Truus van Aalten

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Her Life (2)




During 1927, the American feature The Jazz Singer had offered general audiences something really new. At one point in the story, star Al Jolson had ad-libbed some lines before singing a song. "Wait a minute!" he'd laughed, "Wait a minute - you ain't heard nothin' yet!" That was the point - from now on, moving pictures could talk. Two years later, German technicians and patent-owners were still wrestling with the mechanics of shooting and projecting sound films (though nobody was really sure that it wasn't just a distracting gimmick) and studios were worrying about the expense of upgrading every cinema in the country. Everybody remembered that Ufa had produced a sound film back in 1925 - the premier of Das Mädchen mit dem Schwefelhölzern ("The Match Girl") had been a technical disaster and the process had been abandoned.

Still, various systems were being tried, usually using records playing in sync (or not) with a running film. Two German companies held patents for sound-on-film machinery, and when they merged, performers suddenly realized that if their voices didn't "record well", their careers could be over. Even before Ufa released their first all-talkie film Melodie des Herzens ("Melody Of The Heart") at Christmas 1929, actors and actresses were gloomily awaiting the call to have their voices tested.


American actress Colleen Moore, in her autobiography Silent Star, recalled the day she reported to the Warners lot have her voice recorded: "In the center of a half-darkened stage was a small, totally bare room with glass walls. At the far end was a smaller room filled with machinery. In front of a large steel panel covered with knobs and switches sat a young man. He was about my age, twenty-five. He wasn't a movie person. He wasn't connected with any of the arts. Nor did he know anything about acting. He was a young engineer sent out by General Electric to man this complicated new thing called a sound machine. On this young man's judgment my whole career depended. A voice boomed from nowhere, 'Come closer to the microphone'. Bewildered, I said, 'What's a microphone?'"


Colleen needn't have worried - her voice recorded well - but many other stars (even if they didn't suffer from paralyzing "mic fright") found their contracts terminated and their livelihoods destroyed, a pattern repeated around the world. Truus entered talking pictures by courtesy of Max Mack, a director with immense experience and unbounded energy. He was about to shoot a new film starring Daisy d'Ora, Nur am Rhein... ("Only On The Rhein..."), and he wanted Truus to play Daisy's pal Lore. Never one to waste time, Mack signed Truus without requiring a microphone test - news of which spread around the film community like wildfire. The public didn't hold her Dutch accent against her, and Truus found that she was becoming really well known now - film magazines like Filmwoche and Filmwelt featured articles about "das Mädchen aus Holland" (that girl from Holland), the huge publisher Ross Verlag (and others) were issuing postcards of her in various Movie Star poses, and tobacco companies used her face on collectors' album cards. In demand, Truus worked constantly and saved her money.

Sound films took off like a rocket - audiences loved them. Unreleased movies were re-edited or re-shot to contain sound sequences. Ufa built their first sound-stage, a vast, cross-shaped building known as the Tonkreuz, and Metropolis producer Erich Pommer set up a complete new scriptwriting department. But shooting with sound was a technical nightmare - previously mobile cameras had to be encased in heavy soundproof boxes to muffle the clatter of film passing through them; microphones (still in their infancy) picked up sound in unpredictable ways; directors lost their tempers as headphoned boffins disputed their shots. The costs were an even greater problem - hand-cranked cameras could no longer be used, while sound equipment was not only expensive to buy, fees had to be paid to the companies that owned the patents - not to mention the increased costs of processing and projection.


The Ufa could cope, but many smaller companies collapsed - while all over Europe cinema musicians were unceremoniously dumped by their employers.

Truus' ambition to play meatier parts was frustrated by movie producers who refused to see her in dramatic roles, but a sudden offer from theatre director Max Reinhardt really boosted her confidence. Would she appear in a new show called Das Mädchen mit dem Nummernbrett ("The Girl With The Number Board")? For years the kings of Berlin's theatre world had been producer/directors Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator, both revered by stage and screen professionals all over the world. Reinhardt, an impresario and designer, was a master of innovative stage presentation. The devoutly Communist Piscator was famous for demanding the very best a performer could give, often in highly political productions. Neither of them dealt much in light comedy, (and Piscator was now in exile in Russia, driven out by the Nazis), but Reinhardt wanted Truus, and he got her. She accepted the part and appeared in 50 performances.

She may also have worked in a 1930 musical revue called Wie werde ich reich und glücklich? ("How Can I Become Rich And Happy?") in a cast which included the sensational new vocal group The Comedian Harmonists, supporting popular singer and entertainer Dolly Haas. The show opened on the 6th of September in Leipzig, and later moved to the Komödie theatre on Berlin's glamourous Kurfürstendamm.

The 1930 elections had brought the Nazis many more seats than before. Most people didn't give the party much thought, and nobody could have predicted the predatory ambition that drove Adolf Hitler. As time went on, Germany's 600,000 Jewish people particularly learned to fear him and his rabble-rousing. They'd fought with their countrymen in the Great War and now lived and worked in every level of society. The vast majority of them considered themselves totally German, and felt no separation between that and their religion. They'd always suffered a certain amount of anti-Semitism (and knew to expect it in an extreme form from the aristocracy), but by the beginning of the decade they were thoroughly integrated in their communities. Now, suddenly, things were changing. Das Mädchen mit dem Nummernbrett director Max Reinhardt was also feeling the icy chill of Hitler's rise: part-Jewish, he would soon have his theatres taken from him and his property confiscated. He would leave Germany for his native Austria, then tour Europe one last time before settling in America.


Truus was a particular favourite with the Dutch, who called her onze Truusje ("our Truusie"). She wasn't just popular in Europe, either - she was building a following across the Atlantic too. German-language cinemas like the Belmont, the Universum, the Tobis-Vanderbilt and the Hindenburg in New York (and others in many other cities) showed all the big German movies, though sometimes a couple of years after their European releases. Truus was getting good reviews in the American press: when the movie-industry paper Variety reviewed Nur am Rhein, they found it "...mildly entertaining, although never impressive... Truus van Aalten almost steals the film." Truus even ended up in American movie magazines advertising Lux soap.


Truus worked hard, and one of the perks of her job was being invited to exciting film premieres at the Ufa-Palast and other glamourous cinemas. She'd meet famous performers and directors, and attend sumptuous parties afterwards. She always kept the ribbons and bows from the garlands of flowers presented to her, and hung them up in her flat. "Flowers are very beautiful," she said once, "but flowers die, and ribbons remain!"

During 1930, Truus was offered a dream part - the lead role in a comedy called Susanne macht Ordnung ("Susanne Tidies Up"). The cast included great talents like Franz Lederer (who'd starred in Pandora's Box with Louise Brooks) and the very popular actor Szöke Szakall. Truus played Susanne, a schoolgirl in search of her missing father, whose habit of mis-identifying various men and greeting them with "Hello Daddy!" caused huge problems. Susanne... did very well in Europe and in the American cinemas that showed German movies.

Truus' co-star Szöke Szakall had been very impressed by her - he was a writer too, and after Susanne... wrapped he wrote an outline for a new comedy film, Wenn ich Prinzessin war ("When I was A Princess"). At the top of the first page was a stipulation: "In casting the lead actress only the finest comic talent such as Colleen Moore - or in Europe Truus van Aalten - should be considered".


While a June 1930 issue of Film-Magazin gave Truus' address as 27 Lutherstrasse in west Berlin's posh Schöneberg area, a year later she was living in her own fourth-floor apartment at 35 Königin-Augusta-Strasse, in the heart of the capital's most fashionable residential district. Looking over the nearby trees she could see a canal - a nice reminder of the Netherlands. Her friends called her flat the Kinderzimmer ("The Nursery") - a cosy, white-painted place with posters on the walls, shared with Pucki (her favourite dog, a Skye terrier who occasionally appeared in her press photos), Didi (a Maltese dog) and a Cyprian cat (whose name has not survived). Visitors were greeted with loud barking, hearty mewing and the occasional bloodcurdling squawk from Jocko, a self-important yellow-and-white cockatoo donated by a family in Indonesia. Her old doll Juliana was now rather battered, but was loved none the less and was displayed prominently in her own bed. Other dolls (Baby - in a cot , Julio and Pierrot), teddies and Bonzo Dogs occupied various shelves and occasionally invaded the sofa. Also among Truus' prized possessions were a gramophone and a glass cabinet filled with souvenirs from the Netherlands - porcelain, little wooden shoes and ornaments. She was fascinated by tiny things, and friends grew used to reaching for the magnifying glass as they were shown a pair of opera glasses the size of button, or a miniscule Japanese good luck charm.


Truus was superstitious, and liked to use various talismans and rituals to get through the day - when there was no wood to touch, in an emergency touching her head would do. She was also devoted to St Thérèse of Lisieux, and her flat was sprinkled with images and statues of her. Thérèse, a French saint, was born into an intensely religious family, and was cured of a childhood illness when she saw a statue of the Virgin Mary smile at her. A small girl, she grew up spoiled, lazy, occasionally hysterical and obstinately strong-willed, but her later experiences as a nun led her to a belief that God did not demand great deeds and sacrifices of ordinary people - as long as you truly did your best, it didn't matter who you were. Thérèse died aged just twenty-four, but was canonised by the Catholic church, becoming the patron saint of (among other things), aviators and florists.


One of Truus' jobs on days when she wasn't shooting was to sit at her little white desk and answer the piles of letters she received. People wrote from all over Europe, and many of them drove her crazy by leaving a "u" out of Truus or an "a" from van Aalten. Often people sent her postcards of herself to autograph and return, which she was happy to do, "But only if they send stamps!" she told a Filmwoche reporter. "People who only send a postcard won't get an autograph - I can't do it! I have to work hard to earn my money too!" While her spoken German had improved immeasurably (and her accent was almost perfect), she despaired about receiving letters she couldn't read - the Germans still often used their own traditional and very ornate script. "German handwriting is even harder to understand than the German language," she lamented. "I can't understand it - and nobody can teach me, either!" Still, Truus enjoyed hearing from people all over the world, and knew that it was a vital part of building up her fanbase.


One of Truus' favourite ways to relax was a nice long swim. When Die Filmwoche printed a list of filmland's top schwimmerinnen, Truus came second after Lilian Harvey - ahead of Brigitte Helm, Lil Dagover and Gitta Alpar! In fact, during the hot summer of 1930, Truus practically lived in her swimsuit, welcoming guests to her flat wearing nothing else, and offering them the loan of one if they felt too hot as well.


A small part for Truus during 1931 came in Liebling der Götter ("Favourite Of The Gods"). The star was Emil Jannings, who'd just completed Der Blaue Engel ("The Blue Angel") with Marlene Dietrich. World-famous (he'd won the first-ever Oscar for Best Actor), the imposing Jannings played an opera star endlessly pursued by women (including Truus as a very affectionate ballet dancer in a fetching little white tutu).

Foreign loans finally enabled German industry to climb out of the Depression, and the movie business quickly found its feet again as more and more films were made. There were many production companies in Germany, and film actors tended not to have long-term contracts with any of them in particular. Truus was reliable and well-liked by her industry peers, and during 1931 she also worked on Teilnehmer antwortet nicht ("That Number Doesn't Answer") for Elite/Tobis Filmkunst, and the operetta Der Bettelstudent ("The Beggar Student") for Berlin's Aafa-Film, for whom she worked several times.

Truus had another obstacle to contend with - something personal that she couldn't overcome no matter how hard she tried: she'd outgrown her image. She was a mature woman now, an experienced actress, but she was typecast as a light comedy player, and nobody wanted to take a chance on her handling anything more meaningful. She'd never become a big enough star to set up her own films or start a production company, and being trapped by her own mischievous Backfisch self was horribly frustrating.



Street battles between the SA (the Nazis' private army) and members of the Communist Party became commonplace on Berlin's streets, and a week before the March 1933 elections, the city awoke to the sound of fire bells - the Reichstag had been set ablaze. The Nazis (who had started the fire themselves) blamed the Communists and made thousands of arrests. The result - when the elections were held, Hitler and his men gained many more votes.

Much more worryingly, the government passed a new law which effectively removed all human rights from German citizens. The police (now under Nazi control) had the power to arrest anybody without a warrant, to hold a prisoner without trial for unlimited time, to read private letters, to censor radio programmes, to close down newspapers and to confiscate private property. Working on a movie can insulate people from the outside world - but even the long hours and introspective dedication required to create a film couldn't hide what was now going on outside the studio walls. While the economic situation in Germany was improving with remarkable speed (unemployment had dropped and standards of living were rising), something dreadful was happening in the German government.

Another result of talking pictures had made itself apparent - since the actors' words could now be heard, German-language movies could no longer be exported around the world. Profits from foreign sales had always subsidized domestic production, so budgets had to be cut. Since sound films were so much more expensive anyway, many film technicians and performers faced the unemployment lines - and six million German people were now out of work. Truus (and many of her co-workers) had to deal with another hurdle - non-Aryan performers were being offered fewer and fewer parts. Worse, foreigners were now subject to a quota system restricting how much they could work. The movies were being (in Propaganda Minister Goebbels' words) "racially purified".




Now Truus found herself in an industry where the most creative people were fearful for their livelihoods - not to mention their lives. Writers, producers, directors, art directors, composers and actors didn't have to be Jewish or homosexual to fear the 3AM knock on the door - just being artistic and outspoken was enough to attract suspicion and surveillance by the police. Some people found themselves skating on very thin ice indeed - if you were a "half-Jew" you might be issued a special work permit, while your colleagues flitted towards France, Holland, England and the US.

That summer the Nazis were declared by law to be the only political party in Germany. Without having met any real resistance, Hitler was now Chancellor, head of a totalitarian state. He was held in check - supposedly - by the President, von Hindenburg, who didn't approve of him, but was too old and powerless to do much about him. Nazi flags flew (by law) from every house. The SA and SS wormed their way into the police force, backed up by bought-and-paid-for judges.

1933 also brought a story on the movie grapevine: propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels had banned Fritz Lang's unreleased Das Testament des Dr Mabuse (which surprised nobody who'd seen it, since it was obviously anti-Nazi), but he had then invited Lang to his office to congratulate him on Metropolis and offer him the job of overseer of all future government-controlled filmmaking, even though he was Jewish. Lang had fled to Paris that very night.

Directors like Robert Siodmak, Douglas Sirk and Billy Wilder, actors such as Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt, Ufa's top producer Erich Pommer - they all fled the country. Even Germany's highest-paid actor, Jewish comedian Felix Bressart (Hirsekorn himself), had to run for his life. Karl Valentin, the great physical comedian, found his career destroyed simply because the authorities didn't approve of his jokes, and he was to die, poor and forgotten, just a few years later.


During March 1933, for exactly what reasons we may never know, optimistic, capable Truus hit a point in her life so low that she could no longer cope. On the night of the 14th, aged just 22, she closed the door of her Berlin home and took what she hoped would be a fatal dose of Veronal sleeping pills. Who found her unconscious body is unclear, but a doctor arrived and quickly pumped Truus' stomach. Rushed to hospital, she was still unconscious three days later. The Press was simply told that Truus was ill - and most papers kept to that story, though everyone in the media knew the truth. The Dutch film magazine Het Weekblad Cinema & Theater, always supportive of their little film star, organized a nationwide collection of cards and good wishes, which they collected in a scrapbook and sent to Truus as she recovered. She kept the book for the rest of her life.

Politics rolled on - that same month, Adolf Hitler announced in the Völkischer Beobachter (the Nazis' daily newspaper) that he intended to pursue: "a systematic campaign to restore the Nation's moral and material health. The whole educational system, theatre, film, literature, the press and broadcasting - all of these will be used as a means to this end. They will be harnessed to help preserve the eternal values that are part of the integral nature of our people". What this meant for creative artists couldn't be imagined. The new Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda (its mission: to control the "spiritual direction of the Nation") now showed its true colours - a new class of people, "degenerate artists" were to be removed from any position from which they could influence popular culture.

Foreign artists and technicians had always been welcome in the German film industry - huge star Asta Nielsen hailed from Denmark, Pola Negri was Polish, Lya de Putti was Hungarian, the gorgeous, sulky Louise Brooks was American - but now a stream of frightened workers set about leaving Germany. What Truus' Dutch nationality might mean for her career was unclear - at least, while there were Jewish van Aaltens in Arnhem, her family weren't among them.

Dutch film star Lien Deyers had given up her Dutch nationality when she married director Alfred Zeisler, and wasn't subject to the foreign-worker quota restrictions. Truus rejected any suggestion that she become German. She was Dutch and proud of it. There was no point making a fuss about it - so she climbed onto a train during November of 1933... and disappeared.



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