28 March 2013

Helen Vita

Helen Vita (1928 - 2001) was a Swiss cabaret singer, actress and comedian, who appeared in 58 films. During the 1950’s, she was the sexy counterpart to Caterina Valente and Sonja Ziemann in silly schlager and heimat films. Later she played Fraulein Kost alongside Liza Minnelli in the classic musical Cabaret and appeared in films directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Helen Vita
German postcard by Ufa, Berlin-Tempelhof, no. FK 3763. Retail price: 25 Pfg. Photo: Arthur Grimm / Arca / NF.

Helen Vita
German collector's card. Photo: Divina / Gloria-Film / Bayer.

Bertolt Brecht
Helen Vita was born Helene Vita Elisabeth Reichel in Hohenschwangau, Germany in 1928. She was the daughter of concert master Anton Reichel and solo cellist Jelena Pacic. After the expulsion from Germany in 1939, the family moved to Geneva in Switzerland. Helen studied at the Conservatoire de Genève, where she got lessons from Françoise Rosay. In 1945 she made her stage debut in Geneva. A year later she performed at the Theatre du Vieux Colombier in Paris. In France she also appeared in the film Torrents (1947, Serge de Poligny) with Georges Marchal. For two years she was then engaged at the Schauspielhaus in Zurich, where she took part in the premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s epic comedy Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (Mr Puntila and his Man Matti) in 1948. Bertolt Brecht was also the discoverer of her comic talent and encouraged her to do cabaret. She did not join him at the Berliner Ensemble though, because she did not share Brecht’s enthusiasm for a socialist Germany. Instead, she joined in 1949, the Zürich Cabaret Fédéral. She played in the Swiss film Der Geist von Allenwil/The spirit of Allenwil (1950, Max Haufler). In 1952 she went to Munich and played at the cabaret-theatre Die Kleine Freiheit (The Little Freedom), for which Erich Kästner wrote the texts. Here she met Friedrich Hollaender, whose songs she took into her repertoire. Later, she appeared at the Berlin cabaret-theatre Die Wühlmäuse. In the early 1950’s, Helen Vita had been discovered for the German cinema, and appeared in films like Palace Hotel (1952, Emil Berna, Leonard Steckel) with Paul Hubschmid, and the comedy Die kleine Stadt will schlafen gehen/The Little Town Will Go to Sleep (1954, Hans H. König) starring Gustav Fröhlich. A breakthrough was her role opposite Joachim Fuchsberger in the 08/15-trilogy (1954-1955, Paul May) based on the war novels by Hans Hellmut Kirst. In the following decades, she starred in more than 100 films and television productions. These were mostly Heimat films as Zwei blaue Augen/Two Blue Eyes (1955, Gustav Ucicky) with Marianne Koch, schlager musicals like Bonjour Kathrin (1956, Karl Anton) and sex farces in which she often played the buxom counterpart to Caterina Valente and Sonja Ziemann. The sex bomb cliché stuck to her for years. Different was her role of Cornelia Gatzka fit in the television classic Am grünen Strand der Spree/At the green beach of the Spree (1960, Fritz Umgelter), with Gerhard Just and Günter Pfitzmann. Another success was the romantic comedy Ferien auf Immenhof/Holiday at Immenhof (1957, Hermann Leitner) from the film series about the pony hotel Immenhof. In 1956 she married Swiss composer Walter Baumgartner and had two sons with him.

Helen Vita
German postcard by Kunst und Bild, Berlin, no. T 646. Photo: K.-L. Haenchen / Real Film / Rank Film.

Helen Vita
German postcard by Franz Josef Rüdel Filmpostkartenverlag, Hamburg. Photo: Georg Bockemühl.

Sassy Songs
In 1965 Helen Vita moved into their second home in Berlin. In 1966, she recorded Freche Chansons aus dem alten Frankreich (Sassy songs from the old French), traditional French chansons translated into German by Walter Brandin. The frivolous, explicit but relatively harmless content of the folk and children's songs was under scrutiny by the conservative courts in Germany before the Protests of 1968. What followed were years of legal battles: the songs were banned by the state, there were penalty orders issued, verdicts were announced and cancelled, processes reopened. The banned records were sold under the counter, and became very successful. Critics praised the songs and Vita received the German Record Prize twice. She also recorded Dolce Helen Vita Vol. I and Vol. II, which contained ‘bawdy songs’ from English troubadours. In the cinema she appeared in Ganovenehre/A Scoundrel's Honour (1966, Wolfgang Staudte) with Gert Fröbe, and the remake Die Feuerzangenbowle/The Fire Tongue Bowl (1970, Helmut Käutner) with Walter Giller. Better known internationally is her role as Fräulein Kost in the musical Cabaret (1972, Bob Fosse) alongside Liza Minnelli and Michael York. Vita was most proud of her roles in some films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. She appeared in his films Satansbraten/Problem Child (1976) with Kurt Raab, and Lili Marleen (1981) featuring Hanna Schygulla. She also played in his monumental TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980, Rainer Werner Fassbinder). During her film career, Vita always kept her passion for the ‘serious’ theatre. She performed in classics by Shakespeare, Molière and Goethe, but convinced as well as in modern plays by Thornton Wilder, TS Eliot or Hans Henny Jahnn. Alongside Hans Albers, she starred in Liliom and later played for many years an acclaimed ‘Pirate Jenny’ in Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) at the Munich Volkstheater. Later she had numerous solo programs in which she performed repertoire by Hollaender, Brecht/Weill, Kästner and Tucholsky. In the late 1990’s, she had her last major success with Evelyn Künneke and Brigitte Mira as one of the Drei alte Schachteln (three old boxes). Helen Vita died from cancer in 2001 in Berlin. She was 72.

Scene from Satansbraten/Problem Child (1976). Source: BubbafromNepal (YouTube).

Helen Vita sings Der Bauch muss weg. Source: Haraldius (YouTube).

Sources: Stephanie D’heil (Steffi-Line) (German), Wikipedia (German and English) and IMDb.

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