7:35 am Nov. 19, 2010
78 years ago, Marta Eggerth made a movie. Yesterday, she finally saw it.
Eggerth, 98, is one of the last of the great European operetta stars. Max Reinhardt directed her in Die Fledermaus. In 1927. Franz Lehar wrote shows for her. ("He was the most modest, most lovely, easygoing person," she says.) She made dozens of films in four languages in the prewar era. She's a connection to a vanished world.
She was 19 years old when she starred in Victor Janson's Das Blaue vom Himmel (The Blue from the Sky) in 1932. It was screened at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the exhibition "Weimar Cinema, 1913-1933: Daydreams and Nightmares," which highlights the lighter films—Das Blaue among them—that were just as popular at the time as the Expressionist masterpieces that now define the era.
The MoMA audience was a bit ragtag, as usual. Larry Kardish, a senior curator at the museum and the organizer of the exhibition, said that Eggerth (who lives in Rye now) was in the house, and everyone gasped and spun around. Small and dressed in a wool top with lots of swirls of red sequins and a skirt seemingly made from strips of black fabric like a hula skirt, she was a bit unsteady on her feet, but her voice was strong, and she didn't really need the microphone she joked that she was promised. She had been too busy working on other projects to see Das Blaue vom Himmel when it came out, she said, but her mother had; "good"—just "good"—had been the verdict. Everyone in the theater laughed and applauded.
"So," she said, sitting down. (Or, really, "Zo." Eggerth speaks English with an undefinable Mitteleuropa accent: she was born in Budapest but didn't stay anywhere long for decades, learning German, French, Italian, and English along the way.) The opening credits began; the film was co-written by none other than "Billie" Wilder. When Eggerth's name came up, she whispered loudly to her neighbor, "That's me," and, heartbreakingly, began to hum along to the music.
The 19-year-old Eggerth, cute and blonde and a little klutzy, resembled Drew Barrymore—the way consciousness could seem to spread over her face in the course of a shot. The movie itself is slight: a Berlin subway ticket-taker falls in love with a pilot. But, like any silly comedy, it has surprising, disturbing depths. Characters keep seeking and, with little effort, finding and falling into new jobs, which must have read as darkly escapist in a year in which German unemployment was over 30 percent. The movie goes by without a hint of overt anxiety, however, with Eggerth's simple, seductive voice sailing through the tuneful numbers.
"It was very emotional," she said in the lobby after the screening. "In those days, everything was more natural, you know? All the singing, it was very direct. The whole idea of it was very clean and naïve and innocent. And I'm crying for that innocence that was in the whole atmosphere.
"Today is different," she continued. "Today is not worse, no no no, but it's different. It's more realistic, maybe, more hard. The softness is missing."
Innocence and softness aren't qualities one associates with the decadent Weimar period, but Eggerth said that she was spending more time with her mother than out at nightclubs living the Otto Dix life.
"When I met my husband, Jan Kiepura," she said, "who I adored and who I adore for the rest of my life, he said, 'Tell me, are you always going with your mother everywhere?' and I said 'Yes,' and he loved it."
Eggerth met Kiepura, a Polish tenor, on a film set in 1934; they married in 1936 and performed together for years, the wildly popular Sonny and Cher of '30s Europe. They emigrated to the United States, and she got an MGM contract, making two films with Judy Garland. ("She was adorable always. Lovely, kind, sweet. For me she made always an impression of depression.") George Balanchine choreographed her and Kiepura's production of Lehar's The Merry Widow—a show they did together hundreds of times—on Broadway in 1943. After Kiepura's sudden death in 1966, she stopped singing for a long time, but gradually she returned, doing concerts and galas.
Asked about the old Metropolitan Opera House, she recalled Kiepura's debut there, in La Bohème in 1938, alongside the great Brazilian soprano Bidú Sayão. The three became close, and Sayão had once taught Eggerth a Brazilian song. For 20 or 30 seconds last night she sang it into a digital recorder—quietly, flawlessly. She loved Brazil, she said. She loved South America. She loved traveling and performing, but just as she never went wild in Weimar Berlin, she remained focused on the job at hand.
"So many people ask me lately," she said, "'Oh, you made films in France, in Italy, in Germany, in Austria. It's fantastic, must have been big fun, no?' I said, 'What? Fun?' I never had fun. It was hard work and responsibility and always in a different language. My language was Hungarian, and all these languages I studied and I learned later. You know what was fun for me? When my work on the stage or in films was successful, I was happy. But I didn't have fun. Never."
"I went around the world," she said with a smile, "not with fun, but with duty, with love, and with understanding." Then she shook her interviewer's hand warmly, and she turned to greet a fan.
More by this author:
- Marilyn Horne, who ruled American opera in the 1970s, trains a new generation for a very different art
- Model citizen: Composer Eric Whitacre, dashing star of high-school choruses worldwide, makes the big bucks