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Sara Stina Hedberg
15 March 1907
|Died||23 June 1981 (aged 74)|
|Spouse(s)||Nils Leander (1926–1930)|
Vidar Forsell (1932–1943)
Arne Hülphers (1956–1978)
Zarah Leander (15 March 1907 – 23 June 1981) was a Swedish singer and actress whose greatest success was in Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.
Leander began her career in the late 1920s, and by the mid-1930s her success in Europe, particularly in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, led to invitations to work in the United States. She was reluctant to relocate her children, and opted to remain in Europe. From 1936, she was contracted to work for the German Universum Film AG (UFA) while continuing to record songs. Leander later noted that while her films were successful, her work as a recording artist was more profitable. Involvement with the Nazi propaganda machine did not prevent her from recording in 1938 the Yiddish song "Bei Mir Bistu Shein".
As a result of her controversial choice to work for the state-owned UFA when it necessarily was subordinate to the Third Reich, her films and lyrics were viewed by some as propaganda for the Nazi cause, although she took no public political position. She was strongly criticised, particularly in Sweden where she returned after her Berlin home was bombed during an air raid. Initially shunned by much of the artistic community and public, she found herself unable to resume her career after the Second World War. It was several years before she could make a comeback in Sweden, and she would remain a figure of public controversy for the rest of her life. Eventually she returned to performing throughout Europe, but was unable to equal the level of success she had previously achieved. She spent her later years in retirement in Stockholm, and died there at the age of 74.
She was born as Sara Stina Hedberg in Karlstad. She studied piano and violin as a small child, and sang on stage for the first time at the age of six, she initially had no intention of becoming a professional performer and led an ordinary life for several years. As a teenager she lived two years in Riga, Latvia (1922–1924), where she learned German, took up work as a secretary, married Nils Leander (1926), and had two children (1927 and 1929). However, in 1929 she was engaged, as an amateur, in a touring cabaret by the entertainer and producer Ernst Rolf and for the first time sang "Vill ni se en stjärna" ("Do You Want to See a Star?"), which soon would become her signature tune.
In 1930, she participated in four cabarets in the capital, Stockholm, made her first records, including a cover of Marlene Dietrich's "Falling in Love Again", and played a part in a film. However, it was as "Hanna Glavari" in Franz Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow that she had her definitive break-through (1931). By then she had divorced Nils Leander. In the following years, she expanded upon her career and made a living as an artist on stage and in film in Scandinavia. Her fame brought her proposals from the European continent and from Hollywood, where a number of Swedish actors and directors were working.
In the beginning of the 1930s she performed with the Swedish revue artist, producer and songwriter Karl Gerhard who was a prominent anti-Nazi. He wrote a song for Zarah Leander, "I skuggan av en stövel" ("In the shadow of a boot"), in 1934 which strongly condemned the persecution of Jews in Nazi-Germany.
Leander opted for an international career on the European continent. As a mother of two school-age children, she ruled out a move to America, fearing the consequences of bringing the children such a great distance and being unable to find employment. Despite the political situation, Austria and Germany were much closer to home, and Leander was already well-versed in German.
A second breakthrough, by contemporary measures her international debut, was the world premiere (1936) of Axel an der Himmelstür (Axel at the Gate of Heaven) at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, directed by Max Hansen. It was a parody of Hollywood and not the least a parody of Marlene Dietrich, who had left a Europe marked by Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. It was followed by the Austrian film Premiere, in which she played a successful cabaret star.
In 1936, she landed a contract with UFA in Berlin. She became known as a very tough negotiator, demanding influence and a high salary, half of which was to be paid in Swedish kronor to a bank in Stockholm. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels dubbed her an "Enemy of Germany", but as a leading film star at UFA, she participated in ten films, most of them great successes. Leander neither socialised with leading party members nor took part in official Nazi Party functions. A likely apocryphal meeting with Goebbels supposedly resulted in this exchange: "Zarah... Isn't that a Jewish name?" "Oh, maybe", the actress said, "but what about Josef?" "Hmmm... yes, yes, a good answer", Goebbels reportedly replied.
Many of her songs were composed by Michael Jary, with whom she had an affair, and Bruno Balz with music and lyrics respectively. In her films, Leander repeatedly played independent, beautiful, passionate and self-confident women. Leander scored the two biggest hits of her recording career—in her signature deep voice, she sang her anthems of hope and survival: "Davon geht die Welt nicht unter" ("This is not the end of the world") and "Ich weiss, es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehen" ("I know that someday a miracle will happen"). These two songs in particular are often included in contemporary documentaries as obvious examples of effective Nazi propaganda. Although no exact record sales numbers exist, it is likely that she was among Europe's best-selling recording artists in the years prior to 1945. She pointed out in later years that what made her a fortune was not her salary from UFA, but the royalties from the records she released.
Her last film in Nazi Germany premiered on 3 March 1943. Her villa in Grunewald was hit in an air raid, and the increasingly desperate Nazis pressured her to apply for German citizenship. At this point she decided to retreat to Sweden, where she had bought a mansion at Lönö, not far from Stockholm. She was still contractually obligated for another film to UFA, but held up the film representatives by rejecting script after script.
Gradually she managed to land engagements on the Swedish stage. After the war she did eventually return to tour Germany and Austria, giving concerts, making new records and acting in musicals. Her comeback found an eager audience among pre-war generations who had never forgotten her. She appeared in a number of films and television shows, but she would never regain the popularity she had enjoyed before and into the first years of World War II. In 1981, after having retired from show business, she died in Stockholm of complications from a stroke.
Leander was often questioned about her years in Nazi Germany. Though she would willingly talk about her past, she strongly rejected allegations of her having had sympathy for the Nazi regime. She claimed that her position as a German film actress merely had been that of an entertainer working to please an enthusiastic audience in a difficult time.
On the other hand, in an interview recorded shortly before his death in 1996 the senior Soviet intelligence officer Pavel Sudoplatov claimed that Leander had in fact been a Soviet agent with the codename "Stina-Rose". Recruited by the Soviet Union before the outbreak of war, she was said to have refused payment for her work because she was a secret member of the Swedish Communist Party and therefore conducted the work for political reasons. Leander herself denied any suggestion that she had acted as a spy for any country.
Leander continued to be popular in Germany for many decades after World War II. She was interviewed several times in German television before she died. In 1983 New Wave singer Nina Hagen, who had idolised Leander as a child, released the single "Zarah", based on "Ich weiss, es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehen". In 1987, two Swedish musicals were written about Zarah Leander. In 2003, a bronze statue was placed in Zarah Leander's home town Karlstad, by the Opera house of Värmland where she first began her career. After many years of discussions, the town government accepted this statue on behalf of the local Zarah Leander Society. A Zarah Leander museum is open near her mansion outside Norrköping. Every year a scholarship is given to a creative artist in her tradition. The performer Mattias Enn received the prize in 2010, the female impersonator Jörgen Mulligan in 2009, and Zarah's friend and creator of the museum Brigitte Pettersson in 2008.
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