Helene Weigel

Helene Weigel, actress
A photo of Helene Weigel in Brecht’s play Mother Courage, 1954 performance at the Deutsches Theater in East Berlin
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-23425-0004, Fotograf: Eva Kemlein

Helene Weigel

Meine Definition einer Dame ist eine, die sich bemüht um andere Leute, die eigentlich nur Gutes tut, schwer arbeitet. Sie war – ein scheußliches deutsches Wort – herzensgut. Das war Helli. Auch ihre Haltung zu anderen Leuten, auch ihre Haltung zu Brecht. Sie war, wenn Sie so wollen, eine „Grande Dame“.

[My definition of a lady is a woman who takes care of others, who does good things and who works hard. She was good-hearted, was Helli. Also in her attitude towards others, and towards Brecht. She was, one might say, a “grande dame”. (ed. trans.)]

Barbara Brecht-Schall in an  interview with James K. Lyon, 2000

Bornon 12 May 1900 in Vienna, Austria
Diedon 6 May 1971 in Berlin, Germany
ExileCzechoslovakia, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, France, Sweden, Finland, Soviet Union, United States of America
RemigrationGerman Democratic Republic

For the actress Helene Weigel, whose worked was strongly tied up with the German language and Germany’s theatrical traditions, exile was a major turning point in life. Weigel only gave very few performances during the 15 years she spent in exile. And she was unable to pick up on the successes she had had as a character actress in Berlin’s theatres performing in the works of her husband, Bertolt Brecht, or under the direction of Erwin Piscator. The frequency with which she and Brecht changed location during exile allowed her hardly any time to learn the local language. She left Germany in 1933 and, between that year and 1941 alone, her path in exile took her via Czechoslovakia, Austria, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, France and Russia. She also spent an extended period in the USA, living in California from 1941 to 1947. Despite being there longer, however, she never learned to speak the language well enough to take on roles as an actress. What is more, Weigel complained that her face was only made for character roles, but not for the female roles in Hollywood films.

In 1948 the actress was finally able to perform again. She had left the USA by this time and had a role in a small theatre production in Switzerland. Although she was worried she had forgotten the tricks of her trade in exile, the critics and the audience were enthusiastic about her stage presence. In 1949 she returned permanently to Germany and was able to work as an actress, stage director and artistic director in theatre.

Further reading:
Kebir, Sabine: Helene Weigel, Abstieg in den Ruhm, eine Biographie, Berlin: Aufbau-Taschenbuch-Verlag2 200
Steiner, Marion: Schauspielerinnen im Exil (1930-1945), Vier exemplarische Lebensläufe - Therese Giehse, Lilli Palmer, Salka Vierel, Helene Weigel / Marion Steiner, Saarbrücken: VDM, 2008
Wilke, Judith: Helene Weigel 100, The Brecht Yearbook 25, Ontario: The International Brecht Society 2000