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Pola Negri: woman of the world

The cinematic life of Poland's first film star

Katarzyna Wajda (opens in new window) (National Film Archive – Audiovisual Institute)

In advance of the 15th annual Silent Movie Festival, Katarzyna Wajda from National Film Archive – Audiovisual Institute, introduces the cinematic life of Poland's first film star: Pola Negri.

Meet the extraordinary Pola Negri: Poland’s first film star and the only Pole to make her American dream come true in Hollywood, a true European equally at home in Warsaw, Berlin and Paris, a femme fatale on the screen but a hard-working woman in real life, a fashion trendsetter and the author of her own legend, an actress who earned a permanent place in the annals of world cinema, and an (e)migrant whose own story reflects the turbulent history of the 20th century.

A Polish star in the German sky Pola Negri was a film legend with a film-worthy story: born Apolonia Barbara Chałupiec, her life is a 20th-century retelling of Cinderella. It is a tale of extraordinary social ascent: from a poor riverside neighbourhood in Warsaw to Hollywood, by way of Berlin, from a humble attic room to a mansion in suburban Paris. Hers is a story of triumph through sheer talent, hard work and determination. She overcame social and linguistic barriers: the daughter of a washerwoman and tinsmith, she mastered five languages and briefly became a Polish countess and Georgian princess (though only briefly - both marriages failed), and her celebrity status eclipsed her lowly origins.

Her tale is also one of movie stardom, easier to achieve in a globalised era of silent film, but impressive nonetheless. While many actresses of the time boasted large eyes and dark eyelids, and heavily emphasised their facial expressions, the aesthetic came to be personified by Pola Negri. Negri’s story is also one of unfulfilled dreams. Unable to pursue a career in ballet due to an illness, Pola enrolled in acting school.

Her successful performance in the pantomime Sumurun launched the sixteen-year-old into the nascent world of film. Aleksander Hertz, the owner of Sfinks, Poland’s largest movie studio, turned Pola into the country’s first film star. After debuting in Slave to Her Senses (Niewolnica zmysłów, 1914), the beautiful actress accepted a number of roles as a femme fatale who ruins the lives of the men who fall for her. With her distinctive eyes and sensual dance style, Negri was already developing a visual trademark. Leaving Warsaw behind, in 1917 the “Polish Asta Nielsen” heads to Berlin, making movies for Saturn-Film.

She later strikes these pictures from her official filmography, highlighting instead her theatrical work with Max Reinhardt and cinema productions for her Pygmalion, Ernst Lubitsch. Hertz may have discovered Pola Negri and launched her career, but it was the German director who turned her into a true actress. Together, Negri and Lubitsch made five films, including Carmen (1918), in which her beauty, talent for dancing, and catlike charm help solidify her image as an exotic femme fatale, and finally, Madame Dubarry (1919), in which Pola plays a suggestively erotic role, taking Europe and America by storm and helping to end German’s post-war isolation. For both of them, the movie is a ticket to Hollywood.

From Europe to America (and back again) Pola redeems that ticket in 1923, becoming the first European film star imported by Tinseltown. The famous face of Germany’s UFA studio is now a star in the Paramount Pictures constellation. She makes millions (prudently investing her earnings in real estate), but without Lubitsch by her side, her acting career stalls. They made just one Hollywood picture together, Forbidden Paradise (1924), widely considered her best US film.

But Hollywood is becoming increasingly puritanical, and Pola has trouble landing parts that would fully embody her role as a sensual, European woman, fully aware of her magnetic eroticism. Realising this, she decides to play the Hollywood star, parading her pet cheetah around and setting new fashion trends such as turbans and red painted toenails. She drives a Rolls Royce and is seen on the arms of famous men, among them Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino.

The rise of the talkie spells disaster for many silent film stars, but Pola passes the voice test. Her gravely contralto becomes yet another asset, allowing her to break into the music business. But Hollywood is changing. Faced with ever more competitors and a paucity of good parts, in the late 1920s Pola heads back to Europe: first to England and the theatre, and later to Germany. There she resumes her role as a movie star, but at the cost of legitimising the regime.

Though she ends up leaving the Third Reich to escape a compulsory part in an anti-Polish film, her work in Nazi Germany casts a shadow over her future life in America, especially when hunted by a gossip of Hitler watching Mazurka (1935), starring his favourite actress, during bouts of insomnia. In 1941 she packs up her life into a couple of suitcases and returns to America via Lisbon. Twenty years earlier, she arrived to a welcome worthy of a silver-screen goddess.

Now she is greeted as a mere mortal, one of many emigrants quarantined on Ellis Island. Pola’s return to the film world is brief: she showcases her comedic talent in Hi Diddle Diddle (1943) and shuts the door on her movie career as the eccentric Madame Habib in The Moon-Spinners (1964). In 1970 she publishes a heavily-airbrushed (and self-aggrandising) memoir titled Memoirs of a Star, setting a trap for future biographers. With help from a wealthy friend, she settles down comfortably in Texas.

Born a subject of the Russian tsar in Lipno, outside Warsaw, she dies an American citizen in San Antonio. Though she visited Europe after World War II, the Polish thespian never returned to her home country.

To learn more about the life and career of Pola Negri and see the movies she starred in, join the National Film Archive – Audiovisual Institute at Kino Iluzjon in Warsaw on April 19–22 for the 15th annual Silent Movie Festival. The star of this year’s edition is Pola Negri: she’ll be the focus of the festival’s main screenings and the subject of an international conference, Pola Negri and the Vicissitudes of Stardom.

This blog post is a part of the Migration in the Arts and Sciences project, which explores how migration has shaped the arts, science and history of Europe.