05 December 2016

Gisela May (1924-2016)

Last weekend, German actress and singer Gisela May (1924) passed away. May was the first lady of the political song and a German national treasure, famous for her work at Bertolt Brecht's theatre group, the Berliner Ensemble. She was a diseuse (singing actress) in the tradition established by Lotte Lenya and Marlene Dietrich, and expert interpreter of the work of Brecht, Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, Kurt Tucholsky, and Jacques Brel. She appeared in several DEFA productions and a few international films. Gisela May was 92.

Gisela May
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, Berlin, no. 1684 1962. Photo: Georg Meyer-Hanno.

Gisela May
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, Berlin, no. 3318, 1968. Photo: Winkler.

A Hidden Gem

Gisela May was born, in Wetzlar, Germany, in 1924. She was the daughter of author Ferdinand May and actress Käte May. Between 1942 and 1944, May studied at the drama school in Leipzig.

She was employed for nine years at various theatres, including the State Theatre of Schwerin and the State Theatre in Halle. Starting in 1951, she performed at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, Max Reinhardt's former workplace, where she played a variety of roles.

In 1962, May moved to Bertolt Brecht's theatre group, the Berliner Ensemble, and stayed for 30 years. While there she played a variety of roles in Brecht’s plays, including Madame Cabet in Die Tage der Commune/The Days of the Commune, Mrs Peachum in Die Dreigroschenoper/The Threepenny Opera, Mrs Kopecka in Schweyk im Zweiten Weltkrieg/Schweik in the Second World War, and as Mother Courage in Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder/Mother Courage in Mother Courage and Her Children, her most famous role, which she played for 13 years.

She also worked as a ‘diseuse’ with Austrian composer Hanns Eisler on a programme with chansons, political songs and poems. Later she appeared on the Berlin stage in the musicals Hallo Dolly!/Hello Dolly and Cabaret.

Since 1951, Gisela May appeared in dozens of East-German films and TV productions. She made her film debut in the drama Das Beil von Wandsbek/The Axe of Wandsbek (Falk Harnack, 1951), starring Erwin Geschonneck and Käthe Braun. At IMDb, all the reviewers consider this film as a hidden gem. Reviewer Hasosch: “I consider Dr. Falk Harnack's "Das Beil Von Wandsbek", together with "Obchod Na Korze/The Shop On Main Street" by Jan Kadar, and "Der Verlorene" by and with Peter Lorre as a Triptychon of the best World War II movies. (...) This movie belongs without doubt to the greatest rediscoveries in film history. After having watched it, you will not be the same anymore.”

Other interesting DEFA productions with May are the crime film Treffpunkt Aimée/Meeting Point Aimée (Horst Reinecke, 1956), the forbidden film Die Schönste/The Most Beautiful (Walter Beck, 1957/2002) with Manfred Krug, and Eine alte Liebe/An Old Love (Frank Beyer, 1959), in which she played her first leading part in the cinema.

Gisela May
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, Berlin, no. 329/182, 1956. Photo: DEFA / Kroiss.

Gisela May
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, Berlin, no. 214/56, 1956. Photo: Georg Meyer-Hanno.

The times are changing

During the 1960s and and 1970s, Gisela May mostly worked for television and the stage. Among her few film appearances was Fleur Lafontaine (Horst Seemann, 1978), in which she played the mother of the title figure played by Angelica Domröse. She also appeared in the Hungarian film Csak egy mozi/Just a movie (Pal Sandor, 1985) with Jean-Pierre Léaud.

Gisela May won many awards for her work during the GDR period, but also afterwards. In 1991 she got the Deutscher Filmpreis in Gold (major German Film Award) for her role as Maika in the film Die Hallo-Sisters (Ottokar Runze, 1990). She shared the award with her co-stars in the film, Harald Juhnke and Ilse Werner. They play a run-down former radio producer and two quarrelsome 1950s stars who try their comeback on nationwide television.

Later films include the Greek production O Tzonys Keln, kyria mou/Johnny Keln, Madam (Thanassis Scroubelos, 1991) and the French-German drama Le silence du Coeur/The silence of the heart (Pierre Aknine, 1994) with Claude Piéplu.

Since 1992, May has free-lanced, often working at Berlin's Renaissance Theatre. May was able to pursue her career as a diseuse on an international basis, touring through Europe, Australia and the United States. She also appeared in 65 episodes of the TV Krimi-comedy Adelheid und ihre Mörder (1993-2007) featuring Evelyn Hamman. Since 2000, she regularly performs the show Gisela May singt und spricht Kurt Weill at the Berliner Ensemble.

In 2002 she was awarded with the Bundesverdienstkreuz (Federal Cross of Merit), the only federal decoration of Germany. That year, she also published her memoir Es wechseln die Zeiten (The times are changing). She also held master classes and workshops in German on Brechtian theatre and cabaret performance. From 1956 till 1965 Gisela May was married to journalist Georg Honigmann and later she lived together with Wolfgang Harich. She passed away on 2 December 2016 in her hometown Berlin.

Gisela May
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, Berlin, no. 1777, 1962. Photo: Georg Meyer-Hanno.

Gisela May sings Seeräuberjenny/Pirate Jenny from Die Dreigroschenoper/The Threepenny Opera. Source: Vaimusic (YouTube).

Sources: Uncle Dave Lewis (AllMusic), Gisela May homepage (German), Akademie der Künste (German), Marian Buijs (De Volkskrant - Dutch), Wikipedia (German and English), and IMDb.


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