Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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The German Diva Brigitte Helm as a Fashion Icon of the 1920s
Mila Ganeva

Last modified: 2010-05-12


“No one who wants to be up-to-date about the latest fashions should miss a film with Brigitte Helm.”

Dr. Koch, Die Filmwoche, 4 September 1929


Brigitte Helm’s ascendance to stardom began in 1925 when she played in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). During the next ten years, she was associated primarily with impersonations of vamps, dangerous spies, seductresses, and modern monsters. There was more to her celebrity allure than the hallmark vampish appeal. By the end of her film career, in 1935, Brigitte Helm had not only become the biggest female star of Weimar cinema, she had also established herself as a unique fashion icon, famous for her presentation of contemporary clothing on and off the movie screen.

On the surface, the destructive femmes fatales that she so often played are seemingly incongruent with the role of promoting contemporary fashion to the masses. In reality, however, Helm’s screen persona resonated especially with her female audience, in part because she was attuned to the attractive clothing styles and customary presentation practices of the current moment.

Helm was known as a loyal client of the Berlin Konfektion firm Mahrenholz, which provided the contemporary costumes for most of her films, and she often wore Mahrenholz outfits at the premieres of her films as well as in photographs taken for fashion magazines such as Elegante Welt, Vogue, and Die Dame. At the same time, as many critics acknowledged, Brigitte Helm transformed the films in which she appeared, especially Abwege (Crisis, 1928, dir. G. W. Pabst),’s Die wunderbare Lüge der Nina Petrowna (The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna, 1929, dir. Hanns Schwarz), and Eine von uns (One of Us, 1932 dir. Johannes Meyer), into fascinating “costume tales” [Kleidergeschichten] in which middle-class women could assert themselves as modern bourgeois subjects: independent, sensuous, and desirable. Despite all their criticisms, contemporary commentators agreed that Helm had mastered the indisputable art “of moving through space displaying dresses in a uniquely attractive way.”

This paper revisits Helm’s performance in several key works of the silent era (Metropolis, Abwege, and Alraune), in order to demonstrate that regardless of the theme and genre of the films in which Helm starred (from science fiction to melodramas), her protagonists consistently managed to put on a fascinating fashion show within the film—a show that temporarily suspended the diagetic world of characters and actions and ushered the viewers into a realm of pure spectacle and sensual pleasure. And the style of her performance in those scenes was consistently influenced by the popular fashion shows and beauty pageants of the day, thus expanding the audiences for these spectacles from a few wealthy consumers to the heterogeneous, mass public of the movies. By analyzing her films and her concurrent media appearance (in magazines and advertisements), this paper will reacquaint the scholarly audience with Brigitte Helm as aa fashion icon of the 1920s and will shed light on the intersection between film, fashion and commerce.

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