Paula Wessely hadn’t in fact joined the National Socialist Party: her Catholic origins and the image she had previously given to her public represented an excellent example of an Aryan woman dedicated to family and to a life of true values.

Included, then, by Hitler in the list of the ‘most important God-given artists’, Wessely was able to embody, in these years, real propaganda ideals of women during World War II. From 1940, in fact, is the feature film Ein Leben lang – directed by Gustav Ucicky – in which Paula Wessely played the role of a woman perpetually waiting for her husband to return home. But if this film already takes a clear stance on the war and Germany’s role in it, even more poignant was Wessely’s role in Heimkehr, made the following year by Ucicky himself and in which the actress played the role of a German woman persecuted by Poland.

Her role in this propaganda film was extremely damaging to her reputation, even though she had not clearly taken a political stance on the matter, but, on the contrary, had always been willing – before and after the war – to help some of her Jewish friends find a job. Still, the message had come through loud and clear. And she herself, in later years, did not fail to state in numerous interviews that it had not been explained to her, even during the filming, that Heimkehr was, in fact, a clear propaganda film.

However, at the end of World War II, the Hörbiger-Wessely couple had to face quite a few difficulties for having taken part in certain films. First of all, they were initially forbidden to perform on the stages of Vienna (but continued to do so in the theatres of Innsbruck), then, as one can well imagine, there were numerous exhausting interrogations to which the two were subjected, as a result of which Paula had a real nervous breakdown, inspiring, in this difficult moment, the dramatist Elfriede Jelinek for her play Burgtheater.

Time, however, gradually seemed to mend things and Paula Wessely began acting again in both theatre and film. Particularly noteworthy, in this respect, were her performances in Cordula (1950), also directed by Ucicky, but which did not achieve the success she had hoped for, and in the much more successful The Angel with the Trumpet (in which also her husband took part), made by Karl Hartl in 1948 and based on the novel of the same name by Ernst Lothar.

Things, then, seemed to have almost settled down. And among the new projects was the founding of the production company Paula-Wessely-Filmproduktion, to which the actress began to devote almost exclusively when it came to choosing film roles.

Few others, then, were her particularly impressive film roles. By this time she had become one of the most important names on the Austrian art scene and, in spite of episodes that had risked damaging her reputation forever, beloved by the public, Paula Wessely became, together with her husband, a permanent presence at the Burgtheater in Vienna and, consequently, for the rest of her career she devoted herself almost exclusively to theatre, often playing the roles of tolerant, suffering, but also strong and resolute women. Just like the image that had been attributed to her since her role in Maskerade.

The work of the now elderly Paula Wessely was divided between plays and readings – in addition to the award of the important title of Burgtheater-Doyenne, reserved for the theatre actress with the longest career – and in 1987, on the occasion of her 80th birthday, she decided to bid farewell to her beloved audience at the end of a reading at the Akademietheater in Vienna. On November 5 of the same year, she would act for the last time, while Attila Hörbiger had meanwhile died in April.

Could the art world still be so exciting without her beloved husband, with whom she had shared many decades of career and life together? According to many sources, it seems that Paula Wessely had even suffered from depression in her last years. And yet, never forgotten by the public, she was never alone, but, on the contrary, lived together with her daughter Maresa (also an actress) and her grandchild in her little house in Grinzig until her death at the age of ninety-three from bronchitis on May 11, 2000.

And although the actress, during her last years, wanted to lead a rather reserved life, although she refused, just before her death, to have a burial chamber set up in her honour at the Burgtheater, no one, even today, has forgotten her. A symbol not only of an era – that of the successful Wiener Films – but also of a real institution like theatre itself. And her face, which was so unusual for films, as well as her talent, has given us many and many emotions over the years.

Info: the page of Paula Wessely on iMDb