Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Remembered: Lilli Palmer

Lilli Palmer was born Lillie Marie Preiser in 1914 in Posen in what was then Germany. Her father was a surgeon at Berlin's Jewish hospital, her mother an actress. Against her father's wishes, Lilli would soon follow her mother's footsteps and study drama with Ilka Gruening and Lucie Hoeflich in Berlin.

As Lilli wrote in her autobiography, by the time she received her first engagement at the theatre in Darmstadt, the Nazis had already risen to power, forcing her to leave her native country. Lilli first settled in Paris, but soon after went to London where she received her first big break in Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Agent (UK 1936), in which the leading role was played by another refugee from Nazi Germany, Peter Lorre. While in London, Lilli met fellow actor Rex Harrison, whom she later married.

Lilli Palmer and Rex Harrison in a photo by Tony Frissell from 1950

Surviving the German Blitz in their house outside London, in 1945 Lilli and Rex accepted an offer from Warner Bros. to go to Hollywood. Lilli's first two American films are among her best: Cloak and Dagger, from 1946, which was directed by fellow German Fritz Lang, and Body and Soul, by Abraham Polonsky, released in 1947, in which her co-star was John Garfield.

Lilli Palmer with co-star Gary Cooper in Fritz Lang's Cloak and Dagger (USA 1946)

Although Lilli made a number of films in the US and eventually even had her own TV show, in 1954 she accepted an offer from Erik Charell to return to her native Germany to star in his film Feuerwerk (Fireworks, W-Germany 1954). Like Lilli, Charell had fled the Nazis in 1933 but unlike Lilli, he returned to Germany after the war. The film became a major success and for the first time introduced Lilli to German audiences. Following the release of Feuerwerk, Lilli turned into one of Germany's biggest stars of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. One of her most memorable films from that period is the Arthur Brauner produced remake of Leontine Sagan's lesbian-themed drama, Maedchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform, W-Germany 1958), in which Lilli plays Miss von Bernburg, the object of Romy Schneider's Manuela von Meinhardis' attraction. German feminist Alice Schwartzer famously called the screen kiss of Palmer and Schneider the "sexiest in post-war German film".

Romy Schneider and Lilli Palmer in Girls in Geza von Radvanyi's Girls in Uniform (W-Germany 1958)

It is perhaps less of an irony than an atonement of sorts that the country she was forced to leave in 1933 now turned Lilli into one of its biggest stars. Over the years, she was the recipient of numerous awards and became a regular in German talk shows. And although Lilli continued to make films in the US as well as several other countries - she was, after all, fluent in English, French and Italian - at least to German audiences Lilli is best remembered today for her work in post-war Germany where her films are still frequently shown on television.

After Lilli's painful divorce from Rex Harrison, in 1957 Lilli married the Argentinian actor Carlos Thompson. Together, they settled in Switzerland, and besides her career as an actress, Lilli took increasingly to writing and painting. Her memoirs, Change Lobsters and Dance, became an international success, but particularly so in its German translation, Dicke Lilli, gutes Kind.

Lilli seen here in 1974 talking to Helmut Schmidt, the German chancellor between 1974 and 1982

Lilli died in 1986 in Los Angeles and is buried there in the Glendale branch of the Forest Lawn Cemetery (> for more on Forest Lawn Glendale, go to the blog archives in the sidebar and search for 'City of Angeles, Final Resting Places, Forest Lawn/ Glendale). Carlos Thompson, unable to cope with the loss of his wife, killed himself in 1990 by gunshot.

Memorial plaque for Lilli Palmer on the building of Hoelderlinstrasse 11 in the Westend District of Berlin, where Lilli lived with her parents between 1917 and 1932