Deep voice and politics
"Her voice is supernaturally deep, almost in the baritone range,
but it vibrates and sounds in such a wonderful way that comparisons with
Garbo or Dietrich are out of the question." (Berliner Tageblatt, September 2, 1937).
"... Zarah Leander ... comes out of her chrysalis stage as an enemy of Germany"
(entry /January 16, 1937/ in the diary of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels).
Ubiquitous on the radio waves
There was no escaping from her haunting voice, not during those years. No fiddler of radio buttons in continental Europe during the late 30’s and early 40’s could fail to accidentally tune in on that strange, deep voice, singing romantic hit tunes in slightly accented German. Her vocal presence on the radio waves was ubiquitous. At first the accidental listeners were incredulous, refusing to believe the radio announcer’s words that the previous tenor or baritone-sounding song had been performed by someone whose first name was Zarah.
But once the reality of Zarah Leander’s sex had become established in the imagination of the listeners, they became mesmerized. They were no longer content with listening, they wanted to see the lady singer with the supernaturally deep voice. From 1936 to 1943 this was hardly a problem, not in the German-dominated parts of Europe. Zarah was featured as the Great Star of a dozen of Austrian and German films and appeared in the lead of many stage musicals.
The beauty and the problem
“Die Leander” (= The Leander in German) was not just a singer and an actress, but also a woman of astounding beauty, leaving her contemporaries like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman behind like mere wallflowers, at least according to millions of her ardent admirers.
There was a problem, though, and a grave one at that -- Zarah Leander, a Swedish national, was paid to perform in the service of a foreign murderous regime, Hitler’s Third Reich. True, she only starred in romantic comedies and light musicals, never in productions with any political Nazi slant. But hugely popular entertainment is often a more efficient contribution to the war effort than boring propaganda.
The point was not lost on Hitler’s shrewd Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. In spite of being initially suspicious of Zarah’s politics (in Sweden she had performed in productions by the staunchly anti-Nazi entertainer Karl Gerhard), Goebbels supported her in any way he could, making her the highest-paid star of the German equivalent to Metro Goldwin Mayer -- the UFA (= Universum Film Ag) film company.
Zarah Leander was a musically gifted child, but she never received higher education in either music or in acting. She was born in 1907 as Stina Hedberg, daughter of a real-estate agent in Karlstad, Sweden, who made her attend piano-lessons from the age of four. In her teens she was sent for two years to a music school in Riga, Latvia, where she learnt to speak fluent German and continued to practice singing and playing the piano.
After marrying the Swedish actor Nils Leander (whom she later divorced) at 19 and successfully playing the Evil Witch in a musical version of Snow White at 20, the provincial girl Stina Hedberg, under her new married stage name Zarah Leander, was auditioned for a part in a popular musical show in Stockholm.
Zarah was an immediate success, which paved the way to increasingly larger parts in Swedish shows and eventually to her first role in a Swedish film (1930). Her next film (“Äktenskapsleken”, The Marriage Game, 1935) was also shown in Austria and Germany (under the more compelling title “The Scandal”).
Her international cinematic exposure resulted in an offer to play the leading lady in a musical comedy by Ralph Benatzky on the stage in Vienna, Austria. Zarah was beginning to become a performer of repute.
In Austria she was contracted to play -- in parallel with her nightly stage performances -- the main part in an Austrian film titled “Premiere” (1936), a detective story.
“Premiere” became a very successful film, not only in little Austria, but in neighboring (and many times more populous) Germany as well. All of a sudden Zarah Leander, a singer and actress from far-away Scandinavia, without even a formal education in acting, had at the age of 29 made an international name for herself.
A contract with consequences
Now she received offers from many quarters, including Hollywood. But the most tempting offer came from Germany. On October 28, 1936 Zarah Leander signed a contract (initially for 3 films) with the German state-run filmmaker UFA. One of her conditions was that 53% of her fees should be paid in Swedish currency, a clause that made Joseph Goebbels suspicious of Zarah Leander’s loyalty to the Third Reich.
Signing the UFA contract was a decision fraught with momentous consequences. Zarah’s unquestionable screen charisma and mesmeric singing voice would probably have made her an even greater Hollywood star than her compatriot Ingrid Bergman, had she accepted the American offer. But she didn’t.
Deep voice, shallow analysis
Did she have Nazi sympathies at the time of signing the UFA contract? This seems rather unlikely. Zarah had no problem with performing in the political satire shows of the leftist Swedish producer Karl Gerhard, a dedicated anti-Nazi. It is doubtful that she had any political leanings in any direction. To her the UFA offer was probably just the most tempting offer, financially and artistically.
In 1936 Hitler had only been in power for 3 years. Even if his rhetoric had a decidedly ominous ring, it would have been hard for a non-political artist to deduce the Holocaust and the Second World War from it, at a time when most professional analysts couldn’t. Her own King, King Gustav V of Sweden, saw fit even 5 years later (in 1941) to send a telegram to Hitler, naïvely congratulating him to his attack on the Soviet Union and wishing him “... great success in combating Bolshevism”. What depth of political analysis could be expected in 1936 from a singer with just a deep voice?
Persecution of co-workers
Once Zarah Leander started living and working in Germany, then she could not have remained ignorant of the accelerating horrors of Hitler’s regime. Detlef Sierck, the director of her first hugely successful UFA films, had to leave Germany because he had a Jewish wife, and continue his career in Hollywood under a new name, Douglas Sirk. The homosexual lyrics writer of many of her songs, Bruno Balz, was taken into custody by Gestapo for three weeks.
Such experiences may have made an impression on her. In spite of the great success of her 10 German-shot films she decided to cancel her contract with UFA in 1942, agreeing to first finish the film then in progress. After the completion of her last German film in early 1943, Zarah Leander left Hitler’s Third Reich and returned to her homeland Sweden.
If you want to interpret her timing maliciously, then you could point out that she decided to quit just when Hitler experienced his first major setbacks on the battlefield, at Stalingrad and El Alamein. You could also point out that Allied bombing had by then become a fact of life in Berlin, even for Zarah Leander. An incendiary bomb set fire to a part of Zarah’s Berlin villa on the very same night that her last German film (“Damals”) had its first public screening in March 1943.
On the other hand, if your hypothesis is that she was an apolitical artist, working in Hitler’s Germany just for the money and the fame, then you could say that she had a reasonably good perception of the limit to how much one should do for merely fame and money. After World War II she came to be sneered at as “Hitler’s court singer”, but even if the Nazi dictator expressed his great liking of her films, then in actuality Zarah Leander never even spoke to Hitler.
Her homeland seemed to have the same keen sense of timing as Zarah herself. During Hitler’s years of impressive military victories not only King Gustav V, but a large part of Swedish society expressed their approval and enthusiasm. Sweden gradually started to make a slow turnabout at the time of Stalingrad, at first becoming mildly critical and then increasingly disapproving of Hitler’s Third Reich. To give emphasis to their rather belated anti-Nazi zeal, Swedish public opinion made it impossible for Zarah Leander to give performances in Sweden during the immediate post-war years.
The person who made the Swedish public forget her past, was her friend and former employer Karl Gerhard. His acceptance of Zarah Leander’s comeback as a performer had to be taken seriously. Karl Gerhard had always been a staunch anti-Nazi, and had himself been close to being jailed by the Swedish security police for publicly performing viciously anti-Nazi songs when Hitler was at the peak of his power in Germany.
Zarah as a parody of Die Leander
After having been “pardoned”, Zarah Leander again took up performing as a singer and an actress. She continued to do so for decades, almost up to her death in Stockholm in 1981, at the age of 74. The glorious days of being the stage diva and a screen seductress were over, but as an old woman Zarah Leander actually managed to re-invent herself by parodying the diva roles that she had played at the peak of her career.