Obituary of Brigitte Helm.

Brigitte Helm in a scene from "Metropolis".

Brigitte Helm, 88, Cool Star Of Fritz Langs's 'Metropolis'

New York Times June 14, 1996 By Robert McThomas and Peter Herzog

Brigitte Helm, the German actress who defined the unobtainable, cool eye screen vamp as the haunting teen-age star of Fritz Lang's futuristic 1926 masterpiece, "Metropolis," died on Tuesday in Ascona, Switzerland, where she had lived in seclusion for more than 30 years.By her own account, she was 88.

She was the most sought-after actress of the glory days of the German film industry, a tall blond beauty who starred in more than 35 movies and set directors against on another in the competition for her services. Ms. Helm was regarded as such a perfect embodiment of the era's ideal of cool sophistication that when she turned Josef von Sternberg down for the starring role in "Blue Angel," he had to settle for Marlene Dietrich.

Yet for all the acclaim she received for such roles as her portrayal of a blind girl in Georg Wilhelm Pabst's "love of Jeanne Ney," or as a bored aristocratic wanton in his "Crisis," Ms. Helm could never eclipse the role, or rather rules, in which the good Maria, an oppressed working girl, is transformed into an evil robotic doppelganger of herself in Lang's "Metropolis."

Even today, 70 years after it was released, "Metropolis," is not only a cult classic, it is regularly listed among the half-dozen most important films ever made. This is a tribute, to be sure, to Lang's grotesque science-fiction visions, and the array of fabulous special effects be used to bring it on the screen. The film depicts the world of 2006, a time, Lang envisioned, when a ruling class lives in decadent luxury in the loft heights of skyscrapers linked by aerial railways, while beneath the streets slave like workers toll in unbearable conditions to sustain their masters. But for all the steam and special effects, for many who have seen the movie in it various incarnations, including a tinted version and one accompanied by music, the most compelling lingering image is neither the towers above nor the hellish factories below. It is the staring transformation of Ms. Helm from an idealistic young woman into a barely clad creature performing a lascivious dance in a brothel.

The scene is, in a way, a reflection of Ms. Helm own transformation. While she was a woman of rectitude who never became anything close to the vamps she portrayed on the screen, according to most accounts she was a reluctant recruit to the movies. The daughter of a Prussian Army officer who died when she was a toddler, Ms. Helm a native of Berlin whose original name was Eva Giesela Schittenheim, was a serious, idealistic boarding school student who appeared willingly enough in school plays but who regarded movie acting with Prussian disdain as an immoral occupation on its face.

Then her mother, Who had no such notions, sent her daughter's photograph to Lang's wife, the screenwriter, Thea von Harbou, and Ms. Helm who was 16 when she was tricked into taking a screen test, was suddenly on her way to stardom.

While he may not have been the sadist many of his actor made him out to be, Lang was such a hard driving perfectionist that Ms. Helm who worked virtually every day for its 18 months, often hanging upside down or standing in water up to her waist for hours at a time, found the experience excruciating.

After one torturous ordeal, when she wondered why a double could not have taken her place during the nine days took to shoot a scene in which she is encased in a metallic robot shell, her face obscured, Lang haughtily claimed an author's creative sensibility.

"I have to feel that you are inside the robot," he said. "I was able to see you even when I didn't."

After the movie made her a star, Ms. Helm, who had her own artistic standards, refused to make another movie with Lang. She made a successful transformation to sound, but refused to abandon Germany for Hollywood. The in 1935, disgusted with the Nazi takeover of the film industry, she abruptly quit, marrying a industrialist, Hugo von Kunheim, himself a Nazi opponent.

The couple left German for Italy in 1942, but although they returned after the war, Ms Helm had put her career so far behind her she made no further films and turned down almost all requests for interviews.Ms. Helm's survivors include a son, Mathias Kunheim of London, two other sons and a daughter.

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