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02 March 2012

La Jana

Sexy German dancer and film actress La Jana (1905 - 1940) was the most popular show girl of Berlin in the 1930’s. She appeared in 25 European films, often dancing in exotic costumes. In 1940, she suddenly died of pneumonia and pleurisy.

La Jana
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 1745/2, 1937-1938. Photo: Wog, Berlin. Collection: Didier Hanson.

La Jana
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 1590/1, 1937-1938. Photo: Sasha, London. Collection: Didier Hanson.

La Jana
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 1589/1, 1938-1939. Photo: Eichberg-Film. Collection: Didier Hanson.

La Jana
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 1910/2, 1937-1938. Photo: Atelier Schneider, Berlin / Tobis.

La Jana
German postcard by Das Programm von Heute / Ross Verlag. Photo: Tobis.

The Three Versions of the Discovery of La Jana
La Jana was born as Henriette Margarethe Hiebel in Mauer near Wien (Vienna), Austria-Hungary, in 1905. ‘Henny’ was the second and youngest daughter of Heinrich and Anna Hiebel. Her older sister, Anny, was later trained as an opera singer. Her father was a gild master and the family moved to Frankfurt, when Henny was only two years. At the age of eight she already appeared in the children's ballet of the Frankfurt Opera. Henny completed a dance training at the Opera Ballet in Frankfurt and became a dancer in cabarets and revues. In Trude Hesterberg’s cabaret Die wilde Bühne (The Wild Stage) in 1921, she performed her own improvisations. In Paris, she met Géza von Cziffra, who, according to his autobiography, brought her to Berlin, director Friedrich Zelnik and the cinema. He writes: "... And there I saw her dance for the first time: this woman had the most beautiful body I had seen in my life. The girl, that moved here up and down in the stage lights (...) was boyishly built: slim hips, almost only a hint of breasts. She was a simple, friendly, approachable girl but she had as much interest for sex as Immanuel Kant." There are at least three different versions of the discovery of La Jana. According to contemporary sources, La Jana was discovered in cabaret Weinklause in Frankfurt by a nightclub owner from Paris, and later returned as a dancer to Berlin. Another report says that La Jana was hired overnight as a substitute for Claire Bauroff, the ill star of a Revue in Dresden and that she later also received offers from Berlin. However, in 1925 she made her first film appearance in Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit - Ein Film über moderne Körperkultur/Ways to Strength and Beauty (1925, Nicholas Kaufmann, Wilhelm Prager). This film about the ‘modern body culture' was very much an artefact of the Naturist fad that swept Germany at the time. Friedrich Zelnik engaged her for his production company the Deutsche Film Union (Defu), and employed her in silent films like Der Biberpelz/The Beaver Fur (1928, Erich Schönfelder). She also appeared in international silent films such as the Danish-German production Die weisse Geisha/The White Geisha (1926, Valdemar Andersen, Karl Heiland), the Swedish production En perfekt gentleman/A Perfect Gentleman (1927, Vilhelm Bryde, Gösta Ekman) in which she costarred with Gösta Ekman and Hans Albers, and the French-German-Belgian production Thérèse Raquin/Shadows of Fear (1928, Jacques Feyder) based on the novel by Émile Zola. La Jana became engaged in 1926 to actor Ulrich Bettac. In that year, she still used her civil name, Henny Hiebel and she moved to Berlin with her fiancé. A few years later, this relationship was resolved.

La Jana
Austrian postcard by Iris-Verlag, no. 5443, 1938-1939. Photo: DEFU / Defina / Verleih Philipp & Co. Collection: Didier Hanson.

La Jana
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 4657/1, 1929-1930. Photo: Atelier Badekow, Berlin. Collection: Didier Hanson.

La Jana
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3224/1, 1928-1929. Photo: Arthur Benda, Wien. Collection: Didier Hanson.

La Jana
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 5035/1, 1930-1931. Photo: Atelier Manassé, Wien. Collection: Didier Hanson.

La Jana
German postcard by Ross / Das Programm von Heute. Photo: Tobis / Quick. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Served Half Naked, On A Silver Platter
La Jana danced in revues in Berlin, Stockholm (1933) and London (1934-1935) and she participated in the shows An und Aus (To and From) by Herman Haller, Casanova by Erik Charell and Die schöne Helena (The beautiful Helen) by Max Reinhardt. In the revue Casanova, La Jana was served half naked, on a silver platter to the audience. The reaction of the public was accordingly: La Jana was the talk of Berlin. In his autobiography Géza von Cziffra claims that La Jana had an affair with Kronprinz Wilhelm (Crown Prince William) but he dismisses rumors about an affair between La Jana and Joseph Goebbels. The show Streamline by Charles B. Cochran led La Jana 1934 on a tour throughout England and Scotland. Upon her return to Germany in 1936, she made almost every year one or more films. The sound film had underlined her dancing in an optimal way with the audible music and she had had success with her appearance in Der Schlemihl/The Unlucky Devil (1931, Max Nosseck) as a dancer opposite Curt Bois. The circus drama Truxa (1937, Hans H. Zerlett) made La Jana in one stroke acquainted all over Germany. At IMDb Jan Onderwater writes about her performance: “La Jana, here in her first major part, cannot dance but she is not that bad an actress as she is reputed to have been; with her half naked body she is exotic and lovely to look at.”

La Jana
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 4657/2, 1929-1930. Photo: Atelier Badekow, Berlin. Collection: Didier Hanson.

La Jana
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 5485/1, 1930-1931. Photo: Atelier Manassé, Wien. Collection: Didier Hanson.

La Jana
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3269/1, 1928-1929. Photo: Atelier Arthur Benda, Wien. Collection: Didier Hanson.

La Jana
Latvian postcard by JDA, Riga, no. 2503. Photo: Tobis. Collection: Didier Hanson.

La Jana
German postcard by Das Programma von Heute / Ross Verlag. Photo: Tobis. Collection: Didier Hanson.

The Exotic Magic and Mystery of La Jana
La Jana traveled to India for the films Der Tiger von Eschnapur/The Tiger of Eschnapur (1938, Richard Eichberg) and Das indische Grabmal/The Indian Tomb (1938, Richard Eichberg), co-starring with Frits van Dongen (aka Philip Dorn) and Theo Lingen. Millions of people admired the exotic magic of the film and La Jana. Filmportal.de analyzes: “although typifying the embodiment of the ‘non-ayran’ woman, which clearly contradicted the ideal vision of womanliness of the Third Reich, she became for this same very reason the ideal projection of all the various desires of the public.” Her next films films were the musical Es leuchten die Sterne/The Stars Shine (1938, Hans H. Zerlett) and the crime film Menschen vom Variete/People from the Music Hall (1939, Josef von Báky) with Hans Holt. After she earlier had refused to go, Goebbels forced her on a tour for the Wehrmacht in 1939/1940. Her fame made her a sure crowd-puller. It was a cold winter and she wore little clothes on the stage. She became ill with pneumonia on both lungs in February 1940. On 13 March 1940, La Jana died of pneumonia and pleurisy in a hospital in Berlin. She was only 35, and became a mysterious legend. She was dearly missed at the glamorous world premiere of her last film, Stern von Rio/Star of Rio (1940, Karl Anton), at the Berlin Ufa Palast am Zoo. In 1954, fourteen years after her death, a person appeared who claimed to be La Jana's son. After Anny Bittlinski, La Jana's sister, denied his story he was charged with forgery and fraud. There was also a rumor that La Jana helped Jews escape from Germany. The SS would have killed her for this and the pneumonia story would have been invented to conceal the murder. Another rumor is about her name. ‘La Jana’ is supposed to originate from the Indian language, and to mean ‘The Flower-like’. In fact La Jana is a purely invented name and has only superficial similarities with words from Sanskrit. How Henny Hiebel came to her artist name is not recorded. Henny Hiebel and a partner performed for a time under the name The Charming Sisters. There are some Swedish autograph cards of her with the name Lary Jana. The mystery of La Jana remains.

La Jana
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 2404/3, 1941-1944. Photo: Quick / Tobis.

La Jana
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 2504/2, 1939-1940. Photo: Quick / Tobis. Collection: Didier Hanson.

La Jana
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 2396/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Sandau, Berlin. Collection: Didier Hanson.

La Jana
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 1699/1, 1937-1938. Photo: K.J. Fritzsche Prod. / Tobis-Magna. Collection: Didier Hanson.

La Jana
German postcard by Das Programm von Heute / Ross Verlag. Photo: Tobis / Kilian.

Sources: Thomas Staedeli (Cyranos), Jan Onderwater (IMDb), Operator 99 (Allure), Filmportal.de, Wikipedia (German), The Androom Archives, and IMDb.

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