Doubles: Sybille Schmitz

Sybille Schmitz

The original

Sybille Schmitz in Die Unbekannte (click here if you don’t see the video embedded):

“The spotlights are off. They will never turn on for me again, I know that. The offers I get now are made out of pity. That’s the worst thing of all. Nobody says it to my face, but I know what a lot of people think when they hear the name Sybille Schmitz. They think: passé, finished!”

Around the same time Sybille called her cousin in Düren once again and asked her for 5000 marks. But this time she made no promise of when she would pay back the money. In the meantime she had hocked her last Persian rug, and on the Wednesday before Easter she sent Harald Mannl, an actor friend, to take her last coat to the pawn shop. He got 250 marks for it.

On Good Friday Sybille engaged her landlady in discussion about death, and wanted to know everything about it: what a dying person looks like in their death throes, how long rigor mortis lasts, etc. When Dr Moritz asked her why she was so interested, Sybille answered that she needed to know for a script she was writing. Working title: “The Sad Farewell”.

Friedemann Beyer, Schöner als der Tod: Das Leben der Sybille Schmitz

The double

The original trailer for Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (click here if you don’t see the video embedded):

Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) is sitting in the cinema (the spectator next to her is Rainer Werner Fassbinder) watching one of her old films, a melodrama called Insidious Poison (Schleichendes Gift)—a look back into her past, but also into the future. This scene is followed without further ado by one in which she meets Robert Krohn. Her conspicuous behavior, the grotesque incongruity between the airs and affectations of a star and the complete disregard with which she is met by an indifferent public, is immediately evident in the streetcar. Krohn is fascinated by the woman, although the name Veronika Voss means nothing to him. […] Set in 1955, Veronika Voss is the middle part of the trilogy of the economic miracle. Contemporary history, to a lesser degree than in the other two parts, is present here in barely perceptible snatches of radio broadcasts (a commentary by Thilo Koch about NATO; a soccer game covered by sportscaster Sammy Drechsel, in which Bayern München loses) or in posters against rearmament. The drug wave of those years was not a phenomenon of the youth scene. Recent German history, considering the way the Nazi period was being rewritten in the fifties, was a trauma for society; as different as their fates might be, both patients of Dr. Marianne Katz (Annemarie Düringer) are victims of their past. Voss and Mr. Treibel (Rudolf Platte), UFA and Treblinka, propaganda and destruction, two industries of fascism.

Michael Töteberg, Sweet Death: Veronika Voss Production History

The connection

When casting Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (1972), director Rainer Werner Fassbinder had one of his favourite actresses, Sybille Schmitz, in mind as the mother of the titular Petra. There was one small problem: Schmitz had been dead for over a decade and a half.

But as Fassbinder investigated her life and death he uncovered the subject matter for one of his greatest films, Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (1982, released abroad as Veronika Voss).

Schmitz, born in 1909, fled provincial western Germany for Berlin in 1927, securing a position at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater (she auditioned with Salomé) and appearing in numerous feature films over the ensuing decade. Her face, with its large features and masculine jaw, had a rare expressive power, a strange beauty thrown into sharp relief by the doll-like Louise Brooks in the 1929 film Diary of a Lost Girl (which also featured Valeska Gert). Her characters rarely ended well. The first line Schmitz spoke on screen, in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 film Vampyr, voiced a sentiment common to many of her roles: “If only I could die!”

But while Schmitz had managed the transition to talkies, the transition to tyranny was more problematic. Unlike many film professionals she decided to stay in Nazi Germany, before retreating to the countryside in freshly annexed Austria. But did she really fight off Goebbels’ advances, as she asserted? And was it this rebuff, as she further averred, that tanked her career during the war? What truth to her claim of personal connections with the German resistance?

Veronika Voss

Rosel Zech in Veronika Voss

Moving to Munich after the war, Schmitz struggled to rebuild her career. One of her last attempts, Illusion in Moll (1952), has her character’s husband tempted by a younger woman played by rising star Hildegard Knef. Audiences – like her screen spouse – preferred the ingénue, and Schmitz’s scenes with la Knef are invested with real bitterness.

In Schmitz’s last film, her character commits suicide. But the bent for auto-obliteration which marks so many of her roles reflected not so much her own inner life as her fearlessness as a performer. While clearly a complex, troubled personality, she lived not for death but for work, and when the work disappeared she couldn’t go on. Long a heavy drinker, Schmitz fell into the clutches of the unscrupulous Doctor Moritz, who kept her a virtual prisoner and pumped her full of morphine at swollen prices. Schmitz had burned through her money to secure her supply and with no more furs or rugs to pawn, her life going nowhere, she committed suicide at Easter in 1955.

Fassbinder was largely faithful to these latter events and indeed almost called his film Sybille Schmitz. In settling on Veronika Voss he performed a similar alliterative switch to that employed by Klaus Mann, who turned Gustaf Gründgens into Mephisto‘s Hendrik Höfgen. In fact Schmitz performed alongside Gründgens on numerous occasions, on both stage and screen. Both were dogged by questions concerning their equivocal conduct in the Nazi era, but it was what came after which most interested Fassbinder.

Sybille Schmitz in Vampyr

Sybille Schmitz in Vampyr

Veronika’s ambiguous relationship with her doctor is the only hint of Schmitz’s real-life bisexuality; much of her later years were spent with the stage director Beate von Molo. Fassbinder’s greatest liberty with the truth – aside from making his lead character a blonde – is the invention of Hilmar Thate’s sports reporter Robert Krohn, an Everyman schlub who stumbles upon the fragile fantasy world of a faded star (one poster, below, further blurs the line between reality and illusion by billing the character rather than the actor). The influence of Sunset Boulevard here is clear. It’s a connection Fassbinder underscores in that opening scene where he appears alongside his fictional star, watching one of her old movies just as Erich von Stroheim’s Max von Mayerling and Norma Desmond watch Queen Kelly, the real-life movie Stroheim made with Swanson. But like Fassbinder’s Sirk-inspired Angst essen Seele auf, there was far more than mere pastiche going on.

All of this might today be of merely marginal interest, much like Schmitz herself, were Fassbinder’s film not such a towering achievement of post-war German cinema. Every element of the filmmaking arts is practised close to perfection: the acting, particularly the desperate energy Rosel Zech brings to the title role; the black-and-white camera work; the outstanding art direction (who could forget the doctor’s all-white surgery?); the lighting, with its alternating play of cloak and dazzle; and not least the sound design, a collage of news reports, papal benediction, volks-y music, church bells and Nashville toe-tappers.

The final mystic communion of life and art comes as Veronika swallows pills in a white room, dying to the accompaniment of a plaintive country lament on the radio. Because here the viewer naturally thinks not only of Schmitz’s death, or Voss’s, but the director’s as well; Veronika Voss was the last film he saw to completion before his death by overdose in 1982. Like the faded star and her filmic double, Fassbinder went out on a high.

Veronika Voss poster



  1. Excellent work putting this one together. Brilliant director, great story.

  2. I NEVER KNEW ANY OF THIS. Calls for an immediate re-watch.

  3. Beautiful post! I have been searching for some information on Dr Moritz, and apparently she was arrested briefly after Sybille Schmitz’s death, and then resumed her career after that. Dr Katz plays a brilliant evil doctor in Veronika Voss. There aren’t many films where female doctors are protagonists or play an important role, unfortunately.

  4. Brilliant and tragic. I am a big fan of Fassbinder’s films.

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