Our Actress in Berlin

The Mostly True Life of Olga Chekhova

The Mostly True Life of Olga Chekhova

When historian Antony Beevor went looking for the truth behind the improbable life of Olga Chekhova, he was frustrated by her misleading autobiography, going so far as to call the two volumes published in 1952 and 1973, respectively, “exasperatingly disingenuous.” Fudging the facts in service of myth, especially in the entertainment industry, surprises no one. Little lies on the resume become how you get a job, how you get quoted in the press, how you cement a legacy. Chekhova’s case, however, is all the more intriguing because she didn’t have to embellish or invent. Her life’s raw biographical data is stuff enough for legend.

At sixteen she went to live, against her father’s wishes, with her paternal aunt, the great stage actress Olga Knipper-Chekhova, widow of Anton Chekhov and former sweetheart to one of the founders of the Moscow Art Theater, the wellspring of what became known as “the Method” school of acting. Chekhova’s maternal uncle, Vladimir Knipper, was an opera singer and one-time director of the Bolshoi. Her brother, Lev Knipper, became a celebrated Soviet composer. The Knipper family milieu included visits from Maxim Gorky (hopelessly in love with the widow Chekhova). Permanently seduced by the artistic life, young Olga married her cousin Mikhail Chekhov, nephew to the famous writer and a rising star on the Moscow stage. Even though their marriage was brief it produced a daughter and gave Olga visibility as part of the artistic dynasty, which she made the most of in forging a career of her own.

She survived two winters in Moscow during the grueling years of the Civil War that followed the Russian Revolution in a communal flat with her sister Ada. They endured overnight breadlines menaced by opportunistic thieves as well as the threat of rape or a lecherous exchange proposed by men with the means to negotiate, as the city sank into further squalor with cholera and typhus epidemics. Depending on which version you believe, she smuggled herself out from the Belorussky station during the Red Terror wrapped in peasant garb or on the arm of an Austro-Hungarian cavalry captain. She left her young daughter in the care of her mother and father, a railroad engineer allowed to evacuate to Siberia.

Chekhova had played minor roles in a few Russian silent films after her divorce. In Berlin, while making a living selling her illustrations and sculptures, she mixed with the Russian diaspora there, one day borrowing clothes so she could audition for producer Erich Pommer and director F.W. Murnau who cast her in his 1921 film The Haunted Castle. One reviewer compared her portrayal of the film’s brooding baroness to stage legend Eleonora Duse.

Her letters home downplay her film work as a way to make ends meet and play up her reception on the Berlin stage, where she made her debut in 1924. She pulled double shifts, driving to Babelsberg for filming during the day and appearing onstage at night. She was able to buy a big apartment and began to collect her family from Russia and even helped ex-husband Misha and his new wife, resettling them near her in Berlin and later directing him in a film.

According to the research Beevor uncovered for his 2004 book The Mystery of Olga Chekhova, it was in Berlin that the actress was recruited by her brother, a former White Guard officer turned Bolshevik loyalist, to inform on counterrevolutionary expatriates. That she could get her family permission to travel to Berlin supports the claim. While making Italian Straw Hat at the studio founded in France by Russian émigrés, Chekhova (credited as Tschechowa by the Germans and Tschekova by the French) was in a position to mingle with the many refugees from Bolshevism in Paris. But it was just as easy to encounter one by hailing a cab, a job as obtainable then as it is now. Nothing concrete has come to light to suggest any betrayal.

By Beevor’s count, she made close to forty German silent films but her most famous silent-era role is undoubtedly as cabaret singer Parysia in E.A. Dupont’s Moulin Rouge for British International Pictures. The American trade paper Variety, disappointed overall in the film, wrote of Chekhova: “She undresses almost as much and as well as Mae Murray and fairly exudes sex appeal from a French perspective. She can put emotion onto the screen but is mostly seen in undress as a stage star.” During the 1930s she was directed by the era’s top talent, including Gerhard Lamprecht, Max Ophuls, and Alfred Hitchcock, mostly playing grand dame-types. Her first sound film, Wilhelm Thiele’s hugely popular Die Drei von der Tankstelle (Three from the Filling Station), heralded one of the more seamless transitions to talkies on record. Fully established as a star, she remained in Germany after so many had fled and, by 1936, was named State Actress of the Third Reich. There is a famous picture of her seated very elegantly but comfortably right next to Adolph Hitler at a diplomatic reception held in 1939. It horrified her family in Moscow and remains a chilling image even today.

The exact truth of her (mis)deeds for the Soviet intelligence service throughout the years is still buried in the archives but it seems clear she did more acting offscreen than on, suggesting another motive for her equivocal memoirs, titled I Conceal Nothing! She was flown back to Moscow after World War II by orders of Beria, the notorious chief of Stalin’s secret police, for an extensive debriefing and he still had the confidence in her by 1953 to order her to discover Chancellor Adenauer’s position on German reunification. When Beria was arrested that year, Chekhova saw her chance to loosen the Soviet Union’s grip on her life and moved to Munich. Her finances, Beevor says, hint that she may still have been their actress in Germany. She was making films (and some television) in the early 1970s when the West German government awarded her the Cross of the Order of Merit, evidently clueless of her status as a Soviet sleeper agent.

— The Editors