Max Gülstorff photograph album (EXEBD 92007)

Museum volunteer and doctoral student James Downs writes about this exciting new acquisition:

Due to a generous donation from South Wales couple Colin and Mai Henders, the Museum recently acquired a large album of photographs and press cuttings relating to the German actor Max Gülstorff (1882 - 1947), whose career included work on the stage – both directing and acting – as well as in silent and sound movies. Colin acquired the album as a family heirloom – his German mother, who met Colin’s father while he was on national service duty in Germany in the 1950s, was Gülstorff’s niece. The album (EXEBD 92007) bears the title Max Gülstorff in seinen Rollen [Max Gülstorff in character] and contains 64 large pages of pictures, in between which are loosely pressed a mass of newspaper cuttings, theatre programmes, photographs and other ephemera. Gülstorff was a hugely popular character actor in Germany during the early decades of the last century, whose name has undeservedly faded from memory. This album provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives and work of Gülstorff and other actors in Germany during the period.

Max Walter Gülstorff was born on 23 March 1882 in Tilsit, East Prussia, (now the Russian town of Sovetsk) where his father Robert ran a business making furniture. While his elder brother Otto Franz (1876-1959) went to train as an architect after leaving school, Max began working in provincial theatres in his late teens. In 1908 he moved to the university town of Kottbuss, and the album includes a photograph of the actors in the company of the Stadttheater Kottbus for the seasons of 1908-9 and 1910-11. At the end of this season he moved to Berlin where he began making his name with performances at the Schillertheater in Charlottenburg – a period that is represented by a favourable review of his appearance in Lumpacivagabundus (1912.)

In 1915 Gülstorff joined Max Reinhardt's ensemble at the Deutsches Theater and there are numerous photographs showing him with other members of the company, such as Emil Jannings, Paul Hartmann and Werner Krauss - all of whom became major stars of both stage and screen – as well as Robert Bürkner and Otto Werther. Gülstorff also acted at other Berlin theatres, including the Großes Schauspielhaus and the Volksbühne. 

Max Gülstorff with fellow members of Max Reinhardt’s ensemble at the Deutsches Theater -  Emil Jannings, Paul Hartmann and Werner Krauss.

His work was not confined to the theatre, however, and in 1916 he began acting in silent films, beginning with Steine unter Steine, directed by Felix Basch. This was the first of seven films in which Gülstorff co-starred with Emil Jannings, the others being Liebling der Götter (Schwarz, 1930), Der schwarze Walfisch (Wendhausen,1934), Der zerbrochene Krug (Ucicky & Jannings, 1937), Der Herrscher (Harlan, 1937), Ohm Krüger (Steinhoff, 1941) and Altes Herz wird wieder jung (Engel, 1943.) The album contains several large film stills from Jettchen Geberts Geschichte (Oswald, 1918) in which he played Uncle Eli, co-starring with Conrad Veidt and others. He appeared in over forty silent films, using his skill as a character actor to bring life to minor roles such as schoolmasters, professors, doctors and pompous officials. Alongside dozens of photographs showing Gülstorff in character – decked out in elaborate costumes and heavy make-up – are candid snapshots capturing moments shared with friends and colleagues. Around this time his brother Otto followed him into the industry, where he found work designing film sets. There is a letter in the album from Max to Frieda Schacht of Brandis bei Leipzig, written on 20 August 1919 shortly before her marriage to Otto Gülstorff.

A scene from the silent film Jettchen Geberts Geschichte (Oswald, 1918) showing Gülstorff with Conrad Veidt, who later emigrated to Britain and appeared in both British and Hollywood films.

In 1923 Max Gülstorff moved to Vienna for a short while, where he worked as a stage director at the Theater in der Josefstadt. He was soon back in Berlin however, and there are several photographs and press cuttings relating to his 1925 performance in Parable will nicht heiraten  - an adaptation of J. K. Jerome’s short story ‘His Evening Out’ – at the Kammerspiele. Another stage photograph, taken the following year, shows him with the much-loved actress Renate Müller in Georg Kaiser’s play Zweimal Oliver. Müller went on to enjoy a brilliant film career before her tragic death in 1937.

Gülstorff on stage in 1926 with the hugely popular actress actress Renate Müller in Georg Kaiser’s play Zweimal Oliver.

By that time, the rise of the Nazis had forced tens of thousands of people to leave Germany because their Jewish ancestry or political views placed them in danger. This mass exodus resulted in the film industry losing a wealth of creative talent, particularly in the field of comedy. Those that remained – such as Gülstorff, Jannings, Krauss and Rühmann – had no trouble in finding work, even though this meant conforming with the tight controls exercised by the Nazi party over film production and other cultural activities.

A portrait and caricature of Gülstorff from 1924

During this period Gülstorff became a familiar face to cinema audiences, appearing in almost seventy films during the 1930s alone. The album contains promotional film stills from many of these, such as Die Liebe und die erste Eisenbahn [Love and the First Railroad] (Preiss, 1934) in which he played the banker Fechner, Ihr größter Erfolg [Your Greatest Success] (Meyer, 1934) a costume drama in which he co-starred with Martha Eggerth and Theo Lingen, and Ich war Jack Mortimer (Froelich, 1935) in which he played Adolf Wohlbrück’s prospective father-in-law. Wohlbrück – who left Germany the following year and began a new career in Britain as Anton Walbrook - was the subject of an exhibition at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum in 2013: Anton Walbrook: Star and Enigma. There is a photograph of him on a loose page inside the album. In 1939 Gülstorff appeared in the first screen adaptation of Fontane’s Effi Briest - Der Schritt vom Wege [The False Step] directed by Gustaf Gründgens. Even a cursory glance through this section of the album shows that Gülstorff worked with the very best of Germany’s actors and directors.

In Holland in 1943 filming ‘Die schwarze Robe.’ The photograph was taken by Heino König, who went on to work as a cinematographer and film director.

During the Second World War the authorities in both Germany and Britain knew that public morale would benefit more from high quality entertainment than propaganda, and the film studios maintained a steady output of comedies and melodramas. Gülstorff was in great demand at this time, making five or six films during each year of the war. Some of these were made outside Germany:  the album contains photographs of him on film sets in Prague and Holland. In 1944 he appeared in what was probably his best known film, Die Feuerzangenbowle [The Punch Bowl] (Weiss, 1944) – in which Heinz Rühmann returns to school as an adult and Gülstorff played a delightfully dim-witted school inspector.  

Gülstorff  in the role of Grigul, from Unser kleiner Junge (Barlog, 1941.) The album includes some candid photos taken during filming in Prague in 1940.

Gülstorff appeared in a couple of films after the war, but died in Berlin on 6 February 1947 at the age of 64 and was buried at the Lichtenrade cemetery. Touchingly, the album contains a picture of his grave, delicately painted in watercolour by an unknown artist. We are very grateful to Colin and Mai for this donation, which will help researchers at Exeter and beyond better understand German cinema and Theatre in the early part of the twentieth century.


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