from my sketchbook: brigitte helm

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Nineteen-year old Brigitte Helm couldn’t have imagined what she signed on for. With lofty aspirations of starring on the big screen, the Berlin teen joined a cast of  thousands on director Fritz Lang’s vision of a dystopian future, Metropolis. She was subjected to Lang’s attempt at presenting gritty realism and, in 1927, without the aid of CGI, every special effect was an experiment. Lang had Brigitte, along with five hundred children, perform in cold water tank to achieve the illusion of a flooded city. He insisted on setting a large fire in another scene, causing the hem of Brigitte’s dress to ignite. Brigitte, who played a dual role as Maria and her robot double, the Maschinenmensch, was nearly suffocated inside the weight of her elaborate, but poorly functioning, metal costume. When filming on the early science-fiction epic was completed, she never worked with Lang again.

Brigitte made thirty films during a career that lasted only eight years. She retired from motion pictures in 1935, when she married for the second time. Brigitte, a native German, incurred the wrath of the Nazis, as her husband, Dr. Hugo von Kuenheim, was Jewish. However, after Brigitte was imprisoned for a series of traffic accidents, Adolf Hitler, a huge film fan, personally saw to it that all manslaughter charges against the actress were dropped. 

Brigitte and her husband moved to Switzerland in the mid-3os. She was offered the title role in The Bride of Frankenstein, but turned it down in favor of a life of anonymity.

Brigitte got her wish. She passed away in 1996, staying out of the spotlight for sixty-one years.



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