George, Heinrich

(Georg August Hermann Schulz, 1893-1946)
   Actor, intendant. George was among the most celebrated actor-managers of the Third Reich. Joseph Goebbels named him to head the Schiller Theater in Berlin, and in 1937 Adolf Hitler personally named him Staatsschauspieler (state actor).
   George began his career as a violinist in 1912 at the Kolberg Municipal Theater, where he was later hired as a bit player. In 1917 he began acting for the Frankfurt am Main City Theater, doing productions of Walter Hasenclever's Antigone and Fritz von Unruh's Platz (Place). In Frankfurt, George developed a reputation as "an uncomplicated, primitive, and modern actor . . . [contributing] to the overthrow of Naturalism in German acting through ecstasy in word and gesture. He caught everyone's attention . . . with his volcanic outbursts, throwing words out like huge granite blocks" (Herbert Iher-ing, Von Josef Kainz bis Paula Wessely [Berlin: Hüthing, 1942], 159). Max Reinhardt put George under contract in 1922, casting him in numerous productions, the most noteworthy of which was Bertolt Brecht's Drums in the Night. George subsequently played leads in several other Brecht plays, including Galy Gay for the world premiere of Mann ist Mann. He also worked with Erwin Piscator, further establishing credentials for himself as a theater artist with left-wing sympathies. By the mid-1920s, George was openly associating with leading Jews in the Weimar Republic, even signing a petition "For the Freedom of Art" in protest against judicial persecution of artists.
   George began film work in Berlin during the 1920s, appearing in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a film establishing him in critical opinion as one of the industry's most consequential actors. Nazi commentators did not agree with that assessment, and in 1930 George seriously antagonized Goebbels when he re-created on film his stage role as Émile Zola in Die Affäre Dreyfus by Hans-José Rehfisch; Goebbels assailed both the play and the movie as a "Jewish-inspired election maneuver against National Socialism."
   When the Nazis came to power, George changed his political stripes and publicly declared his allegiance to the new regime. He ingratiated himself with Goebbels by starring in the 1933 pro-Nazi film Hitlerjunge Quex. For Goebbels, George was the embodiment of that quality much prized among National Socialists — Volkstümlichkeit; he was an "urwüchsiger Kraftkerl [primitive strongman-type], an earthy species of Teuton with both feet on the ground, a German craftsman in the mold of Hans Sachs, a great portrayer of the people, one who wore his heart on his sleeve" (Ihering, 161)." Goebbels immediately recognized the propagandistic potential of George's physical attributes; they were not superficial "bourgeois coziness nor unsophisticated gullibility; they represented instead genuine power, elementary humor, gallantry, manliness, restraint, and certainty of instinct" (Iher-ing, 161).
   For George, favor with the Nazi regime meant financial and artistic opportunity. He appeared in 31 films between 1933 and 1945, all of them in featured or starring roles. They were among the era's most important propagandistic efforts, beginning with Heimat, costarring Zarah Leander; the execrable Jud Süss; Wien 1910 (based on the life of anti-Semitic Viennese mayor Karl Lueger), Friedrich Schiller, and Andreas Schlüter, all nationalist biopics; and Kolberg, filmed in the last days of the war. He also starred in several comedy films based on popular stage works: Wenn der Hahn Kräht (When the Rooster Crows), Versprich mir nichts (Promise Me Nothing), and Der Biberpelz (The Beaver Coat).
   George gave what proved to be his farewell performance (though no one knew it at the time) as the village judge Adam in a 1944 production of Heinrich von Kleist's Der zerbrochene Krug (The Broken Jug); it created a sensation, largely because it came at a time when British and American bombing raids regularly interrupted performances. It had the desired propagandistic effect of instilling within audiences the idea that tribulations borne for the sake of German culture were worth the sacrifice. Who else but a German audience, for example, could truly appreciate a German artist like Heinrich George in a German masterpiece like The Broken Jug while the enemies of German culture were literally dropping bombs in an attempt to destroy it? The entire production was "built around George's overt vitality," said one observer.
   Guilt crawls crab-like across his face in moments of intensity, to the extent that one barely hears the dialogue. . . . This is no clever peasant knave but a helpless, awkward bungler, sweating with anxiety, anticipating the next catastrophe that awaits him. (Theo Fürstenau, "Der zerbrochene Krug im Schillertheater," Das Reich, 22 June 1944, 6)
   Audiences who risked seeing his performance could identify with the catastrophes befalling him, but they also drew sustenance from George's bluff vigor. The actor's performance focused entirely on the sensory, as a Breughel-like panorama unfolds before us in a picture-perfect rendering. . . . It is worth the price of admission just to see Heinrich George, whose vitality fills the entire stage space from wall to wall. George's Adam frequently crosses the line into farce, but you still have to love this big, overgrown child, who is hardly aware of his own foibles. He is replete with comic imagination, which he applies with practiced dexterity—yet the moments which seem off the cuff are the funniest. (Florian Kienzl, "Mit seiner ganzen Vitalität," Frankfurter Zeitung, 24 June 1944, 17)
   In the face of inevitable catastrophe, this production said that life, especially German life, still offered opportunities to laugh. George's performance allowed audiences to draw sustenance from that experience, fed by George's enormous reserve of organic, volkstümlich vitality, strengthening them to make additional forced sacrifices "for Führer and Fatherland."

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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