The Enigma of Thea von Harbou
Thea von Harbou

© 2012 William Ahearn

For someone who was once one of the leading lights of the golden age of German cinema, there is an utter vacuum concerning the life of Thea von Harbou. Remembered – almost as a footnote to the career of her onetime husband, Fritz Lang – Harbou co-wrote “Der müde Tod” (“Destiny”), both of Lang’s “Dr Mabuse” films, the “Die Nibelungen” films, “Metropolis,” and “M,” among others – 10 in all – with Lang. For FW Murnau, Harbou wrote or co-wrote “Phantom,” “The Expulsion” and  “The Grand Duke’s Finances.” Harbou co-scripted “Michael” with Carl Theodor Dreyer who directed the film. She was also a short story writer and a novelist of some renown.

Born in Bavaria in 1888, her father, a former Prussian army officer, was a forester and gamekeeper that she would later credit for her love of animals. She was particularly fond of dachshunds and cats and published her first animal story at age 14. After college in Dresden, she traveled to Africa and returned to Germany to pursue a career on the stage. She carried an air of independence and what some have described as feminism, being an early proponent of abortion, among other things.

In Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representation In Weimar Germany, author Patrice Petro quotes from a 1931 speech by Thea von Harbou for the repeal of Paragraph 218 that banned abortion: “Our main goal is to find a new form of preventing pregnancy and therefore to make the entire [Paragraph] 218 unnecessary. Immediately, however, the Paragraph must fall because it is no longer morally recognized by women. It is no longer a law. We need a new sexual code because the old code was created by men and no man is in a position to understand the agony of a woman carrying a child she knows she cannot feed. The law derived from male psychology, which forces a woman into having a child, creates, even if not deliberately, constitutional inferiority of women in relation to men which serves as a bulwark against women’s activities in economic and political life.”


Overtaken by the urge to write she published her first novel in 1910 when she was 22. Frederick Ott in The Films of Fritz Lang describes her novels as “nationalistic” and “her fiction was strongly melodramatic with dramatic interest growing out of the settings while her characters remained archetypes.”

She wrote two or three films (sources differ) in 1920, produced and directed by Joe May who introduced her to Fritz Lang and Harbou’s next film was “Das wandernde Bild” that she co-wrote with Lang who directed and she would co-write every film made by Lang until 1933. By the 1920s she was one of the major players in the German film world. She married the actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge in 1914 and divorced him to marry Fritz Lang in 1922 after the mysterious death of Lang’s first wife, Lisa Rosenthal. Harbou was present at the gunshot death of Rosenthal and insisted it was suicide. Rudolf Klein-Rogge remained friends with Harbou and Lang and continued to appear in Lang’s films.

A Nazi banner flew over Lang’s house in the early 1930s – and while many ascribe that action to von Harbou – Gottfried Reinhardt and Harold Nebenzal told McGilligan, “Lang was lax in tolerating the Nazis and flirted with Party approval.” Whether Lang was a Nazi sympathizer is still an unanswered question and McGilligan states “evidence lingers on either side of the issue” and while it is likely that a definitive answer will never be forthcoming, it belies the hard-line, anti-Nazi stance that Lang would affect in Hollywood and indicates that what we think we know about Lang is no more than the smoke of myth. One thing that will become clear is that it wasn’t von Harbou’s politics that led to the divorce. One reason for Lang’s flight might exist in the sense that the Nazis had a party member in von Harbou and an apolitical and troublesome personality in Fritz Lang.

“Critics,” wrote Ott, “in general, have been hostile to [Thea von Harbou]. In The Haunted Screen, Lotte H Eisner tends to ascribe all that is negative in Lang’s work to [von Harbou’s] influence.” That Thea von Harbou chose to remain in Germany, join the Nazi party and continue to make films as a writer and twice as a director for the Third Reich would seem to be a deal-breaker for many to consider a long-over due biography. On the other hand, Leni Riefenstahl has rated numerous biographies in several languages.

Thea von Harbou once told her secretary that, “We were married eleven years because for ten years we didn’t have time to get divorced.” This is where things get interesting, and where Lang’s carefully cultivated legend begins to crumble if recent research proves to be true.

Lang was known for flaunting his affairs, as he did with Harbou – appearing together with her and Lisa Rosenthal at public events – and with numerous starlets. While married to von Harbou, Lang secured an apartment in his building for his current side-flame, Gerda Maurus – who appears in “Spione” – much as he had gotten an apartment for von Harbou while married to Rosenthal.

Harbou and Lang had been drifting apart, as they say, for some time and von Harbou met Ayi Tendulkar sometime around 1931. (McGilligan’s book has all the sordid details that are too involved to relay here.) Tendulkar was from India, a follower of the non-violent Gandhi, a fervent Nazi and seventeen years younger than von Harbou. According to McGilligan, the Nazis and the Gandhians “were united in their hatred of the British, and the Berliner Gandhians were willing to overlook anti-Semitism and other hard-line Nazi atrocities in return for unconditional support for their Nationalist revolution at home.”

In one of those ironic twists of fate, Lang returned home early from the set of “The Testament of Dr Mabuse” to find Thea von Harbou and Ayi Tendulkar in Lang’s bed, as it were. Lang at the time was having an affair with Lily Latté (who would become a lifelong friend) but boys will be boys and von Harbou left or Lang threw her out depending on which story you heard. And the story was everywhere in Berlin in those days as numerous people were glad to see Lang get his comeuppance.

It was during the filming of “The Testament of Dr Mabuse” that Lang began talking about leaving Berlin and moving to Paris. It is in March 1933 where the meeting between Goebbels and Lang supposedly took place and it is also where much of the Lang mystique is cultivated. Lang didn’t leave Germany until June and made subsequent back-and-forth trips from Paris to Berlin. He also made a deal with Erich Pommer — now working in Paris for Fox Europa — to direct a film in France before he even left Germany. There is an alternative theory to why Lang left Germany and it was published in an article in Der Spiegel in 1990 and it involves the divorce of Lang and Thea von Harbou. Harbou had refused to have sex with Lang and that became the basis of the divorce, at least officially. She had also joined the Nazi Party although that is never mentioned in the divorce action. The Der Spiegel article asserts — and many who knew Lang agreed, according to Patrick McGilligan’s biography — that it was more his “hurt male pride” that caused him to leave than the banning of the Dr Mabuse film.

Thea von Harbou remained in Germany and continued writing scripts as well as directing two films (both of which had problems with Nazi censors). She secretly married Ayi Tendulkar in 1938. After the war, she was in a British internment camp while being investigated and given work such as clearing bombing rubble and salvaging bricks. In 1950 she was cleared and given a work permit and she worked on subtitling (she was fluent in English as well as French). At a 1954 revival of “Der Müde Tod,” she slipped and fell and died several days later of complications. On her wall – once covered with the art of the world while she lived in splendor in the pre-war years – were two photos. One was of Ganhdi and the other was of Adolf Hitler.

Later in his life, Lang became a “passionate” (according to McGilligan) defender of Thea von Harbou as evidenced by his arguments with Lotte Eisner over what Lang considered von Harbou’s “vital contributions” to his career and he requested that Eisner play down von Harbou’s Nazism and that might explain why Eisner’s biography Fritz Lang is far kinder to Thea von Harbou than Eisner’s The Haunted Screen.

Although Thea von Harbou “went over to the Nazis” – as Fritz Lang liked to point out – and stayed in Germany working for the Third Reich, no one it seems ever had a bad word to say about her. One co-worker once remarked that she looked more like a “house frau” than a “literary light” and many of the casts and crews that worked for Lang remember her cooking meals for them on set and it was she that fed and took care of the children that appeared in “Metropolis” with sweet cakes and chocolate after they almost froze to death in the staged flooding. Even Patrick McGilligan, the author of Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, couldn’t find anyone to say a bad word about Thea von Harbou.

Der müde Tod