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August 2, 1910 was a big day for Fransciscus (Frans) van Aalten and his wife Geertruida van den Anker. He was a high-street chemist in the Dutch town of Arnhem - he'd done well, and owned his own shop - but now all his attention was on his wife and their new baby - it was a girl, and they named her Geertruida Everdina Wilhelmina. She turned out to be a good-humoured, chubby girl, never destined to be very tall - but very determined. She was nicknamed Truus, a common name in the Netherlands.
A year after Truus was born, her brother, Frans arrived, and the family grew up happily in Arnhem, a genteel and rather old-fashioned little town amidst beautiful countryside, noted for its parks and relaxed atmosphere. As the family's only daughter, Truus got a lot of attention - which occasionally caused some friction between herself and her brother.
After Truus' schooldays she found various jobs, none of which lasted very long: “I worked in a shop selling hats..." she remembered later, then as a nanny for the children of a cinema-owner in Groningen, then: "I packed fancy chocolates in a little place with two other girls, then I worked in another shop, just for the fun and the company really... But I was never anywhere for long - I didn’t have the patience. I just kept on dreaming about being in a film!" Everyone knew that Truus was movie crazy, and always had been. Childhood pocket money, birthday cash, then her tiny salaries were all hoarded and spent in the local cinemas. The darkened auditorium, the velvet curtains gliding apart as the orchestra started to play, the first shock of light as the projector started up - these were the most exciting things in the world to her. Most of all she wished that she could be a movie actress - to glide through the black and white world of Asta Nielsen, Lois Wilson and Henny Porten; to meet Charlie Chaplin, Willy Fritsch and Emil Jannings... but how? The Dutch movie industry had blossomed briefly during the First World War, when their Hollandia Filmfabriek studios had made several popular features, but now very few films were made in the Netherlands. Until something came up, she collected movie portrait postcards and photos from film magazines like De Rolprent ("The Movie"), and hung them up over her bed, where she and her big doll Juliana could see them at night. "When I was a nanny in Groningen, Jan Musch, the famous actor, was performing in the theatre, and I went to see him," she said later. "I thought, perhaps I'll be lucky and be able to reach the stage, but it was impossible to talk to him..."
By 1926 the family had moved to Amsterdam, and Truus had found a job at the very stylish Peek & Cloppenburg department store on Dam Square in the middle of town. She earned ten Guilders per week, and was (of course) bored out of her mind. The menswear department was no place for Trainee Sales Assistant T. van Aalten, who found that serving fussy old gents was dull and frustrating: "I didn’t like it at all!" she remembered later. "Nothing but running about for those men all day long, and whatever you showed them, they always wanted something else. But I wasn't bad at it, you know. I always had a good story ready!” She hadn't given up her dream (though her parents were inclined to make rude remarks about pointless daydreams): one day she set off across Amsterdam to talk to Theo Frenkel, the famous Dutch film-maker. Starting as an actor, Frenkel had made his first movie in 1908, and had worked in the British and German film industries. Now he was semi-retired - partly because he wanted to make Hollywood-size movies, and he couldn't get the funding. When Truus turned up, Frenkel was surprised at how small she was, and how young - she was still just sixteen - but she was pretty, outgoing, and obviously had huge confidence. He was soon to shoot a cinema commercial, and offered Truus a part in it. "But it never happened!" Truus lamented. "It always rained on the days we had to shoot, and in the end I couldn’t be bothered to show up any more”.
One day during the summer of 1926 Truus was flicking through an old copy of De Rolprent when an advertisement suddenly caught her eye. "TO ALL GIRLS AND YOUNG LADIES IN THE NETHERLANDS - Your dreams could come true!" it bellowed. "Every year, the big film studios receive tens of thousands of letters from girls asking to train to be film stars. In response, one of them - Ufa - has decided to give a chance to girls who qualify." Truus read on, electrified. This was exactly what she'd been waiting for. Berlin's famous Ufa studio were making a film about a lady with seven daughters, and girls from all over Europe were to be auditioned to play them. All she had to do was send in two photographs, a short biography and various vital statistics... "Send your entries to: The Editors, De Rolprent, Heerengracht 453, Amsterdam". Truus took a deep breath - she could get an envelope into the post that very day. Then her heart gave a horrible lurch: "Submissions received after July 12th will not be considered."
The competition was over. She'd missed it.
Germany was Europe’s rival to Hollywood, releasing nearly six hundred movies every year. By 1926, Universum Film A.G. (Ufa), was the main German film studio. From its studios at Neubabelsberg in Berlin, Ufa had produced gigantic films like Fritz Lang’s Die Niebelungen in 1923 and the science-fiction film Metropolis (seventeen months in the shooting and still in the final stages of production). Budgets had tightened perceptibly - Ufa had nearly gone bust anyway in 1925 - and everyone at the studio knew that Metropolis would have to be a huge hit to prevent its 5,000,000 Mark budget sinking the company.
In this atmosphere, experienced director Ragnar Hyltén-Cavallius was planning a much smaller film, a comedy, Die Sieben Töchter Der Frau Gyurkovics ("Mrs Gyurkovics’ Seven Daughters”). Ufa had came up with a plan to generate some publicity, and had launched the competition to find seven young women to play the daughters. They would come from Germany, Sweden, Holland, Austria, Denmark, England and Hungary, spreading a publicity trail across Europe. The girls didn't really need to be able to act - they just had to be pretty.
Truus didn't know or care about the machinations of the Ufa publicity department. She felt that she wasn't particularly pretty, but if this was her one and only chance of becoming a film actress... Obstinately determined to try her luck, she sealed up and posted an envelope with her best photographs in it, knowing that even if her entry was accepted, she was still in competition with every beautiful girl in the Netherlands. “The least I could do was try..." she said later.
Some weeks later, when Truus' photo magically appeared in De Rolprent, the whole family gazed at her printed image in astonishment. "I thought it was hilarious!" she remembered later, "But I never thought I'd be chosen. There were plenty of nicer girls in there too!"
One day in September, Truus was at work when her mother suddenly appeared, looking flustered - a telegram had arrived: Truus had won the competition and Ufa wanted to see her in Berlin for a screen test at once. There was another reason for her nervousness: "She also told me that she and my father did not want me to go. Well, I thought I was about to have a nervous breakdown right there in the shop. I would never get a chance like this again. I had a real tantrum!" While Truus went berserk, her sales-colleagues crowded around, begging her to calm down and not alarm the customers. "But I couldn’t care about that - I was desperate to go to Berlin, they had to let me go! My mother cooled me off and promised me she'd talk to Father again."
Truus' parents found that they had a severe problem: their little girl, always strong-willed, was showing a level of stubborn determination they couldn't handle. She now refused to co-operate with them at all - for any reason. Eventually, they cracked. "I turned back into the Truus father and mother knew only when they told me that I had permission to go. I'm sure I would have gone mad if they hadn't let me go. Such a chance, one in a lifetime! Once they said I could go, everything had to be arranged in no-time. My passport had to be ready within a day!"
A suitcase was pulled out of a cupboard and hurriedly packed, and a leather briefcase was pressed into service. Truus dressed in her school uniform coat and pulled on a little white hat. As she was going out the door, her mother (slightly at a loss about her little girl setting off for Germany in such a rush) pushed a rather ridiculous-looking antique umbrella under her arm and kissed her goodbye. Truus and her father raced toward Amsterdam's Centraal Station, stopping off at Dam Square where she dashed into Peek & Cloppenberg to try to explain that while she was supposed to give them a month's notice, she was going to Berlin to be in a film and didn't have time. "They didn’t want to let me go at first," she remembered later. "I had to explain that there was no other option. My poor father was turning pale, waiting for me all that time in the Square, wondering what was taking me so long. Fortunately, they let me go eventually!".
Her train clattered into the night, through the suburbs and out into the dark Dutch countryside. It crossed the border, and Truus slept as it rolled east, all the way across Germany.
Nearly eight hours later, Truus arrived in Berlin. "Of course I couldn’t speak any German!" she said later. "Only a few words and phrases I'd learned, like: “Wie spät ist es?" (What time is it?)... I came out of the station and ran to a taxi and told the driver, "Ufa - Potsdamer Platz!" in a real school-book tone, as if I'd studied that very sentence in advance! Thank God he understood what I meant."
The Potsdamer Platz was a huge open area, teeming with pedestrians bustling around the shops and offices while dodging the speeding trams. About to enter the Ufa building, something caught Truus' eye - a nearby newsagent's had magazines displayed in the window - and one had a photo she recognized... The owner jumped as a girl in a white hat burst in, shouting, "That's ME!". Truus bought six copies and packed them carefully in her suitcase.
Ufa's headquarters had been invaded by foreign girls of various shapes and sizes all day. Truus produced her telegram as proof that she belonged there, and soon found herself transported to a boardinghouse overnight, chatting with some Swiss and Romanian girls, fellow contest winners. Also present was an Ufa chaperone, keeping a watchful eye on the excited girls.
The following morning was bright and sunny, but Truus arrived at the studio to a shock - she was just one of two hundred girls, all desperate to be in the film - taller girls, thinner girls, fraüleins fluent in German... Lugging her suitcase and antiquated umbrella across the floor, Truus sat down to wait, terrified. She’d never had an acting lesson in her life, and she was certain she’d be sent home at once. One after the other, the girls were asked to stand in front of a camera, to see how they looked on film. They were all older than Truus, and she could see she hadn’t a hope.
When director Hyltén-Cavallius sat down in an Ufa screening room the next day to watch the printed rushes, one girl stood out - where all the others had gazed into the lens with expressions of the deepest sincerity, this one hadn’t been able to keep a straight face at all, and had burst out laughing. What, he asked, was her name? Wasn’t she the Dutch girl, the short one with the umbrella? "Sie sind nicht ganz unbegabt!" ("She's not completely untalented!") he announced. Truus was funny, it shone through, and so she would play Lilly, youngest of Frau Gyurkovics’ daughters.
Like its counterparts in California, Rome and New York, the Ufa was a factory - scripts were being written, scenes were being shot on big, barn-like stages, editors assembled printed footage in cuttingrooms. There were plasterers’ workshops, carpentry shops, prop stores, hair and wardrobe departments, and publicity offices planning the release of completed movies (Ufa also ran cinemas across Germany, and distributed all over Europe).
Truus met the other members of the cast - her six “sisters” (including Betty Balfour, all the way from England) and handsome lead Willy Fritsch, who was to play Count Horkay. Fritsch was very well-known and terribly handsome, and Truus fell in love with him on the spot. Truus was the youngest and smallest of the "daughters", and people could see she was feeling a bit lost. Her battered old suitcase caused some curiosity - she admitted she'd borrowed it from her father, but she never seemed to go anywhere without it. The answer came when the film crew managed to get her to open it - a few toiletries, some clothes - and her doll Juliana, who was handed around amidst gales of laughter.
To her embarrassment, the director was watching too, with great amusement. “You have some talent,” he told her reassuringly. “We shall see if we can do something with it!”.
Truus had to quickly get used to being made up and going through wardrobe, then finding her place on the sets. She watched cameraman Carl Hoffman (who had lit big hits like Dr Mabuse Der Spieler and Die Niebelungen), and all the grips, riggers, plasterers, cable bashers, and set dressers bustling about their jobs. She learned that acting didn’t just mean showing emotions and moving about, but demanded that she concentrate on staying within chalk marks on the floor so as not to stray outside the range of the lights or the camera’s focus. Her role was little more than an extra part, but despite it all (and perhaps because of one particular scene in which Willy Fritsch kissed her), Truus loved the work.
"When they finished shooting the film, I was sent back to Holland," Truus sighed to a Dutch reporter a few months later. Still, her dream had come true - she'd seen the sights of Berlin and she'd actually been in a film. Her parents were relieved - Germany's capital city was notorious across Europe as a centre of sin and debauchery, and no fit place for a nice young Dutch girl. They were in for the shock of their lives.
Two days after she got back home, a telegram arrived from Ufa: IMMEDIATELY TO BERLIN - 3 YEAR CONTRACT. "I was hardly able to believe it..." she recalled. "It just seemed too great to be true. My parents had their objections once again, but I got my way and they gave me their permission. So I set off once more for Berlin!"
Ufa bigwigs had a dilemma - the company was in severe financial trouble, but films still had to be made and new stars groomed to appear in them. The little Dutch girl’s German was poor, but she was sparkly and funny and the camera liked her. Ufa would train Truus and put her in some more films. Her future would depend on hard work and luck. Being an actress wasn’t a secure job - it wasn’t even a well-respected job - but it was all she’d ever wanted to do. The contract was signed and Truus moved to Berlin. She would be paid a monthly salary and pocket money, but she'd have done it free.
Ufa put Truus into her next film in 1927. Starring Willy Fritsch, Max Hansen and Olga Tschechowa, Die Selige Exzellenz (“His Holy Lordship”) was directed by their hottest comedy helmer, Wilhelm Thiele - and Truus had a much bigger part. Olga was a highly-respected actress who was to become Truus' unofficial mentor and mother-figure in movieland. She was a fascinating woman, born in exotic Transcaucasia, part of the Russian Empire. Her claim to be related to Anton Chekhov was true, but she also loved to spin the most amazing yarns about her early life: she was close to Tsar Nicholas II, had met Rasputin and had fled the Revolution disguised as a mute peasant woman, hiding her jewellery in her mouth. She’d certainly been acting since 1917, and had become one of Germany’s most popular stars. Truus adored Olga, later citing her as a great influence both personally and professionally. Nicknaming her “Trulala”, Olga taught her the disciplines of movie work and encouraged her to be more serious in her approach to it. She also badgered the still-chubby girl to lose some of her 98lb. “Have you done any exercises yet today, Trulala?” she would cry. “Which ones? For how long? Go and find a copy of Get Slim And Stay That Way - this can't go on - we can’t use fat girls in films!”
As the release of Die sieben Töchter der Frau Gyurkovics approached, Ufa issued the usual publicity packages to newspapers and magazines. The Dutch press was particularly interested in Truus, and Het Weekblad Cinema & Theater gave her a whole page. "National pride is often aroused when great things are achieved," its reporter wrote. "But sometimes a little thing can bring out that feeling too - like when a simple Dutch girl successfully makes her debut at a foreign film studio, and does so well that she lands a leading rôle in another film. Truus always wanted to be in a movie: by the age of fourteen she had already plucked up the courage to tell people she wanted to be a film star. The chance to be successful in life always comes unexpectedly - as it has for Truus".
Truus had a dress made specially for the premiere of Sieben Töchter.... It’s possible that the more sophisticated ladies present may have thought that in a dress so lacy, so elaborate and with so many colours in it, she looked rather like an over-decorated birthday cake, but Truus was delighted with it. She sat in her box, trembling with nerves as the lights went down, waiting for her scenes to appear. What nobody had told her was that the film had been edited severely to get it to length - her scenes had been shortened or cut altogether. Soon she was grateful that nobody could see her in the dark as she hid at the back of her box, crying all over her beautiful new dress. When the credits ran at the end, her name wasn’t even mentioned - but this was the new, tough Truus van Aalten, not the kid from Arnhem any more - she had a three-year contract with the biggest film studio in Europe, and she was going to make the most of it. She was a professional actress at last.
One huge problem faced Truus' parents: their daughter was simply too young to be living 650km away in another country on her own. A difficult decision was made - the entire family would move to Berlin. Both Frans and Geertruida came from a country village near Arnhem - they weren't used to big city life. Frans junior in particular wasn't happy about leaving his home and friends just to live with his annoying sister, but he wasn't offered a choice. Frans senior set off for Berlin to find the family a home, then (with tickets paid for from Truus’ salary), the family arrived in Berlin. Young Frans was soon the delighted owner of his own small sailing boat, but life wasn’t easy as the family set about coping with life in a foreign city.
Truus' managers at Ufa worked her hard. As well as learning her trade, Truus was put to work in as many small roles as possible, usually receiving no credit. As yet, nobody could tell whether she was capable of more than just being cute on screen - but Truus had her own ideas about her future: "My family is as un-artistic as they could possibly be!" she told a writer. "When I was a little girl I had a tremendous longing for films, and I spent all my money at the cinema. I wasn't aware of the mechanics of film, of the art of it, but I knew I was drawn to it. So it was probably fate that I should be in the movies. I've played in three films for the Ufa, but I haven't attained my heart's desire yet: I'm waiting for the one big role I've wanted from the beginning: it must be a tragi-comedy. I want to play a tragic character caught up in funny situations. I really feel that my abilities are best suited to that sort of story. Certainly roles like that are difficult, but that challenges me. I want to work, work all the time, until I've achieved my goal - I want to be a film artist, and I want my work to be acknowledged and appreciated all over the world."
Truus was often lent out to other film companies, and appeared in many cinema commercials and even magazine promotions (one of which stayed in her mind for years afterwards: Scherk facial cleanser, which smelled revolting). Being lent out to Aafa or Olympia or Terra-Film was frustrating - Truus knew that they were paying Ufa a lot more than Ufa were paying her.
Silent films were genuinely international. While today’s Hollywood movies are typically dubbed straight into German, French, Russian and Spanish, films were originally adapted much more closely to different countries’ tastes. Reading intertitles specially written for them, an audience in Florence or Heraklion or Omsk could enjoy a story about people with local names (John became Hans or Jan or Ioan or any other name that suited his character better - if a fat man was funnier coming from Brittany rather than Lorraine, then that’s where he came from). Local jokes and references were built into the dialogue, and audiences welcomed foreign actors into their lives with far greater affection than later when the movies became "talkers". Truus was funny, pretty, spunky - and audiences across Europe liked her at once.
The next year brought a part in Gustav Mond... du gehst so stille ("Gustav Mond... You Walk So Silently"), and a bigger one in Geheime Macht (“Secret Power”). She benefited hugely from the experience - particularly in dealing with directors, who played a particularly powerful rôle in German moviemaking. She occasionally encountered a certain snobbishness from older actors because of her non-theatrical origin: a “real” actress had stage training.
German film companies tended to draw from a fairly small pool of actors and actresses. A trusted performer moved from production to production, and being welcomed into this movie village meant that Truus could anticipate the same security - as long as she worked hard and didn’t do anything to turn the public against her. Young and irreverent, she became affectionately known in Germany as a Backfisch. An odd word, literally meaning “fish to fry”, it was often applied to the new, 1920s girl - short hair, gawky limbs, a young flapper on the edge of sexuality. Truus was a Bakvisje in the Netherlands too, and the word spread across Europe.
Truus learned about the machinery of being a movie starlet - she posed for photos and gave interviews for film magazines. It was odd seeing her face on advertisements in magazines and brochures, sometimes even on products she didn't use - but endorsing Bubisan hair products and Marylan face cream were all part of the job.
She seems to have found interviews easy - she obviously loved nattering on, and invariably charmed reporters. A scribe for Dutch magazine Het Weekblad Cinema & Theater found herself offered sweets by a Truus eager to explain why she had missed her appointment by half an hour: “Late, eh?” Truus asked cheerfully. “Yes, but I'm sooo terribly busy, you see! They've been taking new photographs of me in a garden next to a tree covered with purple blossom. A real tree, mind! Just beautiful, honestly!” Only after the star had been calmed with a cup of tea ("Oh dear, now I’ve put too much lemon in my tea! Well, we'll have another sugar in that case...") did Truus become more serious. “What should I say in an interview like this?" she asked. "Just write that I wanted to become a film star and now I am one. Write that I just love the work I'm doing and that I'll be a film actress for the rest of my life. And that's basically it!”
Truus van Aalten had a distinctive look - her mixture of boyish yet feminine energy was very 1920s. In fact, her sharply bobbed hair and uninhibited style owed a lot to American comic actress Colleen Moore, who’d appeared in her first film in 1916. Seven years later, trapped in “little girl” roles, Moore had sought a way out of the long dresses and demure ringlets that she knew no longer represented young American women. When she’d read the scandalous new novel Flaming Youth, then learned that it was to be filmed, she’d seen that the lead part could be her route to stardom. “I begged for the role,” she remembered in her autobiography, “but the New York office said I wasn’t the type, I was better in costume parts. I was frantic for fear they’d give the part to someone else.” It was Colleen’s mother who’d had the inspiration: “She said, ‘Why don’t we cut your hair?’ I was elated. She picked up the scissors and, whack, off came the long curls. I felt as if I’d been emancipated. Then she trimmed my hair around with bangs like a Japanese girl’s haircut. Five days later I had the part.” Colleen wasn’t the first girl to bob her hair, but doing so was still quite shocking. Flaming Youth was a hit around the world, and women in their millions started queuing at barber shops for bobs.
In Germany the style was known as a Bubikopf, and Truus was to wear it for most of her career.
Truus was still very young, and she had to get used to living in a different country, with a new language (which she found very difficult to learn) and odd traditions. People couldn't understand her; many of them couldn't remember or even pronounce her name ("And it's my real name!" she told one reporter who seemed to think she'd acquired it just to be interesting).
Berlin was the centre of government, and post-Great War Germany was a country bearing deep mental scars which any foreigner soon learned to recognise. Losing the war and seeing the Kaiser flung out of office had been huge shocks. German people were encouraged to believe that the conflict had been forced on them, and now they felt shamed and frustrated at the Allies’ redrawing of Europe’s borders, which had taken their Empire from them. The government had made no plans for actually paying for the war (since they'd been bound to win it), and now ordinary people found their tax bills rocketing. Most people resented their new Weimar democratic government and wondered how they’d fallen so low. Germany had been Imperial, and the population had never really cast off the mindset of a being ruled by a Royal figurehead. It was still seen as good form to respect authority, to know your place, to obey instructions from your betters. Bureaucrats and officials were an everyday part of life, and this allowed the government to mould public opinion as they saw fit. Rebellion, even in minor ways, tended to make ordinary people nervous. The 1928 German parliament (Reichstag), elections left mainly Marxist parties in power, but a few seats were won by the NSDAP, a “Social Democrat” party known as the Nazis.
Truus’ next films built up her experience and slowly added to her fanbase. The impish Dutch girl was attracting attention that could easily have dissipated had her “Girl Wins Film Competition” debut not been backed up by talent and hard work - none of the five unknown "daughters" from Frau Gyurkovics survived in the industry. In quick succession, she worked on five films, all released in 1928. Comedy was definitely what Truus did best - and she was a bright spark in often uninspired films. German audiences loved to laugh, and almost a quarter of all films made in Germany were comedies.
In a profession dominated by temperament and self-importance, Truus' honesty and good humour were refreshing. The film-making community adored her, and referred to her affectionately as “die kleine holländische Käse” ("The Little Dutch Cheese"). A 1927 article about her in the Dutch weekly magazine Het Leven (“Life”) described her as a “spirited, comical talent who’s winning all hearts in Germany”. It went on: “She’s a young thing who’s passionately wrapped up in film, and she’s chasing round the Ufa lot in the Kochstrasse like a real rascal, making it a dangerous place with her tricks and happy laughter.” She had a long way to go, though - big comedy stars like Heinz Rühmann, Felix Bressart and Karl Valentin were on a completely different plane to her.
Truus was making money - not a fortune, but a lot more than she'd earned selling menswear. A secretary at Ufa could expect a monthly salary of 250 marks - while a top cameraman earned 3,500 marks (on a par with Willy Fritsch, one of the country's biggest stars). In the long term, the more audiences liked Truus, the more she could charge.
In April 1928 she was invited to attend the Internationale Tentoonstelling op Filmgebied, an international film exhibition in the Hague. She was welcomed home as the local girl who’d become a film star, and was amazed to find that a song had been composed in her honour. She appeared in front of an audience in the exhibition cinema, telling about her adventures in movieland, and the rest of the event's three days were spent posing for photos and signing autographs.
There weren’t many Dutch film stars - the only other big one was Lien Deijers (or "Deyers"), born in Amsterdam, and three months younger than Truus. She’d been working steadily since 1927, when an act of supreme cheek had endeared her to Fritz Lang himself. Living in Vienna with her actress mother, she’d attended a teaparty, knowing that the director of Niebelung and Mabuse would be there. Spotting the Great Man and picking a moment when the crowds around him thinned, she approached him and asked (in not-very-good German), “Herr Lang - wouldn’t you like to discover me?”. Lang screwed in his monocle and surveyed this self-assured little blonde girl. By coincidence his upcoming film, Spione ("The Spies”) had a part for a girl like her. Movies were silent, so her voice was unimportant...
The film did good business, the public liked her, and she was soon in great demand. She and Truus became pals, gassing away in Dutch, much to the annoyance of the Germans around them. She married producer Alfred Zeisler (who’d overseen production on one of Truus’ films, Geheime Macht) and obviously had a great future ahead of her.
In 1929 a director, Dutchman Jaap Speyer, took Truus back to the Netherlands to shoot scenes for Jenny's Bummel durch die Männer ("Jenny's Stroll Through The Men"). News cameras caught up with the unit filming one sunny day on Scheveningen pier, and Dutch cinema audiences saw it all in their newsreels a few days later.
Der Sonderling ("The Oddball”) gave Truus the chance to work with Karl Valentin himself. A superb visual clown, Valentin made the most of his gangling frame, often creating agonizing scenes where the most dreadful violence would happen - usually to himself. Now he'd moved to a more thoughtful, character-driven style, rather in the way that Chaplin was heading in America.
He'd written and produced many influential films, and was revered for transcending the uninspired slapstick that plagued German comedy.
A hypochondriac, Valentin wasn’t always easy to work with, but he gave Truus third billing after Liesl Karlstadt, his longterm working partner - a real indication of the respect he felt she warranted.
Through the years, Truus’ greatest idol had been Charlie Chaplin. Simple comedy was easy - banana peels, fat ladies, funny dogs - all the clichés of slapstick were still being trotted out in film after film, but what Chaplin was doing was different: his characters somehow caused an audience to care about them. Yes, his stories could be sentimental and old-fashioned, but his films wove a powerful spell over audiences, who left the cinemas exhausted from an emotional experience. Truus determined to seek out more dramatic roles - playing dizzy teenagers wasn’t enough - she wanted to speak to an audience’s emotions as Chaplin did.
In the autumn of 1929, the New York stock market crashed, erasing millions of dollars of shares and credit overnight and destroying businesses around the world. Germany didn’t escape this Depression, and now the Nazi party’s charismatic leader, Adolf Hitler, started to rise in popularity as he targeted the unemployed, the middle classes and big business with speeches promising a better future. Claiming that Germany’s post-War problems stemmed from foreign spite and sabotage by Jewish self-interest, he started to build up support based more on aspirations and fears than genuine political planning. The Nazis’ private militia of thugs and bruisers, the SA, now began to establish a reputation for intimidation, violence and even murder - particularly against Jewish people, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals.
Suddenly movie people found themselves facing a smaller - but still vital - problem. News was arriving from America that a technical innovation was on its way - one that could destroy a performer's career overnight. Films had never been silent: even the smallest country fleapit had a piano, while big cinemas employed complete orchestras... but from now on, movies would talk.