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06 January 2012

Friedrich Zelnik

Austrian actor Friedrich Zelnik or Frederic Zelnik (1885 - 1950) was also one of the most important producers-directors of the German silent cinema. Already in the early 1910’s he became a film star in Germany, but during the 1920’s he had his greatest successes there as director-producer of operetta style costume films starring his wife, Lya Mara. A critical success was his drama Die Weber/The Weaver (1927). After 1933, he worked in Great-Britain and also directed two films in the Netherlands.

Friedrich Zelnik
German postcard by Rotophot in the Film Sterne series, no. 82/5. Photo: Karl Schenker, Berlin.

Friedrich Zelnik
German postcard by Rotophot in the Film Sterne series, no. 82/5. Photo: Karl Schenker, Berlin.

Messter
Friedrich Zelnik was born in a Jewish family in Czernowitz, then the capital of the Duchy of Bukovina in the Austrian part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy (today Chernivtsi, Ukraine) in 1885. Czernowitz was largely populated by Jews. After Wilno it was the most important city for the Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. Zelnik studied law in Vienna, but then worked as an actor in theaters in Nürnberg, Aachen, Worms, Prague and finally Berlin - in the theaters Theater an der Königsgrätzer Straße, Berliner Theater and Komödienhaus. In 1910 he began to act in short silent films for Messters Projektion GmbH, such as Verkannt/Misunderstood (1910), Japanisches Opfer/Japanese victims (1910, Adolf Gärtner) with Max Mack, and Im Glück vergessen/Forget the luck (1911, Adolf Gärtner) with silent superstar Henny Porten. For another company he played the lead in Europäisches Sklavenleben/European slave life (1912, Emil Justitz). These films made him one of the first German film stars. Then there was an interval in his film career of three years during which Zelnik set up his own production company, Berliner Film-Manukfaktur, together with Walter Behrend and Max Liebenau. In 1915, he started to produce and direct films while he still also played parts in other directors’ films. Among these films were the Sherlock Holmes mystery Das dunkle Schloß/The Hound of the Baskervilles: The Dark Castle (1915, Willy Zeyn) starring Eugen Burg as Holmes, Arme Maria/Poor Mary (1915, Willy Zeyn, Max Mack) featuring Hanni Weisse, and Die Fiebersonate/The Fever Sonata (1916, Emmerich Hanus) with Lotte Neumann. This latter film he also produced. Other early productions were Ein Zirkusmädel/A Circus Girl (1917, Carl Wilhelm) with Lisa Weise, and the Charles Dickens adaptation Klein Doortje/Little Dorrit (1917, Friedrich Zelnik).

Friedrich Zelnik
German postcard by Rotophot in the Film Sterne series, no. 126/3. Photo: Nicola Perscheid, Berlin.

Friedrich Zelnik
German postcard by Rotophot in the Film Sterne Series, Berlin, no. 82/3. Photo: Karl Schenker, Berlin. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Friedrich Zelnik
German postcard by Photochemie, Berlin, no. K. 235. Photo: Alex Binder, Berlin. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Among the Greatest Box Office Hits
In 1918 Friedrich Zelnik married a young Polish ballet dancer turned film actress named Lya Mara. He started to produce and direct films for her and made Mara a huge star of the German cinema. Between 1917 and 1922 the Berliner Film-Manukfaktur produced more than 120 films. From 1920 on Zelnik's companies ran under several names: Zelnik-Mara-Film GmbH, Friedrich Zelnik-film GmbH, and Efzet-Film GmbH. Zelnik-Mara-Film GmbH produced silent entertainment films in which Mara was the female star. Together they made very popular, operetta style costume films like An der schönen blauen Donau/The Beautiful Blue Danube (1926, Friedrich Zelnik) with Harry Liedtke, Die Försterchristl/The Bohemian Dancer (1926, Friedrich Zelnik) again with Liedtke, Das Tanzende Wien/Dancing Vienna (1927, Friedrich Zelnik), and Heut' tanzt Mariett/Marietta (1928, Friedrich Zelnik) with Fred Louis Lerch. These films brought Lya Mara and Zelnik enormous success in Germany and beyond. Filmportal.de: ”Zelnik's sentimental costume dramas (…) always ranked among the greatest box office hits of their respective season. Nevertheless, his filmic version of Gerhart Hauptmann's Die Weber/The Weaver (1927, Friedrich Zelnik) became popular even with ‘progressive’ critics. To this day, this rather untypical film for Zelnik still mainly accounts for his reputation as a filmmaker.” Several of his collaborators, including cameraman Frederik Fuglsang and production designer André Andrejew, are perceived today as notable artists of the German silent cinema. Another important collaborator was scriptwriter Fanny Carlsen. Busy with directing and producing these films, Zelnik did not find the time to appear himself in films anymore. His last film appearance was in Das Geheimnis der alten Mamsell/The Story of the Old Mademoiselle (1925, Paul Merzbach) starring Marcella Albani. In 1925, Zelnik was head of production at Deutsche Fox for six films, and in 1926 he became a board member and the art director of Defu (Deutsche Film Union AG) and Defina (Deutsche First National Pictures GmbH).

Friedrich Zelnik
German postcard by Photochemie, Berlin, no. K. 249. Photo: Alex Binder, Berlin.

Friedrich Zelnik
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 341/2, 1919-1924. Photo: Becker & Maass Phot.

Hollywood
Upon the introduction of sound film, Friedrich Zelnik became the first director in Europe to post synchronize a film, the Edgar Wallace adaptation Der rote Kreis/The Crimson Circle (1929, Friedrich Zelnik) starring Lya Mara and Stewart Rome. In London, he used the DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film process, and added music by Edmund Meisel. In 1930, the Friedrich Zelnik-Film GmbH went into liquidation and Zelnik travelled to Hollywood, California. Upon his return he directed his first full sound film, a new version of his silent success Die Försterchristl/The Bohemian Girl (1931, Friedrich Zelnik) featuring Irene Eisinger. He had no problems adapting his operetta style to the sound film, and soon more musicals like Walzerparadies/Waltz Paradise (1931, Friedrich Zelnik) with Charlotte Susa, Jeder fragt nach Erika/Everyone asks for Erika (1931, Friedrich Zelnik) with Lya Mara in her only sound film role, and Spione im Savoy-Hotel/The Gala Performance (1932, Friedrich Zelnik) with Alfred Abel. After Adolph Hitler took power in 1933, Zelnik and Lya Mara left Germany for London. His first British film was the musical comedy Happy (1933, Friedrich Zelnik) with Stanley Lupino. It was an English remake of Es war einmal ein Musikus/There was once a musician (1933, Friedrich Zelnik), the last film he had made in Germany. In the years to follow Zelnik, now Frederic (or Fred) Zelnik, continued to direct and produce films in Great Britain and The Netherlands. Among his British films are the musicals Southern Roses (1934, Frederic Zelnik), The Lilac Domino (1937, Frederic Zelnik) with S.Z. Szakall in a supporting part, and I Killed the Count (1939, Frederic Zelnik) starring Ben Lyon. In the Netherlands he directed Vadertje Langbeen/Daddy Long Legs (1938, Friedrich Zelnik) based on the popular and often filmed novel by Jean Webster, and Morgen gaat ’t beter!/Tomorrow It Will Be Better (1939, Friedrich Zelnik). Both films were produced by German émigré producer and distributor Rudolf Meyer, and starred Dutch actress Lily Bouwmeester. Zelnik took the British citizenship. After 1940 he only worked as a producer, in cooperation with British National. His later work included the musical Give Me the Stars (1945, Maclean Rogers) and the British-Italian drama The Glass Mountain (1949, Henry Cass) with Michael Denison and Valentina Cortese. Together with Raymond Stross, he founded Zelstro Films to produce the film Hell Is Sold Out (1951, Michael Anderson) but did not live to see its completion. Friedrich Zelnik died in 1950 in London. He was 65. About what happened to his wife, Lya Mara there is only a rumor that she died in 1960 in Switzerland.

Friedrich Zelnik
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 1089/1, 1927-1928. Photo: Atelier Bieber, Berlin.

Lya Mara
Lya Mara. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 4180/1, 1929-1930. Photo: Alex Binder, Berlin.

Sources: Filmportal.de, Film in Nederland (Dutch), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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